THE SECOND ESCAPE
In October 1944, the Russian front drew nearer to the death camps. Since the beginning of the year, the situation on the Eastern front had progressively deteriorated - from a German viewpoint. In January, the German encirclement of Leningrad was broken. In February, Rovno was wrested from the Germans and their "Korsun salient" was cut off. In March, the Soviets launched their offensive in the Ukraine. In April, the Red Army commenced its drive into the Crimean peninsula, liberating Odessa on April 10. On May 10, it was the turn of Sevastopol. On June 22, the Byelorussian campaign commenced. Minsk was taken from the Germans on July 3. On the 18th of that month, Viina was occupied.
Five days later, the Red Army liberated Lublin. The Russians took Brest-Litovsk on July 28; though I did not know it at the time, their units re-entered my home town of Pruzhany. On August 1, the Warsaw revolt erupted. On August 20, the Red Army lunged into Romania, taking its oil fields and forcing its capitulation on the 23rd of the month. Bulgaria requested an armistice on September 6, following it up the next day by declaring war on Germany. On September 19, Finland signed a cease-fire with Britain and the Soviet Union. In October, the Germans evacuated the Riga region. Hungary requested a cease-fire.
The Third Reich was in equally dire straits in the West. Mid-January witnessed the onset of the battle for the Garigliano river in Italy. On the 23rd of the month, Allied forces landed at Anzlo. The Cassino front offensive commenced on January 29. On June 4, Rome fell to the Allies. Two days later, they launched their mighty invasion of Normandy, taking Cherbourg on June 27.
During July, the Allied forces broke out of the Normandy beachheads to drive inland. The British occupied Cannes on the 9th of the month. On the 18th, the Americans took St. Lo. Allied forces landed in southern France on August 15. On August 25, Paris was liberated. Three days later, Marseilles was taken. September witnessed the capture of the German "flying bomb" bases in France. On the 3rd of the month, the British liberated Brussels. German resistance was crumbling rapidly.
The grave setbacks suffered by the German army had an impact on virtually every sphere of the Third Retch. On July 20, German officers made an attempt on Hitler's life. In October 1944, the Germans decided to evacuate Auschwitz-Blrkenau and move the inmates away from the eastern battlefront, to Buchenwald.
The transport, comprising over 10,000 prisoners, was one of the largest ever to leave the camps. With so many prisoners being moved, we of the punitive squad contrived to mingle with the others, putting ourselves on an equal footing with them by removing the red patches from our uniforms. On our way, we passed through various camps: Oranienburg, the site of the Heinkel aircraft factory, Sachsenhausen, where we met numerous Jews whose talents the Nazis exploited for forging documents, passports in particular; a new camp named Ohrdruf, near Gotha; and Grawinkel, where a mountain was being excavated to house the Fuehrer's new headquarters. From an administrative standpoint, the camp was attached to Buchenwald. We were housed in subterranean structures designed as ammunition stores.
Being the first transport of prisoners to reach Grünau, and, moreover, camp veterans, we promptly settled into relatively light tasks. All of the camp's acting supervisors were inmates: our status as prisoners of long standing, evidenced by the serial numbers on our arms, got us respectful treatment, and the best jobs. Along with my fellow prisoners of the former S.K., I was assigned to the S.S. kitchen. The chief cook in charge, an elderly S.S. man named Artur Seher, told us he owned a cake shop in Charlottenburg, Berlin.
One day, the Jews were ordered out of the S.S. kitchen. Seher, having befriended us, kept up the connection by smuggling food into the camp for us. (After the war, I searched for him and his cake shop, but failed to locate either.)
Being 'Prominenten', we could take care of our friends. I got a chance to help ABRAHAM BRESKI, who had aided me when I was in the punitive block in Birkenau. When I got to the camp and Grawinkel, I found him there before me, and in dire straits. He was with the quarry Kommando. employed on construction of the Fuehrer's new headquarters. The prisoner who ran the camp was a German Jew by the name of Rolf, who knew me well from Auschwitz-Birkenau. I approached him with a request to help BRESKI, whereupon Rolf assigned him the post of camp shoemaker - even though BRESKI had never so much as laid hands on shoe leather or awl.
We spent several months at this camp, where we got a chance to observe the American bombing raids which ravaged the entire area. Sensing that the battlefront was drawing very near, and that Germany's end was in sight, we were filled with glee. We began now to trust in our chances of emerging alive from the inferno. In Auschwitz, we had not believed we would make it, though a desperate urge for survival made us continue to fight for every hour of life, which was why we were so eager to escape. In November or December 1944, after about two months in the new camp, and with the battlefront drawing near, the Germans again decided to evacuate us - back to Buchenwald this time. There appear to have been no trains available, and we - some ten thousand prisoners were accordingly taken over 50 miles on foot. Stragglers were shot dead at the roadside. We marched for several days, sleeping in the open at night.
Many reached Buchenwald at their last gasp. BRESKI, too feeble to withstand the tribulations of the march, stumbled and fell. His companions hastened to bundle him on a wagon bearing the corpses of Russians and Poles who had fallen during the death trek. (The Germans did not abandon them at the roadside.) It was in this state that BRESKI reached the Buchenwald camp, where he was hospitalized. The Germans did not get around to killing him, for the camp was liberated shortly afterwards. On his release, BRESKI was transferred to a hospital in France. After convalescing and regaining his strength, he made contact with fellow-townsfolk from Pruzhany who resided in France. With their aid, and by virtue of being a veteran Zionist, he was issued a British mandatory immigration certificate to Palestine.
In Buchenwald, all the prisoners mingled together. A prisoner's status was denoted by his identifying patches. and since we had removed our Jewish insignia, the Germans were no longer able to distinguish Jews from Gentiles. On being re-registered, we presented ourselves as non-Jewish Poles, endeavoring to adopt names whose ring - or at least, their initials - resembled those of our true names, so as to make them cashier to memorize.
"Your name?" the clerk asked me.
"Adam Friderski," I replied without hesitation; in an instant, I had given up being Abram Frydberg.
Another prisoner, Baruch Geitz, gave his name as Bolek Gai - and bore the name from that time on.
There was no room in Buchenwald for all the prisoners. That appears to have been one reason for the German decision to evacuate this camp too. We were loaded on a train. The Jews were sent to Theresienstadt, while the Poles, and those posing as Poles, were consigned to the nearby camp at Leitmeritz, which was a kind of labor camp for the Flossenbürg concentration camp. Having presented myself as a Pole, I was taken to this camp, where there was no work at the time. There I met 'Schimschon Eisen' - Jakob Kozolczik - who occupied some official post, and my former Kapo, Rolf Winter, who was confined to hospital after contracting typhus. Apparently, he died later. When I sought him in Germany after the war, I was told all trace of him had vanished. Bednarek, the S.K. block supervisor, was the camp commandant. The Germans evidently no longer knew what to do with so many prisoners.
At Leitmeritz, I ran into my fellow-townsman, SEGAL, erstwhile "foreign minister" of the Pruzhany ghetto Judenrat. Enjoying a good mastery of German and being a wily businessman, he had moved to Danzig before the war, engaging in international commerce. At Leitmeritz, he invariable carried a knapsack where he kept anything he could pick up or purchase - ranging from foodstuffs to items of equivalent value. He never consumed the food he acquired, merely trading it: bread for potatoes, potatoes for something else. Whenever he encountered anyone, he would inquire: "Have you got anything to trade?" His mind appeared to have gone awry. After the war he emigrated to the United States, where he returned to himself.
In March 1945, the Third Reich was in rapid decline. Even Hitler was forced to admit the gravity of the situation. On January 8, he responded to his generals' pleas by sanctioning "limited withdrawals". By the 13th of that month, he was ordering an all-out retreat on the Western front.
Under the pressure of the Red Army, the Germans beat a hasty retreat from Poland. In the extermination camps, mass annihilation was speeded up simultaneously with the mass westward evacuation to Germany - by train - of those prisoners still fit for work. The transports were assigned a relatively small number of soldier guards, all those capable of bearing arms being needed at the battlefront.
In view of the situation and the rapidly growing chaos we observed in the camp, I approached two of my friends - Bolek Gai, at 23 two years my senior, and Dudek Moskovitch, who was 19 - suggesting that we join the next transport leaving the camp, and attempt to escape en route. We did not know where any particular transport was headed, but we had no intention of reaching the final destination. We knew we were on what had formerly been Czechoslovak soil. Resolving to abscond, we joined a transport which, in place of the customary freight wagons, was carried in passenger cars - an indication of Germany's present predicament, which was marked by chaos and confusion.
We were convinced this escape attempt would succeed. We were experienced escapees. Like me, Bolek had attempted a breakout from Auschwitz, for which he had been sentenced to the S.K. (Strafkommando). We knew that should we be caught once more, the Germans would lose no time in executing us. But we also knew that we had slim chances of surviving the present trek. An escape attempt was preferable to certain death.