Marie Ranzenhoferová – a survivor of the 1945 Brno Death March

La marche de la mort

In May 1945, millions of Czechs could breath freely again after six years of Nazi occupation. The German defeat brought about the end of the Nazi rule of terror, and the re-establishment of Czechoslovakia. But for thousands of ethnic Germans, the end of the war meant the beginning of a new ordeal. They were expelled from the country, and many of them were killed during the first day of peace. In this edition of Czech Today, Radio Prague talks to Marie Ranzenhoferová, who survived one of the violent expulsions, known today as the Brno death march.

Marie Ranzenhoferová lives in an ancient house in the former Jewish ghetto in Mikulov, a small town in southern Moravia, just on the Austrian border. She came to Mikulov just like many of the town’s current inhabitants – after the post-war expulsion of ethnic Germans. But unlike most of them, she came on foot – in May 1945, she one of several thousand Germans who were being herded from Brno to Austria.

Brno ‘death march’ | Photo: Post Bellum
Before the new Czechoslovak government officially sanctioned the transfers of around three million ethic Germans to Austria and Germany, several towns and cities saw violent expulsions of their German-speaking inhabitants. One of them was Brno where, in May 31, 1945, several dozen thousand people were forced leave the city and walk some 50 km south, to the Austrian border. One of them was 24-year-old Marie Ranzenhoferová, who says she had to join the march by coincidence.

“I lived in Modřice, outside Brno, and I had an admirer there whom I rejected. So one day he came to me and said that I had my son with an SS officer, and I had to join the march. But if I went and lived with him, he would turn a blind eye. I told him he could keep his eyes open, that I’d rather go. So on May 31, at noon, he came to pick me up with a machine gun. I walked in front of him, pushing a cart with my baby, and he followed, until I joined the march that was already moving on the road. He then fired a shot, and I cursed him. I said I wished he would drop dead in a ditch, and that’s how we parted.”

Marie Ranzenhoferová was not German. She was born in Brno to a Czech father and a Hungarian mother. Her father soon died, and her mother left for Hungary, so she was left on her own. She briefly lived in Germany before the war, but then came back and worked in a Brno factory. After the war, she was forced to join thousands of others on the road out of the country.

“The first day, we walked as far as Pohořelice. Germans from the nearby villages – Moravany, Želešice, Ořechov, and others, had to join too. All these were farmers whose families had lived there for centuries, and they thought they had to bring all kinds of family treasures with them; they had pots and pans and plates; food of course, but then they were forced to leave them behind, they could not carry them any more.”

Czech and German historians have different opinions on how many people had to leave Brno on that day. The Czechs say some 20,000 local Germans had to join the march while most German historians believe the number was more than double. But all agree the march was organized by young Czechs, workers from the Brno arms works, Zbrojovka.

“These were young men from the Zbrojovka arms factory, they were rude and coarse. But there were also people who came back from Nazi concentration camps, and they were ok. The parts of the march that they supervised were fine, no swearing, no beating, they didn’t pull earrings out of women’s ears. But the Zbrojovka men, they were really bad, drunk and armed like bandits.”

On the first night, the march stopped in Pohořelice, half way between Brno and the border. Women and children were given shelter in some barns. They locked the doors, but this did not protect them. Ms Ranzenhorefová says Romanian soldiers arrived, and all hell broke loose.

“They came on two trucks. They broke in, and began raping the women. There was shooting… it was really horrible. Nobody talks about that. It was worse than the march. There, people were beaten, and they tore their earrings off, and took their rings, some people died, but in the camp, it was like a slaughterhouse. The next morning, at around 4 AM, I got up and wanted to continue walking, and I saw they were loading the trucks with corpses.”

Brno Death March memorial in Pohořelice
“I also saw a woman who carried a baby that was crying. One of the guards began yelling at her to make the baby stop. But it didn’t, so he took the baby and threw it into the field. I think he killed it. And I also saw this old man; he said he couldn’t walk anymore, and he sat down on the side of the road. I came up to him and offered help. I took his hand but he was dead. He sat down and died.”

By the time the march reached the border, Marie Ranzenhoferová had had enough. She took broke away from the march, and caused big problems for the guards because several hundred people followed her.

“At a crossroads near Mikulov, there was a hill, and I thought, ‘I am not walking up that hill, and no brat will make me; I will go when I myself feel like it. So I took off, and started walking towards the village of Perná, and some 700 people followed me.”

Thanks to her knowledge of both German and Czech, Marie Ranzenhoferová was able to stay in that village working for the new administration. She later moved to Mikulov, where she’s lived ever since. She even came face to face with the young guard whom she saw killing the baby – and who meanwhile became a respected citizen of Mikulov.

“I was thinking of what I should do – if I should tell anyone. But then I thought – why? What he did could not be undone, so let him live with his conscience, if he had any. But it was already the 1960s, and I don’t think he recognized me. But maybe he did – because whenever we met, he was always somewhat shamefaced.”

Edvard Beneš
Some historians believe that the Brno death march was triggered by a speech Czechoslovak president Edvard Beneš delivered in Brno on May 12, 1945. In it, he said Germans as a nation must suffer a great punishment for what they did during the war. Marie Ranzenhoferová says that as a politician, he should have been aware of the consequences his words might have.

“President Beneš studied diplomacy at the Sorbonne in Paris, but either he was not much of a diplomat – or else he was a sadist. He must have realized what his speech, and later the decrees, would bring about. Apologies won’t help here. They can apologize as much as they want – but it’s not their fault. Do they want to apologize for the drunk factory guys? Or for President Beneš? I think all the evil came from his policies, I can’t help myself. What should be done? Abolish the Beneš decrees.”