In March 1945, eight months after his B-26 bomber was shot down near Calais, France, Bernard "Ben" Adamski was herded into a sprawling structure enclosed by high barbed-wire fences, after a forced march that lasted all winter.
He and several hundred other bedraggled prisoners of war were stunned to see hundreds of bodies stacked high like cordwood and covered with white powder.
"We thought, 'This must be our final destination. We're finished,' " said Adamski, 82.
But two weeks later, the POWs were back on the march as human shields that the Nazis, defeated in the bloody Battle of the Bulge, were moving across the German countryside in a desperate attempt to slow the Allied advance. Adamski's group was freed by a British tank battalion in early April, and by early May, World War II in Europe was over.
Only recently, with the help of a POW support group at Veterans Affairs Medical Center, did Adamski learn the exact route of the long march 62 years ago and that the house of horrors he experienced was the notorious Bergen-Belsen death camp near Celle, Germany.
He was there at the same time that Anne Frank, the young Jewish girl whose diary detailed her family's life in hiding during the Holocaust, died in Bergen-Belsen. "It's very likely that one of the bodies Ben passed was hers," said Robert Young, the VA center's POW coordinator.
Young is encouraging the 60 members of his veterans center group to write down their war stories as part of the Veterans History Project. It is a Library of Congress initiative that in recent years has sought to interview and collect written evidence from thousands of World War II veterans for a permanent national archive.
Using maps and overlays, Young helped Adamski chart what became known as the Black Hunger Death March, which took place during Europe's coldest winter of the 20th century. It began at Stalag Luft IV, a POW camp near the Polish border, crossed northern Germany to Bergen-Belsen, near the Netherlands border, and backtracked toward Berlin before the prisoners were liberated.
The saga lasted 80 days. "My socks were worn through, and my boots were always wet," said Adamski, who along the way used his fluency in Polish to bargain with displaced Poles for an occasional loaf of bread and other favors. His POW group was strafed twice by Allied fighter pilots who mistook it for a German infantry unit.
Adamski said many of the prisoners had lost 30 to 40 pounds during the march. He lost almost 50 pounds, weighing 97 when he was freed.
Adamski's story was highlighted Monday during a ceremony in the Bailey Avenue veterans hospital commemorating the April 9, 1942, beginning of the Bataan Death March, another infamous World War II episode.
A native of Buffalo, he was drafted at 18 and became an Army Air Forces turret gunner and radio operator. His B-26 was bombing railroad bridges in France weeks after the Normandy invasion when antiaircraft fire knocked out its engines.
Adamski suffered leg injuries when the plane ditched in shallow water on the French coast of the English Channel.
"We thought we were landing in England," he said -- until the downed aircraft began taking enemy fire. All six crew members survived but were captured. Adamski, who recovered before being moved to Stalag Luft IV, received the Purple Heart and the Air Medal after the war.
He returned to Buffalo, where his family operated a grocery and meat store on the East Side, and later opened a meat counter in the Broadway Market. He joined the city's Forestry Department in 1961 and retired as assistant forester in 1985.
Adamski, who has three adult children, still lives in the Smith Street house where he grew up.