One day, a new prisoner was brought to our billet in Block 17A. Rolf Winter stood out among the other inmates: first, he was a non-Jew, and, moreover, a German; second, as a concentration camp veteran going back to prewar times, he wore the red triangle designating a political prisoner incarcerated as a foe of the Third Reich; and third, he did not go in fear of his life, knowing that. however grave his offense, he would not be executed: not even the S.S. or Gestapo could arbitrarily dispose of a German citizen with relatives who were liable to take an interest in his fate. Any other punishment he might incur had, over the years, lost its terror for him.
Rolf, whose serial number was 3236, carne to us from Block 11, the camp's interrogation and punitive block. The standard punishment for numerous offenses was confinement to the punitive block. Up to the spring of 1943, for Jews that entailed certain death.
The punitive block was entirely separate from the rest of the camp. In his research treatise on Auschwitz, Erich Kulka relates that it was initially Block 1 in Camp B1B, and later, Block 11 in B2D, the main men's camp. The S.S. men called it the "educational block", but as Kulka notes, "in effect it was the incarnation of cruelty at its worst." The block was characterized by so-called "enforced discipline" - a euphemism for ill-treatment and aimless commands meted out by the most brutal of the camp inmates. The long-standing Blockalteste was a prisoner named Franz Bednarek, a Polish 'Volksdeutsche' and a notorious sadist and killer. As a reward for his services in the punitive block, the Lagerfuehrer granted Bednarek permission to grow his hair long. I used to see him in the camp almost daily, and soon learned to keep out of his way.
Labor conditions in the punitive block were among the worst in the camp, and the Kapos employed there some of the most ferocious. They knew that their prospects of release from the block rose in direct ratio to the number of prisoners they tortured to death, or killed outright.
Punitive block inmates bore special insignia - black patches on chest and back. Suspected escapees gained a red circle in addition. Prisoners fingered by the Gestapo as being particularly dangerous politically were also tagged A. L. ('am Lager'- denoting confinement to camp) and were excluded from the labor squads employed outside.
When assigned to work, prisoners of the punitive unit were employed in back-breaking excavation jobs performed in all weathers. Winter and summer, they worked in their flimsy prisoners' uniforms, in wooden clogs without socks, frequently with their feet in water. "The arbitrary decision of the Blockalteste was the sole factor determining whether they would receive food rations," Kulka recounts in his research.
Punitive block inmates slept on bare boards, without a mattress. They were required to hand their blankets to the Blockalteste, after folding them neatly. With incessant yelling and beatings going on throughout the night, they could scarcely get a wink of sleep. It was forbidden to light a stove in the punitive block; up to 1943, block inmates who fell sick were denied any medical treatment, including hospitalization.
Incarceration in the punitive Block 11 was Rolf Winter's punishment for clandestine entry of Block 10, where women prisoners - Jewish, for the most part - were subjected to quasi-medical experiments in racial breeding (sterilization, etc.) by Prof. Clauberg, or some other German "scientist". It goes without saying that the women's block was strictly off limits to run-of-the-mill prisoners. Rolf tried his luck - and failed; he was caught and sentenced to several weeks' confinement in Block 1 1.
Rolf was tall, and ten years my senior (he was born in Berlin on August 25, 1914), but age differences were of no significance among prisoners, and within a few days we were on friendly terms.
Rolf was appointed Kapo of a Kommando assigned the task of street-cleaning in the town of Auschwitz. The street-cleaning Kommando was considered a relatively good detail: mingling with the civilian population, its personnel found numerous opportunities to make connections and "organize" commodity deals. Every prisoner was required to work at some task, and each Kapo was free to choose prisoners for assignment to his squad; accordingly, I put the question directly to Rolf: "Would you assign me to your Kommando'?" Noting his hesitation, I hastened to whisper: "l have dollars. I'm willing to pay."
We tied up the deal: I gave Rolf 50 dollars from the hoard in my shoes, and he assigned me to his squad. None of my Pruzhany townsfolk belonged to the street-cleaning Kommando, but that did not bother me as I could meet my acquaintances whenever I got back to the camp from my work in the town.
A number of Pruzhany men hitherto confined to the quarantina (subsequently the "gypsy camp", designated B2E) were transferred to the men's camp (2D) upon its completion; as long-standing inmates, they were attached to the camp staff. In our encounters, we found a common language permitting us to speak with a freedom greater than we sensed in exchanges with strangers. Most of the men from Pruzhany had, like me, been transferred to the Auschwltz camp, a majority being billeted in Block 17A. In consequence, I did not feel utterly alone. As for the street-cleaning Kommando, my mind was set on "organizing" more than on socializing.
Like all the other labor squads, the street-cleaning Kommando marched out of the camp each morning to the strains of the Auschwitz camp orchestra, which accompanied our departure for work, and our return, with vigorously uplifting tunes. The musicians included engineer-cum-violinist Jacques Stroma and his sister, likewise a violinist; they carne from the Sephardim Jewish community of Salonika in Greece. Jacques survived, but his sister perished at the hands of the Nazis, as did 85% of Greek Jews. The Auschwitz archives include names of numerous Sephardim and North African Jews; the fate decreed by the Nazis transcended the Ashkenazi communities of Europe to embrace the entire Jewish people, including Ladino-speakers and Jews resident in the Islamic countries.
As a rule, our working day spanned eleven hours, from six in the morning till five in the afternoon, with a half hour break at noon.
As we passed through the camp gates, armed S.S. men would join the Kommando to make sure no one escaped or made illicit contacts outside the camp. This escort was not particularly significant in relation to the street-cleaning Kommando because, on arrival in the town of Auschwitz, we would disperse to undertake our assigned jobs. We were thus able to forge "commercial" links with the townspeople, without too much concern for the watchful eyes of the S.S. men.
The Germans had evicted most of the town's Polish populace, who were supplanted by 'Volksdeutsche' (Poles of German extraction) and other Germans posted to Auschwitz, principally as supervisors and experts in various spheres. Growing accustomed to our presence, they would approach us with sundry offers: "lf you bring me a diamond (or gold, or some other valuable item) I'll give you food." Food was the chief currency in dealings with camp inmates.
I found no difficulty in fulfilling the orders of my "customers": I had friends in various labor squads, including "Canada".
"CANADA" IN AUSCHWITZ
"Canada" was the appellation of the labor squad assigned to handle the belongings of persons brought to the Birkenau gas chambers; these belongings were gathered up at the rail station and loaded on trucks. As Erich Kulka points out in his treatise, the Kommando consisted exclusively of Jews (men and women) working under the supervision of German prisoners. On its inception in the summer of 1942, the squad was billeted in Auschwitz 1, operating with shifts of 100 prisoners by day and 50 by night. In January, "Canada" was transferred to Birkenau's Block 16. Transports now being larger and more frequent, the day shift was expanded to 400 men and 200 women, while the night shift included 150 men and 200 women. In the summer of 1943, the store for belongings taken from the transports was transferred from Auschwitz 1 to Birkenau.
A special detail of "Canada" was put to work unraveling clothing and shoes, and checking tubes and jars with their assortments of creams and perfumes, in search of valuables (gold, diamonds, foreign currency, etc.) cached by the intended victims before their departure for Auschwitz. The "Canada" commando was under the supervision of S.S. men who, according to Kulka, habitually got drunk on liquor supplied by the prisoners. Once the Germans were tipsy, items could be ,,organized" under their very noses.
Despite the strict supervision, there were always ways of smuggling valuables to be bartered with other prisoners for food or other benefits.
The large numbers of prisoners employed in "Canada", the store's proximity to our camp, and the "Canada" block's accessibility to other prisoners - all these factors in combination enabled skilled veterans to "organize" valuables for deals within the camp and on the outside. Kulka's treatise depicts the "Canada" block as a bazaar with a broad assortment of merchandise on display. Searches conducted by the S.S. did not hinder the master smugglers in spiriting their contraband from the "Canada" block into the camp area, and on to the outside. Everyone benefited from the deals: the Kapo who turned a blind eye (rarely short of food, he got his cut in the form of liquor or valuables); the prisoner from the "Canada" Kommando who palmed the item to be sneaked to an interested purchaser; and the recipient of the merchandise, who exchanged it for some other asset - whether food, better clothing, or assignment to a better and more profitable job, etc.
Being a seasoned inmate and master "organizer", Rolf Winter was abetted by prisoners under his supervision among them myself. He, accordingly, had an interest in our welfare and safety.
Shortly after I started my street-cleaning assignment in Auschwitz, Rolf decided to take me off work in the town and put me in charge of the Kommando's tool hut, situated in the large work area around the camp where factories and S.S. camps were under construction. Before heading into town each morning, the workers came to the hut to collect their tools - brooms, rakes, wheelbarrows and cans - returning them in the evening.
THE HUT AT "PALITZSCH SQUARE"
The hut of the street-cleaning Kommando was located at the so-called "Palitzsch Square" or "Palitzsch Construction Site" ('Sandgrube Haus Palitzsch'), which was named for Gerhard Palitzsch, one of the most venal of the Germans supervising the camp.
Gerhard Palitzsch was the executioner of Block 11, the Gestapo interrogation center. A Saxonian, he was a veteran Nazi - as early as 1933, the party had posted him to the Sachsenhausen concentration camp. Reaching Auschwitz during the camp's construction, he had already accumulated rich experience from various concentration camps. As Rapportfuebrer, he picked out a team of aides composed of 30 criminal offenders. Auschwitz commandant Rudolf Hoess wrote that Palitzsch was "diligent" in keeping the prisoners "under control". Hoess testified further that Palitzsch was "without equal". He was "always alert, and he could be found everywhere, and he could be entrusted with the most arduous assignments. "
Palitzsch controlled the prisoners by getting them to inform on one another. In "Death Factory: Auschwitz", Erich Kulka recorded that:
among the S.S. men, none were as fanatical or devoted as Palitzsch. He would move about the camps, everywhere establishing a dense network of informers and spies among the prisoners. His knowledge of what went on in the camps was better and more reliable than that available to the camp commander. By means of his regimen of espionage, he succeeded in controlling the Kapos and Blockaltesten, and showed his skills in fomenting intrigues and squabbles among them, so as to exploit them for his own benefit.
Palitzsch attended every execution conducted in the camp, and specialized in dispatching his victims by means of a shot in the nape of the neck. Hoess, who claimed to have kept a close eye on Palitzsch, reported that he had "never noticed the slightest sign of emotion" in him. "With equanimity and moderation, with expressionless features, he carried out his terrifying task."
On being assigned to serve in the gas chambers, Palitzsch displayed not the slightest iota of sadism. His expression was invariably stolid and impassive. "He was capable of killing incessantly, without giving the matter a second thought," Hoess noted. Of all those in close contact with the extermination process, Palitzsch was the only one who never uttered a word of complaint to the camp commandant.
Palitzsch was the chief executioner at Auschwitz. He killed Soviet war prisoners by shooting them in the neck, and habitually shot children. "He killed hundreds of victims, without it leaving any external impact upon him, or any signs of weariness," Kulka testified.
In 1942, Palitzsch's wife died; her demise appears to have freed his warped mind of any lingering inhibitions. When I got to Auschwltz, Palitzsch was utterly unbridled. He "went on ferocious rampages, ill-treating the inmates with inhuman cruelty," Hoess noted.
On arriving at Blrkenau, I found the prisoners in fear and dread of Palitzsch. A short time before, the camp had witnessed an exceptionally atrocious event. The Slovakian Jews of the first Sonderkommando were ordered to disinter and burn moldering corpses from a mass grave. The corpses were of victims earlier put to death in the primitive gas chambers. In their desperation, the men of the Sonderkommando resolved to escape. Their plan carne to light, and, on January 12, 1943, they were ordered to leave Birkenau and march to Auschwitz 1. On arrival, they were all shot and their corpses burned. Sonderkommando men too sick for the march, as well as Sonderkommando block service staff, were shot by Raportfuehrer Palitzsch in person, in the yard of the Birkenau block. Erich Kulka, who was employed as a blacksmith, recounts that he was an eyewitness to the killing of prisoners by Palitzsch, who carried out death verdicts issued by the camp Gestapo. "He would murder the groups of condemned men with great 'professionalism': the victims, political prisoners for the most part, would line up by the wall in groups of five, and Palitzsch would shoot them."
lt was Palitzsch who examined the results of the first test killings by means of Zyklon B, in the basement of Block 11 at Auschwitz 1. When he opened the doors to discover numerous prisoners still showing signs of life, the experiment was repeated. Later, Palitzsch would escort prisoners as they were led to the gas chambers, keeping them distracted with small talk, inquiring about their professions and the welfare of their families "all for the purpose of deceiving them and forestalling any suspicion," in the words of one testimony. When the incoming transports arrived, persons exhibiting unease or spreading panic were immediately singled out and surreptitiously taken to the rear of the building, where the Germans shot them with small-bore weapons which scarcely emit any sound.
Palitzsch sent his subordinates to carry out unlawful seizures of money and various valuables from Auschwitz inmates. As Hoess testified: "He was choosy, keeping only the most select and expensive." Kulka relates that Palitzsch traded extensively in gold. To this end, he resorted to Kapos and block supervisors. Kapos frequently murdered inmates in whose mouths they had glimpsed gold teeth. Anyone who knew too much about Palitzsch's dealings, or refused to continue abetting him, fell victim to a "fatal accident" at work, or succumbed to "spotted typhus". One day, one of Palitzsch's underlings, a prisoner by the name of Mayer, threatened to tell the camp commandant everything he knew about Palitzsch's dealings in gold and diamonds, unless the executioner aided him to escape. Abetted by two junior officers of the camp staff, Palitzsch organized Mayer's getaway bid. To their misfortune, Mayer was caught and interrogated, delivering testimony highly prejudicial to Palitzsch. In themselves, however, these antics did not bring about Palitzsch's downfall. According to Hoess, he was an "uninhibited" drunkard, and was constantly involved in affairs with women. "Innumerable" women visited his apartment, Hoess revealed. However, as these were, for the most part, women supervisors and thus "racially pure", his dallying did not anger his superiors. But when they learned of his relations with a gypsy woman and a Jewess, their fury descended upon him. For the heinous offense of self-defilement by relations with subhuman beings, Palitzsch was posted to the Hungarian battlefront, where he was killed in combat.