MEMOIRS OF SHERESHEV
By MOISHE KANTOROWITZ
Knowing that the Germans are retreating on the Eastern Front, the rumor of us Jews being taken to the gas chambers sounded logical and believable. My Capo Janek sitting on his bunk almost opposite me, thus making me the nearest Jew to him at that moment said; "Juz Najwyzszy czas" (It is high time.) His expression grieved me deeply for I did not expect to hear it from him. After all, eighty percent of his workers were Jews who craftsmanship and amount of work made him the most influential capo in D.A.W. Secondly he said it to me, the one who risked his life so many times by bringing things in the camp for his comfort and well being and for which his attendant use to pay me with a bit of soup now and then. It is very difficult to describe the feelings and thoughts that went through my head. The vexation and the grief after having spent 8-9 months in this hell of Auschwitz and then to have to die now that my situation is just beginning to stabilize. The time ticked by in anguish terribly fast with a cry to God he should stop the time forever. In despair I forgot that I have hidden in my straw sack a ration (a quarter) of bread which I kept in reserve. I quickly got it out and ate it up not having a reason to save it any longer. So we sat on our bunks waiting for the announcement to line up in front of the block to be led to Birkenau.
The afternoon became evening, it is quiet in the stube as well as in the entire camp. We figure that the Nazis are waiting for night to commit their grisly work. It is nine o'clock and the gong sounds signaling "lights out". We get onto our bunks and wait for the lights to go on and the blockaltesters announcement for us to get out. I try to imagine how they will lead us, will they let us get dressed or will we be forced to march the three kilometres from Auschwitz to Birkenau naked in the September night. We know in fact that no inmate or anyone else has been gassed while dressed, all victims were first made to undress. Eventually the exhaustion of the week’s work and the tension of that day takes over. Before we know the gong is ringing, it is four-thirty in the morning, every one is rushing to straighten the bunk, get washed, and stay in line for the piece of bread and fear of surviving the new day.
About a month later as the denizens of our stube are getting ready to settle in for the night, one of the foreman, a prominent inmate who slept in the place where the other big shots slept, said out aloud; I feel terrible, I don't know what is happening to me. All those around him looked at him inquisitively and indeed the twenty five year old pole with the nickname "Cygan" (Gypsy, in Polish) who a couple of months ago expressed aloud his incomprehension over the fact that the Jews in our stube let themselves be pushed around and beaten up by the stubendienst KAZIK. Such a remark was a direct challenge to the authority of a stubendienst especially when it was said by a pole to another in front of a stube (room) full of Jews, which infuriated even more the Stuben Dienst. What's more, such a remark could be equated or inferred as a call to resistance in a place where thousands were put to death daily. The law of Auschwitz and other concentration camps too was that a Stuben Dienst is the sole authority in the stube who can only be overruled by the blockaltester who as a rule was more of a sadist and murderer than the Stuben Dienst. The Stuben Dienst controlled himself knowing that the foreman has a few friends among them the Capo Janek, a man with authority. To take them all on could end with his down fall, so the Stuben Dienst took another approach; Do you want to tell me that you would dare hit me back, he said to Cygan, look at you and look at me continued the Stuben Dienst KAZIK and indeed he was right, for although they were both the same average height, Cygan was a slim young man while the Stuben Dienst KAZIK weight at least a hundred kilogram of which a good part of it was muscle. It marks no difference, replied Cygan, if even I knew that you would break every bone in my body I would still hit you back. Here the Stuben Dienst realized that the other refused an honorable withdrawal from the argument so he accepted the challenge answering with a provocative; do you want to show me what you would do to me? Here the Big-Shot Poles intervened and with the Capo in charge they made peace between the two. This Cygan who dared to stand up to the Stuben Dinst KAZIK, looked now very sick. His face swarthy for a Pole was now dark gray and distorted. One did not have to be a doctor to know that the man was sick. His friend wanted to take him right away to the "Krankenbau" (camp hospital) but he insisted on remaining in the stube overnight. Why? I didn't know then and still don't know even until this day. Poles were not being taken from there to the gas chambers. The gas chambers were an "exclusive privilege" for Jews. With his connections he would have received there, in the hospital, the best medical attention that Auschwitz had to offer. Still, the next morning he remained in the stube when we went out to the appel and to work. When we came back after work his bunk was empty.
The following evening after returning to camp and after the appel, we were ordered to go to our stube. The blockaltester (Block Senior) announced that as there was Typhus found in stube number four (my stube), the Stube is being quarantined. We were to remain on the stube until further notice. We are to use the toilets only while the others in the Block are at work. For emergency use a large barrel was put in the less honorable part of the stube as far from the place of honor where the big shot slept as possible. That is in the one hundred percent Jewish section of the stube. Nobody was allowed outside the stube. Our bread and the Auschwitz tea was brought for us to the door as well as the soup at noon. It was after the deliverers left that we use to open the door to take it in. At the start it felt like a holiday for us, especially for the Jews who use to work hard the twelve hours a day on a nagging hungry stomach. Now imagine in Auschwitz to sit all day long undisturbed, rather lie stretched out on the bunk and sleep to your hearts content . and only get up just to receive the piece of bread in the morning and your soup at noon. The first couple of days I was very hungry, as we did not get the extra half of bread or the bread soup twice a week at night. But after four-five days we all lost our appetite. I was able to satisfy my hunger with half the piece of bread in the morning, the other half I use to hide in my straw sack. The reason for the lack of appetite I would attribute to two reasons. Firstly we were confined to a very small place, that is to lying on the bunk almost motionless. The lack of motion, the confinement with hundred others in close quarters with doors and windows closed and a large wooden barrel that is being constantly used as a toilet that filled up the room with an unbearable smell was enough to make everybody sick. This compounded with the rumor that began circulating in the stube that the Germans are planning to transfer us to Birkenau, (read Gas Chambers) was enough to take our appetite away.
It is interesting to mention that the rumor about Birkenau was taken very seriously by us Jews, the Poles shrugged it off refusing to believe that Poles will be taken to the Gas Chambers. To be locked up twenty four hours a day with a hundred people one can't help but overhear all sorts of conversations. I, having my bunk close to the big-shots had a good spot to be able to listen to their conversations. I found out that the "Cygan" contracted his typhus from a girl in Birkenau women's camp. The Birkenau camp was terribly filthy, full of lice and other vermin. It was never fully eradicated of typhus. Listening to their escapades maybe some-what exaggerated or boastful, one could get really in the hell of Auschwitz which it was for us Jews, but in a country house where all their thoughts were directed towards women. One of the thing which became clear to me as I was listening to their conversations was that their reasons for our overseers eagerness to find for us work in Binkenaus women's camp were the women and we carpenters served as their access. It was sad to listen to the boasting of some of them as they were bragging how they could buy the favor of any Jewish girl for a portion of bread. Poor unfortunate Jewish children, innocent, untouched by men, were brought to that place inviolate. But here degraded to a situation that forced them to sell their innocents and dignity for a piece of bread. All this did not save them from losing their young and tormented lives in the Gas Chambers of Birkenau. We remained quarantined for two weeks. At the end of the two weeks we were taken to the bath-house disinfected showered and on return to the stube received clean underwear. The next morning we went to work.
I have never really spoken to an S.S. man except the usual "Ya-vol" (Yes Sir) to an order which usually sounded more like a bark that a human voice and most of the time accompanied with a blow from a stick or a kick with a boot. That summer of 1943, sometimes in August I heard an S.S. man speaking with a human voice. It happened when the Capo had to send some carpenters to an S.S. officer’s house to do some repairs. The house was in the town of Auschwitz proper, a distance of 3-4 kilometres from camp. As usual, along with the carpenters went a couple assistants. I was one of them. During the day the terrain around Auschwitz-Birkenau, a perimetre of several kilometres in which the inmates worked, was surrounded with a chain of watch towers, manned by S.S. men with machine-guns. The towers were close enough that there was no chance to break through. There were however a couple roads that led from the enclosure to the town and other directions. Those roads were being guarded by the S.S. men and anybody who was going in or out the chain of watch towers had to have a permit, like the few civilians who supervise some work there. Even the S.S. that were accompanying prisoners had to have permission. Three S.S. men were assigned to accompany us eight men from the moment we left the enclosure until we entered it. In the morning after coming to the factory and getting our tools together took us an hour. We set out on our own to the end of the guarded perimetre where the three S.S. men were waiting for us They led us to the S.S. officers house. There were a couple of other groups of prisoners who were cleaning the yard and landscaping it. Another group was repairing the fence and still another was putting down hard-wood floors in the house. Each group came with their own few S.S. men. There were over a dozen of them, why so many to guard us? Apparently they realized it too, so they came to some understanding and soon half of them disappeared, taking a holiday.
Those inmates that were working outside the D.A.W. factory and could not be back at noon for their soup, their soup use to be kept until they returned to the factory at five in the afternoon. Thus we had to work the entire day until five o'clock on the portion of bread that we got five in the morning. One of our three S.S. guards was a man of about forty, not young for an ordinary S.S. man. We took the chance to approach him to ask if he would escort us to the guard chain from where we would walk to the factory, receive our soup, and come back to the same spot where he left us off. From there he would escort us back to the city. What we did not tell him was that by doing it we planned to get an extra liter soup, by arriving during the soup distribution we would just line up with the others and get our liter of soup. Afterwards we would just as quietly sneak out and nobody would be the smarter. Upon returning at five to the factory we would get the put aside for us soup as if we were not there at noon. The S.S. man, after a short conversation with the other two of our guards agreed. At eleven thirty we tell him that it is time to go, as the distribution of soup starts at twelve and it would take us half an hour to get there. To our surprise he tells us to start going and he follows while the other two stay behind in the officer’s house. We can't believe what is happening. He is breaking all rules. We are eight men and the regulations call for three guards to go with us. Secondly, their orders are to keep us all day. But who are we to argue. We start going, not like in a drill but as a group, and he goes behind. When we distanced ourselves from the city and there was nobody around, for no reason whatever and to nobody in particular the S.S. man said; "One dog is dead, now it is time for the other". We knew what he meant but didn't dare to say anything. We didn't even dare to turn our heads to look at him. A day earlier a rumor spread that Benito Mussolini has been arrested by the freshly formed provisional Italian Government. I think to myself; Does he want to provoke us or is it possible that he realized that the war is lost and wants to repent. Still we were glad to hear such words coming out of a S.S. men's mouth, even not knowing if they are traitorous or sincere. Now in retrospect I believe that they were sincere. He brought us to the guard line repeating a couple of times that we should be back at one o'clock dead or alive.
We worked at and around the S.S. officer’s house for a couple of weeks, yet we never saw the officer at home. His wife however, a young good looking blond with a one year old baby was constantly at home. They had what one would call a maid. She was a middle aged women, an inmate like us with a violet triangle that classified her as an "Internationale Bible Forsher Vereinigung" that is Jehovah witness. Those people were all Germans whose males refused to serve in the army, work in any ammunition factory or in any way contribute to the war effort. All that Hitler demanded of them was to renounce their conviction which meant their faith, which they categorically refused and preferred to spend their time in a concentration camp. To be candid I would say that those in camp had it better than many soldiers on the Russian Front and for sure securer with their survival. As a group they were treated better than any other and were given good positions. That women inmate conducted herself in the S.S. man's house as if a member of the family, looking after their baby and eating with them. In fact, she gave me an apple. That was the only fruit I have tasted from the moment the Germans entered Shershev until my Liberation, a total of four years. During the couple of weeks that we worked there, there were times that other wives of S.S. officers use to come on a visit. They were all about the same age, well dressed, some with a small child. Because of the work going on and banging in the adjoining rooms, they were compelled to speak louder or raise their voices from time to time.
The bit of German that I know comes from Yiddish which derives mainly from German and the German that I learned in the Ghetto and camps consist mainly of name calling, cusswords, abusive words, invective, swearing, degradation words, and curses. Although I did not pay particular attention to their conversation, I came to the conclusion that there is also a nicer German that the one I am exposed to from before sunrise to night. In late October when the days got much shorter, the commandos (work groups) that work outdoors began to return to the camp at sunset. The important commandos like our D.A.W. remained on the job until six o'clock. With sunset extra S.S. use to surround the factory and at six they use to escort us to camp. The irony of it was that we Jews preferred this way. As selections that took place in winter were conducted outdoors right after the appel when the Jewish inmates had to undress and stay naked until the selection was over, while for us that worked later the selection was conducted in the bath house. During one such selection in the bath house I slipped on the wet boards of the huge room. Fortunately Dr. Mengele was at the same time conducting a conversation with another S.S. officer and had his eye averted for a second. That gave me time to jump up and continue to pass by him.
And so in anguish, hunger, despair, and helplessness the middle of December, 1943 arrived. The Poles in our stube are becoming a little sentimental. They talk among themselves about the pre war Christmases. Wondering what is going on now in their homes, what preparations are taking place. To us Jews it seems so trivial, so insignificant in comparison to our calamity. They are sorry for being unable to be home with family to celebrate Christmas, for the loss of a couple years of freedom. We all knew that Germany is losing the war and that they, the Poles, will be free and return home where their entire families are waiting for them. We Jews came here with our extended families and saw them going up in smoke and flame. We also knew that in the last moment before the war will end, the Germans will kill the last Jews in their hands. Christmas eve the Poles had a feast in the stube. The big-shots took up their places around the table which was extended to make room for more Poles. The others took up places on the surrounding bunks. Each of them contributed some goodies from their parcels that they all received from home. We Jews set on our bunks looking as they ate to their fill while our mouths watered. The Poled asked Leon KULOWSKI to address the group as he was the most suitable in such a situation. It was no easy task to address imprisoned Poles in a concentration camp and not to overstep the line. He knew that he was walking on thin ice but he made some sort of speech. It snowed that night. We did not go to work on Christmas day, but the next day we did. As we marched out that morning to work, the surrounding, as far as we could see, was covered with a pure white blanket of snow that hid for a moment the purgatory beneath it. An hour later the whole terrain was trampled by the human caricatures that turned it back to its original hell.
In those conditions I lost count of the days, weeks, and even months. I didn't even know when the month of January 1944 came and went and here it was February 1944 which marked a year since my arrival in Auschwitz. In mid February, a fair size group of workers from our hall started to work near Birkenau at building barracks for the "Luftwaffe" (German Air Force). Our work consisted of installing windows and doors. The barracks were in the middle of an empty space, a kilometre from the nearest building which were the barracks of Birkenau. Because of the cold the work progressed slowly due to the putting up with the bitter cold in and outside the windowless and door less barracks. Ten hours a day on empty stomachs, plus the hour march each way to and from that work place to the factory dressed in our camp garb was unbearable. We could hardly hold our spoons .When on return to the factory; we use to get our allotted soup that we were supposed to get at midday. By mid March this part of the job was finished and we started to build individual outhouse for the expected air man. Because of the shortage of material on the spot the Capo decided to build them in the factory, in our alley. Every morning an S.S. truck use to come to the factory. Eight or ten of us use to haul a couple of out-houses on the truck. Then our group use to get on, plus a couple S.S. men, and we use to proceed to the Auschwitz guard chain and from there in the Birkenau one. There the S.S. use to leave us alone and come back at five to take us back to the factory.
During my time in Auschwitz there were a few attempts by prisoners to escape. It was done by Poles, for Jews escape was senseless, for if even he would succeed in getting out, which was in any case doubtful, where would he run? The very first Pole would betray him and if not the first there were many others. However Poles could run. They had families, friends, and acquaintances where they could hide. Still some of the few that managed to get out were caught and were on display dead at the gate of the camp. Others were hung in public on the appel ground for all us to see. Still I felt that I must at least think about escape if not to try, for when I'll be led into the gas chambers, of which I had no doubt, I should have no regrets for not having tried to save myself. To be honest I approached the whole idea half heartedly, remembering my experience with my attempt to get out of the Ghetto. I reasoned that if I could not and did not get out of the ghetto my chances of getting out of Auschwitz are none existent. Never the less I planned. My plan was as follows; Since our group travels daily by a S.S. truck hauling out houses to Birkenau, our S.S. escort has so far never checked the inside of one, not while putting it on the truck, not while leaving the Auschwitz guarded perimetre, nor on entering the Birkenau perimetre. My plan was to enter an out house. Nobody should know, to pass both the Auschwitz and Birkenau guard perimetre. Once inside the Birkenau perimetre the guards used to leave us alone. I would come out and hide in one of the many empty barracks. When it would be discovered that I m missing, the search would take place in the Auschwitz guard perimetre for nobody would know that I ever got out of Auschwitz and got into the Birkenau perimetre. After two or three days if they would not find me, the guard around the perimetre would be taken off during the night as usual for night time. All inmates were in the camp proper, I would make my escape. The plan had some merit and to me seemed achievable in theory, but my co-workers had to know about it as they were the ones that used to put the off houses on and off the truck. As soon as I told them my plan, they turned on me with accusations and charges of wanting to kill them. You know, they claimed, that once it will become known that we helped out in escape, or even knew about it, we are doomed, they'll hang us all. With it, my plan of escaping from Auschwitz ended. After this event, I stopped going with that group to Birkenau and remained working in the halley, where I would have rather been working anyway. Twelve working hours outdoors and the wait for the soup until six o'clock did not appeal to me.
That winter, that is 1943-1944, all outside the camp working groups used to return to camp with dark. As far as I know, only our Commando D.A.W. worked until six and as soon as we use to leave work, the night shift use to take over. There was talk that our working later spared us from having to go through a couple selections. Apparently the "Angel of Death" , Dr. Mengele, did not want to wait or waste his time on conducting a selection on a few hundred Jews when he had in front of him thousands. Although the S.S. tried to keep us in total isolation from the world, some news used to filter through and we knew that the Germans are falling back on the Eastern Front. Exactly where the front was at a given time we didn't know. It was up to anyone's imagination and prayer. However, the good news from front did not spell good news for us Jewish inmates, for we knew that the Nazis would not let any Jew survive the war. We also knew that the red army is getting closer to us and with it, so is our end. Yet our desire to even know that Germany is losing the war was greater that the realization that we will not see it and we used to rejoice will every German loss on the front. In the middle of an early spring night in 1944, we were awakened by the wail of the camp siren. Usually the wail of the siren was a signal to alert the S.S. to the fact that an escape had been made, or attempted to make. But this use to happen during day time hours, while the inmates were outside the camp and within the guard’s perimetre. It never happened at night, for there was no escape from within the camp. The entire camp was one large slab of asphalt surrounded by two rows of electrified barbwires around which was a tall solid cement wall. All this was brightly lit and surrounded with many guard towers manned by S.S. men with machine-guns. Only in the morning did we find out that it was an air-raid, the first in the history of Auschwitz. There was no damage to be seen, in fact we didn't even hear a single explosion. One thought was on the minds of the Jewish inmates, namely; how lucky we would be to die from an allied bomb instead of having to be driven by the accursed S.S. into the gas chambers.
In early April 1944, the snow was gone and the sun soon dried the large partly paved square between the main factory building and the subsidiary alleys of the D.A.W. One morning as we came to work we noticed part of that square is taken up with large wooden crates that have been brought there during the night. During the midday break when we were getting our soup, I noticed some inmates standing very close to those crates and looking inquisitively and intensely at them. As I walked over, one of the inmates pointed out to me a certain spot, a board of a crate. I see writing and begin to read. It is written with a pencil, partly a letter, partly a will and testament. Above all, it is a prayer to any one who will read it. I look at the hastily written Jewish letter and read; "Let it be known that the Jews from that given camp worked with these crated machines, up to now their last assignment is to crate these machines which will be their last task in their lives, for right after the crating is done they will be taken to the open pits that are already waiting for them outside the camp". Their plea was that maybe somewhere in a camp a Jew will read it and by some miracle survive, he should tell that in that given place was a camp that was liquidated on such and such a date and its inmates were put to death. We started looking for more messages and found many. Some were only names, others just short messages asking to pass on to anybody. Others, quite lengthy messages. But all without exception contained a farewell word to the reader, and to life itself. How many thoughts and what kind came into my mind I would not try to enumerate. But I remember thinking as to how long it will be before we will be writing such messages and wondering if there was still be a Jew in the Nazi domain left to read it. Judging by the countless trainload of Jews coming daily to Auschwitz and being sent strait to the gas chambers, I doubted if not only those that wrote on the crate but even anyone’s legacy will ever be told. Now, well over half a century later, I realize that it was a mistake not to try to remember the name of that camp and it's history. But then again, who would think that he would live to write about it.
A couple weeks later, to be precise on the fourth of May 1944 in the morning before we were even driven out of the stube to the appel, in comes the block-Schreiber and reads out two numbers, mine and another man's. He tells us that today we are not going to work and that right after the appel we should return to the stube. Every inmate dreaded to hear his name being called out, it always bore bad news. I knew, however, that I didn't do anything wrong, so I came to the conclusion that it is concerning a "transport". The word "transport" meant among other things to be sent to another camp, which was not welcomed news. Even though Auschwitz was hell on earth, some inmates, those that were still alive, managed to find for themselves a kind of "niche" in the camp structure by which they succeeded to survive and stay alive for days, months, and even years. The trick was to be able to procure for oneself somewhat more to eat, just enough to sustain your emaciated body. Here again I am referring to Jewish inmates who had no outside help. The bottom line was the ability to get some extra food. The constant arrival of Jews from Nazi occupied and Nazi allied countries inadvertently contributed to the availability of more food than in other camps, even those affiliated with Auschwitz, for example the bread soup, which was only distributed in Auschwitz. Some Jewish inmates, small in number, who were fortunate to work in the "Auhamungs Kommando", otherwise known as "Kanada", where despite the watchful eyes of the S.S. and constant threat of death for the slightest transgression use to manage to get some valuables out and exchange it for food. Such places of work or "positions" did not exist in other camps and the inmates had to make do with their allotted ration which could not sustain a working man for longer than three months. No wonder than that nobody wanted to be sent on a so called transport to another camp.
As soon as all commandos (work groups) left the camp, the block-Schreiber (registrar) took the two of us from our stube, me and the other man who turned out to be the man from whom I use to buy the soap to wash my superiors laundry. His name was Leibl (Leon) BLISKOWSKY. A short man, eighteen years my senior, almost twice my age. He hails from the village of "Jalowka" near Bialystok. He married a dozen years earlier to Moishe-Mendl GORDON's daughter of Pruzany. Up to the war he lived in Jalowka where he and his father owned a flour mill. In 1939, when the Bolshevics came, they took their mill away, as they called it nationalized the mill. Deprived of a livelihood, Leibl, his wife, and child moved to his father in law in Pruzany. Two years later they shared the fate of the entire Ghetto Pruzany. They were brought to Auschwitz where his wife and nine year old daughter went straight to the gas chambers and now we were sharing an unknown future. The registrar is leading us out of the block where the registrar from block "A" is waiting with one man. He is a tall well built man of close to fifty, but seems agile for his age. By his number on the jacket we can tell that he is from our Ghetto. He tells us that he is from Malch (Malecz) and his name is Shmuel (Samuel). We were led to the bath house, a preliminary to a "Transport". We are completely shaven, disinfected, given clean underwear, and a clean jacket and pants. We are a group of close to two hundred men. I hear Jewish, Polish, Russian, German, and Greek being spoken. And there was one prevalent language which I never heard before. It is way past midday and there is no sign of soup and the stomach growls. Finally two trucks arrive, there is no roof but the entire truck is covered with a tarpaulin. We climb in and are in total darkness, we don't know in which direction we are going. After many hours of driving, we stop and get out. We stand on a small elevation. Before us we see a small camp consisting of half a dozen low barracks and a couple smaller buildings. All coloured green with black tarred roofs. The most unusual thing was the fence surrounding the camp. It was an ordinary wooden fence that one puts around a garden, a fence that could not stop a dog or a cat from getting in or out, never mind a man. While at that moment my mind was not on escaping, yet the whole thing seemed bizarre. We were divided in two groups and each group was led in the first two barracks. We found inside two tier single wooden bunks. In each bunk was a straw sack and two dark brown blankets. We were not permitted that evening to leave the barracks. But looking out the windows we realized that the Germans left nothing to chance. Ten metres outside the fence and twenty metres apart stood a line of S.S. men all around the enclosure. There were electric lights on the fence, not like on the Auschwitz fence but enough to light up the fence and the entire enclosure.
Next morning right after the appel we were divided in work groups that were assigned and ready beforehand. Among the two hundred inmates were half a dozen Germans. One came as a "Lageraltester", (camp elder) a second as an "Arbaitsdienst", (General work supervisor) a third as the "Lager Capo", (camp Capo) and the others as "Blockaltesters" (block elders). From the dozen Poles that came with us, seven were cooks for us prisoners and a couple for the S.S. From the remaining three, one was the "Lager Schreiber" (camp registrar). The other two were appointed Capos. The minority were sixteen Russians that were suppose to receive the same treatment as we Jews, but they had the additional job to carry into the camp the soup container, for which they received an extra litre of soup plus the privilege to empty or scrape the bottoms and the walls of the barrels. Only we, the remaining hundred and fifty Jews were left to do the heavy labour. From among us Jews, the largest number consisted of newly arrived Italian Jews which were given the number one hundred and eighty thousand and up. Except for a couple of them that spoke German, we could not converse with each other. They came not knowing and uninformed about Jewish persecution and were completely bewildered and lost. The foreign language German, the yelling, the cursing, and the beatings confused them totally. They looked like a sorry lot. The few remaining Jews were; we three from Ghetto Pruzany, one from Grodno, a couple from Silesia, and two to three each from central Poland, Germany, and France. We were immediately told the reason of our being there and the purpose of our work. The present small and unguarded camp up to two days ago was occupied by six hundred French volunteer workers. They were ordered to vacate the camp and told to find accommodations in the nearby city of Sosnowiec, three hundred metres away. Our task is to fence in the camp as required by concentration camp law. That is a double barbed wire fence through which as electric current flows. The wires have to be strung on regulation cement posts. After we will have fenced ourselves in, a large "Zugang" (shipment of prisoner) will arrive from Auschwitz and we will start working in the nearby ammunition factory.
Meantime, we started to build the fence. Here too, like in Auschwitz, we got up at four thirty in the morning. Right after the appel, (reveille) we use to get a loaf of bread for three men. At midday we had the customary liter soup and at night a cup of camp tea. The loaf of bread we had to divide ourselves between the three of us. We three, that is I, Leibl BLISKOWSKI, and Shmuel ROSENBOIM from our Ghetto, but originally from Maltch (Malecz), became partners. We had to share a loaf of bread, cutting it up in three even pieces, which wasn't an easy task. How do you divide a loaf of bread and be satisfied that you nor your friend has been wronged, not by a bite of bread but even a crumb, for bread is treated more than life. So we use to cut the loaf as close to equal thirds as possible. If one piece looked somewhat larger or smaller that the others, we use to cut a piece from one and put it on the other. After each porti n use to pass the scrutiny of each one of us and we all were satisfied that they are equal, one used to turn around so as not to see to say for whom. Of course we had to take turns in turning around and in pointing out. In this way we made sure that nobody is wronged. Here again we Jews returned to the strict camp ration. The big-shots, like the blockaltesters Capos who use to dish out the soup, use to take for themselves all they wanted, not to mention the cooks who use to cook for themselves all kinds of delicacies. Even the Russian prisoners who were working with us use to get the extra liter soup for bringing it out from the kitchen. For us Jews there was neither opportunity nor chance for an extra spoonful of food.
The shape of the camp was rectangular. Facing the northern narrow side of the camp where the gate was and some twenty metres away was a long barrack-like building which contained the living quarters of the S.S., the living quarters of the camp commandant, his office consisting of one room and the kitchens. By facing the S.S. barrack and kitchen one could see on the left a road running close to the camp fence that served as the approach to the camp and a kilometre further to the ammunition factory in which we were going to work after we will be fenced in. Looking past the road to the left, some three hundred metres away, was the outskirts of the town of Sosnowiec. On Sundays we could see the Polish inhabitants walking leisurely at the edge of the city a couple hundred metres away. We could see their smiling faces, the warm embraces of young lives soon to be cut short. Our first task was to walk to the factory where each of us took a bag of cement weighing fifty kilograms and carried it on his back to the camp. Exhausted and hungry, I felt that at any minute I will collapse under its weight, but this would spell my end, so I use to summon my last bit of strength and bring it to the camp. The only respite was walking back to the factory for another one. Within a few days, one of the empty barracks was filled up with sacks of cement and we started out to the factory for iron wires, one centimetre in diameter and five metres long. Those wires, or rods, were needed for the skeletons of the cement posts for the camp fence. Those rods were tied in bundles and carried by two or three men. Carrying those bundles on our shoulders reminded me of the "Holtz-Plaz" (timber yard) in D.A.W., but I must admit that it was more bearable without the murderous Pilarek around.
We started making the cement posts. First was the heavy-wire skeleton put into the post frame and frame was filled with freshly mixed cement. We were divided into groups. Each group was assigned a certain task. One to make the wooden post frames, another to make the wire post skeletons. The cement was mixed in a mixer. One group used to bring the bags of cement from the barrack, another had to carry the sand and some worked at the mixer. The Capos did not spare the stick but worse than that were the countless S.S. men that watched us day and night. Many of them young men straight out of the S.S. training of S.S. school with lots of ambition and vigor who would not leave us alone for a moment. Even worse then them was the "Arbait-Dienst" (work supervisor). He was a German inmate in his mid twenties, handsome, and well built with a red (political internee) triangle. This in itself was unusual, as all German inmates with red triangles were middle age men. Young German inmates had green triangles which meant professional criminals. When he use to come to see how the work progresses, his behavior towards us made the S.S. men look like angels. We could not understand, for as I mentioned earlier all German red triangles were political prisoners and Hitless opponents, respectable people. How come that this young German with a red triangle is such a murderer? Several days later this young German had a disagreement with the Lager-Altester (camp elder), and as a result the Lager-Altester has demoted him to an ordinary foreman over the sand haulers in which I worked. There couldn't have been worst news for us. We began to wonder as to how long we can last under his supervision. To our surprise he tells us to put down the baskets and delivers a short speech. He tells us that our group will be the best group to work in. Most of the men in our group are Italian Jews. He asked one of them how to say "To stop". The answer comes "Fermatedi". And the word for "Forwards"?- "Avanti". He repeats the words a couple of times. We pick up the heavy baskets and walk. Twenty metres farther he yells "Fermatedi". We put the baskets down for a couple of minutes and hear "Avanti". We pick them up to stop again twenty metres further. We are confused, not only we but the S.S. around us who walk away in disgust. As if in spite he always makes us stop when the Lager-Altester passes by but what's worse, he also did it when the camp commandant passed by, the big and fat S.S. man who instills fear and trembling in us whenever he goes by.
As days go by, our foreman starts to talk. We are finding out that he was a Gendarme indeed with the brown cuffs and collar assigned to the Krakow district. His work was with the department of supervision over the Krakow Ghetto. He use to tell his stories with visible longing for the days when he was dealing with the Ghetto, when he use to walk around and come out with a brief-case full of German marks. How does one characterize a type like him that belonged to the Nazi police. The so called "Shutz Polizei" that was part of the "Einsatzgruppen". The very same that from the middle of 1941 to the fall of 1942 killed in cold blood a million and a half Jews, not sparing a single soul, from infant to old and infirm, throwing many half dead in mass graves, burying many still alive. To be at other times able to obtain by cunning of false promises and terror, the last mark from a Jew and eventually take his life. At the same time he could betray his leader (fuehrer) and his party to whom he swore allegiance, and when caught and he was sent to Auschwitz for punishment to turn into a murderer and, when it serves his purpose, to act like an angel. To our advise that he should not antagonize his superiors, he replied; Have no fear, I know the law better then they and I'm acting accordingly. What did we Jews know about the laws, all we knew was that for us Jews the exit from there was via the crematorium chimney. The end was that he was sent back to Auschwitz. Was it a punishment or they wanted to get rid of him, we never found out.
The barrack we have taken over were neglected and the rain use to come through the roof. A few of us were given the task of tarring over the roof, I was one of them. We had to melt harder lumps of tar and spread it thickly over the roof. Although it was the month of May, to stand all day on the roof, exposed to the wind, was very uncomfortable and caused us frequent trips down to urinate which was a new experience for us. Another problem was to beat the tar off our hands which was impossible until we received a jug of sulfuric acid. After pouring a few drops in the palm of the hand and quickly rubbing it all over the hands, the tar use to start melting. We immediately had to stick are hands under running water. They use to become clean but very red and raw. We finished that job in a week. By that time others started already to dig in the fence post. It seemed that the Germans planned to enlarge this camp for they started to fence in a much larger area then the few barracks needed. Some system was eventually organized while s0me were still making the cement posts. Still others were bringing them over and laying them down near the holes while others were digging them in. Once, the washer on which the drum of the cement mixer rested broke and had to be replaced. As the mixer was the most important piece of machinery, the camp commandant himself supervised the repair process. It was no easy task, it required to lift out the mixing drum, which was a metre and a quarter in diametre made of heavy sheet metal and thickly caked on with cement. It had a half metre long shaft protruding from the bottom of its center that fitted in a bearing. It took as many people as could get around the drum to lift it out, and lower it to the ground. The old washer was taken out and the camp commandant himself put the new washer in its place. Doing it, he said clearly, that nobody should touch it while we are lifting the drum to put it back in its place. If taking the drum down was difficult, the putting it back was much worse. Firstly, it now had to be lifted from the ground and the shaft had to go in the bearing without touching or moving the washer. After many tries, and super human exertion, we had the shaft right over the washer when one man suddenly stretches out his hand and touches the washer. I don't know if it seemed to him that the washer needed adjustment or the devil himself made him do it. We could not hold the drum and dropped it to the ground. It is impossible to describe the rage of the camp commandant and the sight of the three hundred pound S.S. man hitting and when he fell kicking the eighty pound Dutch Jews. After that picture we didn't need encouragement to lift the drum and the cement mixer was soon operating again. The digging on the posts progressed nicely, when the commandant noticed that they are not in a very straight line. He ordered them dug up and redo the jobs which again did not please him. More men were sent to do that job, including me. Having experience with digging posts yet from the Ghetto, I started lining up the posts. This time they remained in the ground.
Slowly the previous innocent little camp began to look like a concentration camp. The posts were all in and we started to string barb wire on them and attach powerful electric lights on each post that were five metres apart. They brought from Auschwitz two doctors both Hungarian Jews. They partitioned off of an empty barrack and converted it into a kankenbau (hospital), from an other barrack they partitioned a small place and called it bekleidunges-kammer (clothes-room). They even sent in an inmate to run it, making him a Capo, a Jew from France by the name of FUKS. The S.S. sent in a truck load of underwear and from then on we used to change our underwear weekly. As far as going to shower, we could go any time, even daily. Apparently the German-Polish alliance of the inmates that existed in our camp and run it internally did not approve of having a Jew with the rank of Capo. A couple weeks after his arrival he left on an S.S. truck to Auschwitz to exchange the dirty laundry. The inmate alliance of the German-Polish Blockaltesters and Capos conducted a search in the "Bekleidungs-Kammer" (clothing-room) and found some valuables. They reported it to the camp commandant who promptly approached it. In the evening when the Capo FUKS returned, they gave him a good beating and next day sent him out to work on building a road adjoining the camp. A young ambitious S.S. man kept an eye on him all that day torturing him continuously and before we had to return for the appel, he shot him. He was replaced by a German inmate with a green (criminal ) triangle who had arrived with a group of inmates to replace those that died or were beaten to death. Among the new arrivals was a man from Pruzany by the name of Noah TREGER, a barber by profession who became the S.S. barber for our S.S. guards.
By the end of June 1944, the camp was ready, that is; the fence in place with bright lights on the posts lit up all night, new and tall watch-towers equipped with powerful projectors and machine-guns. We were told to expect a "Zugang", in camp language it meant a new group of inmates. The next day they arrived. Some six hundred and fifty Jewish men. They came from the work camp "Pionki". Brought to Auschwitz where they received their tattooed numbers, went through all the formalities like shaving, disinfected showers, receiving clean underwear, pants and jackets and were sent on to us. They were acquainted in life in camp. True, not to the kind like Auschwitz. It seemed that they had a nicer reception upon arrival then many other groups. They didn't even pass a selection, maybe because they were not emaciated as the Auschwitz inmates. In fact they looked like a healthy group of men between the ages of twenty to forty. The came dressed in civilian clothes which had a long wide red strip on either side of the pants and a red cross painted on the jackets. Their shirts which were supposed to serve as undershirts were new or almost new which did not escape notice of our overseers, the blockaltesters and Capos. The first thing they did was order the new arrivals to take them off and were given real camp undershirts. Those new shirts were brought by Jews all over Europe to Auschwitz and continued their trip to our camp on the backs of the newly arrived Jews. They became a currency shortly after in the hands of our overseers in barter for meat, sausage, butter, and liqueur with the civilian Poles that worked in the factory in which we started to work the following day.
We were divided in two twelve hour shifts and the day shift went to the plant. The other shifts remained in camp with those inmates that were engaged to work in the camp like the cooks, cleaners, and the big-shots like the "Lager-Altester", the "Blockaltesters", the "Lager Schreiber", the Larger Capo and the two doctors. In a word, all those "Prominentia" and the other big-shots, like the Capos who went with us to the factory. The factory was about a kilometre from the camp and well worn, first by the French workers feet and later by us. A wide triad led from the camp to it. Half way we passed a small lake, some hundred by a hundred metres in size. The camp, trail and factory, ran along the outskirts of the city Sosnowiec, three hundred metres away. Before, there was this factory that use to produce wire. The Germans converted it into an ammunition factory by dividing it into two parts. In one part they produced heavy artillery shells of one hundred and fifty caliber. In the second part they produced eighty eight millimetre anti-aircraft guns. I found out later that those guns were at that time the best of its kind. Upon entering the plant we were divided in two groups. One was taken to where the shells were being made and the other to were the cannon barrels were being made. In the part of the factory where the rest of the cannons were being made, we could not go to, for it was in the outside fence part of the plant. The part we worked in was fenced in by us at the same time as when we were erecting the camp fence. In that factory were employed the six hundred French civilians, two thousand Poles from the city and vicinity, and now eight hundred Auschwitz inmates. There were only two entrances in the fenced in part of the plant and there was an S.S. man at each of them. The civilians had to show an ID passing the gate which was a busy place due to the large number of workers that kept on going in and out.
When the fence around the camp was finished, there was no need for any S.S. man to guard us, so some were recalled back to Auschwitz, mainly of the young ones. Later on some S.S. men were taken away and replaced by older men in air force uniforms. Never the less there were enough S.S. man to make our life miserable. There is no wonder that with time the guards have become apathetic in checking the I.D.'s due to the heavy traffic at the gates, and they stopped scrutinizing them. The women really didn't have to show them, as there were no women prisoners working there. As for the men prisoners, we had all clean shaven heads, while all civilians had hair or some hair on their heads. The civilians were not so eager to reach for the ID every time they passed the gate. As a result, and in time, the civilians stopped showing their I.D.'s and just walked back and forth. Unless the guard was a stickler, and most S.S. man were, then the civilians showed it grudgingly. The very first day we were assigned as assisters to the civilians, some to a Pole and some to a Frenchman. I walked into the part of the factory, where for the first time in my life I saw such gigantic lathes. People were working there producing cannon barrels. In that part of the factory, we were some thirty Jews assigned as helpers to the Polish and French tradesmen. Our job was to sweep the cement floors around the machines, pick up the metal shavings, to hand the tradesmen wrenches and other tools. In one word, we were errand boys. Here for the first time my attending the technical trade school in Brest-Litowsk came in handy. Although our Capo came with us to work in reality he had nothing to do or say there, not having any concept of what is going on. The work was very specialized, and there were enough engineers and Artisans who knew how to work or supervise. I was assigned to a Frenchman who operated a large lathe. In the first couple hours he noticed that I have an idea about lathe operating. He encouraged me to try and work on it. When his eight hours shift ended and a Pole came replace him, as the factory worked twenty-four hours a day, he told the Pole that I am a tradesman and he can let me work a bit on the lathe. The Pole was delighted and let me work on the crude parts of the barrel. Convincing himself that he can depend on me he walked away to socialize with other workers.
We worked twelve hours a shift while the civilian workers, the Poles and French worked eight. This way I got to know all three men that worked at that particular lathe. As the Capo was seldom seen and the civilian workers had no authority over us except when it concerns work. I used to walk away and look around to see the immensity of the place and what it takes to produce a cannon barrel. Due to my curiosity I learned that a cannon barrel is not made from one piece of steel but it consists of seven individual tubes that go one into the other. Only the very inside ones consists of two, the other tubes or casings fit into each other. The inner-most consists of a shorter part and a longer one. The shorter is on the bottom near the magazine where the firing takes place and this part gets soon used up or burned out and has to be replaced. Each tube or casing had to be precise to the one five hundredth of a millimetre and each lathe had his special part to perform. On the lathe at which I was the assistant, they worked on the innermost casing. It didn't take long for the supervisor of our part of the factory to notice that my civilian boss is loafing around and I am doing the work. He soon made me independent and I had no more boss over me. From then on I used to spend twelve hours a day, six days a week or six nights a week at the lathe. We use to alternate, one week we worked day shift and one night shift. Next to me was another lathe being operated by three men during a twenty-four hour day, two Poles and a French man. They had very little to do with each other. Especially to do with the French man. Firstly, as soon as the eight hours were over they use to rush home, not wanting to spend an extra minute in the factory. Secondly, those two Poles thought very little of the French man, although to me he seemed to be more worldly then they. To my regret, I never got to know him. Firstly, because of the language problem and secondly because of his tendency to spend every free moment with his fellow Frenchman working nearby. Frankly, I don't blame him, to be so far away from home and not entirely voluntarily, in times of war, the longing for dear ones, even the sound of the mother tongue can give some comfort.
With one of the two Poles I became very friendly. His name was Tadek INDELAK and hailed from Katowice some ten kilometres away. He use to commute to work daily. He was a friend in the full sense of the word. Polite and trusting, he use to confide in me as if I were his childhood best friend. All his innermost secrets, even his relations and experience with his girlfriend he shared with me. Quite often he use to express his sympathy with the Jews not using the word "Zydzi" (Jews) which many Poles used as it was derogatory and disrespectful towards Jews. Instead he used the words "Ci ludzie"(those people). He was careful not to use to me the word arrested or intern. When he used to speak about my past he didn't say "before you were brought here" or "before you were arrested", he used the word "Wcywilu" (in civilian life). This shows the decency, the modesty of that young man. The second Pole, some 5 years older than the first, a man of about thirty was not so polite when speaking of Jews, although he showed a fair amount of tolerance towards me. He used to justify it with the fact that I am the only craftsman among all the other Jews who worked in the plant, saying among all the Jews here, you are the only one working independently on a lathe. It did no good my telling him that I came from a shtetl where all tradesmen, craftsmen and artisans were Jews and in all the shtetls around was the same. His girlfriend also worked in the same factory, a girl of about my age, about twenty. When they worked at night on the same shift she used to visit him during the half-hour midnight break when all the civilian workers used to get a meal. They too, as all civilians, used to come to the factory kitchen holding a dish with food. They would sit down to eat while we inmates used to watch with our mouths watering. I used to watch as his girlfriend took two mouthfuls of food, turned up her nose and throw the food in the garbage can. I used to think to myself ; Look, she knows that I and the rest of us are hungry, why doesn't she offer it to me or to one of us instead of throwing it out.
A few nights later they both came back from the kitchen .He with his container of food, she empty handed. I understood that she does not approve of the factory's food and rather not bother taking it. Another week or so passed and again we were working the night shift. At midnight break the civilians went to get their meal. I see the Pole coming alone from the direction of the kitchen and holding in each hand a container with food. He walks over to me stretching out one arm with a container towards me and says; This is from my girlfriend. She wants you to eat it. I took the container and looked inside. I see the food is untouched, it consists of a heaping ladle full of mashed potatoes covered with gravy, and on top a piece of warm sausage. I hadn't seen such food, nor did I dare dream of such for years. After I finished eating, and scraped it clean, I turned to go to wash the container. The Pole would not hear of it saying that his girlfriend will wash both of them. When I asked him where she was, so that I could thank her for such a treat, he replied that she is embarrassed to come over so I should not feel obliged to her, as my benefactor. This happened several times. Yet her boyfriend used to tell me that she does not like Jews but that I am the exception. It was too good to last. A short time later she got a permanent day job in the factory and the day shift did not get lunch at the factory.
With the first Pole Tadek INDELAK nd I became very close. After many conversations I discovered that he comes from a poor family. I realized that if he does not help me with food it is simply because he has nothing to give. He ate the midnight meal with much gusto. One day he asked me if I could procure for him a pair of camp drawers. This question intrigued me very much, especially knowing that camp underwear was made of a special design for prisoners. They were a medium blue color with narrow dark blue stripes running through them for easy identification. He told me that an acquaintance of his got a pair from an inmate for a loaf of bread and succeeded in dying them to a darker shade that made them unrecognizable. A few days later when we were changing the underwear I tore my pair into two pieces and instead of turning in a pair of underwear I threw on top of the pile of dirty underwear just half a pair. The Stubendienst ( stube-elder) saw me throwing two items, A shirt and underpants. A week later I threw the other half. In this way I was left with and extra pair. The next day I took that pair to work and gave it to Tadek. The following morning he brought me a loaf of bread. And so we started to barter, every two weeks I used to bring him a pair of underwear and he, in exchange, would bring a loaf of bread. The loaf of bread was far from filling from my hunger but it helped. The big-shots in camp now had one of their own in the clothing factory and started dealing with the civilian Poles in the factory. They did not barter for bread as this they had enough. They wanted sausages, meat, and liquor. Each of those big-shots like the blockaltester (block-elder) Capos, registrar, and others found from among us a confidante who became the middle man between them and the Poles. Those big-shots used to decide on the price and the hungry Jews had to haggle with the Poles.
There was a Lager-Capo, a German inmate with a green triangle, a man of about sixty. He looked and acted as if he had spent his life behind bars. He approached me and proposed that I should be middle-man, which I gladly accepted. The camp Capo did not go with us to the factory. His job was to see that the camp yard, the outside of the barracks, the washrooms, and the bathhouse were all in running order. Not that he lifted a finger to do anything, rather he ensured that others did it. One of his jobs was to be at the gate and help the S.S. men to count as we were marching out in the morning and returning. When it became known that we are stealing things from camp and selling them to the Poles, the S.S. started to search us on our way in and out. This Lager-Capo used to help them search us. While searching others he used to bring a little flat package. Pretending to search me he would place it in my jacket and let me through as if he just finished searching me. At work I would open it up and offer it to Tadek INDELAK, quoting the price the Capo gave me, adding half a loaf of bread for my trouble. Those transactions took place two to three times a week. Having tested me and finding me trustworthy, he started bringing me the nice shirts that the six hundred and fifty Jews arrived in from Pionky via Auschwitz and were told to take off when they came to us. Those shirts in war-torn Poland were unobtainable and were worth a kilogram of sausage or meat or even a bottle of liquor. For my trouble I never received more than half a loaf of bread and shared it with my friend Leibel BLISKOFSKY, one of the two other partners in our bread ration. By that time our third partner was moved to the other shift and to another block. The two of us remained friends and shared every bit of food. I can say in all sincerity that in those days I was the bigger earner, although he tried to reciprocate.