THE "PROMINENT" ONES
My brother, taken to hospital, never returned; of my entire family, I was the only one left. But I was with my townsfolk. Along with numerous quarantina inmates, I was transferred shortly afterwards to the Auschwitz labor camp. (Those remaining in the quarantina were initially employed on construction of the new men's camp-, when the transit camp was converted to house gypsies, the old-time prisoners were retained as block staff.)
It was several miles from the quarantina to Auschwitz and we made our way on foot. On arrival, hundreds of us were housed in Block 17A.
The blocks were under the supervision of prisoners, who also discharged many of the other administrative duties in the camps. There was a dual hierarchy: control was in the hands of the Germans, while day-to-day administration was entrusted to inmates. Prisoners with official tasks, referred to as 'Prominenten', enjoyed better conditions than other inmates.
The block supervisor, known as Blockalteste, occupied a tiny room by the block entrance. He slept on a mattress, with sheet and pillow - all of which he "organized" from belongings brought in with the transports. The small room facing his was the block office, where the clerk was billeted. The Blockalteste selected orderlies ('Stubdienst') who occupied the bunks nearest the block entrance thereby shortening the distance to be traversed as they carne and went. In addition, their quarters were at a distance from the block extremities, the location of the latrine buckets. The orderlies were responsible for tasks such as cleaning, night guard ('Nachtwache') and so on. In practice, the orderlies habitually enlisted the services of other, lower-status prisoners to do the work.
Some block supervisors endeavored to help the prisoners under their control. Others ill-treated their fellow-prisoners, whether to curry favor with the Germans or to satisfy their own sadistic urges. Notorious among these was Zolty, the Blockalteste of Birkenau's Block 18. I learned that, after the war, he was sentenced to death in France as a war criminal. One of my townsfolk, ABRAHAM BRESKI, erstwhile editor of the "Pruzaner Sztyme", was employed as an orderly in his block, and suffered grievously at his hands. The block clerk was CZESHEK MORDOVICZ, who later made his escape.
Another post reserved for 'Prominenten' was 'Kapo' head of a Kommando (work squad). Free to choose his squad at will, the Kapo was also at liberty to mete out various assignments. He was thus able to coddle some prisoners while making life a misery for others. The Jewish prisoner 'Prominenten' cultivated a kind of symbiosis with the Germans. The latter were interested in "organizing" various commodities for their own use; but rather than act in collusion with their own colleagues, who might grow envious or inform on them, they found it more convenient to employ prisoners, whose fate they held in their hands at every moment of the day or night.
lf a prisoner wished to live, he had to work. Should the Germans catch a prisoner idling in the block during the daytime hours, he would be sent to hospital and put to death, or dispatched to the gas chambers.
At that time, my labor squad was employed on unloading freight trains, whose cargo consisted largely of building material for the construction, then in uninterrupted progress at the camps. Locomotives being in short supply, the wagons were shunted manually. It was extremely hard work. The mere thought of another day of toil was depressing. As Victor Frankel phrased it so aptly: of the twenty-four hours of camp life, the worst moment was reveille; with darkness still reigning, three merciless whistle-blasts would tear us from our exhausted slumbers. Instantaneously, we set about wriggling into damp shoes, scarcely able to squeeze our cut and swollen feet into them. Being newcomers to the camp, we had yet to ,"organize" better conditions or additional food. Very few survived. That was the German system: each new transport was sent to the worst of the labor squads. Those who held out achieved "promotion" to ameliorated conditions.
The secret of concentration camp existence was making it in one piece through the initial period; whoever did that, contriving to get a better job and establish connections, had far greater chances of survival. There were jobs which offered better food, or a chance of improving one's lot by acquiring commodities which could be bartered. For example, some inmates were charged with collecting up the belongings of Jews consigned to the gas chambers. Virtually all of those shipped in with the transports had brought food, spare clothing and valuables. On leaping from the railcars, they were forbidden to take their belongings which remained in the cars, or, on orders from the Germans, were tossed onto the platform.
Prisoners working nearby, Or employed unloading or sorting the articles, got a chance to "organize" articles they needed.
As the war dragged on, and the Germans extended their tours of duty at the camp, it became progressively easier to work out a modus vivendi with them. They became increasingly greedy and anxious to "organize" their prospects for the period after the war.
The war now began to look less promising for the Third Reich than it had during the first two years of the fighting. 1942 was a "pendulum year" on the various battlefronts: the Russian winter offensive lost momentum, to be succeeded by a German summer offensive which took Sevastopol, Voronezh and Rostov. In North Africa's Western Desert, Rommel captured Tobruk. On September 6, the Germans were checked at Stalingrad. October 23 marked the onset of the battle of El Alamein, where Rommel was driven back. On December 16, the Italian Eighth Army was routed at the river Don.
1943 witnessed the first serious German setbacks: on January 6, they pulled back from the Caucasus and the Don salient. On January 14, the Red Army crushed the Hungarian Second Army on the banks of the Don. The German encirclement of Leningrad was broken on January 14, and January 31 witnessed the German capitulation at Stalingrad. That same month, Montgomery retook Tobruk from Rommel's exhausted forces. In mid-February, the Russians recaptured Kharkov. In mid-May, Allied forces in North Africa occupied Tunis and Bizerta. July 10 brought the Allied invasion of Sicily; five days later, the Russians launched a counter-offensive towards the Urals, which the Germans evacuated on August The following day, the Russians tookgpelgorod. On September 3, Allied forces invaded Italy. The Russians captured Poltava on September 22, and Smolensk three
days later. In the latter half of October, the Red Army took Zaporozhye, Malitopol and Dniepropetrovsk, recapturing Kiev on November 6.
Throughout 1943, bombing raids on Germany were stepped up. Berlin itself took a severe aerial battering, and vital industrial centers were reduced to ruins.
Living as we did "on another planet", as K. Zetnik so aptly put it, we in Auschwitz knew nothing of what was going on in the world beyond the barbed wire fences surrounding us. We made do on scraps of rumor, and it did no good to give them credence. Rumors about the military situation were generally contradictory and fluctuated wildly, merely exacerbating the mental war of nerves to which we were subjected. In his memoirs, Victor Frankel recalled the false hopes frequently aroused by unfounded rumors of the war's imminent termination; when the reports turned out to be premature, those hopes were dashed, to be replaced by despondency.
But no mind reading was required to note the plummeting morale of the German supervisors who made our lives a misery. As morale sank on their side, it soared among those prisoners who had not given up hope of better times - just as long as they could hold out another day, and another.