On October 7, 1944, several hundred Sonderkommando prisoners assigned to Crematorium IV at Auschwitz-Birkenau rebelled, after learning that they were going to be killed. The prisoners killed three guards and blew up the crematorium and adjacent gas chamber, using explosives smuggled in from a weapons factory by female inmates. They attacked the SS with makeshift weapons: stones, axes, hammers, other work tools and homemade grenades. At this stage, they were joined by the Birkenau Kommando I of the Crematorium II, who had also overpowered their guards and broken out of the compound. Several SS men and a Kapo were killed. Hundreds of prisoners escaped, but were all soon captured. The revolt was crushed and almost all the prisoners involved in the rebellion were executed. The Jewish women who had smuggled the explosives into the camp were publicly hanged in early January 1945.
Gassing operations continued until November 1944, at which time the SS, on orders from Himmler, disabled the remaining gas chambers. The SS attempted to destroy the gassing installations and crematoria as Soviet forces approached in January 1945.
The Sonderkommando (Special Command Units) were Jewish prisoners forced to work in the industrial murder of their fellows. Their duties included guiding the new arrivals into the gas chambers, removing the bodies afterwards, shaving hair, extracting teeth, sorting through possessions, cremating the bodies in the crematoria or open air pits, and disposing of the ashes. Sonderkommando members did not participate directly in killing; that responsibility was reserved for the guards. Their primary responsibility was the disposal of corpses.
The Sonderkommando were inducted immediately upon arrival at the camp, and were not given any advance notice of the tasks they would have to perform. They had no way to refuse or resign other than by committing suicide. Sonderkommando members tended to survive longer than other inmates of the death camps—but very few survived the war.
As winter approached and the Allies advanced, the Nazi authorities evacuated concentration camp prisoners, bringing them into camps in Germany, well away from the frontline.
The reasons for this were threefold: an attempt to hide the atrocities of the camps from the Allies; an increased need for labour in Germany; and a misguided belief by Heinrich Himmler (head of the SS) that prisoners could be used as bargaining tools with western Allies.
The SS evacuated concentration camp prisoners from both east and west on foot, and had strict orders to kill prisoners who could no longer walk. On January 18th 1945, the evacuation of Auschwitz and its satellite camps commenced. About 60,000 mostly Jewish prisoners were marched westwards, without food or water, in freezing conditions. Those who fell behind or stopped to rest were shot. They were then locked in crowded freight trains and shipped to other concentration camps further west, such as Gross-Rosen, Buchenwald, and Dachau. It is estimated that between 10,000 and 15,000 people died or were killed on this death march.
Marches occurred throughout the collapsing Third Reich, continuing until the day of the Nazi surrender; tens of thousands of prisoners perished. It is estimated that a total of 200-250 thousand concentration camp prisoners were murdered or died on the forced death marches conducted in the last ten months of World War II, over 25% of them Jews.