The potato Kommando engaged in unloading trains, stacking the potatoes in special stores well-ventilated to prevent rot.  The job was very arduous physically: the potatoes, shipped to the camp in the fall, carne in large amounts because they constituted the inmates' basic ration.  Arriving unpacked, they were scooped into wooden crates with handles.  Each such crate, weighing 150 kilograms, was carried by two prisoners.  Even burly professional porters enjoying adequate nutrition would. have found the load burdensome.  For half-starved concentration camp inmates, the assignment was back-breaking - and fear of the club brandished over anyone stumbling under the burden was enough to make one give up.


One of the worst sights was the killing of prisoners whose hands, torn and bleeding, were no longer capable of gripping the handles of the potato crates.  From time to time, such a prisoner would be summoned to the S.S. man or the Kapo.  At the command, he was required to bend over, whereupon the executioner brought a particular wooden stool, reserved for this purpose, down on the nape of his neck.  Death was instantaneous.  Some prisoners preferred to get themselves shot dead by racing to the sentry posts surrounding the camp.  According to postwar research published in Poland, about twenty corpses were removed from the area each day.


Work in the potato Kommando did, however, entail its own benefits.  Our workplace was close to the rail platform where transports of Jews from all over Europe were taken off the trains.  This gave us an opportunity to "organize" articles abandoned by the new arrivals as they were hounded from the cars.


Having been assigned to the potato Kommando by dint of special favor, I was given the easiest work.  "You'll be my personal orderly," said the Kommando supervisor, Kapo Karl Hackei, who wore a green patch (B.V. 'Berufsverbrecher' - hardened criminal) -


Being equally eager to "organize", he needed help from me, as from the rest of the Kommando; consequently, he treated us well, turning a blind eye to our smuggling activities.  From time to time, he even commended us for our excellent work, whereupon we received a bonus bread, as a rule. (On my postwar visit to the Auschwitz archives, I discovered a journal entry registering my name and 'Haftlingsnummer', and noting I had received a bonus - a loaf of bread.  At the head of the page, the clerk, with typical German thoroughness, recorded that day's bonuses to the potato Kommando, totaling 50 loaves of bread.)


With the sanction of my Kapo, I would roam the camp, and, while naturally keeping a wary eye open for S.S. men and other German supervisors, surreptitiously pocket various articles. I stashed all my loot among the potatoes.  One day, after a transport of Jews had been removed from the train, a mattress was left abandoned on the platform, Walking over, I yanked at one corner, which tore open, whereupon a small package concealed inside tumbled out. I hastened to take the package to the potato store, where 1 opened it. I could not believe my eyes.  The package contained numerous diamonds of assorted sizes.  With beating heart, I hastily concealed the treasure amidst the potatoes.


It did not take us long to "get organized" with the other Jewish prisoners employed in clearing the freight cars of the fresh transports.  As they experienced difficulty in smuggling goods out of the station, they would toss us various objects which we concealed for them.  Later, we would go shares in the booty.


Work in the potato Kommando brought a further boon: the delivery of potatoes to the kitchens, of the prisoners and the S.S. I would tour the camps with the potato truck, "organizing" various items for myself in return for enlarged deliveries of potatoes to kitchen employees interested in barter deals.


Yet another benefit from work in the potato Kommando was contact with the numerous civilians who organized shipments from the local farmers and coordinated distribution, deciding what to store or release for immediate allocation.  As a rule, contact was established by a terse exchange, brief and practical: "Interested in dollars?  Gold?  Diamonds?  Jewelry?  Bring something in exchange." Being the Kapo's personal orderly, most of the day found me free to do as I pleased.  During the year I was employed with the Kommando. I "organized" myself well.  Apart from other advantages, I was in a position to glean fuller information about events in the camp, and make useful connections.


One day, I beheld a terrifying sketch: the plans of an installation the Germans were constructing. It was the crematorium.  The building contractor was German but the workers were prisoners, several of whom risked their lives to smuggle the sketches into the camp.  Anyone with eyes in his head could see the significance of the installation.  By streamlining their extermination machine, the Germans would soon he capable of enlarging the numbers of those put to death in the camp.  The conclusion was evident: anyone who had the opportunity should make a break for it!


At that time, not a month passed without escape bids.  Some managed to get away; others were caught and executed.  After the war, I learned - from the treatise of former Auschwitz inmate Erich Kulka - that, in the course of the five-year existence of the 17 camps constituting the complex, 667 prisoners made a getaway.  Of the escapees, 270 were caught, the majority being executed after interrogation.  However, like veteran soldiers, the more seasoned prisoners had lost their fears.  Foreseeing that the Germans would not let us leave the camp alive, we resolved to escape.


At the time, we knew nothing of the rapidly worsening predicament of Nazi Germany, but the deterioration was reflected in the stepped-up pace of extermination.  During 1943, there were eight gas chambers in simultaneous operation in Auschwitz; four crematoria burned thousands of corpses a day.  The "death factory" operated at an even faster rate in 1944.  With no prospects of survival in the camp, escape offered the sole hope of salvation.


Most of the escapees from Auschwitz were Poles, who enjoyed relatively ameliorated conditions.  Occupying 80% of the key posts in the prisoners' internal administration, and important jobs in the hospital and workshops, they were able to initiate underground resistance, to establish links with the outside world and prepare hideouts for prisoners intending to escape.


Only from 1943 onwards did a few Jewish inmates  contrive to get posts in the camp hierarchy, whereby they too could plan escapes.  However, a mere 76 Jews managed a getaway from Auschwitz-Birkenau.  They got no help from the Polish resistance movement and, in the absence of outside aid, most were recaptured.  A scant dozen Jews are known to have made a successful escape.


The inmates relatively free to move about within the camp were physicians, nurses, tradesmen, men of the burial detail and clerks at the various camp offices.  They were issued with special documents bearing the signature of the camp commandant, which they were required to exhibit on entering any of the camp's various sections.  The camp S.S. also employed civilian experts, who bore documents with a Gestapo stamp, as well as armbands, yellow (for Germans) or green (for others) with the inscription "civilian employee".  Though forbidden to talk to the prisoners, they nevertheless offered the latter a connecting link with the outside world.  Such contacts were vital for organizing a successful escape.


As a rule, any escape attempt was difficult and perilous.  But it was relatively easier to make a getaway from Birkenau, where the numerical ratio of S.S. guards to prisoners was 1:64, as against 1:16 in the main Auschwitz camp.


The escape route was as follows: the camp was divided into two sections - internal and external.  The former was the residential section containing the huts (stables). It was encompassed by an electrified fence which was floodlit at night.  At 50-meter intervals along the fence, tall sentinel towers served the smaller inner guard cordon, being manned by sentries who opened fire on any prisoner approaching the fence.  The inner watch was stood down during daytime, to be replaced by the wider external cordon ('Grosse Postenkette') which ringed the larger section.  Comprising dozens of square kilometers including the S.S. quarters, this "protected area" was where the prisoners' labor squads were employed when they were let out of the smaller fenced area.  S.S. men manned the tall wooden sentinel towers, firing without warning at anyone who ventured to within 10 meters of the outer guard line.


Every morning, when the labor squads had left for work, the watch was transferred from the residential section to the work section.  Every evening, on the prisoners' return to the camp, a count was held. lf all were present, the Germans would stand down the larger guard cordon to install the smaller cordon around the inner residential camp.


Should the evening count find one or more prisoners missing, the alert sirens were instantly sounded.  The outer cordon guards remained at their posts for an additional 72 hours, while searches were pursued.  Aided by trained tracker dogs, special units conducted punctilious searches in the work areas.


When a would-be escapee was caught, he was interrogated as to the circumstances of his getaway, and the persons who had abetted him.  Public execution was the punishment meted out to most recaptured prisoners; a mere few got away with a sentence of hard labor with the S.K. ('Strafkommando' - punitive squad), where they were maltreated by S.S. men and Kapos.


To complete his getaway, the escapee had to go to ground in the large work area, holing up there for three days and nights.  Only upon hearing the command "Clear guard posts!" on the fourth day, was he free to leave the area.


After getting away from the external area, a renewed battle for survival lay in store for the escapee particularly if he was a Jew.  An area extending 40 square kilometers around Auschwitz, between the Vistula and Sola rivers, had been cleared of most of its Polish inhabitants, who were supplanted by German settlers.  Whenever an Auschwitz prisoner absconded, the camp commandant immediately alerted the regional authorities to launch a vigorous search, combing public transport and the homes of the area's residual Polish population.


The escape technique accordingly called for a hideout to be prepared ahead of time in some civilian population center far from the camp; but it was vital first to locate a hiding place in the outer area, for the mandatory three-day wait until a getaway became feasible with the guards' departure on the fourth day.  The location of the hiding place was transmitted in strictest secrecy from one group to the next: anyone planning a breakout would confide the secret to the next potential escapee. It goes without saying that, should the escape attempt lead the Germans to discover the hiding place, it became unusable.


We got the location of our hiding place from my fellow-townsman, FEIVELE PRUZANSKY, the young son of the Pruzhany ritual slaughterer.  He knew of a lair which had been used by one of our predecessors, who had been requested to cover for an earlier group of escapees.  The hiding place was a pit beneath the as yet unoccupied S.S. hospital; having been constructed on stilts, a gap was left between the building and the ground.  The prisoners who built it had dug a pit underneath, covering it with a sheet of iron plating.  Anyone using the pit would, before leaving it, cover it up again to leave it available for those to come.


At the time - May 1944 - escape bids were on the increase, for a variety of reasons.  First, we knew extermination to be going ahead at a furious tempo, each day seeing the ranks of camp inmates decimated; better to try an escape, than trust to luck as guarantee against being picked out in the forthcoming selection.  Second: sensing very clearly that the tide of war was turning against Germany, we hoped to find our way to a region where the yoke of oppression was not particularly heavy, and we could hold out till better times.  Third, escapes were mostly planned by prisoners of long standing who, being thoroughly versed in everything that went on in the camps and their vicinity, hoped their know-how would facilitate their getaway.


Failed escape bids disheartened some of those who likewise planned a breakout - but not all.  Every few days, there would be an attempt, by an individual or group.  Most escapees were non-Jews, who had better prospects of blending with the civilian population outside the camps.  We drew encouragement from the successful escapes of several Jews, even though they had made their getaway several months earlier.  One of the escapees was of my age, a Czech Jew by the name of Rudolf Vrba.  In time, the story of his getaway would be related by Alan Bastic in his book "Escape from Auschwitz" (Grove Press).  The tale exemplifies to some extent what was involved in such an escape.


Vrba and his comrades absconded from Auschwitz with the aid of the camp's Jewish underground.  From late 1943 onwards, the underground sought ways of alerting the world to what was happening in the camp.  Early in February 1944, when Vrba volunteered to risk an escape bid to that end, his offer was rejected by the leaders of the underground, who doubted whether the world at large would lend credence to an account of the Auschwitz atrocities if related by a boy of eighteen.  Refusing to give up, Vrba consulted a friend hailing from the same town (Trnava), Alfred Wetzler.  With informers present everywhere, talk of escape plans was risky.  But Vrba regarded Wetzler as both a friend and a man with a reputation for discretion.  Wetzler introduced Vrba to a 26-year-old S.S. man named Pestek who, sickened by what he had witnessed at the death camp, wished to salve his conscience by doing his best for the prisoners.  Vrba was fearful of entrusting his life to a German soldier.  Another prisoner, by the name of Lederer, tried his luck and was successful.  He emigrated to Israel after the war.


Vrba and Wetzler. abetted by two Polish prisoners, worked out an escape plan of their own.  Elegant suits, taken from Dutch prisoners, were acquired from the "Canada" Kommando, along with Russian tobacco soaked in gasoline and dried out, for the purpose of throwing the German tracker dogs off their scent.  The plan required Vrba and Wetzler to conceal themselves among lumber piled up at a construction site within the camp, and the two Poles were to cover them with planks.  Vrba and Wetzler planned to remain hidden three whole days until the search was called off, and then slip away from the camp, heading towards Czechoslovakia.  They completed their preparations on April 3, 1944, but due to various obstacles and dangers it was several days before they crawled into their timber hideout, spending their first hour there sprinkling tobacco all around.  Then commenced a nerve-racking wait - initially, for the alarm siren showing that the Germans had discovered their escape, and then, for the searches to come to an end.


lt was only at 6 in the evening of April 10, 1944 that Vrba and Wetzler emerged from their hideout.  They replaced the planks so as to safeguard the hiding place for the use of other prisoners, and commenced a cautious trek towards the Czech border, some 80 miles from Auschwitz.  They were obliged to cover the distance on foot, hiding repeatedly from the German soldiers they spotted in the vicinity.  On their way to the Bezkyd mountains, the passed the township of Bielsko, which they prudently skirted.  Reaching a solitary farmhouse, they decided to take the risk of requesting shelter for the night and a little food.  The peasant woman who opened the door to them was not misled by the Polish they spoke - though it never occurred to her that they were Jews.  "l don't know Russian," she said with peasant cunning, apparently taking them for Russian prisoners who had absconded from a POW camp, "but the Polish you speak is quite good." She consented to feed them and give them shelter, waking them at three o'clock in the morning to send them on their way with her blessing.


On April 25, 1944, Vrba and Wetzler presented themselves before the Council of Jews in Zilina, where they recounted the atrocious truth about Auschwitz to Dr. Oskar Neuman, representatives of the Jews of Slovakia.


Vrba and Wetzier succeeded in making their escape.  Many of the prisoners who tried their luck subsequently were less successful, paying for the attempt with their lives.  Nevertheless, convinced that our accumulated experience in the camp, and the preparations we had made, would enable us to withstand the test, we resolved to pit our strength in an attempt.


We knew that recaptured escapees evaded execution if the Germans were persuaded - or discovered in the course of their investigation - that the escape attempt had not been organized.  The offender was "merely" punished with 25 whip strokes delivered in the presence of the other prisoners, before being incarcerated "for all eternity" in the punitive camp, with a red patch on chest and back.  In planning our escape, the three of us - the Pole, the Russian, and I - therefore agreed that, in the event of being captured, we would say we had found a bottle of liquor abandoned by a transport of Jews near our Kommando.  Getting drunk, we had fallen asleep in the work area; ever since, we had been seeking the way back to the camp.


This excuse was one component of our escape plan. Other elements included "organizing": finding a place of concealment, and hoarding the items essential for a successful escape and for survival outside the camp.


After inspecting the hideout FEIVELE showed me, so as to be able to locate it for the breakout, 1 told my two colleagues that I had a place of concealment.  All we had to do now was to organize the equipment required for our escape, and fix the date.


A successful escape called for punctilious planning. It was vital first to find or prepare a secure hideout, and acquire maps of the vicinity.  Next, would-be escapees had to approach prisoners of the "Canada" Kommando for their requirements: civilian clothing, wigs, documents, food, compasses, binoculars, money, and so on.  In order to pass through the control point, there was a need of civilian clothes, and armbands of civilian employees, or S.S. uniforms and suitable documents.  To this end, it was vital to elicit assistance from men of the "Canada" Kommando.  However, acquiring escape gear from them entailed a risk: one could never be sure the confidential information would not be leaked to the Germans. It goes without saying that the greater the number privy to the secret, the greater the danger of a leak.  That explained the failure of some well-planned escape attempts.


In no need of help from others, we drew on our own resources to "get organized".  All three of us owned valuables, as well as various vital items we had collected from the "surplus" left by transports of Jews, whose belongings were unloaded close by the location where we hauled potatoes.  Having hoarded food conserves and bread, civilian clothing and boots, we therefore had no need to confide in anyone but FEIVELE.


On the appointed day, having exchanged our prisoners' uniforms for civilian clothing, we gulped some liquor to boost our courage - and to reinforce our story about getting drunk in the event of being captured.  In the course of our escape preparations, I ran into ABRAHAM BRESKI.  As I passed by, I muttered: "lf you hear the alarm tonight, that will tell you I've escaped." With the exception of FEIVELE and my two colleagues, he was the only person to whom I divulged my secret. I knew I could do so without fear, for he was a fellow-townsman, a personal friend of my parents and our neighbor from Pruzhany.


During the afternoon, we slipped out of the camp.  We entered the pit, and FEIVELE covered us with the iron plate, strewing it with soil, and sprinkling tobacco to prevent the S.S. tracker dogs from scenting us out.


We heard the camp sirens giving the alarm: the search was on for missing prisoners.  We heard the tracker dogs barking overhead.  We held our breath, not so much as daring to blink an eyelid, so as not to be heard.  Our situation was, however, unbearable.  The pit was narrow, and its air vents had apparently been blocked; remaining there was out of the question.


"I'm stifling," muttered the Pole, putting his feelings into words and thereby infecting the Russian and me. It took us only a short while to realize that we would not be able to remain in our hideout until the alert was called off.


At about one that night, when silence had fallen about us, we held a whispered consultation marked by indecision; foreseeing that we would not be able to hold out a single day in the pit, we resolved to leave it that very night and continue our journey.