the First Days in Auschwitz Written in Creil,
December 19, 1946
Recollections of the First Days in Auschwitz
Written in Creil, December 19, 1946
Block 21. Over one thousand Jewish females pressed into a box-like, elongated room, where there is no place to sit, stand or lie down. It's the third night. Where am I? I am confused. Around me are shadows in all kinds of positions. Some stand, some bend, some kneel, some are lying on the floor. Some have found places in the bunks. Some are half-clad, some naked, some shivering under a heavy blanket. Are they human? With their shaven heads, hands raised to the skies, some kicking, some biting the wood which holds up the bunks, eyes huge in the semi-darkness, shining, full of fear. I feel squeezed from all sides. There is no place left for me to straighten out my tired legs. Like sardines, one on top of the other. The uncertainty, the bitterness, the unbelievable cruelties of the blockovas and the SS, but mainly the sleeplessness and the hunger have caught up with us, and we've all become delirious. Everyone shrieks or mumbles to herself. We all must have gone insane. Or have we died and this is hell? Night has fallen and I can see only shadows. Otherworldly creatures. Suddenly an inhuman shriek, an overpowering scream is heard: "Get him, get him, get them all! They are coming, can't you see them rushing toward us, full of diabolical strength? They will rape us, all these men rushing toward us will disgrace us! Don't let them in! Close the gates, close the doors, men are swarming around us. Don't you know what will happen to all of us virgins?"
That's all we needed! Now all of us have started to scream: "Get the men out! Get them out of here!" This hysterical outburst has no grounds. There are no men in the barracks--not at first, anyway. But next we hear pistol shots and a man's voice shouting loudly: "Lagerruhe! Lagerruhe, you dirty pigs, can't you understand?" A young SS boy appears. Does he really think we will be afraid of his uniform, his commands, or his shots? Yet that's exactly what's happened. We became aware of a man's voice, we are excited and utterly confused. Again a mass outcry: "The men are coming, the men are coming!" Again we heard shots.
Only the next day did we find four unfortunate inmates dead from those shots. In all the commotion, nobody knew what was happening. The young SS officer jumped up and moved the length of the block on top of the cold elongated stove-like structure in the middle of the block. He didn't yell any more. He just whipped us in the semi-darkness to the right and to the left. Suddenly the screaming stopped. All we heard was quiet weeping and the throaty voice of the young SS: "Quiet, or I'll kill you all!" The barracks became quiet. The SS officer left. Some of us tried to sleep, sitting, standing up or lying down, depending on how much space they had. I couldn't sleep. Then I suddenly remembered that I was near the rear of the block. Slowly I inched my way to the rear door. It was open. I found myself outside. Fresh air hit my nostrils. I felt chilly. Around me I saw dozens of box-like buildings. The light came from myriads of small electrical bulbs on the wired electrical gates which surrounded the "C" lager. It was utterly quiet, even peaceful. The long Lagerstrasse was empty. In the daytime it resembled an anthill with thousands of ants running up and down, but now it had become a cemetery. Not a soul around. The same wind which helped to dry up yesterday's heavy rain and hardened the mud around us, now overwhelmed me and I felt cold. What was I doing on the deserted Lagerstrasse in the middle of the night? Why, what a question! I was looking for Lidlid. The smell of burning flesh and bones offended my nostrils. Huge flames were belching from the chimneys. I recognized the chimneys of the crematorium as it was pointed out to us yesterday. Huge red apparitions, the fire stretching toward heaven. Among its red and orange hues I noticed a pale blue line--Lidlid's eyes! I thought. I saw his small hands raised, his naked body eaten up by the flames. "Oh, G-d, how could you let this happen? I must join him. We belong together!" I knew that the fastest way to the other world was by touching the high-voltage electrical gates. The tiny lights were enticing me. I approached slowly. In that second, someone touched me from behind. It was my friend Rozsi Schaffer. Without a word, she turned me around. "Come," she said. "No, no, I want you to see Lidlid. Do you see him as clearly as I do?" "I can't see him," she said. "Are you blind?" said I.
"Please, Rose, follow me, you were meant to live, don't fight G-ds will!" She gently but firmly squeezed my arm and led me back to block number 21.
June 1944, First week in Auschwitz
It was still dark outside. We couldn't have slept more than a few hours, when we were brutally awakened. "Appel, appel," we heard. Out to the Lagerstrasse we were driven. Once more, we stood in rows of five. Whistles wounded, dogs barked, whips struck the backs of innocent, half-clad women. The schreiberin arrived. Around us all the other blocks were emptied of h”ftlings. They, too, stood five in a row. Everywhere as far as the eye could see, all of us stood appel. The counting began. If only one person was missing, the counting started all over again. But this time punishment followed. We had to kneel, hands on top of our heads, for over an hour, until the final count was in order. Then in came "GrÈza" with the lager”lteste (who was also a Jewish girl). GrÈza was a real menace. Whipping was not enough for her tastes. She also carried a small pistol in her holster, and her favourite sport was shooting innocent Jewish women at her whim. "Take her away!" was all we heard when her victims fell one by one. I wanted to become invisible. I feared eye contact with GrÈza. I never looked at her when she was close. I must have feared death by her hands. Yet she was so immaculate-looking and beautiful that she stood out among this mass of shabby, dehumanized creatures called Jewesses as the German "superior race" intended to show off with their tall, blonde, immaculate females. In reality, GrÈza was homosexual, and often chose partners for herself from the Slovak girls.
We were supposed to have breakfast after appel, but we were not hungry. "Not yet." Degraded, trampled on, slaughtered were we ... why? Why? WHY? We were not permitted to relieve ourselves until the end of appel. Then we rushed to the latrine, which was a hole dug in the ground, long and narrow, above which was placed a wooden plank with eight or ten openings on it. The latrine became a clandestine meeting place for news and gossip in the camp in the days to come.
Our breakfast consisted of so-called coffee, which five of us drank from one container, and a piece of sawdust bread. I could not touch it. Because we had no facilities to wash in, in no time diarrhea and the spreading of all kinds of bacteria started to eliminate the population. There was a large room called riviere (hospital), where hundreds of patients gathered. Until the middle of the night, trucks came for them and took them straight to the crematoria.
This was also the fate of an entire group of Gypsies. When we arrived, the Gypsies were still alive. The next day, none of them were left alive.
My most painful experience was the "Czech lager," adjacent to our own. These people came from Theresienstadt, where whole families lived together in better conditions than anywhere else. This was the "show lager," where foreign visitors and the Red Cross were shown how well the Germans treated the Czech Jews -- after which they evacuated them to Auschwitz! These people still looked human and had their own clothing. I spoke Czech well, and since the first three days I couldn't swallow my allotted bread anyway, I offered it in exchange for a long handmade red sweater. The exchange took place under the wire fences, and we agreed to meet there again the next day. However, the whole Czech camp was emptied that very same night. Whole families were cremated together. The fire in the crematoria burnt constantly. But I couldn't get used to the smell of flesh burning. It nauseated me and others. The Lagerstrasse was full of vomit and feces from those who could not hold back. Soon we learned to clean up quickly, before all of us were punished--or--or else we were all punished.
As the h”ftlings started to die from hunger, dysentery, and other causes, we carried out our dead fellow-inmates to appel for counting. Only after that could we put them on small wagons, which stopped at every block for the daily dead ones. Those of us who had some functions in the camp fared better. Somehow through the influence of my friend, I was chosen to carry the cauldron of hot coffee or soup to the block, and was among those who distributed it. Usually we left a potato or two for ourselves as well, thus supplementing our meager meals.
The Germans knew the human psyche. Their motto was "one for all and all for one." Thus we watched over our lager-sisters, and their behaviour was crucial to all of us, knowing as we did that any punishment would be meted out to all of us.
I remember a rainy grey day when the appel took longer than usual. Some girls were missing. Dead? With each head-count, new punishments were given. On our knees, a stone in hand above our shoulders, we endured. The lager was full of mud from the constant rain, and rain and hail poured down on our heads and almost naked bodies. We were shivering. Many of us fainted. Many were shot. How did I survive? I was young and I was a dreamer. I closed my eyes and relived my most beautiful moments with Lulu. I was in Ungvar, walking through its new districts where the Czech people used to live, Lulu was holding me and kissing my eyes. It was painful to awaken to the brutal reality around me.
We were organized into all kinds of "commandos." The scheisse commando was widely sought after, for they received an extra portion of bread. To pick up human feces was not only unpleasant, but because of the frequent exposure to these bacteria, these girls were among the first to die. My friend Vera, a pianist, daughter of our physician, was among the first to volunteer for this work, and she died within ten days.
Auschwitz was also a camp for all kinds of medical experiments. Here Dr. Mengele experimented on twins, fertility and other matters. Here they also tried to learn how long a human being can survive in the most subhuman conditions. When Mengele arrived on the scene, he demanded to see us "naked," and new "selections" began. I don't know who coined the word "muselman," but those of us who were only skin and bone were so called, and they were the first to be taken away. By then it was no secret any longer. We all knew that they were taken straight to the crematoria.
Yet there were those of us who didn't want to give up. Giving up would mean playing into the hands of the Germans. So we fought back. But how? Keep our spirit intact. Hope! Believe that Lulu would come back. Make up a reason to survive. Among us h”ftlings there were many who had special talents. Some were dancers, singers, performers. After the lunch (watery soup) appel, we had some free time to roam the lagerstrasse. We visited friends in different blocks and gossiped. This is how I found out about my three cousins, blockovas, in Auschwitz. This is also how we organized "performers" and got together to watch a "step-dancer," listen to an opera singer, hear funny jokes and beautiful poems some of us remembered by heart. We had "cooking lessons" and historical lessons. We learned about Freud and psychology. All these activities took place secretly in our blocks, to raise the spirits of those who wouldn't give up.
Birnbaumel. It was the end of November 1944. One day at appel I looked around and I saw only muselmans. A strange feeling overtook me. So far I avoided all the "selections" for here, in Auschwitz Aliceka supplied me with some food which made the difference. I was not starving, I did not become Muselman. However I knew we were at the end of the rope and I decided to volunteer at the next selection. We passed the crematoria and our group stopped. So did our hearts beating. Fear, terrible fear enveloped us. So this is the end. Daylight was dimming which made it even more frightening. I shouldn't have waited so long, I thought. Being young and in good shape I could have gone to work as others did before me, but no, I was hiding to enable me to stay near Alice and her supplement of food, I was greedy and now I am paying for it.
Just then I noticed portions of bread and margarine being distributed among us. Would that be also a farce? We didn't believe the Germans any more! But within half an hour our group was moving, moving outside Birkenau.
We were cold and miserable. One thousand young women going to nowhere. We passed a village called Birnbaumly and marched toward the end of a small forest, nearby.
There we saw makeshift round, wooden cottages hastily prepared for our arrival. Our eyes searched the surroundings. No crematoria in sight. We relaxed.
Slept deeply. Early morning we were assembled, counted and taken behind the forest to dig ditches for tank traps. We had to pass the village of Birnbaumly. The streets were deserted, but there was light in some of the houses. We noticed curtains on the windows and people moving inside their homes. It was a revelation to us. Since we were taken to the ghetto and then Auschwitz, it never occurred to us that other people are living a normal life albeit the war raging around them. These people must go to work daily, raise children, have a family life. Don't they see the prisoners passing their homes, don't they ask themselves who are they? What is their crime? Why so flimsily dressed? Why so emaciated that they hardly look human? This small-town life seemed so familiar to us. Yet now we live on another planet, now we have to obey the German SS guards if we want to survive. And survive we must. The world has to know about the injustices measured out for us. We believed that our sufferings were not in vain, that a bright, new future awaits those who will survive.
It was December and we were terribly cold. The winter of 1944 was bitterly cold. We had no underwear and the unmatched clothing on us was light and torn. We were shivering. "Dig the trenches" we were ordered, turn the hard, frozen earth. Dig, dig, dig. Then the Oberscharf¸hrer who was one of our guards ordered us to make a fire at the edge of the forest. I remember thinking: "He must be a good man, he wants us to warm up." Will my naivetÈ never cease? He stood near the field the whole time, warming his legs and hands, but when a h”ftling approached the fire he chased us away with the butt of his rifle.
When the hard earth didn't yield and my strength was ebbing, my hands and feet stiff from cold, I stopped to rest for a minute. "Los, los," I heard him yelling. "Sie," he pointed to me, "arbeiten, arbeiten." Work, work! Tears were rolling down my cheeks when I picked up my shovel once more. Timidly I looked around. The others around me kept shoveling. How could they? I knew I could not survive outdoors in this frighteningly cold weather. What to do? I must become a stubendienst, I told myself, but how? Sisters pushed sisters in, friends their friends, I had nobody. Even in the camp, one had to have "connections."
By the time we returned to our dwelling, my feet were frozen, I could hardly walk. Knowing that there are no crematoria in the vicinity, I dared to enter the "revere" the one room allocated for the sick--the hospital.
This is how I met Dr. Paula, a Hungarian, middle-aged soft-spoken lady. I soon learned that she is protecting her niece, her only living relative whom she adopted as "helper." In no time I made myself very useful to both of them. On the third day Dr. Paula--as we called her--told me: "Rose, I kept you as long as I could. Today I must release you. You must leave today!"
"Please," I begged her, "make me a nurse, a schreiberin if you wish, my German is good, my hands strong, just don't send me out, because I surely would die!"
She reconsidered. "You must leave, when the German control comes in." I agreed. And so I stayed on. Here I learnt how to consume the left-over portions of the dead inmates. Here I also undressed one, who passed away, took off his warm coat before someone else would do it. The "Revere" had no beds. The sick patients lay on the dirty wooden floors. The odour of the vomit and feces enveloped us, the frozen limbs oozed puss, and the cries for help I still hear in my ears. But I stayed on.
Around the middle of January we were suddenly ordered to leave Birnbaumel. We had to leave in a rush. Why? We marched and marched until finally night overtook us. Only later did we find out that the Russian Army was not far behind us.
We were all herded as animals and shoved into a barn. Everyone wanted to squeeze in. To rest. Some fell. I felt myself stepping on human flesh unconcerned. Wanted only to rest. My G-d, are we so selfish and brutal as to step on one another? Are we not concerned with our fellow human beings anymore? Did we become animals as the Germans wanted us to become, without feelings, uncaring animals?
But as soon as I felt the hay under my weary body, my thoughts evaporated and I fell into a merciful long deep sleep.
Early next day, we were lined up five in a row as always, marching once more to the unknown. We were marching east in this bitter January day and the year was 1945. A long column of women, a few SS guards accompanying us. We marched and marched. Suddenly we found ourselves passing a village, mingling with the inhabitants.
It occurred to me suddenly that if I could hide in one of those houses around me, I could be saved. But I had to act right away. When the nearest SS guard turned away, I left our column and ran. "Wait" I heard my friend shouting. (My friend saved my life when I was approaching an electrified fence the first night.) She and her sister joined me. We hid in a chicken coop and waited. We heard the dogs barking, the SS shouting, the sound of revolvers, and knew for sure that if we are found, we will be killed without hesitation. The chickens in the coop became restless and noisy.
I prayed. The chickens' loud squawking aroused the owners' attention. He appeared with a gun in his hand. He must have thought someone is stealing his chickens. When he saw three frightened females, his angry face relaxed but he forced us out from our hiding place onto the street. It was bedlam. It seems we were not the only ones who thought of hiding. The dogs barked, the SS were running from one house into the other looking for h”ftlings. We were whipped a few times and accompanied to the waiting column. We waited and waited. When we started our march again, none of us knew that our last destination would be the hell on earth called Bergen-Belsen.