Chapter Eight: Hessenthal
Chapter Eight: Hessenthal
The camp in Hessenthal was a new camp near Heilbrun Germany. Construction of the camp was not completely finished, so for a week we slept on the floor, and the kitchen was not operational so we had no soup. The work in this camp consisted of building runways on a military airport. I was assigned to a commando to excavate the earth with hand shovels.
The winter of 1944-45 arrived with early snow storms and gusty winds in the open fields. Our prisoners clothing consisted of striped jackets and pants, the shirt and the underwear were ripped into shreds, and wooden shoes without socks. We were freezing, turning blue. Returning home in the evening (to the camp) after a hard days's work, six km from the place of work, we often had to carry on our shoulders inmates who had collapsed or who died. One of the dead was my school friend.
The following day was Christmas, a day of rest, but not for the burial commando. I wanted to pay my last respects to my friend so I volunteered to partake in the burial with the commando. There were four corpses to be buried that day. The corpses were placed in a box stacked one on top of the other. The box was placed in a wagon and four of us inmates pulled the wagon to the cemetery. We dug a common grave for all four. It took quite some time to dig a big enough grave to accommodate four, because the earth was frozen.
We removed the first corpse from the box and it was not my friend. Then we removed the second and third, neither was my friend. I looked into the box then and it did not seem to be my friend either. I turned to the inmate in charge of the burial commando, asking him what happened to my friend and he pointed a finger to the box . When we removed the last corpse, which was my friend, he was covered with a layer of lice, his face was beyond recognition. In the process of moving the wagon, the lice from the three other corpses settled down on the last corpse - my friend.
In March 1945, typhus became rampant in the camp. The S.S. commandant in charge of the camp, fearing the spread of the disease among the German soldiers put the camp under quarantine.
One morning my older brother Chaim showed me his swollen ankles. This was an indication that his body had accumulated liquid due to the starvation diet. The only remedy to combat this situation was to have access to solid food, otherwise the swelling progresses and within days the person dies. We had seen many inmates die in this manner.
I called my younger brother Elek to explain the dilemma we faced. I suggested that this is the route we would have to take in order to keep Chaim alive.
We were getting three slices of bread daily and three soups, - two slices of bread would be given to Chaim and the remaining slice split between the two of us. Of the three soups, we would remove whatever solids were included to give to Chaim, the liquid would be split between the two of us. Elek agreed without hesitation.
Within one week the swelling started to diminish. Neither Elek nor I thought that by taking this step we would endanger our own lives -- our only thought was how to help our brother survive.
One Sunday afternoon the camp commandant was bored. He got a brain wave for a spectacle: he initiated a roll call near the watch tower, took sliced bread with him, climbed to the watch tower and threw a slice of bread to the ground. The inmates ran for it, too many hands tried to grab it and the slice of bread crumbled and fell to the ground.
The commandant repeated the same thing again and again, amusing himself in the process. He treated inmates worse than one treated an animal. His aim was to make animals of the slaves, and to some extent he succeeded, but not all of the hungry and starved inmates ran for the bread. I was one of the many who did not join into this cruel game.
The Nazi Propaganda Minister Goebbels had once proclaimed that his plans were to "wear down the Jews through persecution starvation and degradation, so that they would inevitably degenerate to the level of criminals and those Jews who did not die in the process would kill each other like wild beasts." In this respect he failed completely, for the inner strength we preserved was able to withstand the severe conditions imposed on us.
On April 4, 1945, the following day was Elek's 20th birthday, during the late evening, there was a roll-call and it was raining heavily. We remained standing outside all night until the early hours in the morning, when we received the order to march to the train station. The reason for this evacuation was because the French army was moving closer to our camp. Our new destination was Dachau.
We were loaded into cattle cars and the train left the station. The guards locked the cars from the outside and took their positions. The sun came out and our wet clothing started to steam. It became unbearable, we felt like we were suffocating. Then we heard the siren, - an indication of an air raid. The train stopped and the locomotive was disconnected from the train and moved ahead. It did not take long until we heard the noise of airplanes coming closer and machine gun fire above our heads. We did not know who got hit. Within minutes the planes returned and dropped two bombs, one on each side of our wagon.
The wood siding of our wagon was ripped open so that people could get out. Some jumped in panic not realizing that the bomb had left a crater about twenty feet deep. Our wagon and the railroad tracks were up in the air. Had we not been in danger it would have been quite a sight. The guards made sure that nobody escaped. We all sat down in a circle in the field waiting for instructions.
The fellow sitting near me had blood on his pants, I asked him if he was injured, to which he replied no. But I noticed blood dripping on his pants, I raised his arm and a chunk of flesh from inside his arm was exposed. As soon as he saw the blood he fainted.
We could not continue our journey by train. We assembled before sunset and started to march. We walked all night. Before dawn we arrived at a village where the S.S. guards prepared a barn for us. It was still dark when we reached the barn, the guards opened the small door and ordered us to move in quickly, shouting and hitting us with whips to enter faster. People who tripped entering the door had no opportunity to get up and were trampled by the mass of people pressing and pushing to get in. People climbed over bodies in the darkness until everybody was in. When daylight arrived we found 18 inmates dead, having suffocated at the entrance door. They were left for the farmer to bury them.