Thursday, 9 December 2010

A Visit to Volary

My posts about the history of this part of the Czech Republic don't usually look at the more recent past, but there is plenty of it around here. A few weeks ago, before the snow, I drove over to Volary. I had been through it many times on my way to the Sumava, but never stopped. This time I did.

If you go the cemetary in Volary you will find a memorial just outside the main cemetary along with ninety-six graves.  When the American forces entered Volary they came upon a barracks and in it over one hundred women, starving (their average weight was 82 pounds), ill and indeed dying. These were all that remained of a group of women who had been made to make a 700 kilometre death march from concentration camps in Poland. A few days later the Americans found the mass grave of women who had died of disease or been shot by their Nazi guards. The local German inhabitants were made to exhume the bodies and dig new graves. They were then made to attend a burial service for the women. An account of the US army's arrival with photographs is to be found here 

The graveyard is incredibly powerful, set on the hillside overlooking the Sumava. The spot was so beautiful and peaceful when I visited, that it is hard to bear the knowledge of what happened here. It is a place, like too many in this country, where angels weep. The names of the graves show that the women buried there come from Hungary, Poland, Czechoslovakia and the USSR, but most moving of all are those that simply bear the word "neznama" - unknown. It is a tribute to the care and work of the US Fifth Infantry Division that so many have names - this is the only cemetary to holocaust victims where there are names at all.

But the last word goes to a survivor Szewa Szeps -

We were sent on the March, some of the girls sick with a fever of 39 degrees. Every day the snow-covered roads became littered with corpses. My sister was in a very bad way. I had to support and pull her along, so that she would not be shot. We marched in the direction of Czechoslovakia and Bavaria. During the march my sister pleaded with me to leave her and continue alone. Frozen, starving and thoroughly exhausted, we managed to drag ourselves along. At night we were packed like herrings in barns or sheds. In the morning those who didn't survive were left behind. Our transport, with its skeletons in rags, caused the local residents in the area to close their windows and to run from us as if from an epidemic. Many of the unfortunate were [simply] shot along our way. 

During the night of 2-3 May, the Germans abandoned us near a forest in Volary (Wallern) in Czechoslovakia. In the morning we noticed that the guards were gone. Me and another person – the only ones who could still continue – left on the first American tank which approached.
The Americans brought us to the local hospital. My sister was in a really bad way, and three days later, on the 9th of May, 1945, she died. She was buried in Volary. On her tombstone, I requested her epitaph be taken from her diary:

“The day of our liberation should just not be a day of bitter sleep.”
But I added:

“The day of liberation, my dear sister, was for you a day of bitter sleep."

 Extract taken from
It is to the soldiers, medics and Jewish chaplain Herman Dicker of the Fifth Infantry Division that the victims buried in Volary are the only victims in any Holocaust cemetery that headstones bears the victims  name.It is to the soldiers, medics and Jewish chaplain Herman Dicker of the Fifth Infantry Division that the victims buried in Volary are the only victims in any Holocaust cemetery that headstones bears the victims  name.


Christopher said...

Thanks for sharing this post. I'll have to add this to my list of places to visit.

Karin Shepherd said...

Thanks for this post about Volary. I, also, will put this on the list of places to visit the next time we come to the Czech Republic. It is unimaginable to me the suffering these brave women endured! Thanks for including the pictures and link to the write-up.

Alena said...

I have been to Volary. Indeed I grew up in South Bohemia. I have never heard this fascinating story. Modern history at school was heavily influenced by pro-Soviet and anti-USA propaganda. Angels are still weeping and I can't help feeling slightly ashamed about it.

Karen said...

I've never heard of this place or this story. I am so grateful to you for sharing it with all of us. I am putting it on my list of places to visit as well.

McCabeandco said...

Powerful writing here! Yep, the stories you find in graveyards. In Prague 3 there was a huge graveyard near us and we wandered through it at various times to see if we could spy woodpeckers and red squirrel... and near where Kafka is buried, near the Russian graveyard is a Commonwealth Cemetery. Now not wanting to take away anything of the gravity of which you write, the men buried here were mainly airmen prisoner of war types who had been shot down over Germany and landed in Czech... The Czech Republic knows a great many tales of suffering! And it helps to hear their stories every once and a while. Thanks for your story about Volary! Many a book should be researched and written about such women... And I note you don't name their murderers as Germans rather that they were Nazis... Szewa Szeps does not hesitate to name those responsible... And I wonder, as often all of us non-Germans do but never mention, whether old ghosts of bitterness and disbelief at the depravity of our old 'enemy' still haunts us today? And it makes you wonder, what these women buried at Volary did to attract so much inhumanity from their fellow humanbeings?

McCabeandco said...

I have found a web site that shows maps of the march and photos of both the survivors of the death march and of their murderers German Nazis (See:

The Murderers, the description of the depraved:
1. SS Private Walter Kowaliv named "the shooter" by prisoners. His post was at the end of the March column. He shot any woman prisoner who could walk no farther
2. SS guard Ingebord Schimming murdered more than 30 women prisoners. She was protected by the "Stasi" against extradition to Czechoslovakia
3. SS guard Ruth Hildner. In Pisek at 12 noon, May 2, 1947 she was sentenced to be hanged for her crimes. Six hours later she was executed
4. SS Pfc Sebastian Kraschansky. On May 5, 1948 he together with SS Pvt. Michael Weingartner murdered 22 Jewish women and girls who could walk no farther
5. SS Cpl. Paul Letmethe. On the last day of the war he shot to death an exhausted Jewish woman prisoner despite an order of "no more killings"
6. SS Cpl. Werner Jarritz. His duty was to be in charge of the wagons carrying ill prisoners. When the wagons were full, the women were shot that night
7. Herta Haase - Commandant of women prisoners at FAL Helmbrechts. During the Death March from Helmbrechts to Prachatice she beat to death many prisoners. Never punished
8. SS Sgt Alois Dörr 58 - was sentenced at a War Crimes Trial to 'Life in Prison' - He was freed after serving ten years.

This story is BIG STORY... Why haven't we heard about it before now??? Where is the film?? Why hasn't it been filmed?? No one wants to mention the depraved actions of the many...

McCabeandco said...

I have an idea...please email me on

You may already have plans for this story, and if so please let me know... but, if you don't we could... research two characters each, one of the marchers and one of the tormentors... We could, seek other writers, poets... who might want to participate... Hey, we could, you might have already... written a script or spoken with someone who had, and sort the likes of a producer of Spielberg fame. Surely it could have all the depth and tension and stories of tragedy and survival that the epic film of Schindler's List once had, but setting it in Poland and the Czech Republic might attract a great deal of interest and bring a special character to the telling of this story!!
Best wishes to you, from Tim McCabe, Perth, W Australia

Lisa said...

I am going to visit Volary next year and would like to see the museum there. Does anyone have any information about it? It is my understanding that it is a tiny museum about the death mRch. Thanks lisa

Zoe Brooks said...

I have visited the museum, which is in one of the old wooden houses typical of the area. It is the town museum and has one room dedicated to the death march, but the rest of it is about life in the town and is also interesting. It is in Ceska street and is open 1st May to 30th September.


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