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CHAPTER 37

 

Warsaw

Our train was a slow one that was not rushing to its destination. The "goods" that it was carrying were not "top priority", so it stopped at many stations, waiting on a side track, to allow other trains to pass. The door did not open. Only echoes of conversations reached us, calls and signals, but we had no idea where we were nor where we were heading. For the first few hours after we left Auschwitz, we were tired, tense from the unknown and impressions, so we huddled together, each one deep in his own thoughts, making a reckoning of past events and trying to imagine what was awaiting us in the future. I saw, as in a dream, the nightmare of the smoke rising from the chimneys of the crematoria, smelled the odour of cremated skin and heard the cries of human victims, of young children whose cries were smothered by the murderers. I closed my eyes, tried to block my ears, but the nightmarish scenes and sounds of the victims, their cries and the shouts of their murderers permeated my whole being.

I fell asleep but woke up again when the grey dawn infiltrated our wagon through the cracks or through the tiny window at the top of the wagon. The cold also got in and cut the feet and hands as with knives. People had to perform their physiological needs so a bit of space was made in a corner for this function. This stank and polluted the air and nobody wanted to sit nearby, so arguments started and even fights. People were upset, in pain and bitter. It was a miracle that the frost froze the human waste so that it prevented it from running through the whole wagon. After two days of travel in these horrible conditions, we finally reached our destination. In the middle of the night our train stopped and remained at the station until daybreak. When the first bit of light started to appear through the cracks, many climbed up to the little window to see where we were. They saw piles of brick and grass. We tried to guess where we were but nobody could guess.

The grey early dawn light cast a shine on the faces which were yellow and dirty. Each one's gaze at the other seemed to be asking: "What awaits us here? What surprise is destined for us?" Eyes had the appearance of sheep's eyes when they feel that the knife is at their throat. It did not take long and we heard action outside, shouts and orders that were already so familiar to us. We heard the clip-clop of wooden shoes which sounded as though a pile of bricks had come crashing down. In a little while the doors of our wagons quickly opened. The SS crashed in with their helpers, the Kapos, and, armed with sticks, clubs and whips, started, with wild voices, to beat pitilessly. They shouted: "Raus! Raus, ihr mist!" (Out, out, you garbage).

Within a few minutes everybody was outside. Some were stepped on and bloodied. Some had lost their shoes, others had their clothes torn, but quick as lightening, everyone had to get lined up in a row like soldiers.

We still did not know where we were. We cast our eyes in all directions. Everywhere, we saw piles of bricks, stones and grass. From the distance we saw only ruins, pieces of structures, chimneys and iron ladders which seemed to reach up to the sky. We were afraid to ask because for any unnecessary word or motion we got beaten, accompanied by curses. However, one of us managed to find out from a katzetnik that we were in Warsaw. Warsaw! Warsaw! This is what has become of the Mother City of Israel. This is what has become of the once bustling and lively Jewish streets, of the active Warsaw courtyards, of the synagogues and study houses, of the clubs and organizations, of the professional groups and political parties, of the Jewish factories and businesses, of the restaurants and cafÈs of Jewish schools and children's homes. From all this there remained ash and rubble. This grand Jewish metropolis lay before our eyes in ruins. I felt as though all these mountains of wreckage had landed on my head, had covered me with their steel arms and had cut into my limbs. When we were later chased through the destroyed streets of the Warsaw ghetto, I felt as though my blood was dripping. It was then that I understood why no Polish Jews were allowed in this transport. We all knew the Warsaw of former days, the pulsating, bustling Jewish community, and could not make peace with the idea that this Jewish Warsaw had been so brutally and totally destroyed. We recalled the former Warsaw's learned men, scholars, Hassidim, and the Germans, the refined youth and the hard-working people, the elegant ladies and the proletarian trade workers, but above all, the children, the Warsaw children with whose voices the streets rang, the Shloimelach and Yoselach, the Malkalech and Brochelech, those who used to play in the Warsaw courtyards, in the gardens and parks. Where are they all? It is as though the ground had opened up and swallowed them all. This very heap of bricks and stones is the giant collective grave of thousands of victims. We did not know where we were because there were no longer any streets or neighbourhoods, or houses, only hills of devastation and grass. Through the stone and rubble there were beams hanging loose, doors and windows and pieces of walls swaying, with a "still life" picture.

In another ruin there was still the remains of a child's crib over which still roamed childish dreams of angels, but unfortunately what did materialize were devils. No way could we figure out through what streets we were passing because we were walking over a sea of destruction. At certain intersections, however, someone had placed the old signs where old Moranov was, after which stretched the Molevkes, the narrow Mila and the wide Mila, then Novolipka, Twarda, Gensha, Krochmola. These are all streets that contributed to a glorious chapter in Jewish history. Now it is all wiped out, turned into a pile of ash and dust. It is as quiet here as in a cemetery. From the destruction, there arose a wail. Thousands of dreams, hopes and fantasies lie buried in this mass grave.

We were chased into a lager which was on Gesia Street near the former military prison. Here a concentration camp was erected, with thousands of concentration camp victims, nearly all Jews from various European countries. These slaves were put to work to clean up the destruction of the Warsaw ghetto. The wreckage was cleaned up. Wherever there were still houses, the place was cleared. Those which were still in good condition were redecorated and rebuilt. Polish foremen were in charge of this work. They arrived every morning from the city, from the Aryan side, and in the evening they left the ghetto. We were housed in barracks, divided into various contingents. In the beginning I was assigned to clean away the bricks and to pile them up neatly. The work was not easy. First of all, we had to work all day in the outdoors with frozen feet and hands in heavy snow and extreme cold. Secondly, walking back and forth over the rubble with wooden clogs, twisted our feet and caused wounds. The shoes quickly came apart because they got soaked. Finally, I was left without shoes in the bitter cold and snow, so I wrapped my feet in rags which we found in the bunkers, and tied them with wire to keep them on. At night it was hard for me to remove the rags, because in the morning I did not have time to tie them on again. When we were awakened we had to dress very quickly, grab our bit of black water (so-called coffee) and get out for roll call, otherwise we would get severe beatings, so I slept in the rags.

 

CHAPTER 38

 

The first day amongst the wreckage of Warsaw

After a night of horrible nightmares in this new hell which was called Warsaw ghetto, being overloaded with dreadful impressions and experiences, we were awakened in the pre-dawn and rushed out for roll call. The roll call was at 4:30 in the morning, earlier than always, because we had to be counted, a record kept of all the newcomers for slave labour, assigned to groups and registered. It was a cold, damp day which was felt in the bones and sent a shiver through the body. Finally, we were sent out to work. The clatter of thousands of pairs of wooden clogs echoed through the wreckage with unpleasantness, as though we were disturbing the rest of a cemetery. The open mouths and eyes of the wrecked homes regarded us as though with surprise and regret for us not leaving them in peace. The shouts and orders of the Kapos resounded with a loud echo in this disturbed and destroyed world.

When we arrived at the central point where the headquarters of the Kapos and foremen were, the work tools were distributed--picks, spades and ropes, and everyone was given a job. Here, I saw for the first time, free Poles who came into the city every day to carry out the work of removing the wreckage and cleaning it away. I looked at them with surprise. It was a long time since I saw free civilians who were decently dressed and clean. Another thing that surprised me was that the Poles could communicate best with the Greek Jews with whom they spoke in sign language, each one making himself understood in his own language, and yet they understood one another. With us, Polish Jews, who spoke the same language, they avoided establishing any contact. We went about in a state of confusion, not knowing what was happening. One of the Poles, a young fellow, looked at me inquisitively from eyes cast down and then raised them high and did not take his eyes off me. I got closer to him and asked in Polish,"Why are you looking at me like that?"

"Oh, so you speak Polish?" He was so glad to hear this. He once again looked at me, pulled my red sweater, and said: "Sell me this."

When I heard this proposition, I got completely confused, but at the same time, astounded. This was a new way of talking, for I was not used to words such as "buying" and "selling". Even here there was business going on? The Greek Jews were keen "entrepreneurs," even though they did not know the language. They had come a few months before us to Warsaw, so they had already managed to establish contact with the Polish foreman with whom they carried on business on a grand scale. When they found anything of worth, they sold it to the Poles in exchange for food. They were given gold, diamonds, and jewelry, for a piece of bread, an onion, a piece of garlic, or a few cigarettes, a few potatoes and sometimes a bottle of liquor. The Poles made a fortune at work.

I froze, though, when I heard the offer to sell my sweater for bread. At first the magic word "bread" flashed in front of my eyes, but in a minute I started to think more logically. If I give away my sweater in such cold weather, I will freeze. I will get sick and die. This mere thought sent a shudder through me. The Pole did not leave me alone though, until I agreed to sell it to him. In the struggle to decide whether or not to sell it, I decided that I would sell it. I thought that if I keep the sweater and do not freeze to death, I will die of hunger, so would that be better? Either way I wouldn't last long here, so let me at least once have my fill of bread. The mere word "bread" grew in my mind, out of all proportion, into something immense. Bread! Fresh bread!!!

I came to an arrangement with the Pole that for my sweater he would give me half a loaf of bread and 40 zlotys. A kilo of bread cost 5 zlotys for the Poles. I agreed with him that the next day, when I came to work, he would await me with the bread and the cash in order to complete the transaction.

I did not sleep all night. My empty stomach must have already felt the smell of the bread. My innards growled all night long. I beheld in front of my eyes only one thing -- bread! The bread appeared before my eyes in various forms and shapes and teased my appetite. I could hardly wait until morning. As soon as the night guard shouted "Auf" (Get up), I was on my feet. I looked at my sweater with such love and longing because soon I would have to part with it. I pressed it to my heart, cuddled it and kissed it exactly the way one parts with a lover.

When we came to work amongst the ruins, I searched in all directions, looking for my customer, until he appeared. He gave me a meaningful wink that I should follow him. We went down into a bunker. He pulled out a fresh-smelling half loaf of bread, counted out 40 zlotys, and said: "Hurry up so that we won't get caught". I quickly took off my jacket and removed my red sweater and handed it to the Pole who quickly rolled it up and put it in this suitcase. I felt the cold going through all my body as though I was naked. My Pole vanished quickly. I started tearing pieces from the sticky bread and stuffing it down my throat. My whole body felt better with each bit of the bread. Never before, in all my life, had I felt such a delicious taste from eating as I did then. It was as though the gates of paradise had opened. I quickly hid the money deep in my pockets, tied the ends of the trousers with wire, so as not to lose the "treasure," and returned to work with a good feeling, as though I had won the greatest prize.

My good fortune, however, did not last long. Perhaps for one hour. I turned to see if anyone sees me and I tore a bite of bread sneakily and chewed it with pleasure. I looked for my friend, Dr. Sukodolsky, so that I could share with him some of my "prize," but he did not happen to come my way. He had disappeared amongst the ruins. As I was working away, separating the bricks, I felt a hand on my shoulder. When I turned around, I saw a Greek Jew winking at me dangerously. He said: "The Kapo is looking for you!"

"The Kapo? Me? What does he want me for?" A chill ran through my bones. Instinctively, I foresaw trouble, but when told to go one must obey. I was led up to a wrecked house where there was a fire on the first floor. There sat the Kapo, with a stick in his hand, and surrounded by his servants, the foremen, top informers, pipls and relatives. I recognized in the gazes of these "royals" that they are regarding me as a fool and as a victim. I felt it because of the sparkling mischievous joy in their eyes. The Kapo gave me the "once over" from head to toe and started to roar:

"Where's your sweater?"

I started to blink my eyes, stuttering: "I don't have it. I was never given a sweater. I don't have one."

Instantly, I started to get a harsh beating. I fell, all bloodied. I got back up and again the questions and the beating started, with their hands, with sticks, with their legs into my stomach. They all beat me with a sadistic satisfaction. The Kapo then gave an order to undress me naked in order to discover where I had hidden the money. They started to rip my clothes off. After I was naked, they robbed me of my hidden 40 zlotys and the rest of the bread. They did not even give me time to dress myself, but chased me to work. I barely managed to gather my pack of clothes and they thrust me out of the wreck, directly into the snow.

I remained lying there, all bloodied, bruised and desperate, again praying to die. Now I remained without a sweater, without bread and without money. Blood and tears poured from me. Within moments another Kapo came along. He started to shout a host of curses at me and beating me with his stick: "What are you doing here?! Why aren't you going to work, you son of a bitch!!!??" I tried to explain to him, to beg him for mercy, but his stick struck my skin and head so I quickly donned the wet clothes and ran to work with my last bit of strength. At that moment, I did not feel the cold because I was crying so badly, weeping because I was consumed with anger and desperation. Only later did I feel the penetrating cold right through to my bones. I shivered that whole night.

Later, when I had already "learned my lesson," I found out that the Poles had an agreement with the Kapos. The Poles bought things from the newcomers who did not, as yet, have any inkling of what went on here, but afterwards, they informed the Kapos as to who they bought from and how much they paid. Then they took the victims into the "headquarters" of the Kapo, put them through a questioning, beat them, and took away their bread and money. Afterwards they divided up the spoil.

 

 CHAPTER 39

 

Work in the ruins

We started to get used to the work among the ruins of the Warsaw ghetto. The first days were terribly difficult, as we had to dig in the wreckage, take apart and clean the remaining walls from destroyed Jewish Warsaw. It felt to us as though we were taking apart living limbs, the limbs of the largest Jewish community in Europe. Each house, each stone is a piece of the history of Jewish life. We found all sorts of signs of former possessions. Sometimes, in cellars and bunkers, we would come across the bodies of tortured Jews, whole families who got shot or were otherwise killed or choked to death by gassing, or had merely died from starvation, thirst and sickness. Many of these bodies had already been robbed or disfigured when their gold teeth were extracted. The bodies, decomposed, putrefied, rotting, were immediately taken away so that there would not be an epidemic. In Warsaw there were no crematoria yet. We were in the process of building such ovens which, fortunately, we never managed to complete. For this reason we loaded the dead bodies that were found in the bunkers and those who had died during the night in the concentration camp, in piles, just as one stacks loads of lumber--a stack of bodies and a board--in the yards of 43 and 66 Genshe Street. Gasoline was poured over them and ignited. Afterwards the ground was covered with hot lime.

Often times, taking advantage of the opportunity, when the foreman turned his back, we would go down in the cellars. There we could rest a bit from our work so that we would not be noticed and beaten. Often times, we also looked in the cellars for anything we could find, such as linens, clothing and sometimes gold and silver valuables. This did not interest us at all, except to the extent that we could exchange this through the Poles for food. The Poles bought these things for practically nothing, for a few potatoes, a few cigarettes, or a piece of bread. Other times, they would fool us into giving them things without coming forth with the bread. They themselves could not bring in sacks of food for fear it would be discovered. Often they were also searched when coming in or leaving and some of them were arrested. That was why they sought to buy valuables for very little food. Besides, they also were specialists at seeking out treasures. The Kapos also had their "mine diggers" whom they especially freed from work to seek hidden treasures. In addition, they had their top toughs and pipl who spied and reported on anyone who found anything so that the Kapo could requisition it from them.

Once, while running through the cellars, I met up with a Kapo who was one of the worst beaters, small, fat, with deadly bloodshot eyes, who was raping a young, blond boy who came from Belgium. I wanted to draw back, but they had already noticed me. The Kapo's face flushed with blood from despotism, and the young boy turned white as the wall. I quickly exited from this labyrinth of cellars, in order to avoid the revenge of the Kapo, who, fortunately, did not belong to my kommando. In the basements, we also found Hebrew books of Holy Scripture, secular books, documents and business records. Formerly, some of these companies were powerful, wealthy corporations which played a giant role in the industrial economic life. This all had turned to dust and ashes. Once, we found, in a bunker, in one of the former yards on Tavdeh Street, a diary of a boy who recorded every episode in the bunker during the siege of Warsaw. We took it back to our camp and read it communally. The diary somehow got lost during the transports. Once, when we were marching out to work, we met, in one of the wrecks, a person who was still alive. He climbed to the top of a wall and threatened to shoot at our guard with two revolvers. The SS guard got scared and took off with us in another direction. We never found out what later happened to this person. Another time, two people were dragged out of a bunker, a mother and daughter. Both were pale, completely without colour, and the half-rotted clothes hung on them like dirty rags. Their eyes were blank, apathetic, their hair a mess, and their legs as though they were not their own, as they limped over the rubble of bricks. The SS guard, accompanied by a wild dog, led them with the points of their machine guns to who knows where.

***

 

We did not dynamite the ruins, probably to avoid disturbing what was to be found in the walls of the wrecked homes. Once, in one of the "false" walls which some recognized, belonging to the home of the well-known Rivka di ku (Rivka, the cow), a full wall of fur and leather coats was found. We would also find other hidden treasures. We would tie ropes to the higher parts of the wall, chop down the lower foundation, and later pull so long until we tore the complete wall down. Those who did not get out of the way on time got buried beneath the rubble. Once, Dr. Avraham Sukodolsky and I were given the job of destroying the foundation of such a structure. This was deadening work to which neither of us was accustomed. With supplied tools we had to chop away at the foundation which was often made from iron and concrete. We had to crush the foundation walls. For this, strong labourers would have been necessary, ones who were well fed, but not two like us, with such weak muscles and thin bodies. Dr. Sukodolsky broke down completely.

As a doctor, he was not used to doing any heavy physical work. In his work he had always used delicate tools. For me also it was very hard work which exhausted me, but the doctor could not stand on his legs any longer. Suddenly, I saw a foreman go by, a Jew from Yugoslavia who, back home, must have been a butcher or a horse dealer because he was a tough brute, so I fell upon an idea to ask him to remove Dr. Sukodolsky from the treacherous labour and assign him to easier work, to clean and pile bricks. But, as soon as he heard my request to assign easier work to my friend because he was weak and by profession a doctor who is not used to physical labour, he became so enraged that he was ready to kill.

"Who is he, that one? So he's a doctor? He's a dreck! And who am I if he's a doctor?. He's the son of a bitch!!! And who am I?"

He started to beat him so viciously with a stick that he was left laying on the ground, bloodied and wounded. He did not spare the beatings for me either. He left with a command that within three hours he wanted the foundation broken down. If not, he would have us transferred to the punishment kommando where the slaves worked under conditions of constant beatings and orders to work faster under the supervision of murderous Kapos who tortured and wore out their workers. One could not last long in that kommando. Within a few days one was dead. There was not a day when that kommando did not bring back a few dead from work. Dr. Sukodolsky cried with bitter tears. I helped him get up and wiped his wounds with a wet rag. We got to work. I expended my last bit of energy. He did not last long. His tool fell out of his hand and he collapsed. He said: "It's all the same to me. Let him send me wherever he wants. I can't survive any longer." Fortunately he never came back. We dragged ourselves home, totally exhausted, and collapsed on our hard boards, like dead ones. The treatment of the slaves by the Kapos and foremen was dreadful, brutal and sadistic. Psychologically, it can be attributed to two motives. First of all, the foremen were usually selected from amongst criminals, murderers and people with low instincts who sought to let out their lowly desires. The largest percentage of Kapos were also selected from criminal elements, for various attacks and murders. Secondly, they themselves were captured slaves, insulted and degraded, robbed of their freedom and honour. This affected their mood. They revolted by following their wildest instincts and sought to let out their anger, their bitterness and their revolt against others, weaker than they, over whom they had power to show their strength, their superiority and their authority. Therefore, when one of the slaves who fell under their command wanted to show that he was higher than them in any way, intellectually, professionally or academically, it hurt them badly because in these aspects they could not compete, and they could not tolerate anyone being above them. Intellectuals with higher education, or who came from refined families, they hated with a passion, so they hounded them, worked them to the bone, and often tortured them until they died. They did the same to good-looking young men with whom they could not compete. They could get fine boots, fine suits, fine clothing from those who were liquidated and gassed or from the articles that were found in the bunkers. They also sought amongst the slaves, those who were tailors by trade, who sewed suits to order for them for a bowl of soup or a piece of bread, but they could not change their figures or put on a different face or nose, so they could not tolerate that nature had bequeathed to others personal charm and build. This hurt them and they would take revenge. I recall that in our Kommando there was a young boy who was very handsome, tall, slim, with a pair of lovely eyes, a cute nose and a face that radiated like the sun. Even though he was in rags, he looked like a prince. The Kapo always picked on this boy. No matter what he did it was never satisfactory. He sent him to the worst, dirtiest work. He beat him with all his strength and was after him like the devil, possibly because he did not want to become his pipl, until one day, midway to work, he took him out of line and beat him so long, with such sadism, until he murdered him. My heart cried with sorrow, but what could we do? The Kapo's fury, his sadism, wouldn't have spared us either, had we dared to say a word. We carried the boy into the camp and quietly grieved over him. The Kapo announced to the watchguards: "Aufr”umung Kommando: 79, and one body."

 

CHAPTER 40

 

Destiny gives me a chance

 

Fate is always blind. It did not help if someone was wise or strong. No way could anyone change what lay in wait for them. Often, the wise and strong would quickly break down and give in to their fate while weak and idiots got out of all dangers and misfortunes. True, one needed to have quick orientation which often helped prevent trouble, but generally, it was all a matter of fate that decided between life and death.

Once, when we were lined up pre-dawn for roll call, a head of the SS came and called out: "Whoever is a tradesman in construction--bricklayers, locksmiths, welders, glaziers, tinsmiths, please step forward." At that moment, a thought flashed through my mind: I am a glazier. Why should I not step forward? Who says not to? An inexplicable force gave me a push and I stepped forward together with others. I informed him that by trade I was a glazier. I knew as much about this as a fool, but I had had a large glass business in Sosnowiec where tradesmen worked cutting and sorting glass and large showcase windows. I did know the glass business. I knew the various kinds and qualities of glass. I even imported huge mirrored glass from Belgium as well as huge store front plate glass from Belgium and Czechoslovakia. Many times, for sport, I would take the special diamond cutter or the cutting wheel and cut large panes. I was not always successful, but I could permit myself this luxury because I was the boss. I also worked with the glaziers, observing how they cut and install windows, but about glazier work I really knew nothing. Now, though, I decided to take a risk. It was a matter of death or bread. When the foreman approached me and asked me once more if I know the trade, I could not back out, and decided to risk all. He pointed out to me, however, that if I do not know the trade, and am fooling him, it would mean the end for me.

The SS led me to a wooden hut where there was a shop in which there stood a large table for cutting glass and various plates of glass were all around. I also noticed an oven that was lit and giving off heat, so I was scared out of my wits, because I knew that my destiny hung in the balance. However, I felt the warmth in my bones just as though a ray of sunshine was warming me. The SS turned to the Pole who was standing by the table and he sized me up with his steely eyes. He told him that he had brought him a helper to try out to see if I truly know the trade as I had assured him. If not, I was to be returned to him and he would know what to do with me.

When the SS went out and I was left alone with the man, I fell to my knees and begged him not to send me away. I told him the truth, that I do not have much practical experience, that I had worked with glaziers, understand the trade, but am not a qualified glazier. I promised him "paradise," that by his rescuing me, perhaps we would both survive the war and he would be successful, because both of us are Poles, so we should help one another. If he would help me now, I would later repay him more than doubly. I looked at my saviour with tears in my eyes and asked him for mercy, but he stood there, cold, with a pair of steely murderous eyes, so I tried another approach, telling him that I would bring him valuables which my friends find in the bunkers, thus he will get rich through me because I have many friends who are in possession of great treasures.

When I heard that he was ready to let me stay, though with a condition that he will watch how I conduct myself, I wanted to hug and kiss him. I felt as though someone had given me a lifeboat in mid-sea. First of all, I would not have to work outside in the snow and frost. I will also have a safe kommando so I would not be exposed to all kinds of dangers, Kapos, foremen, troubles and beatings. I also hoped that, with the help of the Pole, I would be able to get some food so that I would not starve from hunger. Now I only had one worry: How could I secure some valuables for the Pole to show him that "I am behaving well," and that the deal is worth his while? I started to search and inquire from my friends and brought some valuables--gold broaches, silver broaches, earrings and various coins. My Pole was not pleased with this though. He wanted things of greater value. I sought out my friend from Sosnowiec, the one who had saved my life in Auschwitz-Birkenau, Feitl Lenchner, whom I managed to get in as co-worker in the glass shop. I did this for two reasons. I needed to return a favour to him, because if not for him I would have long ago gone up the chimney in smoke of the crematorium and, secondly, this Feitl was a very capable person, an organizer who had good connections with the "gold spinners." He knew who had something to sell and knew how to make contact with everyone. It was also nicer to work together with a friend. I needed valuables for my Pole, so for the two of us it was easier.

The Pole cheated us, earning a fat sum through us, but it was worth our while. First, we had a roof over our heads, near a warm oven during the cold weather. We were also able to boil a few potatoes, make a bread-soup and a little warm water. The Pole provided us with a few potatoes, a piece of bread, an onion, garlic and a piece of margarine, a few eggs and some schnapps. We were not the only ones in the "market" though. Every day around 100 Poles would come into the wrecked Jewish ghetto to carry out the work of clearing away the ruins. All the Poles carried on business with the slaves of the Warsaw concentration camp. They brought in food and carried off riches. The greatest "merchants" were the Greek Jews who came mainly from Salonika. They were particularly talented at "organizing," or as they called it, "Klepsi-klepsi," that is, articles that came from "non-kosher" sources, from thievery, etc., and they also understood how to deal with the Poles.

 

CHAPTER 41

 

Relationships between the camp inmates and the Poles

 

After the war, I heard and also read that Jewish leaders bragged that they provided food to the Jewish slave labourers through arrangements with trusty Poles who used to come into the concentration camps in Warsaw. I can deny this with certainty. We received no support from outside. Not only did the Poles not bring anything from outside, but often they would cheat us by taking our valuables, promising to bring us sustenance. Later they not only mocked us, but also insulted us when we asked for something in return, as they had promised us. They often reported us to the Kapos, even to the SS who not only took everything away from us, but also beat us heavily such as the beating I got in the first days. Often, I would talk with a Parisian friend, a certain Fenigstein, a politically astute fellow who was later the editor of the communist "New Press" in Paris and who wrote under the name A. Vilner. We often commented on this sad fact that we had no contact with the outside world and that nobody thinks of sending some food in to us through Poles, not even a written word of encouragement.

The fact that the whole world had forgotten us caused us much pain. Had we had any contact with the outside world, some of us might have been able to get out somehow, in spite of the tight guard, if we had only had someone who could hide us on the outside. Once a Greek boy ran away. He had been in a kommando who did work near the Vistula and it was the Poles who betrayed him. They caught the boy, brought him back into the concentration camp, and we all had to stand and witness the execution of this young man. It tore at our hearts to witness this terrible scene. The Poles who brought in food to the camp got well paid from Jewish property, which they got in exchange for some bread. None of them gave us any help nor did they show us any compassion in our tragic situation. They only used us for their advantage.

 

CHAPTER 42

 

I belong to the privileged class

My situation definitely improved. I gradually gained experience in the glazier workshop and became a top man in the enterprise. Our job was to replace the shattered window panes in the houses which were being renovated. So it was that we renovated the whole building which was once Shultz-shop at 44 Novolipia Street where the Germans wanted to establish their storerooms and offices. We started to move about throughout the ghetto with the intent of meeting with friends who were working in other kommandos, to ascertain if they had found anything. We also established contact with other Poles who worked elsewhere and did business with them also. While working on the renovation of various businesses, we came in contact with various Poles who used to bring in food, whole sacks full, and we became the middlemen between them and the camp inmates.

Our friends would entrust us with the things they found in the bunkers and we would negotiate to get the best "price," because we were not limited to only one buyer and they could trust us with the items since we did not have any Kapos or foremen over us. We had room to hide the things where nobody could steal them from us. We could go anywhere in the whole ghetto. We carried a window by hand and went wherever we had to go. If one of the SS met us, we had a ready excuse that we had just repaired the window and were going to install it.

At the beginning, there was a problem with our Pole who was not to know anything about our transactions with other Poles. Very soon, however, we got rid of him. He was probably caught with "goods" either entering or exiting, and he disappeared. Once, when we came to work, he was not there. Later the head man came, the one who was in charge of the construction jobs, and he asked: "Will you be able to carry on alone, without the specialist?" I immediately understood that something had happened. I promptly answered that if the specialist is employed elsewhere, we will try to carry out the work by ourselves, provided that we will be supplied with enough glass and putty. The SS then took out a notebook and wrote my name and number. He also noted what we needed and added: "Beginning today, you are in charge, and you will answer to me for all the work. Make sure that everything works properly! Beginning today, you are all under my care. Understand?" My friend, Feitl Lenchner, smothered a smile when I clapped my heels together and exclaimed: "Jawohl" (Yes, sir). When he left, Feitl hugged and kissed me. "We've gotten rid of a despot!" he said. From that moment on I was completely in charge of the glassworks in the destroyed Warsaw ghetto. I was also in charge of the wooden hut, with a stove which served to warm up the putty, but for us it served other purposes. First of all, we did not suffer from the cold. Outside there was snow and frost, but we did not feel it very much because in our hut it was warm. Even the Kapos used to come in to us to warm up when there were snowstorms outside. Once, when a Kapo was sitting in the entranceway, the Kapo Builder, who was the SS man in charge of all the Kapos and was also the supervisor of all the work of the kommandos, suddenly entered.

"What are you doing here, Kapo?" he asked angrily.

The Kapo immediately knew how to react. He covered his mouth with his fist and began to groan:

"Oh, my tooth! I have a terrible toothache."

The Kapo Builder did not accept him at his word and answered: "You're pretending. Come on. Why don't you go where you should be?" The Kapo quickly disappeared, but he did not say anything to us. He just watched us to see if we were working, and said: "Get on with your work, get moving!" and he went out.

Since we had our own warm hut, we easily established ties with the "prominent" of the camp. The Kapos and foremen needed our favours, such as a place where they could hide things or, through our intervention, get food, shnapps and cigarettes from the Poles. Naturally, we always earned something through these dealings. Something remained for us. We also had the opportunity to cook ourselves some food--some soup, a few eggs, or a piece of meat which was brought in to us from outside. Besides, when we provided something for the Kapos or block elders, they gave us some soup, a piece of salami, or a bit of marmalade, which they got as special rations. I wanted to take Dr. Sukodolslky into my shop but he could not adjust to this work. For this work one had to be quick to move about, run in gutters, haul windows, and he could not do this, but because of my connections with the prominent, I got work for him in the precinct as a doctor. I also supplied him with food so that he would not suffer from hunger.

Our position became good. We had enough to eat and could even help others. Besides, because of my contact with the Poles, I was supplied with newspapers--German ones, Warsaw Zeitung, or Krakower Zeitung, which I would read in order to find out what was going on in the outside world and on the fronts. From the newspapers, I would read a lot between the lines, that which was not written, so that I was always the best informed in the camp about what was going on outside. I had a group of friends who would wait for me every evening so that I would tell them news about the fronts. I described the situation in rosy colours. At the end of 1943, and the beginning of l944, the Germans suffered defeats on all fronts. Rommel's army in Africa was defeated by the Allied Forces. The Russians were advancing after the fierce winter offensive. Germany was also being heavily bombed. Though the German newspapers gave very meager reports about their defeats, I would read what was not written and I later commented about it to my friends. I believe that at that time, I was acclaimed political commentator.

Many times, I would give my imagination free reign and enhance my commentaries with fantastic predictions, instilling hope in the despondent hearts of the slaves. Looking at the thin faces and protruding eyes of the desperate camp inmates who are hanging on to life with their last bit of strength, I wanted to instill in them new hope and fresh strength. I painted the situation for them in such a way that it should appear to them that it would not be long before they would be free, though I knew that these were just fantasies, because freedom was still far away. Who knows which of these living dead would survive until the liberation. Still, I felt as though I was instilling in them a new spirit. More than one of them, on such a night, would fall asleep with sweet dreams that freedom was already flying with its wings over their heads. One of my listeners was a boy from Paris, George Sheba. He was a brilliant fellow from Morocco. He also paid attention to my commentaries. Though he did not understand one word of Yiddish, he saw the flame of hope in the eyes of the other listeners, and gathered that I was telling interesting stories, so he asked the others to translate.

After the war, while walking through the streets of Paris, someone grabbed me and started to hug me. I looked to see who it was, and it turned out be him, George, who recognized me in the street. He would not leave me alone, insisting that I come home with him because he wanted to introduce me to his family. In the evening, as we entered his home, in a wealthy section of Paris, I found a whole group of people, amongst them the brother of Leon Blum. He introduced me as his saviour, saying that not only did I save him, but many others, who used to listen to my commentaries in the concentration camp of Warsaw, giving them encouragement to endure the treacherous and bitter times. Everyone drank to my health. I left there with gifts and a good feeling of satisfaction.

 

CHAPTER 43

 

Block elders

The block elders in the Warsaw concentration camp were, in the majority, also made up of criminals, sadists, homosexuals, low characters and underworld scum. But here, since there were already "trading opportunities," things to exchange and with which to bribe, a "better person" could be smuggled through, a good brother for a foreman or a block head. True, in most cases the block heads, the Kapos and the foremen had to be bandits and murderers. They had the say over the life or death of their people over whom they ruled. Since these were individuals with raw instincts and criminal inclinations, they would often let out their beastly feelings, bitterness and frustration on the people of their kommando or block. Often this would stem from their desire to rule, from wanting to show strength, from wanting to prove to themselves that he is not a slave but a ruler. Since he himself was a victim, a prisoner, depending on the desires and caprices of others, and that other one was often a tormentor, he also wanted to distinguish himself and show his power. They would often, at the least thing, torture a person to death. A human life played no role in their lives. In general, human life had very little value in camp, so these human bodies, tortured during the night by their Kapos or foremen, would be thrown out in front of the block like rats, to be picked up by the wagon whenever it arrived to remove them. An accurate record was kept of the number of dead because the Germans are exact. There must be order.

The block elders were responsible for the outer cleanliness of the blocks, although inside everything was filthy and neglected. Getting washed in the camp was a problem and not everyone had the privilege to sometimes get washed. In camp with over 4,000 persons, there were only two wash barracks. When we awakened in the morning, we were hardly given time to pull on our dirty clothes, grab a drink of black water which was called "coffee," and run immediately to roll call so as not to get beaten. From here we immediately marched out to work. The wash barracks were besieged by people who waited for a turn to get a handful of water to freshen their faces.

First in line, of course, were the "prominent" who were the privileged, and would chase everyone away from the tap so that for the ordinary "slaves" there was no time to get to the tap because within minutes the shout would be heard: "Appell! Appell!" so everyone ran like crazy. Many of the camp people would sleep in their clothes for several reasons. First of all, it was warmer with clothes on when it was so cold outside where there was snow and frost. Secondly, during the night one would have to go to urinate as much as ten times, probably because of the cold and also because of the watery, totally fatless diet. In front of the barracks, outside, pots were standing, to which the camp slaves ran constantly, as though in a procession. Another factor was that some had articles to hide--sometimes a piece of bread and sometimes something that was found in the bunkers, so that it would not be stolen from them during the night or to avoid the block head's arousal, they slept in their clothes and protected their "treasure". In addition, they would have a better chance to get to the wash taps sooner. There were no baths or showers in the camp. This was only a dream. Sometimes, we would be taken in turn to Pawiak (a known prison in Warsaw), where there were communal showers, so that we could rinse off some of the dirt. The staff and managers of Pawiak received us grudgingly, not showing any friendliness. They used to tease us as though we were dogs. They would show the hungry slaves pieces of bread through the window, pretending to want to share it with us. After that someone from above would pour down on us pitchers of water.

So it was that people went around dirty, full of lice, boils and sores. The suffering drew out from the people their last bit of blood. I myself did have the opportunity to wash from time to time. I would heat a container of water in my shop and wash with a bar of soap that I managed to get from the Poles. In order for me to do this, my friend had to stand on guard outside to make sure that nobody was coming. The same applied when he was washing. We were also able to wash our laundry, but what help was that? When I lay down on the hard bunk bed, I was attacked by my pesty neighbours. At night, a small lamp was on in the barrack so we could see how the lice march over the people like hoards in procession. Amongst us there were Hungarian and Dutch Jews who broke down quickly both mentally and physically. They lost hope and faith that they would live to be freed. It is interesting that Polish, Russian, Lithuanian and even Yugoslavian Jews did not succumb so quickly as these former ones, because they were used to a difficult life so they were more capable of resisting. They fought and struggled, but did not lose faith. Those Jews who were used to a better life, civilized and comfortable, broke down quickly. They went around dirty, neglected, and soon died. What contributed to this to a great extent was that they did not know Yiddish, German or Polish, the three languages that were spoken in the camp As a result, nobody understood them and could not converse with them. Their life, therefore, was extremely bitter.

The block heads also had to distribute food to those slaves in their blocks. The criminal characters always divided the bread in such a way that some would remain for themselves. When they distributed the soup they would give the slaves the watery portion in which there floated a few beans or a piece of potato, and the thick part they would keep for themselves and their helpers.

If anyone dared complain, the bit of water was taken away from them. The person was beaten. With the remaining soup and bread they would later buy themselves salami, cigarettes and schnapps, which the slaves would smuggle in from the construction job sites. The articles would be smuggled in tied in their pants or sleeves. Thereby they took a great risk because from time to time the kommandos would be stopped and searched. It was just too bad for anyone on whom anything was found; so, when such a "search" took place, the slaves would throw the articles down on the ground. If the guilty one was not found, the whole group would be punished by being deprived of food. The innocent suffered through no fault of their own.

The block elders were the major recipients of the smuggled articles because they had the means for buying. They had the "surplus" of bread, sometimes some thick soup, sometimes some marmalade, in addition to various articles that they took away from the slaves or bought from them. I also had a few block elders who were my clients. They would give me their articles and I would bring them whatever they ordered. Mainly this was schnapps, Polish "Vodka". Because of this I had a good relationship with the block elders and I would manage to get better treatment for my friends. Once, something very painful happened. As I was walking amongst the blocks, I heard someone calling me, "Glazier! Come here!" I turned and saw the block head who was called Yupe. He was as red as fire. He had probably consumed a few too many drinks. He led me into his room and showed me a pair of good leather shoes.

"Take them. They're for you!"

It so happened that I had torn shoes which had become soaked and completely rotten. I rejoiced at this gift. I immediately took off my old, torn shoes and put on the new ones. I felt so comfortable in them but when I went out I suddenly saw someone laying on the ground, dead, and without shoes. I shuddered.

"What's this?" I asked.

"I knocked him dead, that swinedog. He stole from his comrades."

He just could not put up with such a wrong-doing; that someone other than himself should steal, so he killed the man. I walked on those shoes on tip-toe after that. I went into my block, sought one of my friends and exchanged shoes with him, saying that they were too tight for me. When I met that friend with the shoes, I reminded myself of that shattering scene.

Amongst the block heads there were a few half-decent ones. Those were the ones who had been put in their positions through pull. There were important worthy people who had once played an important role in Jewish life so somehow it was managed to put them in charge of a block so that they should not have to go to hard labour in snow and frost. This was a good posting where they did not have to suffer from hunger and cold and hard work, although it was connected with much danger, because it meant being responsible for all the concentration camp inmates in their block amongst whom there were all types who sought to avoid working and who stole from their neighbours even the meager piece of bread which they got. One of these block heads was a Jewish artist who got the posting through the graces of his friends from Paris, but once I witnessed a scene in this block which I will never forget. This happened on a Sunday when soup was being dished out in this block.

The artist was dishing out the soup to those in line waiting anxiously for their bit of soup. Far down the line there stood a Hungarian Jew, ragged, dirty and hungry. The smell of the soup must have tempted him, making him so crazy that he could not stand it any more. Not being able to wait his turn, he ran up to the soup pot and wanted to get some in his cap. At this, the block head was in a dilemma because if he would allow such disorder, everyone would soon start to run. The pot would spill and there would be no food left for anyone. The block head was responsible for this and could pay with his life for allowing such chaos. He, therefore, put down the ladle, approached the wild man, and gave him such a slap that the man fell down and blood ran from him. When the block head saw this, he turned white as chalk and sat down on a bench in reaction. Someone else, one of his helpers, finished portioning the food. In the case of another block elder the episode would have ended tragically. The artist, it appeared, was not a heartless person and had not lost his sense of humanity, so the episode must have pained him.

 

CHAPTER 44

 

My good fortune runs out

It appears that I was not meant to enjoy for long the good fortune which had chanced to come my way. My mother would have said that "the evil eye" had got me. I had already established myself nicely, not feeling hunger or cold, two factors that were the greatest enemies of the camp inmates. I also had a good name in the camp and belonged to the so-called privileged class because no Kapo or foreman ruled me. The block head was also "good friends" with me because he often needed my intervention to bring him the things he needed from the building crew. As a tradesman, whom the camp needed, I was a so-called independent. I also had the opportunity of washing from time to time and dress better. There were tailors who, for a piece of bread or a bit of other food, would alter the striped slave clothing so that it fit properly.

My tailor was called Applebaum from Monjev near Sosnowiec. He sewed my clothes for me. I, however, was also exposed to danger both because of hiding articles and smuggling things into the camp. Once, a known cruel SS overseer came into my shop. It is possible that one of the Kapos led him to me. To this day I cannot explain who sent in this killer. He started to search and found two bottles of schnapps, a few eggs, a few packs of cigarettes, onions and garlic. (The latter two were very important in the camp because they protected from the microbes that were so prevalent). He brought it in to me. I started to tell him that a Polish supervisor once worked here and he must have left it and that this is the first time I see this. He started to strike me mercilessly. He grabbed an iron rod and started to beat me and kick me so hard with his boots that he left me lying amongst the glass in a puddle of blood. He knocked out a few of my teeth and left me half dead. He took the things with him and probably would have had me removed from my place of work but he did not have anyone to help him. He only told me that if ever again such things would be found on my premises he would shoot me on the spot.

So it was that I had to stop "doing business" for some time because I knew that this SS had me under his eye. It took some time until he finally disappeared. According to the information I heard, he was called to the front. He did not get killed on the front, though, because right after the war I met him at the Dachau trials where he was sentenced to death. There I also was a witness. After getting rid of such a wretched one, I again started to gradually do business, though with more caution, but, as the expression goes, "If trouble is fated, it will come right in one's door."

It happened in the spring of 1944, that one of the block heads gave me a few gold coins and a few rings, and asked me to bring in a few bottles of "Vodka" because on Sunday he was going to celebrate his birthday and would like to have a few friends join him for the celebration. For this order I sought out my Poles and ordered it for them. They were to bring me the "goods" on Saturday and I would give them the gold articles. They brought the schnapps and a piece of Krakow salami on Saturday. They also brought me a newspaper of that day, the Krakow Zeitung, with which I rejoiced, because I wanted to know what was happening in the world. I stuffed it all in my clothes, giving some of it to my friend to stuff in his clothes and with God's help we got through the week. When I brought the "goods" to my block head, he wanted to kiss me, he was so happy. He even gave me an extra piece of bread and some salami for my effort and said farewell.

The following day, Sunday afternoon, the block head gathered his friends and started to celebrate his birthday. They ate, drank and had more than enough liquor, and started to sing and carry on. Exactly then the SS block head whom we called Umshmis (I do not know why. He came from Danzig and was really cruel), came to make an inspection in the camp. He rode in with his motorcycle and went right to the block where the grand "party" was taking place. He got off his motorcycle and looked in at the open window right in the block where he saw what was going on. Naturally, he hauled everyone away, made an investigation, beat the block head until he disclosed that he bought the schnapps and other things from one who works in the building compound.

The break down of the block head, at the questioning, created a bad mood in the camp. Until then it had never happened, especially amongst the "prominent", that anyone amongst them should break down and snitch on another one of them. I was immediately told the story that Umshmis had smashed the party, hauling off all the celebrants and forcing the block head to break down and reveal where he bought the liquor. I felt a chill run through my bones. Soon it was announced through the loudspeakers that the whole camp was being called for roll call. Such a thing only happened under unusual circumstances such as when there was an uprising, when someone runs out of the camp or in other cases of emergency. I immediately understood that this meant me. I sought out my friends in order to give them all my things, my whole inventory, and bade them a heartfelt farewell because I did not think I would come out alive from this dangerous situation. I begged my friends that if they survive this hell they should tell my relatives, if any of them will be found, how I perished. I also gave one of my friends my shoes. Let him enjoy a decent pair because I no longer needed them.

The whole camp was lined up, according to the kommando's orders. At the roll call the whole SS staff was present, with the camp head, Umshmis at the head. Beside them stood the accused block head, his eyes lowered, his face pale. Slowly the other kommandos were let go until only the building workers and the craftsmen were left. The last kommando to remain was the glaziers', and amongst these the block head pointed to me. They took me with them and let all the others go. When I was led into the headquarters, all eyes followed me to the scaffold, because they believed my end had come.

I was taken for questioning, during which they tortured me so that I would reveal where I got the "goods" and how much I paid for it all. I denied that I brought it in from the building position, but that I had bought it from my acquaintances in the camp, however, I do not know in which block they are nor what their names are and that all I earned therefrom was a piece of bread and some marmalade. They stretched me out on a bench and administered the first 25 blows. An interesting thing happened here. When they undressed me, they found, stuffed into my pants, the Krakow Zeitung. When I gave away everything, I forgot to take it out of its hiding place, but here a miracle happened. They did not take note that it was a recent newspaper, that I take an interest in politics. Had they noticed, they would have shot me on the spot, but they took this as a protective measure, on my part, thinking that I had stuffed it into my pants so that I would not feel the blows so severely.

The beatings were so bad that they tore off my skin. The strap was made of leather with a piece of lead at the tip. They stood me up and started to question me again, asking me all sorts of questions. I continued to give the same answers, that I bought everything in the camp from a Greek whom I do not know by name. The truth is that I really did not have more than the two bottles, but the block head wanted three bottles, so I bought another bottle from a Greek Jew, but under no condition did I want to reveal the Greek's name though they assured me that if I will disclose the name of the Greek they will free me. I knew, however, that this was a lie and was only their way of finding out from me the name so that they could start torturing him, but it would not help me at all. It would only complicate my situation further. They wanted to break my stubbornness, though, and force me to talk. Once more they stretched me out on the bench and gave me a new 25 strokes, and when that did not help, they beat me again so hard that I no longer felt anything because I was so swollen, and they chopped away at me as though I was a head of cabbage.

Finally, they said that they were letting me out that night so that I could find the Greek and bring them his name the following day. I do not know how I walked when I got out. My feet had no strength. I felt as though they had made a cripple of me. I hardly dragged myself to the block. When my friends saw me, they were overjoyed. Even though they saw my condition, they were glad I was still alive. I told them what happened to me. They started to save me, applying cold water to my wounds. Somehow, they also got a salve which my friend, Dr. Sukodolsky brought from the medical supplies, to heal my wounds. I told them to tell the Greek to have no fear because I would not tell them his name. All night long I was sobbing. I could not lie on my back, so I lay face down. The following day I did not go to work because the block head had been given an order to bring me back to the SS headquarters. My friends said good-bye to me and kissed me because they believed they would never see me again. As I was being led out, they again cast their eyes towards me as though it was their final farewell as I was going to my death.

When the block head later took me to the SS headquarters, he told me that all the camp, including all the block heads and foremen, condemn the behaviour of the block head traitor who betrayed me. All considered that a dirty act. They also consider me as holy, he added, a martyr, because I did not succumb in spite of the awful tortures.

When I entered the headquarters, I met only two officers there, slightly older ones and more staid. In reply to their question whether I had brought the names of those involved in the case, I told them that the previous night, when I had gotten out, I went to look for the Greek who sold me the schnapps, but I was not successful in identifying him because they are all so similar to one another, so that no way could I find the correct one. I went up to one, thinking it was him, but he did not know the first thing about the matter, and I was not going to drag an innocent person into the process. They looked at me suspiciously, knowing that I was trying to hide the truth, but they had no further means of forcing me to speak. They smiled to one another, winked to one another, went into a second room, and came back later with a sentence: Half a day to be down on my knees and 60 days in the Punishment Kommando. I was led straight out and kneeled with 2 bricks in both outstretched hands. On the other side stood the block head in the same position as myself. Neither of us looked at the other -- he because of shame, and I, because of disgust.

The half-day kneeling was worse than death. Several times I collapsed in a faint. I was revived, and made to kneel again, until the torture ended. When I returned to the camp at night, my friends rejoiced with me, started to kiss me from joy, as though they won a grand prize. Everybody came running to me, even the block heads and the Kapos who praised my behaviour and condemned the traitorous behaviour of the block head. They all went to the Kapo of the Punishment Kommando who looked like a young boy, and asked him to give me especially good treatment because I had endured a difficult examination and did not give in. The Kapo said he would do everything that was possible so that I would not have to do hard work and that I should feel good in his kommando. Dr. Sukodolsky bandaged my wounds so that hemorrhaging was prevented.

He sat beside me all night, applying salves, and he rescued me. He even took me into the infirmary for two days, getting permission for this from the head doctor, so that I would not have to go right to work in such a bitter condition. Here, I felt even worse, though, because the ambiance had a dreadful effect on me. I looked at the sick, skin and bones, who were covered with wounds, who were struggling with death. They pleaded for death but the Angel of Death took no pity on them. Three or four lay in one bed, with high fever and great pain. One contaminated the other. I wanted to run away from here in spite of my great pain, because I could not stand the foul air. On the third day, I left the infirmary and reported to the Kapo of the Punishment Kommando. I had to appear for the commando before five in the morning because at six we had to depart for the village Stara Viyesh, on the way to Atvotzk, where we had to chop down a forest and prepare the land on which the Germans were planning to build a sanatorium. The kommando left at 6 a.m. and returned to the camp at 8 p.m. The work was done at a quick pace, accompanied by beatings of the SS, Kapo and his foremen. The slaves came home each day totally exhausted and despairing, bringing home dead people every day and the next day it was forced upon them to arise again at 4 a.m. because by 5 the kommando had to be complete. The Kapo kept his word and treated me decently. He appointed me as one of his servants to make a fire, prepare food for him and guard his things.

 

 CHAPTER 45

 

The first day in the Punishment Kommando

The first day in the Punishment Kommando was a terrible experience for me because I had lost my independent post where I had a peaceful life without the supervision and beatings of a Kapo and other criminals, also having enough good food to eat. Nevertheless, I was glad that I got away with the punishment of beatings and being sent to the Punishment Kommando where I no longer had to fear, because the Kapo promised me good treatment. Furthermore, I was happy that I would finally be able to go out of the confines of the ghetto and breathe some fresh air.

Six in the morning, we left with the train, in a transport wagon on a side rail, which neighboured on the so-called tragically famous Umschlag Platz. From here, hundreds of thousands of Jews from Warsaw and the vicinity were sent to the death camps. Here, numbing scenes were played out until the victims were packed into cattle trains headed to Treblinka. The earth here is drenched with blood and tears. At the present time, one does not see anything here. The place has been cleared and is covered with grass. There are even wild flowers swaying in the spring breeze. To me, it seems as though the eyes of a child are looking out, the eyes that were so cruelly shut by the Nazi murderers.

Outside, it is spring, the eve of Passover, 1944. The door of our wagon is half- open. Beside us there stand the SS with their machine guns. We are forbidden to stand close to the doors but from the distance we see and admire the free world. We see how people move about freely and enjoy the spring sunshine, and we envy them. The sun melts the last snow of the difficult winter, and the earth is revived from the sun's warm rays. The trees start to bud and the world becomes green. The young needles of the pine trees in the Polish forest shine in the golden sunlight. For us the sun was stingy, casting only a few rays our way in the closed wagons, but outside it was generous. The sun shone with warmth and light, but not for everyone. It had a golden smile for German children who played with all the joy of life, with full stomachs. It shone for fat, stout Germans who were riding around all of Europe and stole for themselves all the joy of life.

The sun did not shine, though, for Jewish slaves who were enclosed in ghettos and in camps. When the sun sometimes did penetrate the ghetto and camps, it was only to shed light on the endless abandonment and tragic helplessness. The sun teased the Nazi victims because it uncovered and shed light on the camp graves where hundreds of thousands of slaves choked from the pain and suffering, struggling with death. Jewish children, pale and exhausted from their lives in the bunkers, would ask with bitterness when they sometimes saw the sun: "Why is the sun still shining just to tease us?" It did not help. Many times the sun became the partner of our tormentors when it would cast its hot rays on us while we were carrying heavy loads, driven by the Nazi murderers. At such times, the sunlight drained our last bit of strength. The sun, which is normally a life-giving, pleasurable source, a real blessing for all living creatures, was a curse for us. Not only did we not like it, we hated it.

Now, as we rode through the forest of Shvider, Michali, Otvotsk, there awakened in me memories of former times when these forests were full of Jewish summer cottagers, when the air was full of young joy-filled ringing voices of Jewish children who used to play here and enjoy their vacations. Today it is as quiet here as in a cemetery. The only sounds are those of the chirping birds and the steaming locomotive. We have already arrived at the railway station of Otvotz. There are gentile girls walking around, selling bread rolls, cigarettes and lemonade. Our SS buy provisions for themselves for the journey. Such a gentile girl came to our wagon, her head in a kerchief, like a peasant child. From the distance, though, I recognized that she was a familiar girl. I got a little closer to her and she turned as white as a sheet. I immediately remembered that she is the youngest daughter of my neighbours in Sosnowiec. They lived one floor below me. Here she was going around as a gentile, and stayed alive by selling products at the train station of Otvosk. I held myself back forcefully, not to utter a word. I felt, though, as though I could not contain myself. The girl went away quickly because she probably recognized on my face what was happening. All day and all night I was under the influence of that unexpected meeting.

The Kapo saw my bewilderment so he asked me if I was alright. I answered him that I was still weak from all the blows. He told me to sit beside the fire and prepare the food and help the cook prepare the watery soup for noontime. Meanwhile, we saw how the slaves were running with the trees, piling them, driven by the foremen. The cracking of the falling trees and the slaves' bones were the only sounds one heard. An SS man was standing with a stiff branch and hitting everyone on the head to make them work faster because he had no time. It was pitiful to look at the people from whom the sweat was pouring. Many collapsed, one after the other, but had to get up quickly, if not, they were beaten so long until they were left lying there dead.

My pains all over my body got increasingly worse. I could not sit because my whole bottom part was one big wound. It was also hard for me to stand and I had to lean against a tree so as not to fall. It was a miracle that I did not have to work, so I was able to keep warm by the fire to which I always added another branch. The air also had a calming effect on me because I absorbed the fresh air that cleared my lungs. Although I was suffering greatly from pain, I did enjoy the fresh, fragrant air, and I warmed myself in the sun. The pine trees also, under the rays of the sun, added to the fragrance of the air.

The Punishment Kommando became for me a healing place. This was all due to the pull of my friends and those who respected me. They were waiting for me in my block when I returned, in order to find out about my health. Each one brought me something for my pleasure, to strengthen me and encourage me. They also waited to hear a good word from me. They had already grown accustomed to my political comments which they now missed. But, since I was no longer a part of the building group, and no longer had contact with the Poles, I no longer had newspapers from which to get information. They, therefore, brought me pieces of newspaper from the builders' group. These were found by the slaves from the parcels which they brought for the German bosses and the Poles. The pieces of newspaper I would read and later comment on the news, letting my fantasy run free. I described the situation in the rosiest colours, feeling that I was giving them new hope. In their eyes I could see that my words affected them like a balm.

Actually, the situation was good because the Germans were being defeated on all fronts. According to what the Poles reported, and according to what we ourselves could notice, the Germans were going around worried and despondent. They were nervous and enraged, like wild animals. They received bitter news from all fronts to the effect that all their advances had failed, and they were retreating continuously. Their morale broke down and they started to lose hope of a victory. Only the fanatics, the hot followers of Hitler, believed that the F¸hrer would still pull them out of the swamp in which they had sunk, and would open for them the "Thousand Year Reich". Meanwhile, the front in Africa broke down completely. The Allies landed in France and Belgium and were already a threat to Germany itself, and the Russians reconquered White Russia and Ukraine, and were marching towards Poland. I described all this to my friends. I even foretold, orienting myself on how things were developing, and already described for them the whole strategy which actually did develop later...

 

CHAPTER 46

 

Jews bake matza in hell

I rode every day to work with the Punishment Kommando, to the forests of Stara Yiyesh. I gradually recovered from the beatings. My skin was still bruised, covered with blood, but it had started to heal. I was very satisfied in this kommando, though food was scanty here. There was only one thing I could not stand. That was that my friends in the kommando were suffering so much, were being treated so brutally, hounded and driven at work. They were not given a chance to catch their breath, but were constantly rushed: "Get going, get going!" The SS who were in charge of the kommandos were chosen especially for their cruelty, sadists who rejoiced when they saw others suffering. I often shudder at the scenes.

The defeats on the fronts had very little effect on them. They were bloodthirsty and blindly believed in the victory of the F¸hrer. I, unfortunately, could not help them at all, because I had no influence on the Kapo nor on the foremen, and certainly not on the SS. The beatings that I saw administered to the slaves had a very bad effect on me and left me in a depressed mood. More than once I wanted to shout: "Leave the people alone!" but I controlled myself because this could have brought to an end my own life and I would have ended up in a kettle of hot water, so I kept it all in and lived through it all.

Outside, the snow melted completely and the earth was freed from the iron shackles. From the ruins, a stinky foul air started to permeate. The worst days for me were the Sundays, because according to the "Statutes" of the Punishment Kommandos, I had to go to work on Sunday while the others rested on that day. Here, I did not have the Kapo of the Punishment Kommando, but the SS themselves drove us to work under the supervision of a foreman who was responsible for us, making sure that we did not get a moment's rest. Here I had to work, load wagons with bricks and grass, take them to various places and stack them in piles. The work was hard and boring, but I had no choice but to get used to the rules.

Meanwhile, the days of Passover, l944, arrived. There were amongst us, friends who kept a reckoning. One of them was Maier, a Slavic Jew, who was observant. He was tall and broad shouldered, with a pair of lively sharp eyes. He never lost his faith in the Creator and served him with all his body and mind. Whenever he had a spare moment, he prayed, recited Psalms and praised God for the good he had bestowed upon him. This Maier managed to get some flour meal which friends had found in a bunker. He bought it from them for portions of bread and soup, and hid it for Passover eve, in order to be able to bake matza and fulfill the commandment of eating matza. A day before Passover, a few shadows found their way into an empty cupboard where my shadow also was. We placed two friends to guard outside to warn us if a German should suddenly appear. We lit a fire on which we placed a tin pan, which was previously scrubbed and koshered. We started to knead, roll and put matza in the so-called oven. We could not have any light in order not to attract attention from outside. We stood around the fire like around an altar, each of us absorbed in the holiness of the preparation, and deep in thought. The fire from beneath the tin pan threw a pale shine on the faces of the few young men who were performing a holy service in the concentration camp. It is a pity that I have no talent to draw. The picture stands before my eyes until the present. Had I had the talent, I would have produced a work of art of this unusual sanctification of God.

On the first Seder night, when we came home from work, we gathered in Block 3 where Maier had his bunk. We put a couple of boards on two boxes, covered the boards with a piece of white sheet which someone brought from a bunker, and started to perform the Seder. Maier also brought Haggadot which we found amongst the piles of holy books in the wrecks. It was exactly the anniversary of the Warsaw ghetto uprising, in the same ghetto where we were. Exactly a few ten meters from us that bloody drama took place. We found ourselves in a concentration camp on Gensha Street where the Polish military jail once was. Our camp extended down to Smocheh Street and from the other side it bordered on Zamenoff Street, the house where the Judenrat once was, and later, during the uprising in the Warsaw ghetto, the headquarters of the ghetto fighters. At this very place, we built a crematorium which the Nazis did not manage to put back into use, to our good fortune. In this corner there took place bitter fighting between a few isolated and desperate martyrs and the largest military force in Europe, which conquered and ruled over all the nations and lands in Europe. Here, on this place of Jewish heroism and sanctification, a few slaves, one year later, managed to perform a new act of Jewish holiness, continuing the tradition of generations.

The words of the Haggadah rang symbolically. "In every generation there arise those who want to destroy us, but the Holy One, Blessed be He, rescues us from their hands." Maier says the words with great intent and we repeat after him. The pale, thin faces that peer out of the wooden bunks look at us with attentive eyes in which, in that moment, there is reflected a spark of hope, and their pale lips utter "V'HaKadosh, Baruch Hu, Matzileinu M'yadam". ("And God, Blessed be He, rescues us from their hands").

We had no wine because that would have come from a Pole in the city, so it would not have been kosher, and we did not want to ruin the holiness of the holiday, so we distributed to each one a piece of matza, the size of an olive, and with great intent and with tears in our eyes, we also said the words: "And we shall cry out to our God, the God of our fathers, and He will hear our voices and will see our troubles and our suffering and will save us."

The world of the largest Jewish community in Europe lay destroyed and in ruins. From 43 and 66 Gensheh Street a smoke was felt which carried with it the smell of burnt human flesh. The last remnants of European Jewry are struggling for their lives in a slave labour camp. Hell is aflame on all sides and it is swallowing up the last victims, the last remains of a glorious Jewish community, and here, in the very midst of the suffering Jewish people, matzas are being baked in honour of Passover and the Passover eve is being celebrated, the time of our freedom.

It was, for me, a great privilege, and a very emotional experience to be able to participate in this act of the sanctification of God. I will never forget this scene. It is engraved in my memory and in my heart.

 

CHAPTER 47

 

A typhoid epidemic breaks out in the camp

So long as the snow and frost froze the ground, everything remained frozen, but as soon as the spring sunshine melted the ice and snow everything started to come apart. The dead bodies which were buried amongst the ruins, frozen from the frost, started to rot and fall apart from the sunshine, filling the air with foul odours. Extra kommandos were established to gather the dead and burn them in piles, but some of the bodies were missed, so the warmer it got the more smelly and foul the air became. In addition, the people became full of lice, and dirty. It was possible to gather the lice by shovelsful. Hordes of them covered the bodies of the slaves, sucking the last bit of blood out of them. People would take off their clothes and shake off the lice the way one does with a duster. Boils and infections were caused from itching and scratching wounds.

The clothes used to be taken for disinfection, and delousing procedures were performed. Whole commandos took off their clothes and busied themselves with killing the lice. But this did not help either, because the blocks were also infected. It was necessary to burn them all. During the nights, I could not fall asleep because under the shine of the electric bulb we saw clouds of lice crawling on the covers, heads, faces and skin. When one stretched out a hand, it was not necessary to look for them, because one could grab bunches of lice. We tried to save ourselves, but there was no escape. Our clothes were seldom changed, so they hung on us like dirty rags which fell apart. Those who worked in the outside commandos brought rags with them from the bunkers. They smelled, and were full of microbes and dangers.

It did not take long for the consequences to manifest themselves. As soon as it got a little warmer, a terrible typhus epidemic arose in catastrophic proportions. At the beginning, people spoke about some cases in whispers, but within a few days those who had been whispering found themselves in the infirmary. The place became over-packed with the sick for whom there was no room, so 5-6 were put into one bed, no matter what illness each had, thus they contaminated one another. The straw mattresses were already rotten so people were put on the bare boards. There were also no medicines, only flegers whose job it was to sell the clothes of the sick and rob back a portion of bread and margarine which was given to the sick who did not need food any more. Neither were the flegers spared. Fate sought them out too. Very often those who were still alive lay together with the dead because there was not time to take them away. Besides, the flegers did not hurry to take them out, since they wanted to collect their food portions.

With each new day the catastrophe got worse. The epidemic swallowed people without cease. Each morning, when we awoke, friends were carried out, never to be brought back. Just a few hours ago I was standing and talking to someone, friends, and in the afternoon they were dead. All those around me, those who slept above me and those who slept beside me, the epidemic seized them all. I, through a miracle, did not get sick. Maybe this can be attributed to the fact that I had started to eat raw onions and garlic which my friends brought me from the building work area. This killed my microbes, and I became resistant to the epidemic. The epidemic did not spare healthy and strong ones either, in fact, they succumbed even faster. The Kapos and foremen were not spared either. The wagons of dead were constantly being hauled away.

In one of the wagons, I recognized my tailor, Applebaum, from Mondzev. Though he did not suffer from hunger in the camp, because his trade provided him with sufficient food, he also succumbed. All the Kapos and foremen had their clothes altered by him so that they would fit better. There were dead people lying all over the place. In front of the blocks there were large piles of naked, starved bodies, covered with sores. They lay like garbage, waiting for someone to come and take them away to be burnt. The SS immediately closed off the camp so that nobody could go out or come in. We were isolated from the outside world. Roll calls also ceased because the SS feared to be in the camp. Only the Kapos and foremen still drove those who were still well to work which consisted of clean-up work in the camp, in order that we should not simply have the benefit of food for free.

A rumour even spread in the camp that the SS is planning to set the camp on fire so that the epidemic would not spread to Warsaw. The plan might possibly have been carried out because for the Nazis a few thousand slaves did not play any role, but we ourselves adopted radical means to stop the epidemic. We burnt all the straw mattresses, rags and what not. We started to scrub and clean the blocks. For this purpose we were provided with lime, matches and disinfectants.

I received a severe shock when someone was sent to tell me that Dr. Sukodolsky was also amongst the sick and that he was lying with a high fever in the infirmary for doctors. I immediately ran to him in the hospital. I was not allowed in. I did manage, though, to send some food in for him, including onions and garlic. Every day I stood by the window in order to find out how he was and what he needed. There was no limit to my joy when I saw him outside one day, walking on his own two feet. I supplied him with food to make him stronger, and medicine which I managed to get somehow from Kapos with whom I was acquainted and block heads whom I knew from the time when I used to provide them with the necessary products for the building needs. I finally restored my friend to good health.

 

CHAPTER 48

 

After the epidemic

At the end of May, the epidemic finally stopped. The roll calls and the work kommandos resumed. The result of the epidemic was a fatal one. The long rows became shorter and thinned out. More than half were missing. In total, the epidemic swallowed approximately 2,500 victims. Blocks 7 and 8 were converted for the sick during the epidemic. After the epidemic they remained empty because there were no longer people to occupy them, but immediately new transports arrived with Hungarian and Dutch Jews in order to fill the empty places. We were also informed by them about the situation in the outside world, that the German army is on the defensive and that they are running away from the fronts that they cannot hang on to any longer. They also told that masses of deserters are being shot, that the mayor, Spiegelhagen, of Breslau, had been shot, because he wanted to leave his post to save himself from death. We also recognized from the faces of the SS that their situation is not good. They lost their chutzpah and haughtiness. Many of them tried secretly to throw in a good word to the katzetlers (victims), that the war would not last much longer, and that we might soon gain our freedom.

At the beginning of June 1944, we found out that the Allied troops, after a massive attack at the ports of Dunkirk and Cherbourg, where they destroyed the Nazi wall of defense, landed in Normandy with troops which arrived by sea and by air, breaking every resistance. This infuriated many of the Nazis, though, and they wanted to let out their madness and show their "heroism" on the defenseless katzetler. We strengthened ourselves and gave ourselves courage to endure the difficult days. I used all of my journalistic talent and let my fantasy play in order to describe the political and military situation in the rosiest colours for us. I spoke with such enthusiasm that I myself started to believe in what I was imagining. My satisfaction was great when I saw how my words affected the listeners like a balm for their wounds. Many of them fell asleep in those nights with sweet dreams, believing that if they will survive the night, the dark night, they will awaken to peace and freedom.

Once, it could be that it was the latter half of July, the sky lit up with fire-bombs. The whole panorama was lit up. Like Christmas lights, they slowly descended. Shooting could be heard. Soon, an alarm was sounded in the whole camp. The block heads and house aides were given an order to make sure that the slaves do not show themselves, but should lay down, on the ground, until the alarm would end. We got down from our beds, stretched out on the ground, and looked up at the sky with love, courage and hope. We saw the prospect of liberation which seemed very close. As we later found out, the Russians, who had already reached the other side of the Vistula, were the ones who were shooting out the rockets. They remained on the other side of the Vistula for a long time and did not cross the river, probably for political reasons. They wanted to crush the German enemy with one blow, together with the Polish National Movement who grouped around the A.K. (Kryova Army), so that they should not later have to fight a fresh battle against the Polish Nationalist Movement. This illuminated night that we lived through instilled in us new strength and hope.

 

CHAPTER 49

 

We await evacuation from Warsaw

Some were still going out to work, but under close guard. Only those kommandos who had vital work to do were being used. My Punishment Kommando was completely disbanded. They feared to take us out so far because in the city partisan groups were multiplying. They were preparing the Polish uprising. The head of the SS did not know what to do with the concentration camp in Warsaw and with the more than 4,000 slaves who could possibly join the resistance movement which was preparing to attack the German garrisons. It was also possible that the Russians might cross the Vistula at any moment and take over the camp. The SS themselves wanted to free themselves and get out of their threatening position. At the end of July 1944, the decision was made to evacuate us from Warsaw and take us, through a side street, to a train station.

That was on July 27, 1944. The air was sweltering. The earth lay quietly beneath the blue sky. The large, wide roll call area of the concentration camp in the Warsaw ghetto was covered with the tired, exhausted slaves. We were chased out of the blocks and told to wait outside. More than 4,000 slaves, 95 percent of whom were Jews, from all countries in Europe, lay in the unrelentingly hot sun, roasting in the heat, waiting to see their final fate. We lay in groups, one beside the other, only conversing with our eyes, because none of us had any strength to speak after a whole day without food, and tribulation which was more than was humanly possible to endure. The first test came with the roll call, when every living creature in our camp was assembled in one place. All the SS and the whole camp staff came to the roll call, bar none. The latter all came in their parade uniforms, as though to a gala performance. The roll call took quite long. The SS stretched out the process. They probably did not want to rush the last parade with us. We also knew that this is our last roll call in Warsaw and perhaps forever.

Our hearts trembled like the sea in a storm. Our eyes and ears were alert to catch everything, every sound that was coming from above. We already knew that they had received an order to evacuate us from Warsaw. The question was, where to? We reckoned that if they would not succeed at this, they would finish us off right here, because the Russians were already at their heels and they must not play around with us anymore. We also noticed, when we were awakened in the pre-dawn, that they had set fire to their headquarters, burning all documents which they did not want to drag away. They also doubled the guards on the watchtowers and encircled the whole camp with well-armed soldiers. The guards were nervous. Our unrest became even more pronounced when we heard that an order had come from the higher ranks that all Aryans should assemble separately. Many of the Aryan Kapos and block heads, when they left our ranks, turned around and cast pitying glances our way, as though to say: "You are unfortunately condemned". Many of them displayed joy, as though t say: "It is true that we are criminals who have spent the greatest part of our life behind bars, but we belong to the higher, the better race." I looked at my friends and understood that my face is probably also pale and shows fear of death. We understood that our last act is now being staged because the chances of staying alive are slim.

A rumour spread through our ranks that the Greeks were preparing an uprising. We all knew what such action foretells, yet all our hearts clung to this idea because there was nothing to lose. We would not let ourselves be killed like sheep going to the slaughter. At least we would die fighting. With eye contact, we strengthened the weakest amongst us, and got ready to act.

Once more a voice bellowed through the loud speaker: "All those who feel weak, who have weak legs and cannot run more than 100 kilometers, should step forward and they will be transported by trucks." All veteran slaves already knew the tricks of the SS gentlemen. We immediately winked to one another, confirming that we are well aware of these tricks. We immediately indicated to the newer and younger ones amongst us that they should not step forward because they would be drawn into the net, but, unfortunately, a large number of old and sick did answer the call, not feeling that they had the strength to walk such a long distance. They had given up on life because they had no strength left to fight. I myself wanted to hold back a Hungarian Jew. I tried to prevent him from stepping out. I pleaded with him: "Mensch, what are you doing? At the last moment you're going to take your own life? Maybe you will be able to endure this last crisis," but he tore away from my arms. With foam in his mouth, he told me: "I've had enough! Rather than such a life, I prefer to die. With such swollen feet, and in such clogs, how can I run 100 kilometers?!" He got into the line of 240. They were led off to the transport immediately and made the quickest ascent to heaven.

The roll call ended. An order was given, though, that nobody should return to their block, neither was anyone allowed to leave the roll call area, but all must stay put and await further orders. As it later turned out, the SS had great difficulty with our evacuation. There were no longer any free train lines nor transport trucks available, so we had to be led out on foot, which was very dangerous at a time when there was a mood of revolt in the city and the Russians were on the other side of the Vistula. There was only one way open to them, the road that leads to Lovich-Kutneh, but this road was also heavily occupied by German civilians who were being evacuated together with the military movement. Secondly, guarding and keeping together over 4,000 slaves amidst such an enemy, uncertain population, and lurking partisan groups, was very dangerous. Thirdly, the SS wanted to save themselves and depart as quickly as possible because the Russians could overpower them at any moment. They, therefore, attempted to provoke, to throw us off balance, in order to finish us off.

A second provocation came when they withdrew the strong guard from the obvious posts in camp, leaving only minor posts on the lookout towers. Then they let us stay all day in the broiling sun in the roll call area without giving us food or water, believing that this would cause us to revolt. Later, there were other provocations when they led us by groups of 100, without anyone knowing where they were being taken. It appeared that they were being led off to be shot. We were shaking with fear when we later heard machine-gun fire. Later came the last provocation. We were cordoned off so that we could not move at all. They believed that we would lose our patience and throw ourselves upon them, and then they would have the best excuse of all, saying that they shot us because we revolted.

We felt that these were provocations, that they were simply looking for an incident to give them a pretext to liquidate us. We, therefore, gritted our teeth but did not let ourselves be provoked. We decided amongst ourselves not to react because this could threaten all our lives. We understood that this was their aim in order to free themselves of an unwanted burden. We decided to wait patiently. At the last moment, if we saw that they are leading us to the place of the Judenrat on Zamenhoff Street, near this new crematorium which was the execution place, we would then fall upon our guards and take up the fight to at least die with honour.

Meanwhile, we were baking in the sun. Each of us was deep in thought, making a personal reckoning of our life. In my mind there sprung scenes, events and episodes of my life, of my youth. I saw, in front of my shut eyes, people passing by, faces, figures whom I had long ago forgotten. I saw the kind glance of my father, may he rest in peace, looking at me with so much love and mercy. I saw the faithful look of my mother from whose eyes tears were flowing. She shows me her prayer book, Korban Mincha Siddur, from which she is praying and offering a prayer for me. Like through the lens of a camera, all these scenes and pictures unfold for me, pieces of my life which is about to end. I awaken from these daydreams and behold, in front of my eyes, a mass of dead bodies, shrunken, skin and bones, desperate and bitter, with a deadly fear in their eyes. These are all sentenced people waiting for their execution. Our hearts ached for all the years we had suffered so severely, gone through such hell, and now, when the end is so close, when freedom is in sight, we should have to lose our lives.

"You know what," a friend who always lay beside me with closed eyes, said, "I would like to live at least one day after the end of the war, to live to see the day of revenge! Our life will be in tatters anyhow, because after all we went through, all that we saw and endured, after having lost all our near and dear ones, what sense will our life have? The only thing that tempts me and draws me is to see the day of revenge, to see how our hangmen get publicly judged, to be able to run around with a knife and see how their blood runs, not ours, but theirs, to be able to spit in the faces of the murderers." These words he practically spat out from his tortured soul, and his eyes burnt with a strange fire. From his mouth foam sputtered and his lips kept on muttering, "Revenge! Revenge! It is that day that I want to live to see and then I can die." These words echoed symbolically through the ruins of the largest Jewish community in Europe. The walls of the destroyed Warsaw ghetto were standing downfallen, overlooking the tragedy of the last remnants of European Jewry, breathing their last breath before their extinction.

In the evening, there was a command: "Everyone in the blocks! Tomorrow at 3 in the morning everyone is to get up and be on the march from Warsaw". We breathed easier and returned to our blocks, but that night was a stormy one. Once more the Stalin-Kertzen lit up the sky. We were not allowed to approach the windows, but from the distance we could see the spectacle and hear the canon shots of the "flak batteries" which lit up the sky. With their flashes and crashes they lit up the sky even more. It looked like a magical night in an amusement park with fireworks. We clasped one another's hands and were full of joy. "With God's help", we encouraged one another, "we may see our liberation this very night". But it was not that night yet. Our joy did not last long. The shooting soon stopped. We lay on the hard boards and hoped for a miracle which would save us, until the gong awoke us from our dreams. Once more, we were hurried out for the roll call. This time 300 of us were selected to remain on the spot to finish various work and clean up the camp. From my row, Dr. Sukodolsky was also dragged out to remain as doctor of the group. He did not want to go, did not want to be separated from me. I wanted to go with him but was not allowed. It was hard to tear our eyes away from one another, but I lost my dear friend forever. (As I afterwards found out, he perished in the Polish resistance in Warsaw).

 

CHAPTER 50

 

We march out of Warsaw

On the 28th of July, 1944, pre-dawn, we marched out of our concentration camp in Warsaw. A clear blue sky could be seen through the wreckage of Warsaw. In groups of 100, ten in a row, we marched, led by a Kapo or block head, guarded on all sides by heavily armed SS accompanied by hunting dogs. They made sure we stuck together and kept a steady pace

For the last time I took a look at the destroyed Warsaw ghetto, the one-time Mother City of Israel. More than once I had enjoyed myself in this Jewish Polish metropolis. I knew all the streets very well. Now they are all decaying and destroyed. Zikeh, Gensheh, Golefkes, Smocheh, Pavyeh, Tvardeh, Novolipiyeh, Zamenhoff and many others. This was the heart of Poland's Jewry which numbered three and a half million. Now it all lies in rubble. The last remnants of European Jewry are now marching forth from this destruction of the glorious Jewish community. My eyes cling to falling walls which point to heaven as though in protest for their destruction. Golden rays of sun penetrated the ruins as though to lick their open wounds. It seemed to me that the ruins were becoming alive, are winking to us--Adieu, Adieu, my children.

When we marched out through the gates of the ghetto, we saw, for the first time in years, a place where people were living in freedom, streets alive with people strolling along, walking freely, walking, eating and sleeping whenever they chose, and as much as they like. It all looked strange to me at that moment. White bread and rolls in every street, and people are too indifferent to buy. A woman is passing and she is wearing clean clothes. How often I dreamt of that--white clean clothes, a clean soft bed, and to be able to sleep, sleep forever. We march past the Warsaw streets. Doors and windows open. People come out on the balconies in their night clothes and look at this spectacle, at this caravan of slaves. Some of them had tears in their eyes, others were wringing their hands, but others looked on with joy in their eyes. They were pleased with this spectacle. Words of scorn could also be heard: "Zhidi, Koti" (Jews, cats).

I turn around once more to get my last look at the Warsaw ghetto. The destroyed walls stretch heavenward. They are like captives behind the ghetto enclosure. With their tragic image, they cast fear on all of Warsaw, on the whole world. This destruction will not end with the Warsaw ghetto boundaries. It will extend much further, to cities and countries, to large and wealthy boulevards and streets, and will destroy everything that human civilization has created during countless generations, and those who caused all this destruction will perhaps lie tomorrow under their own destruction.

From the other side of the enclosure smoke can be seen. We can smell the odour of burning flesh. It pierces the heart when we remind ourselves that in ovens they are burning the corpses of fresh victims, those who were still alive yesterday morning, dreaming about and hoping for freedom. Those were the ones who felt they were too tired for the march and chose to be transported in trucks. A poke from a gun awoke me from my thoughts and shoved me back into line. The push caused me to lose my eating bowl, which fell down with a crash on the Warsaw ground.

Anyhow, who at that moment thought about eating. There was no appetite as we reflected on the ruined Warsaw streets which were so familiar to me from my past. More than 4,000 pairs of wooden clogs clanked along the streets of the Polish capital at the break of dawn, awaking people from their sleep. Groups gathered at the crossroads to observe the caravan of thin, pale skeletons in their striped clothes, moving like robots. We looked to all sides, hoping, in spite of everything, that the Polish resistance would attack our train and then we would use our last opportunity. We knew very well that the Russians were already on the other side of the Vistula for quite some time. We also knew that Warsaw was well informed about our evacuation. The Poles who worked with us in the ghetto knew exactly what was happening. A day before, a woman from a balcony, in a distant building from which the camp could be seen, signaled to us with her hand, that we are encircled, but the miracle never happened. Warsaw only knew how to help us with sympathetic glances and a few tears from sympathetic women.

Soon Warsaw disappeared from sight. We soon passed the periphery and green fields appeared. The road was blocked with soldiers, and the evacuated German civilian population who dragged with them the stolen goods. They ran as though from a fire, back to their country. The right-hand side of the road was reserved for us. Crowded and packed, we had to step on one another, under the watchful eyes and shouts of the SS, in order to avoid their blows. It looked exactly like a herd of sheep being driven. The train conductor and the head stock keeper followed us, standing in their automobile in a F¸hrer pose, driving the marchers, roaring at the top of his voice: "Ihr Schweinebande! Ihr Juden Gesindel! Ich werde euch zeigen wie man marschiert." (You gang of swine, you Jewish rabble. I'll show you how to march.) The camp leader Umshmis was fluttering, like a bird, on his motorcycle, driving the weak frightened mass to walk faster. Whoever could not move fast enough ended up under his motorcycle.

Each one, upon seeing the Angel of Death in front of his eyes, marched as fast as possible with their last bit of strength, with their weak legs. Whenever he felt like it, he commanded: "Laufen!" ("Run"), so people ran, losing their clogs on the way, just so as to get away from the murderer. By noon, it was impossible to bear the heat. The sun burnt relentlessly. The SS took off their helmets and unbuttoned their shirts. The slaves also started to throw away their excess belongings. Anyone who had two blankets threw away at least one, but this did not help either. The sun was unbearable and the dust of 4,000 pair of clogs caused a cloud of dust which covered our clothes, our faces, and our lungs, making our mouth stick as if glued. The beatings of the SS no longer helped. Their shouts of "H–her! H–her heben die Beine!" (Lift your legs higher!) did no good because nobody had strength any longer to lift their legs. Everyone pleaded: "Water! At least a sip of water!"

We marched past villages, peasant cottages, also rivers. We continued to plead for a sip of water to wet our tongue which had become like leather, but a blow from a club was our only response. "Weiter marschieren!" (Keep marching!). "Macht das ihr weiter kommt!" (You'll get that further on!). Peasants came out with pitchers of water, but they were not allowed to come near us. The SS drank it themselves, giving none of it to us. They also took turns visiting the homes of the peasants, stuffing and washing themselves there in order to have more courage to drive us further. Our legs got weak and tired and could not carry us any longer. Rivers of sweat ran down our bodies. There were constantly people who could not keep up. They were pulled out of line and shot on the spot. Near me was a friend, Nechemya Neier, from Mondzev. He was a strong build, broad-shouldered. In Warsaw he had a very good kommando, "Friedhof". This was an accumulation point for used iron and iron scaffolding which was salvaged from the ghetto ruins and gathered at the Gensher cemetery. He was even the kommando schreiber (writer), and kept himself very fit. This march, though, he could not endure. "I can not keep going any longer!" he said to me with faint eyes. "My feet cannot carry me any longer."

"What's happening to you, Nechemya?" I started to appeal to him. "You want to kill yourself?" Keep going. Hang on to me. Strengthen yourself. You can't give up at the last minute".

My pleading and tears did not help. He tore himself away from me, groaning -- "I can't go on any longer. It's all the same to me. Whatever is going to happen, let it happen now. I don't want to suffer any more".

He remained on the ground awaiting death. A bullet put an end to his young life. I will never forget his last look. His eyes expressed so much sorrow, bitterness and desperation. Once more, I lost one of my closest friends with whom I was in the camp from the very first minute. Together we spun dreams, together we made plans and prepared ourselves for the struggle. Often he would tell me stories of his life, of his youth. For me he opened all the chambers of his soul. Often he would show me a smuggled picture of his wife and child, a beautiful young woman and a darling child, and tell me that's what gives him strength and courage. "Because of them," he would say to me, "it's worth struggling and hoping. If I knew that they're alive and waiting for me." They did not see the day. The Death March from Warsaw to Dachau swallowed him up. If his wife and child are alive, I can only tell them of his last look. This incident shocked me greatly. I felt as though a piece of me was torn away. I gathered all my strength and marched on. Military columns marched by. Officers would stop and look at us as at a strange apparition, seeing these skinny, pale skeletons dragging themselves along on their limping legs, looking less than human. They asked our guards what sort of criminals they were accompanying. When they discovered that we were Jews, they could see it fitted the F¸hrer's plan.

We dragged ourselves on this way until sundown. Our black lips spat out bitterness and curses. We felt that our last bit of energy was leaving us. Then, miraculously, a command was heard: "Rechts herum, ausruhen!" (To the right, take a rest!) At this command we ran to a large open space which was immediately encircled by SS with machine guns and hunting dogs. Not being able to take another step, we fell to the ground like a pile of bricks. The ground was warm, heated by the sun. At last our legs could rest. We sank down with our faces towards the ground to benefit from the moisture, to be able to cool our sun-scorched faces. The sun was setting in red-hot flames, and as though dipped in blood, set in the western horizon.

Gradually night descended and covered the whole human mass. We were not allowed to stand up. Neither did we have the strength to do so. Bread was distributed, but only to those who had the strength to push in line, but the majority could not or did not have the desire to get up because we could not eat anyhow. Our mouths were too dry. It was only later that some black water was brought, so called "coffee". Though I was dead tired, I could not fall asleep. Firstly, my bones ached badly. Secondly, what we had endured that day had been so severe that it did not let me fall asleep. My mind was flooded with the terrible images of the day. In my ears there still rang the wild shouts of the SS guards, mixed with the tearful pleas of the faint, dying slaves: "Water, water, a sip of water" and the last words of my friend: "I can't go on any more" with eyes that were seemingly begging my forgiveness: "I can't any more". I still see in front of my eyes scenes and pictures of the Warsaw streets. I lie with open eyes and stare at the canopy of the sky over which a full moon travels majestically. A cool breeze brushes over my face, my hair, and lulls me to sleep. I sink deeper into the night and embrace it as though fearing that someone will grab it away from me. I shudder at the thought of how brief the night is. Daylight will soon appear with the sun's strong rays to scorch us and drive us further on our march.

 

CHAPTER 51

 

The second day of the Death March Warsaw-Dachau

 

When the alarm to wake up sounded, night had already vanished. A bright new day uncovered thousands of crippled, dusty, dirty bodies who greeted the new day with fear and suspicion. Everyone got up quickly because the SS guards were already carrying on wildly, hurrying everyone to line up for roll call, to check if the number is correct and to make sure that nobody passed away during the night. Once more morsels of bread and black water were distributed and then we were driven to march. This time, we marched at a quicker tempo to take advantage of the cooler morning hours. Again we marched past houses and villages where the people had just awakened from their sleep. The sun soaked up the dew on the fields and sported with the stalks of wheat, full of grain. A group of Hitler Jugend (Hitler Youth), who had just donned military uniforms, marched past us, looking with chutzpa at us, the slaves of the Third Reich.

Once more the sun started to burn with all its might. I try to take a bit of bread in my mouth, but I cannot swallow it because my mouth and tongue were too dry and the food would not go down. My only desire was a sip of water. Around noon, it once more became unbearably hot. The sweat started to soak my whole body. I licked the salty sweat that ran down my forehead to moisten my burnt tongue. That helped very little. From the distance something sparkled in the sun. The spire of a church appeared on the horizon. All eyes turned in that direction and with pleading eyes whispered: "Water... Water..." Eyes started to burn feverishly. Everyone wanted to be closer to the river, if not to drink, at least to look at the shining surface.

Close to the shtetl, we read a large sign saying "Sochaczew". This name left us speechless. The place was so well known in the Jewish world. The name was associated with the renowned Sochaczew Rebbe who had thousands of Hassidic followers who used to come to him on the three religious festivals. The Suchachov dynasty was world renowned. The grandfather of the last Sochaczew Rebbe, the Ba'al Avni Nezer, was a son-in-law of the Kotzker Rebbe, and was himself a great scholar and extremely talented. The SochaczewYeshiva was known throughout the world. There, only the most promising scholars could enter, those who knew how to study and who had sharp minds and great skill. When I read the name Sochaczew on the sign, I trembled because I recalled what the name represented. This was a Mother-City in Israel, which had earned a great reputation in the world. Although I knew that this shtetl, like many other Jewish cities, was already clean of Jews, I wanted to see how such a typically Polish-Jewish city appears, free of Jews. A shudder ran through our bones when we encountered, right at the entrance of the shtetl, a division of Russian Cossacks. These were Vlasovtzes who were fighting on the side of the Germans against the Russians, the tragically famous Russian Cossacks, on the side of the Nazis. What an appropriate coupling.

The impression this shtetl made on us was horrible. We marched past the Jewish streets where every house, every stone, reminded us of Jewish life. The streets and houses remained, but no Jews survived. Through windows of the once Jewish homes peered red, ugly faces, and in the streets blond gentile children were playing. The Shloimelech, Berelech and Yoselech are no longer present. Hitler murdered them all. It seemed to me that I hear the choked wailing of those who perished. The weeping followed me, cut me to the heart, as with a knife. We, the last remnant of European Jewry, are now marching past the disgraced Jewish streets of a cut-off, traditionally Jewish community, to an uncertain tomorrow.

 

CHAPTER 52

 

The third day of the march

The most dreadful day of our march was the third one. From pre-dawn, we were herded non-stop. The SS were completely wild and crazy that day. It appeared that they themselves had become fed up with the march and felt a tiredness in their bones, even though they took turns every few hours, with the tired ones going into the automobiles which were following us. All we could see were the sticks and clubs over our heads. New people were constantly succumbing. Every passing guard stepped on the fallen ones and finally a special guard finished off the exhausted ones.

Every little while there was a shouted command: "Run!" and with sticks we were chased. It was of no help that we had all thrown away our shoes and had discarded every unessential burden. We could not stand it any more. The greatest number of victims were swallowed up this day. We were soaked with sweat, stifled with thick dust. Our legs buckled under and did not want to carry our sick bodies any more. It seemed to us that the whole world, heaven and earth, had ganged up against us. Nature and humanity pitilessly plagued us.

This was the first time I myself broke down completely. I felt that I could not continue any longer, that I was coming to an end. The terrible thirst, the heat and the running, drained me completely.

My mouth was completely dry. My tongue, like leather, was stuck to my palate. My eyes were protruding unnaturally as though wanting to run off from my eye sockets. I sought to rescue myself, to find a drop of water. I ran up to a SS and tore open my heart and showed him:"Look, I'm completely burnt. Give me a sip of water or kill me!" In reply, I got a blow with a club. I fell back into line unconscious. My friends caught me so that I would not fall. They wiped my sweat with dirty rags and saved me, revived me and supported me. I awoke, regained my senses somewhat, and was supported by my friends to go further.

When all the energy was gone, when people dragged themselves as though not on their own feet, truly with their last bit of strength, a command was given: "Links herum" (left everybody). "Ruhen" (Rest). This came as a real salvation to us all. Like a flash of lightening the command flashed through all the row: "Ausruhen" ("Rest") The deadened eyes suddenly came alive. To rest, and beside a large river! It was as though the Messiah had arrived. We went crazy with joy. We were lead to a large field bordering on a large river. We were seated and told to wait. People became restless, however, wild at the sight of water! Flowing water! The water cast a magically teasing spell on us. People threw themselves down to drink without an order. At that moment the sound of machine guns was heard. There was shooting from all sides and the first victims fell. Water mingled with blood. As they fell, the victims were still trying to lap up water from the moist earth. They wanted their tongues to be wet so that they could utter their last curse: "May you be cursed forever".

There quickly followed a command to form lines again to march once more. The pleas and cries did not help. The Kapos who, in spite of everything, did get some water, let loose over our weak bones. We were led out onto the road once more. Passing by a dirty channel, I threw myself down on the ground and scooped up a mouthful of dirty wet earth and frog water with worms, in order to wet my tongue and mouth. Other friends did the same. We scrubbed our heads and faces with mud. When the SS guards saw what was going on, they started to beat us with clubs and sticks, deadly blows. The Kapos helped, until they got us back into line. The sand in our mouths immediately burned. A disgusting refuse remained in our mouths. Still, we did freshen up somewhat. The dream of water immediately vanished. Now we were chased with more fury. The SS, being worked up from this last incident, now chased us with such madness and cruelty, that we could not breathe. Those who could not keep up, lagged behind, and this being the case, they were immediately shot. When we reached the place where we were to rest for the night, we fell down like a pile of bricks. We stretched out on the ground, bitter and desperate at the fact that the magical river had been robbed from us. Neither could we fall asleep, because we were so thirsty. Our organs had nothing to function on. Everything dried up and burnt, so we lay like living dead.

 

CHAPTER 53

 

The miracle of water

Night had already descended on the mass of exhausted bodies. The moon made its way through a cloudy sky. On all sides armed SS surrounded us with their light and heavy machine guns. Lying this way, people started to move slowly. Whoever had a spoon, a knife, a bowl, or just with one's nails, started to uproot pieces of soil from the ground. We started to dig holes. The dark soil gave way as it was cleared by thousands of hands which dug into it. It got softer, until water suddenly sprang from it. "Water! Water!" people started to murmur, and everyone's eyes lit up. We hugged one another in joy. Like a flash of lightening, word spread from mouth to mouth, from row to row. Faint, half-dead, people suddenly came alive. They arose and started to bless the water. The tease of water arose like a phoenix in the despondent hearts. Something miraculous, something Godly appeared to us. Religious people, with their broken bones, rolled over to see, with their own eyes, this miracle, and with their dry lips, uttered a prayer of thanks to the Almighty for providing such a miracle. All over, people started to work feverishly and at every few meters a source of water sprung up which freshened everyone and instilled new energy into the fragile limbs. It was as though mother earth had the breasts to quench the thirst of the thirsty children. The sun broke through the dark clouds, lighting up the place, reflecting in the water, and added splendour to the Yomtov (celebration) of a few thousand slaves who celebrated the "great miracle of water."

When the SS guards realized what was happening here, it was too late to stop the process. In particular, they did not want to sound an alarm during the night so as not to provoke a revolt. Pre-dawn, when the SS and the camp leader, head driver and higher officers came to the place, they shook their shoulders, looked at each other, smiled subtly and ashamedly went away. In this case they were helpless because one cannot fight nature.

We get closer to our aim

The fourth day, we marched in the direction of Lovich. Traffic en route was considerably lighter. We came across many male and female peasants dressed in their Sunday clothes with beads, crosses and prayer books, rushing to church. The peasant girls and their boyfriends were strolling at the edge of the forest. This reminded us that it is Sunday. This also awakened in us a longing and a sadness. We recalled former days of idyllic life, of our girls, of the blessed rest. We passed peasant huts and saw the calm peaceful life--curtains, tablecloths, comfortable beds and sufficient food. I was immersed in thoughts and dreams, recollections and longings, until a heavy blow to my head brought me back to reality. This was compliments of the Kapo, accompanied by wild curses: "Mensch, du sp¸rsts?!" (Man, do you feel that?) I grasped my head in my hands, so my hand also got its share. I ran, crying in pain. I cried bitterly. "God, make an end to this life of a dog!"

Between Lovich and Zichlin, we were put in a valley for the night, so that the following morning we could be loaded onto trucks. That night, the moon was entirely hidden between dark clouds. Portions of bread were distributed to us, together with pieces of horse salami, and once again the black water, and we lay down on the ground to rest. Near me lay a Jew of forty-something who looked like sixty. He raised his two bony arms heavenward, grinding his two remaining teeth which looked like gravestones for a broken life. He uttered words, like a slaughtered hen, because he had no strength to shout: "Oh God, when will our suffering end?!"

Exhausted, worn out and desperate, we had just fallen asleep when the earth began to shake. It started to thunder and lighten. It appeared that the end of the world had come. We clung to the earth, and the earth to the night. Together we shuddered with fear. Full of fear, we raised our heads to see what was happening. Our eyes lit up, shining with a demonic shine. It was such a joy. Let the earth go under together with us.

Our joy did not last long though. Soon a cold wind started to blow, getting stronger and stronger, until it tore our rags off. A cold rain started to rip madly at our bones, getting more and more powerful. There was no place to hide. We could not get up either because the shots of fire immediately took aim, so we clung to each other, covering our naked skin with whatever we could: a rag, a cover, a few branches, but nothing helped. The rain pounded and soaked everything. The rain that continued to get stormier, filled the whole valley, which turned into a river. A cool wind continued to blow, so we shivered from the cold and from fever. The water flowed over us as though it wanted to dunk us and float us down into the depths. This continued all night. When we woke up in the morning, it stopped a little, though the sky was still filled with dark clouds. From time to time it started to thunder again like delayed artillery, and a flash of lightening shot through the grey dawn. We were like wet cats which were pulled out of a river and shook and shivered from the cold.

Soon the staff arrived, rested and dry, dressed in proper raincoats. They took a look at the mess of living dead who were standing and shivering from the cold. They smiled, content with themselves. Soon there was a command: "Austreten!" ("Line up"). Everybody was tearful and groaning. We could not take a step because everything was sticking to us, but the SS, with their clubs, and the Kapos, with their sticks, soon convinced us not to expect any pity. They lined us up and started to perform a strict inspection. It was, so to speak, to search for knives and spoons, but we had to turn our pockets inside out and whatever was there they beat us on our hands so long until we gave them everything. Afterwards there followed a strict body inspection so, if anyone had taken anything along from Warsaw, he had to hand it over and part with it. The SS at this opportunity, stole a huge amount.

We were led out to the road again and taken to the train station in Zichlin. Here, empty freight trains awaited us. We were packed in like sheep, like sardines in a tin can. In a wagon that can barely hold 40 people, 90-100 were packed. The doorway had to remain clear because that was where the SS guards and the Kapos sat. I myself do not know till the present day what happened to me when I was shoved into the wagon accompanied by beatings and curses. I must have fallen down in the wagon. I was stepped on. People sat on me, but I did not feel anything. It was as though I was actually dead. A few hours later, I started to hear something, as though someone was sobbing and groaning from very far away. I awoke, as though in a chicken coop, and saw, for the first time, the hell where we were left standing at the station and not moving from the spot. We could not understand why. Later, we found out that in the rush to pack the people in while the dead were being buried, having died the previous night, some used the opportunity to escape. Some were caught and shot on the spot. Others disappeared. I do not know what happened to them.

Amongst those who ran away was one, Rosenzweig, from Paris, who was originally from Ozero, Poland. Amongst those who were caught there was Alben, from Paris, a very good friend. He was brought back half-naked and shot. No intervention helped. Everyone of us mourned him. Even though, in the Warsaw ghetto he wore a Kapo armband, he was one of the few decent Kapos who did not hit anyone, in fact, he even helped some of the slaves. To have such a position, and yet conduct oneself in a humane way, was something rare in the camp. Each one of us has good memories of him. May this be a comfort to him on his journey to eternity. There is one other whom I want to mention at this opportunity. He wore the band of a foreman on his arms, yet did not lose his decency or humanity. Though I was far removed from him ideologically, because he was a fiery communist, the later editor of the communist "New Press" in Paris, Fenigstein, who used the pseudonym, A. Vilner, did nobody any harm, nor did he torture anyone. It is quite possible that it was made possible for him to play the role of a foreman so that he would not have to work so hard. Whatever the case may be, I never heard anyone complain about him.

 

CHAPTER 54

 

The hellish scenes in the locked train wagons

After providing and allocating the slaves with their rations for two day, to each one half a loaf of bread, a bit of margarine and a piece of salami, the wagons were sealed shut. A whistle was heard and the train was on its way. The SS guards sat near the doors. They started to curse and spit, "Pfui, wie es stinkt von der Jew Bande." (Pfoo, what a stink from this Jewish gang).

The eldest of the Kapos, with a thick belt, waved it around in the air, and each time, let it land on someone else who dared say a word. He lectured us: "I warn you, there must be complete order and quiet here! If anyone will try to disturb the peace or be undisciplined, he will be given the death treatment. As he spoke, the Kapo kept looking at the SS guards to see what sort of impression his speech was making upon them. Noting that they were pleased with his lecture, he continued: "You must remain for the whole time exactly where you are sitting, even if you will all need to crap. Stay put. Naturally it's not as comfortable as your one-time homes or the theatre, but you lived well long enough. It's no misfortune if not all of you will reach our destination. They won't worry about it. We will simply save some food because you are eating for free anyhow. Ihr Jew Bande!" he thundered, on winking to the SS. "You're no good for work anymore anyhow, and it's taking you so long to die. You hated race, you Jews. You believe that Truman and Stalin will help you? We'll finish you and them off together."

After such a speech we felt choked. We choked on the curses that we had to keep within ourselves. We felt like getting up and spitting in the blood-red face of the "noble" German outlaw who was appointed as our supervisor and educator. He had spent his whole life behind bars. His hands were smeared with the blood of his victims and now he was feeling superior with his green triangle as a representative of the "higher race". He is the judge and the one to keep order. But, the whole Nazi movement is made up of murderers and killers, so this is his world.

We sat crushed one beside the other, not being able to move nor change our position because we were so cramped. The air was so dense it could be cut with a knife. Someone made a soft sound because the one next to him pressed on his leg, so the Kapo stood up immediately: "Who screamed?" When he saw the face of the one who had uttered the sound, he immediately attacked him with such rage and blows and thundered:

"You Schweinehund. You old dreckig rabbiner! You dare to disturb the peace here?"

The buckle of his belt cut into the head and neck of the unfortunate victim until blood began to run. He paused for a moment and then started on a second victim:

"And you, what displeases you?!" he bellowed, with foam around his mouth and beating him. "I'll blind you", he roared like a wild ox, and his eyes fired up like a wild animal.

The SS smiled with satisfaction. Their sadistic thirst was satisfied. It got quiet, without the slightest movement, so that the breathing of everyone could be heard. In the confusion, it was not even noticed that in the corner there sat a person who no longer sees or feels anything. He sat, squeezed amongst the mass of open-eyed men with an ironic grimace on his face and a sarcastic smile in the corner of his eyes. Nobody noticed that he was not breathing anymore until his neighbour felt that he was supporting the whole weight of his friend. He tried to push him away, but again he fell on him. He bent down and saw the friend looking at him with a blank gaze and a dead smile. It was only then that he saw that the life beside him was extinguished. At the command of the Kapo the dead body was shoved into a corner, covered with a blanket, and kept until the next station where he was removed together with another two who had succumbed to death by then from the suffering.

In the wagon, it got stinkier and smellier. The air was like poison. This was due mostly to the wet things that did not manage to dry during the night. Sitting now, pressed together, the clothes started to vapourize on our bodies, polluting the air. Sitting in this condition became more and more unbearable. The whole lower part of the body got scorched from the heat and steam. Feet fell asleep and could not be stretched. All this caused unbearable torture. There was a lack of air and thirst started to plague us. People started to throw their clothes off. But this also did not help. They also had to perform their physiological needs in the train because we were not let out. At the second door, therefore, there was an accumulation of human waste which ran off in all directions. All this, together with the breath of close to 100 people with the addition of a few dead from whom foul odours emitted, left no way to breathe.

The train chugged along, cutting its way through Polish territory. We knew that soon the Polish landscape would give way to German territory, going deeper and deeper into the mouth of the beast. We were approaching an unknown destiny. Nobody knew what would happen the next day, though we could feel and knew that the war would soon end, that the Germans would lose the war, but as far as our personal destiny was concerned, nobody had any illusions that we would come out of this hell. Even if the Germans lose the war they would not let us live, we thought to ourselves, because they would leave no witnesses to their murderous acts. We wanted so much, though, to live to see the culmination of the war, to live for at least one day to see the downfall of the Nazis with our own eyes, see how they pay for their treacherous sins. Then we would be able to die in peace.

Dusk was followed by darkness of night which covered the mass of living dead with its dark shadows. The only light was from the cigarettes of the SS near the door, who smoked constantly because they probably wanted to keep the stench away from themselves. It was getting worse by the second. Every minute another uproar would break out in another corner because the people could not stretch their cramped legs and free themselves from the agony. The Kapos came right over and made order.

It was impossible to sleep at night because the bottom part of the body, which was completely smarting, felt like needles pricking. The upper part of the body did not have the fresh air it needed and from breathing the foul air, our mouths felt like a piece of fire. Thirst was unbearable. The whole mass of people was squashed together like one lump. There was no possibility of turning around, so people started to whimper, groan and cry. This disturbed the peace of the Kapo who was lying on a pile of blankets, so he ran around like a wild beast gone mad, beating, in all directions, with his stick. People's nerves were shattered. They got hysterical and started to scream, then the SS started to intervene, starting to shoot at the mass, and people fell dead. Then it got quiet. People choked their curses and nearly all died from the death angst. A bullet whizzed past my ear, causing damage to my eardrum. During all this I got closer to the wall, took a rusty, cold screw in my mouth, and licked it all night in order to freshen my mouth a bit with something cold, but soon the screw also got warm from my breath. People also put their head close to the cracks of the wagon in order to catch a breath of outside air.

During the day, things were even worse. Here also the sun shone in, penetrating the cracks and the barred small windows, and threw some light on the foul air which was transformed into a thick choking mist. Our bodies were dried out and our mouth stuck, so that we could not even eat our piece of bread which we were given when we got on the train. We could not chew or swallow. It got stuck to our palate.

"Water! Water!" everyone pleaded, with faint eyes. Had anyone been able to forfeit 10 years of their life for a sip of water they would gladly have done so, especially such life that had no value.

The fact that the Kapos and the SS beat pitilessly, and that new dead were a constant factor, proved useless. We wanted either water or to be put to death so that there would be an end to our suffering. In front of me sat a male, pale and faint, who gave away his portion of bread to a Hungarian Jew for three quarters of a cup of liquid which looked like beer. He himself could not produce it any more so he bought it from someone else, just to be able to moisten his lips and tongue. He poured it into his burnt throat, making a sour face, as though he was swallowing bitter medicine.

But this did not help him very much. He turned completely yellow and lost consciousness. He was dragged closer to the door where he struggled with death. Someone else, a Greek Jew, continually wiped his forehead and face with the same liquid. From time to time he also dampened his parched lips. So it is that people were transformed into wild beasts. These were all people from high social positions at home where they played an important role in the community, in trade, commerce and industry, but here they were degraded to pigs and beasts. People fought with their teeth and nails, struggling for what was left of life. With everything they could, they tried to live through this difficult fiery fate.

At the first station, already somewhere in Germany, the door was opened. The dead were removed and the filth was cleaned out a little. Some black water and fresh portions of bread were brought. The cup of coffee was too little to quench the thirst. Besides, everyone was afraid that the doors would quickly shut and the same hell as before would resume. The SS let themselves be convinced to bring some water, but they asked to be paid for it. Since nobody had anything any longer, because before we got on the train everything had been taken from us, the SS agreed to bring some water in exchange for gold teeth. People, therefore, tore out their gold teeth and dental fillings and gave them to the SS for a bit of fresh water. When one got a cup of water, everyone fell upon him like thirsty beasts, and tore the bit of liquid out of his hands. Understandably, each cup of water cost a few lives because the Kapos and SS had an opportunity to throw themselves on the maddened crowd to restore order.

A Dutch Jew, who must have been quite stout at one time, because here his double chin still hung down, but now was without meat, became quite crazy from thirst. His eyes were protruding and his pupils were racing back and forth. He crawled, stepped over people, because he no longer knew what he was doing. He was completely beaten and pinched by the people who would not allow him to step over them. When anyone got a bit of water, he threw himself on that person, stuck his hands in the water, and licked them with wild lust, exactly the way a hungry dog licks a found bone. Naturally, he got plenty of blows. Whoever could, struck him. Then the SS got hold of him, making sport of him by telling him to get down on all fours and run and bark like a dog. I will never forget this scene of the time when a man was changed into a dog. He jumped, barked, bit, all according to the orders of the SS who was proud of his idea. Foam poured from the man's mouth when he filled the command: "Get up! Get down!" for about the hundredth time. When he did not get down properly on the ground, the SS stood on his back and in that way straightened him out. The victim remained on the ground like a slaughtered cow.

There is a second case that I will never forget as long as my eyes will remain open: The SS suddenly felt that it smelled too much near him. "What happened here?" he asked. Nobody answered, but all eyes were cast in the same direction. Soon a Jew of forty plus got up and like a shamed child, with his toothless mouth, and face, declared: "I'm sick, Herr Wachtmann. I couldn't hold it in any longer until I could reach..."

The Nazi, like a wild animal, started to scream:

"Why did you do that, you dreck?!"

The man shriveled, because he saw the Angel of Death in front of him. He started to stammer: "Because, because…"

"What did you say, you nasty Jew?" the SS said as he went over to him with his club. "Clean up right away with your bare hands."

The poor Jew, with blood in his eyes, gathered his human waste with his own hands, and when he did not manage to clean up completely, the Nazi murderer grabbed the Jew's head and wiped up the waste from the floor with it. The second Nazi and the Kapo observed the scene and rolled with laughter. The spectacle obviously pleased them.

 

CHAPTER 55

 

We reach the destination--Dachau

The horrible trip, Zichlin-Dachau, took 3 days, but the pain and suffering could have sufficed for 30 years. Such horrible things took place that it is impossible to recount even a small portion of what we endured. This journey took many lives. Many choked to death from the polluted air. Many got squeezed to death in the crowding and many fainted from the heat and thirst, with tongues hanging out like leather. Many broke down physically and mentally. Near me one man died, but he had nowhere to fall because he was pressed in. The whole time he swayed and had a cynical smile on his face, as though to say: "I'm already laughing at all of you. My world, my suffering is finished."

Finally, we reached Dachau, which was the destination of our trip. We got out of the train like crazed, wild people, half-naked, filthy, our skin full of wounds. The air affected us like alcohol. We stumbled as though on stranger's legs. Our eyes cast wild, scared glances. We did not know what to do with ourselves. At the roll call we slightly regained our soberness when we started to be counted, to be recorded, and to be given new numbers. My number in Dachau was 88724.

Half the area was covered with bodies. Everywhere, people were lying like corpses--sick, half-dead and dead. I did not have a mirror in which to see how I looked, but looking at the other faces, I could well imagine my appearance. These were not human faces, but masks. One felt like crying, but the wells of tears were dry. Near me lay a living dead young man of about 30 years of age, but he already looked like an old man, all grey. Bllue veins in his temples throbbed. His thin lips moved as he tried to say something. He was actually praying and thanking God for his mercy in letting him survive.

Suddenly, it was as though everything exploded. We heard a voice: "Coffee!" Two pots of black water were brought. Soon, Kapos and block heads appeared in clean clothes, looking very human. They accompanied the pots of coffee and came to get acquainted with us. I heard one say to another: "Mist" (garbage).

When we saw the pots of coffee, we got up and stood in line for a cup of warm liquid. We ran three and four times to get a drink, which created a revolution in our stomachs. Still, it did revive us a little. The fresh air, though it smelled of strong odours, gases and sulfur, plus the drink of coffee, did freshen us up. The dead limbs got revived, and we started to free ourselves from the horror that was the journey Warsaw-Dachau.

We only stayed in Dachau a few days, only until the dirt was washed off, our hair was cut, and there was a selection. Here, we were sorted like livestock for transportation, and we were apportioned to different branches of the Dachau camp which were scattered over a wide Bavarian area. I was loaded on to a wagon headed for Ampfing-Milldorf, where I was assigned to slave labour.

 

CHAPTER 56

 

Milldorf and Waldlager (Forest camp)

Milldorf, approximately 80 kilometers from Munich, had two camps, the so-called Stamm Lager which was the main headquarters of the slave workers, and the Waldlager, so called because it was actually situated in the midst of a forest, approximately 15 kilometers from Ampfing. The camp was under construction, and it was our job to complete it. I was assigned to the Waldlager. I was happy that a few good friends came with me, amongst them, the same Feitl Lenchner, who was so good at "organizing" something to eat. Here, however, we found ourselves in a forest, far from any settlement, cut off from the world.

We were housed in temporary barracks, wooden cabins, completely windowless. Later, bunkers, which looked like tombs, were built for us underground. Only the roof, which looked like an animal hump, rose from the ground. The roof was also covered with sod so that it would not rain in, and to protect from the cold. In the middle, there was a hollow space for passage, and on both sides were our "beds," consisting of very narrow straw sacks which lay on the ground. The sole window was in the entrance. Such bunkers were spread out over the whole camp. There were ten such bunkers, five on each side, constituting a block. In addition, there were the wooden barracks in which only the "prominent" stayed. The SS guards, with a head stormtrooper over them, were installed outside the camp, on the other side of the forest. The kitchen and clothes store room were in the camp, but separated by barbed wire. There was also a stable for horses, donkeys and work oxen which were also looked after by the slaves. Our main job was to construct an underground airplane hangar and installations to mount the V1 and V2 rockets which were used to bomb London. The work was very hard and sapped our strength. Just getting to and from work tired us out.

We had to walk 8 kilometers on foot, through forest undergrowth, in wooden clogs which twisted our feet. On the way there we would walk with more pep after a night of rest, but on our way back, after a day of back-breaking work, we dragged ourselves like the dead, being hastened by the SS who were in a hurry to get to their warm comfortable barracks and canteens. The work consisted of hauling sacks of cement and iron lifts and wires. I preferred to work with the iron and haul bricks, rather than haul the bags of cement, though that was harder, but it was cleaner. The dust of the cement got into the mouth, the eyes and the nostrils, and settled on the lungs. It often became hard to breathe because the nose got blocked. But even the work with the iron and steel beams which we would place in wooden forms needed to be filled with cement afterwards to form the iron reinforced cement pillars, so we had to pour out and mix the cement with the ground stones. Often, we felt like vomiting, but the Kapos and foremen did not let us catch our breath. They were constantly rushing us with blows and curses.

Thousands of slaves were working in the complex of hangars. Every fifty slaves had their Kapo, foreman and SS guards. If anyone misbehaved, he was taken to the forest and finished off without even using a bullet. They were simply tortured to death. It looked like the Tower of Babel from that generation of divided people. Many languages were spoken. Curses were heard in many languages because there were people from various countries, but the beatings were given in one language, and everyone cried with the same tears.

We reached the point where we could not cry any more. It was as though the source of our tears had dried up. Our hearts sank and our feet gave out. Our hunger was unbearable. The fresh air of the forest gave us a healthy appetite, and our stomachs begged for food. Instead of food, though, we got the dust of cement. Once more I became faint and felt that I was breaking down completely. Here also selections were made every week and people were sent away, the ones incapable of working--to Dachau, where they were expedited to heaven in the quickest possible manner.

I will never forget the scene when I was accompanying a group from the camp to Dachau. Amongst them were some Lithuanian intellectuals, advocates, judges, who once played an important role in their country. Their gaze was blank, their cheeks sunken, and their faces revealed a bitterness and desperation. They understood where they were being taken, but they did not protest, did not complain. They just wanted it all to be over. It tore at one's heart to see these who were being taken to their death after having endured so much, and now, when freedom is not far off, when the terrible war is nearing its end, these people have to say farewell to life in such tragic circumstances.

My friends waited for me to tell them some news when I returned from work, to make some comment about the political and military situation in the world, to let them know how long we will still have to suffer, but I came back tired, exhausted and demoralized, so that I could not even gather my thoughts to evaluate the present situation which grew worse from day to day. Besides, I had no opportunity to see or read a newspaper, though my friends brought me pieces of newspaper from their places of work amongst German tradesmen, pieces of newspaper in which the Germans wrapped their sandwiches or other items. I was so tired and exhausted that I had no strength or patience to read the papers. Besides, my eyes burnt like fire after having absorbed cement dust all day long and I could hardly open them. There were no wash barracks here. From time to time we would be taken to a wash barrack in the middle of the field, not far from the Stamm Lager in Milldorf, to rinse off and get rid of the lice. They would take us through the town of Ampfing. All the shop-windows, with their displays of dresses, suits and accessories did not interest us at all, but when we passed by a bakery and smelled the aroma of fresh bread, we went crazy with desire to bite into such a fresh loaf. Our eyes lit up like flashlights, and everyone's eyes sought one thing only... Bread! Bread!



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