I LIGHT A CANDLE
Forty eight hours. The train kept rolling. Two days, two nights. Two mornings, two evenings. The two thousand five hundred humans inside the freight cars no longer knew night from day, sunrise from sunset. Pressed tightly against each other, men and women, old and young, they were one mass of flesh swaying with the motions of the cars; inhaling each other's sweat, and urine, and excrement; gasping for air; throats parched from thirst, mortified at their human weakness; fainting, dying, but remaining upright by the pressure of other, still living, bodies--that's how they arrived at Auschwitz. What tumbled out of the cars when the doors were unsealed was more hideous than anything Dante's imagination could conjure up for the denizens of hell.
The reception committee was waiting for them, to decree who was to live, who was to die. Destiny was in the shape of a jackbooted German with a rod in his hand--for the few still on their feet, a wave to the right, to the slave-labor gang; for the others, a wave to the left, to death in the gas chambers. That's how the decision was made, on the spot, and it was final--no plea, no appeal, no redress. The executioners were there all around, with rifles, clubs, snarling dogs, ready to carry out the sentence.
My parents, brother and three sisters were in the transport which left on January 30 I never saw them again. Sheva, my oldest sister, was torn away from the family and thrown in among those slated for work. The others, together with my uncles, aunts, cousins and more distant relatives fifty men, women and children were put to death in the ovens the day they arrived....on February 1, 1943. Their Yahrzeit (Memorial Day) is the twenty sixth day of Shevat by the Jewish calendar....I light a twenty four hour candle every year on that day.
Sheva remained alive for two more weeks. She could not bear to continue living after what she had seen.....Together with another girl, from Pruzhany, she went voluntarily to the ovens.....She was twenty one years and five months old......
The entrance gate to this place called Auschwitz was adorned by these words in wrought-iron letters: ARBEIT MACHT FREI (WORK MAKES FREE).
2. Living Death
It was an excruciating decision for me to part from my family when they were about to be deported. We all realized that it was the end, though we did not know how it would come the gruesomness that awaited the deportees was beyond imagination. There was nothing my parents could do, for them and the smaller children there was no way out. But for me and for Sheva there was perhaps a chance a very slim one, but with luck just possible. So my parents urged us to break away, try to get to the forest. Sheva, however, flatly refused: "I am not going to leave you. Maybe I can help with the little ones. Whatever happens to you let it happen to me too." So they pleaded with me to go: "Let at least one of us survive, to continue the stem, to keep alive the memory of us should we perish."
So I left them, managed to steal through to the last remaining ghetto sector which was not yet being evacuated. I looked for friends, anyone I knew, but there was chaos, bewilderment, and also apathy: "What can we do? We are in God's hands, come what may!" And indeed there was no way out. Germans and Ukrainians were everywhere, in every street, every alley that led out of the ghetto. I tried to sneak through at night, but there was no real darkness because of the snow. So in the early morning I was rounded up with the remaining population and put in the last transport which left on January 31. We arrived in Auschwitz on February 2, and during the selection I found myself among the few consigned to the labor camp instead of the ovens.
I was assigned to the metalswork shop where they smelted scrap iron to make shell casings. My job was to lug heavy chunks of iron or cases loaded with smaller pieces of scrap to the smelting furnace. One had to be real strong to do this work, even under normal conditions. But the scanty rations we were getting, the long hours of toil without rest, and the brutal treatment by the Kapos (auxiliary guards from among the privileged" inmates) wore people out within weeks or at most months-- they were literally worked to death. Those who had been there for some time were walking skeletons, hardly able to drag their feet, but the Kapos' sticks kept them on the go until they dropped out of exhaustion. They were then dragged at once to the gas chambers or, on rare occasions, transferred to lighter work: sorting the huge piles of clothing, pulling gold teeth from the cadavers, or lugging the bodies to the crema toriums. Many went insane at this kind of work and were in their turn dispatched to the ovens-- there was no shortage of replacements.
We were always hungry, and scrounged for any bit of extra food to sustain life, risking a beating or worse. One day I found some half-rotten potatoes in the garbage outside the kitchen and put them to bake near the smelting furnace. One of the Kapos caught me, beat me up, and reported me to his supervisor. I was thrown out of the metals shop and put to work in the Straff Kommando (penal gang), which was better known as the "Death Kommando" because very few people stayed alive there for more than two weeks. The work there consisted in hauling logs, whole tree trunks, under constant beatings by the Kapos and on even shorter food rations. The man in charge was a Volksdeutsche (a Pole of German ethnic origin) named Pilarek one of the worst sadists, even for Auschwitz. Often, when a man fell down from exhaustion, Pilarek would turn him over on his back, place a stick across his throat, and stand on both ends until the victim choked to death. Men died there daily, most of the time beaten to death-- why waste good bullets?
Already weakened by the work in the metals shop, I nevertheless endured this new hell for six weeks managed to avoid Pilarek's stick. But my strength was gone, even my will to live was lost. I knew that the end was near, that any day now I would drop and be finished off by the Kapos or by Pilarek himself. Why continue, why bear the torture any longer? And then, as if by a miracle, I was saved by a man named Leon Kulowski.
Kulowski was a Pole, a former Gymnasium teacher, and one of the oldest inmates at Auschwitz. His arm bore the tattooed number 805 mine was 99,347. The Germans made every effod to exterminate the Polish intellectuals from the moment they entered Poland in 1939, and Kulowski was among the first to have been arrested. He was deported to Auschwitz soon after the camp was established, and was still there and alive in 1943 quite a record! By chance he slept in the bunk above mine.....in Block 18, Stube 4.....I remember.....We exchanged a few words occasionally. He was the supervisor of the carpentry shop, and got this privileged position not through brutality, as many of the Kapos did, but due to his experience in the camp life, and his competence. He was decent to everybody, including Jews, and was reviled for it by some of the other Poles who, though suffering alongside Jews in the camp, have not lost their streak of anti-Semitism. But Kulowski was liked by most, and respected by all, including the Kapos.
Kulowski happened to notice me one evening as I was dragging myself painfully toward my bunk. He asked what was wrong, and I told him. He did not know that I was no longer in the metals shop, and couldn't believe that I have survived for six weeks in the "Death Kommando." He at once got in touch with some of his friends in the administration, and got permission for my transfer to his carpentry shop.
This unhoped for reprieve put new life and heart into me. The work in the carpentry shop was much easier than in the metals shop, and Kulowski saw to it that I got a chance to regain some of my strength. But my luck did not last long......One of the Kapos from Pilarek's gang noticed me in the carpentry shop, began yelling and cursing, and ordered me to accompany him back to where I "belong.".....This time I knew it was the end.....Pilarek will not waste any time in settling accounts with me. But Kulowski came running toward us and ordered me to stay on the spot.
"Don't you dare go outside this building unless I tell you to!" he shouted at me. The Kapo was taken aback and began explaining to Kulowski that I left the penal gang without permission and should go back there. The two argued for a while, then went into the administrative office, from where loud and angry voices could be heard in hot dispute, until Kulowski came out, his face flushed, and told me with a wry smile: "It's all settled, they will not bother you again go back to work.".....I remained at the shop until May 4, 1944 when I was transferred by the Germans together with many other inmates to a place called Sosnowicz, about twenty-five kilometers from Auschwitz. My being alive today is due to Leon Kulowski . . . .
Meishke's account, in his own words, ends here, but his trials and suffering were far from over. He was kept in Sosnowicz until January 1945 under more or less the same conditions as in Auschwitz. By then the Russians were approaching, and all the inmates were evacuated, under forced-march orders, to Matthausen, without food or warm clothing. The vaunted German system became more and more disorganized. The prisoners did not work any more, but neither were they given food. They had to scrounge for themselves among the hostile, but now scared civilian population. Supervision became lax, many Germans abandoning their posts for fear of falling into the hands of the Russians. They knew what foul deeds they perpetrated in the occupied Russian and Polish territories, and expected the wrathful Russians to exact full retribution. Meishke's nightmare ended on May 5, 1945 when he and several hundred other survivors of the Holocaust were liberated by the American army at a place called Gusen, four kilometers from Matthausen.
Gradually, Meishke made his way to a transit camp in Italy, and eventually emigrated to Canada. He now lives in Saint John's, Newfoundland with his Canadian-born wife and two lovely daughters. He also has a son, an electronics engineer, who was recently married and lives with his wife in Canada. Meishke never fails to come to New York to participate in the annual memorial service organized by the landsleit from Pruzhany, Shershev, and neighboring towns to keep alive the memory of, and to mourn over, the victims of the satanic spawn which proclaimed itself a "master race."
There is one sequel to Meishke's story which bears recounting. After settling in Canada he made every effort to find out what happened to Leon Kulowski, whom he last saw in Auschwitz in May, 1944, but all attempts failed. On a Saturday in the spring of 1970 he and his wife were shopping in a department store in Saint John's and came across a group of Polish seamen who were also shopping. This was nothing unusual because many foreign ships call at that port, but one face in the group of seamen caught his attention there was something very familiar about the man. Suddenly the image came into focus.....he began shaking all over and grabbed his wife's arm: "Ruth, I think that man over there looks like Kulowski !" "Go on ! What would he, a high school teacher, be doing in Saint John's with a bunch of sailors? You must be dreaming." But Meishke could not let go, he had to find out. Trying to control his emotions, he went over to the man and addressed him:
"Excuse me, you are from Poland, aren't you?"
"Yes. Why do you ask?"
"Weren't you in Auschwitz?"
"Why, yes, and who are you?"
"Isn't your name Leon Kulowski? You don't recognize me?"
The Pole, by then scrutinizing his interlocutor's face, let out a yell:
"My God! You are Moszek ! Moszek Kantorowicz!"
The two men fell into each other's arms, sobbing and laughing, surrounded by onlookers many of whom also had tears in their eyes.
It turned out that after liberation the Pole did not resume his teaching profession, but went back to studying and became a doctor. He was serving in that capacity aboard the Polish ship, now Doctor Kulowski.
Since that meeting, the relationship between the two former Auschwitz inmates
has grown into a deep friendship. They correspond, exchange gifts, and whenever Doctor Kulowski's ship is in Saint John's he becomes a member of the Kantorowitz family. When his son was married in 1976, Meishke arranged for round-trip transportation by air for his friend from Poland, insisting that his joy would not be complete without the presence of the man to whom he owed his life.