AN UNCERTAIN FUTURE
In directing the ghetto to prepare for evacuation, the Germans notified us that we were to be sent to forced labor camps. We were told that each person could take only what he could carry. My mother hastened to sew 150 dollars into my shoes and those of my brother. On first reflection, he and I thought of fleeing to the forests, to the partisans. The ghetto was now surrounded by a barbed wire fence, but there was a gap through which people could make a getaway. On reaching it, however, we changed our minds and returned home. "We shall remain together!" we declared, true to the traditions of the Jewish family.
The ghetto was evacuated in four transports organized by S.S. officer WILHELM VEMOS. As the transports were not closely watched in route, a few dozen deportees made a getaway, but only a handful survived. Among those to escape was Dr. OLIA GOLDFEIN, who slipped away from the first transport and spent 18 months masquerading as a nun. Roaming across Poland, she learned of the mass annihilation. After the war, Soviet Jewish writer ILYA EHRENBURG summoned her to Moscow, where she gave testimony about the horrors of the Holocaust. She returned to Pruzhany, which was now empty of Jews; from there, she went on to France by way of Czechoslovakia, Germany and Austria, ultimately reaching Israel. The first transport, comprising 2,500 Jews, left Pruzany on January 29; the next day, following "selection", 602 Pruzhany Jews - 327 men and 275 women - were admitted into the camp. From the second transport, which set out on January 30, those taken into the camp numbered 281 persons - 149 men and 132 women. From the third, which departed on January 31, 493 persons - 313 men and 180 women - reached the camp. My family was included in the fourth transport, which left the ghetto on February 1. Of this shipment, 294 men and 105 women were admitted into the camp. Due to traffic congestion, the last two transports reached Auschwitz on the same day, February 2. Of 9,161 Jews hitherto resident in the Pruzany ghetto, 1,775 men and women ultimately reached the Auschwitz camp.
The final transport included most of the members of the Judenrat. Many of them took the precaution of pinning their emblems of office to their sleeves, in the hope that, on reaching their destination, this would earn them better treatment from the Germans.
We did not know what the future held in store for us. Although alarmed and dismayed by this abrupt uprooting and our imminent journey into the unknown, we were not as yet in fear of imminent death. In the worst event, the townsfolk reassured one another, the Germans would employ them as forced labor.
We were taken from the ghetto on peasants' sleds, six persons on each sled, traversing the 8-mile route to the Linova rail station, where a narrow-gauge track led to Oranczyca. At Linova, we were loaded onto a freight train, with 120-150 persons crammed into each of the French railcars, which bore the inscription: "Wagon for 40 persons or 8 horses." Our boarding witnessed the first fatalities, including ABRAHAM BRESKI´s 8O-year-old mother MINA.
Families were not separated on the train. We were all in the same car: my parents, my brother and I, and our paternal grandmother ESTHER. As the train moved off, several persons in our car noticed that it was headed east. “'God help us!" they cried in alarm, for we had already learned of numerous Jews being executed in the east. But then the train halted and when it moved off again, it was bound westward. A spark of hope was re-ignited in our hearts, and we heaved a sigh of relief. Maybe we were after all being taken to work in Silesia.
The Journey lasted two whole days. The Germans did not maltreat us on the way, but the cars were overcrowded, forcing us to travel standing up, with the weak propped up by their stronger companions. We had to defecate inside the wagon and each passing hour saw the stench grow worse, compounded by the sour odor of sweat, in spite of the frost prevailing outside, it was unbearably hot. The sweltering heat gave rise to an avid thirst, but we had no drinking water.
"I'd trade my gold watch for a handful of snow from outside" someone mumbled hoarsely.
The lack of air caused asphyxiation among children and elderly persons. lt was heartrending to hear the sobs of children, the moans of the elderly and the groans of the weak and invalids. One by one, people died in the cars, but only their immediate neighbors were aware of the fact, for the overcrowding was so severe that the corpses remained upright.
Whenever the train halted along the way, the cars remained locked and bolted. We could not see what was happening outside, nor did we know where we were.
Finally, we reached Birkenau, some 500 miles from Pruzany. The train steamed through a lofty gateway towering over the railway track which divided the men's camp from the women's camp.
Whenever there is mention nowadays of Auschwitz, Birkenau or Raisko, few know the true significance of the names. Auschwltz, a former military camp, was used in the early war years as a detention center for Poles and others. In 1942, it was adapted into a concentration camp for Jews. Birkenau was a camp constructed by Auschwitz inmates.
The idea of constructing a concentration camp at Oswiecim (Auschwltz) originated in the city of Wrozlav, at the office of Gruppenfuehrer Erich von dem Bach-Zelewski, commander of the S.S. and police in the south-east. The plan was submitted in late 1939, after reports of overcrowding in the prisons of Upper Silesia and the Dabrova basin prompted the security police to complain of being hampered in its punitive measures aimed at subduing the Polish populace. "To crush resistance from the population, mass arrests are called for," argued the chiefs of the security police, demanding room for additional detainees.
Bach-Zelewskl's subordinate, security police commander Oberfuehrer Arfed Wigand, proposed construction of a concentration camp at Oswiecim. Pointing out that there need be no delay in dispatching prisoners to the existing military camp, he added that the area around the camp, which lay outside the town at the confluence of the Vistula and Sola rivers, facilitated its future extension, as well as sealing it off from the outside world. Furthermore, Oswiecim had good rail links with Silesia, the Generalgouvernement, Czechoslovakia and Austria. Early in January 1940, a commission was dispatched to Oswiecim for a close inspection of conditions on the ground. Although the commission found the location unsuitable for a concentration camp, Bach-Zelewski notified S.S. chief Reichfuehrer Heinrich Himmler that "a camp will shortly be constructed at Oswiecim, as a kind of state concentration camp."
A report submitted to Himmler on February 21, 1940 claimed that the former Polish artillery base at Oswiecim (which included stables for artillery draft horses) would be a suitable quarantina (transit camp).
On April 18, Oswiecim was toured by a commission under Sachsenhausen concentration camp commander Hauptsturmfuehrer Rudolf Hoess. At Wigand's office in Wrozlav, it was agreed that the Oswiecim camp would serve to house Polish prisoners in transit to concentration camps within the Reich. Under Wigand's plan, the quaratititia would billet 10,000 prisoners.
On April 27, Himmler approved the construction of the quarantina at Oswiecim, observing that the additional buildings required would be built by the prisoners themselves.
On May 4, Hoess was appointed commandant of the Auschwitz concentration camp. His first act was to evict some 1,200 civilians residing in and around the camp area. The head of the Oswiecim town council was directed to send 300 of the town's Jews to work at the camp. About ten local Polish residents were also employed there.
On May 20, 1940, Rapportfuehrer Gerhard Palitzsch, a brutal veteran of Sachsenhausen's S.S. staff, took up his duties in Auschwitz. With him he brought 30 German prisoners, criminal convicts handpicked from the inmates of Sachsenhausen; given serial numbers from 1 to 30 and housed in the camp's Block 1, they were to serve as "trusties" - S.S. auxiliaries. Discharging their duties with great harshness, they would supervise the camp's prisoners and the labor squads ('Kommando'). The Oswiecim garrison was reinforced by 15 S.S. men from Krakow. Kazimierz Smolen, a former Auschwitz inmate and currently director of the museum located at the site of the extermination camp, relates that an "outside detail" ('Aussenkommando') of prisoners from Dachau concentration camp was dispatched to Oswiccim on May 29, 1940. Under a German Kapo, the detail, comprising 39 Polish prisoners, erected a barbed wire fence around the camp. They were denied freedom of movement in the area, and forbidden to make contact with the Jewish laborers from 0swiecim. The latter, however, secretly smuggled food to them.
On June 14, the first transport of Polish political prisoners, 728 in number, was brought to Auschwltz. Given serial numbers running from 31 to 758, they were housed in the quaratitina - the transit camp then situated in a former tobacco factory. At the same time, the camp staff was reinforced by 100 S.S. men. In November, Himmler acted on a plan submitted by Hoess, setting aside the area around the camp as a security zone reserved for agricultural use.
Early in January 1941, Himmier endorsed a classification of the area's concentration camps, which were graded into three categories, depending upon the inmates' character and the threat they posed to Reich security. Security police chief Reinhard Heydrich dubbed the Oswiecim camp "Concentration Camp Auschwltz 1"; along with Dachau and Sachsenhausen, it was included in Category A, which comprised camps for prisoners "who are not hardened criminals and are certainly capable of being reformed." Heydrich reserved Category B camps for prisoners who were "grave offenders, but yet capable of mending their ways." This category included Buchenwald, Flossenbürg, Neuengamme, and "Auschwitz 2" (the latter had yet to be built, but was already in the planning stage). Within Category C, designed for "very grave offenders", Heydrich included Mauthausen.
On March 8, 1941, at fifteen minutes notice, the Polish village of Plawy was cleared of its inhabitants to make room for "Auschwitz 2". The following day, Oswiecim's Jews were evicted and their homes placed at the disposal of the families of the S.S. men, and of German experts brought in to build synthetic fuel and rubber factories. All in all, the area cleared around the camp totalled 40 square kilometers. It was continually patrolled by S.S. men, Gestapo and the local police.
Economic and security considerations dictated the size of the area allotted to the Auschwitz complex. As Hoess explained: "The local Polish population is fanatically nationalist and willing to act against the detested S.S. men; any fugitive prisoner will receive aid immediately upon reaching a Polish farm."
At its "inauguration", the Oswiecim concentration camp container 20 brick buildings, 14 being two-storied and slx single-storied. Between May 20, 1940 and March 1, 1941, it housed 10,900 persons, mostly Poles.
Himmier first visited Auschwitz on March 1, 1941. On conclusion of his tour, he directed Hoess to enlarge the camp to house 30,000 prisoners; to build a camp for 100,000 war prisoners near the village of Brzezihka - Birkenau; to place 10,000 prisoners at the disposal of the 1.G. Farben conglomerate for construction of a factory near Oswlecim (the location was picked to protect the factories from aerial bombing, and also by dint of its proximity to coal mines, and to the abundant and cheap forced labor offered by the concentration camp); to prepare the surrounding area for agricultural use; and to build workshops to meet the camp's requirements. In addition, he spoke of constructing large munitions works near the camp, whereby the S.S. would achieve a leading role in supplying the German army. Himmier also ordered housing to be built at Oswiecim for the S.S. men.
The plan of the expanded "Auschwltz complex" included four sectors: the western sector was set aside for S.S. billets comprising lawned houses, a sports center and riding schools. The second sector would contain the camp headquarters and the economic-industrial portion (warehouses, workshops, etc.). The third sector, bordering upon the command sector, was to comprise t e concentration camp itself. The fourth sector would serve as the S.S. garrison's camp.
The area allotted to the concentration camp itself was one kilometer long and 400 meters across. Within this area, 78 single-storied barracks were constructed for the inmates, in two camps divided by a parade ground.
Launched in the summer of 1941, work on enlarging the camp was carried out by prisoners. Most of the building material carne from local houses demolished after the eviction of their occupants. Along with the expansion of the camp, the Germans set about giving the town of Oswiecim a German character.
In the spring of 1941, Auschwitz inmates commenced working in the fields around the camp. They were required to reap the grain and hay, and harvest the vegetables planted by the local farmers before their eviction. Later, large farms were established where prisoners were employed.
On March 26, 1942, 999 German women prisoners from Ravensbruck and 999 Jewish women prisoners from Slovakia were brought to the Auschwitz women's camp. The women received serial numbers running from 1 to 1998. Later, Polish women prisoners from Krakow were also brought in.
Himmler paid a second visit to Auschwitz in mid-July 1942. After touring the giant complex, he directed Hoess to speed up expansion of the camp, and liquidate Jewish inmates found unfit for work. In August 1942, the land formerly belonging to the village of Brzezihka (Birkenau) became the site for the construction of two separate camps, numbered BIA and BIB respectively. Women prisoners were housed in the former.
In January 1943, the Germans initiated the wholesale extermination of Jews at Brzezihka. On a visit to the site, Himmler observed the entire process, commencing with the detraining of the Jews, by way of the selection and the lethal gassing of the victims In a specially adapted bunker, to removal of the corpses. Himmler consulted the Auschwitz staff on a problem which troubled him and them: disposal of the corpses after the wholesale annihilation, so as to leave no evidence of the crime. The agreed solution called for construction of four crematoria alongside the gas chambers. Several hundred engineers and technicians, selected from camp inmates, were employed on constructing the extermination complex, under the supervision of German civilian experts and several hundred S.S. men.
Construction was very rapid. The period from March to June 1943 saw completion of the four crematoria and the flanking gas chambers.
Six additional camps, numbered B2, were built in the course of 1943. The first - B2E - which housed gypsies, was constructed in February 1943 (coinciding with our arrival in Auschwitz). Between February 26, 1943 and July 21, 1944, 20,967 men, women and children were brought there. A further 1,700, suspected of carrying typhus, were dispatched directly to the gas chambers without registration in the camp records. On August 2, 1944, the camp authorities liquidated the gypsy camp after gassing its surviving 2,897 men, women and children.
Camp B2D was designed for healthy, working prisoners.
Camp B2F was a men's hospital. It was poorly equipped, in effect serving, in Smolen's words, as a "corridor to the crematorium". It container 2,500 beds; whenever additional patients had to be hospitalized, S.S. doctors routinely conducted selections, dispatching invalids to the gas chambers.
In August 1943, the quarantina was erected in Camp B2A. It had room for 6,000 inmates, to be selected from newcomers to Auschwitz. In practice, the transit camp was a survival test: anyone breaking down, mentally or physically, was dispatched to the gas chambers.
Jews from the Theresienstadt (Terezin) ghetto in Bohemia were brought to Camp B2C, which carne to be known as "the family camp". Camp B2C initially provided storage facilities for the personal effects of Jews dispatched to the gas chambers. Feverish efforts to enlarge the camp - and expedite the wholesale annihilation in train there - continued without respite right up to war's end.
When extermination was in full swing, Auschwitz in effect comprised a complex of 39 concentration camps, falling into three principal categories: the main camp, Auschwitz 1, housed the central command, the camp Gestapo, economic enterprises and munitions factories working for the German army; Auschwitz 2 - Birkenau (named for the Polish village which the camp supplanted), whose chief purpose was the wholesale annihilation of human beings in gas chambers and by other means; and Auschwitz 3, a camp set aside for gigantic factories for synthesizing rubber and gasoline.
We were sent to Birkenau, two kilometers west of Auschwitz.