|Jewish Brethren , Hold Stead Fast!|
1. The Ghetto in
On The Way To Eretz
personal memoirs of Shumel Mordechai Rubinstein z"l
We arrived at nightfall, after three days without food or drink. We had no strength left and we were exhausted when we arrived at our final destination - Auschwitz. The carriages were opened one by one, and strange people appeared in the openings, dressed in striped clothing like zebras. Only the stripes were vertical instead of horizontal. We heard sounds like the baying of dogs - Get out at once!! Leave everything behind!! You may only take a knapsack!! We left everything, because blows were descending on our heads like hail to speed up our exit from the train. My brother Meir Eliahu æ"ì would not part with any of his bundles, he didnt yet believe that he would have no more need of them. To my grief he wasnt willing to relinquish them until he had received some heavy blows on his head. No sooner had we left the train than we found ourselves standing in front of Mengele the butcher, who was holding his club. A gesture to the left or to the right indicated to each one the direction in which he must go. If you didnt understand, they made you understand by means of a club to the head. The butcher was not short of helpers... My brother and I were directed to the right, where we stood in groups of five. I saw that most of the crowd were sent directly to be exterminated. Where were we going? What awaited us?? From a distance I spotted my brothers wife being loaded onto a truck with many other women, crammed together and clinging to one another. The soldiers were throwing babies on top of them as if they were pieces of wood, or parcels that one tosses into an empty truck. But these were babies!!! Who can understand the murderous cruelty? Who can describe it so that people will understand? So they can feel what we felt when we witnessed these things? The clock went on ticking, and the German orderliness proceeded with clockwork precision. Laden trucks departed and empty trucks returned, while the voices of the victims crying Shema Yisrael froze the very blood in our veins...
I stood with my brother in that group of five. An SS soldier approached us, swinging his club, and ordered us to straighten up in line with the group in front. My poor brother was stunned from the blows he had received, and he didnt understand what the soldier wanted from him. The brute then began to beat him with frightful cruelty. My brother pleaded for mercy, begging him to stop. At that moment the club broke on my brothers head. The soldier rammed the broken end into my brothers eye, and his eye burst out with a terrible gush of blood. I was made of steel - I stood and watched without moving. The soldier then dragged my brother by the hand to the side of those destined for the gas chambers. My brothers twelve-year-old son Hank stood there. He was big for his age. I pressed his hand lovingly, trying to express comfort, and silently promising him that I would look after him if we remained alive. I would do my best to ease the suffering of this poor orphan who was bereft of both father and mother at the age of twelve. His two younger brothers and his baby sister were also taken, together with his parents.
The order came to march forward. It was getting dark, so I couldnt gauge distances. Without noticing we passed through a gate and were shoved into a wooden shed. There we found more creatures - animals in human form wearing unfamiliar clothes of good quality, with belts and short, coloured coats. They appeared to be Polish or German officers. What was unusual was that their belts were strangely coloured, not the colour of leather. These were prisoners who had arrived a few months before us, and they had been appointed block leaders and kapos. They also worked as servants to the soldiers, often carrying out their tasks more faithfully than the soldiers themselves. Killing other prisoners, especially Jews, cost them no qualms of conscience. They were our reception committee! From the moment we entered the shed they began beating us with clubs on our heads and bodies, with the intention of increasing our fear and despair. Everyone was crowded around a long table and we were ordered to place all our money and valuables on the table. Open suitcases stood ready to receive the loot. We were warned that if we swallowed anything it would show up on an X-ray and our bellies would be cut open to remove it. Naturally 99% of all our valuables disappeared into the suitcases.
Somebody had 100 dollars hidden inside his trousers, which he took out to hand over. Next to him stood one of the workers, hoping to steal the money for himself. At that moment an SS man entered and asked whats going on? Instead of telling the truth, the servant accused the man of concealing money. The soldier beat the Jew over the head to settle accounts...
From there they took us to the washhouse. To the side was a room where we were all forced to strip and leave our clothing, keeping only our shoes. There were some prisoners working there, and they searched the clothes for valuables which they wanted to steal for themselves... I was well dressed in my short fur coat, nice trousers and fine boots, so they assumed I was wealthy, with hidden valuables. They even took my boots, giving me shoes that had been taken from someone else. To my despair the shoes were too small. What could I do? Suddenly I spotted someone else walking out in my boots. I rushed after him to make the exchange, but before I could utter a word a club came down on my head. I immediately understood that the rule here was to keep quiet and submit to everything...
Naked, holding our shoes in our hands, because we were forbidden to put them on, we approached the barber in a long line. All we had left was the hair on our bodies, and now we were required to donate that as well... Several barbers stood there, with a stool next to each one. The stool had two functions: after the head and face were shaved, we had to stand on it while they shaved us from underneath as well. Then, if my lord the barber didnt like the way we were standing, or if the victim couldnt bear the pain of the shaving procedure, he was invited to get down from the stool, and to be so kind as to lie on it, face down, while the gentleman barber administered a few sound blows, to his hearts content, without differentiating between men and women. Anyone who had any sort of job was permitted to carry a club and use it according to whim, using his own judgement and with only his conscience to guide him. From the barber we passed on to the showers, in an open, bitterly cold building. The water was icy. Its hard to believe what a human being can suffer and endure... After the shower we were each given a torn undershirt, a striped pair of trousers and a number on a six-pointed star, coloured red and yellow. I also received an open-lapeled coat which had once belonged to a suit. Over the left breast pocket was a two-colored six-pointed star with a number. From there we were taken to a hotel to pass the night...
We came to a strange wooden shack with double doors and a wide gate. Inside it was pitch black. Whether by accident or design I dont know, but at the entrance stood a chest full of clay, with all sorts of tools scattered inside - apparently they had been building a stove. The block orderlies stood ready with their clubs, and as soon as we approached the shack they began to beat us indiscriminately - heads were split open, blows rained down, and people began running like sheep into the shack. They stumbled over the chest of tools, and tripped over each other, until there was a pile of bodies lying there. Gradually we made our way out of this trap as well. A long stove ran along the entire length of the shack, in the center, and three-tiered bunks were ranged along both sides, with a 50 centimeter space between each bunk. The bunks were covered with snow - there were no mattresses or blankets. We crawled in, each one seeking a familiar face. Each level was intended for 10 people, and we sat there squashed together, seeking to gain some warmth. This was our third night without sleep, not to mention food or drink.
The orderlies began to move among us with flashlights, examining our shoes. They took every decent pair, because good shoes were a rare find! At the same time they continued to beat us, without noticing where their clubs landed. Our bunks were constructed of thin wooden planks, placed lengthwise instead of widthwise. What difference did that make? The difference was that each person was thus lying on two planks, and if he wanted to change his position, one of the two would slip down, forming a crack which pinched the flesh between the planks. It was no pleasure, I assure you... As I said, we spent that first night sitting up, pressed together, more than ten to a tier. The planks were not strong and they broke, dropping us onto the bunks below. That caused the lower bunks to break as well, and we all fell onto the bottom bunks. The chaos was undescribable. The orderlies were most energetic - they appeared at once, and their clubs went to work...
The clocks did not stop, and we soon heard the summons to rise. We didnt need to get dressed, since we had already dressed the previous day. We went outside, where we were required to organize ourselves in straight lines, in groups of five. Finally we had the opportunity to take a good look around, and see where we found ourselves. We were surrounded by double barbed-wire fences. Beyond the fences were watch towers, with an SS soldier in each, armed with machine guns. We saw corpses on the fences and alongside them - these were the first suicides that we encountered. An SS officer came up, received a report, and began counting the prisoners. Then they brought barrels of some strange liquid, not tea and not soup either. Later we learned that from time to time they would boil water with a bit of semolina, which made a sort of dirty water. This was ladled out to us in a strange, reddish bowl which I assumed to be some kind of helmet that the Germans had obtained from a country they had conquered. But that was my mistake - they were actually special bowls for the prisoners food. After we drank they finally took us all together to the lavatories, after 72 hours, to relieve ourselves - its difficult for me to talk about it. This too was accompanied by much suffering...
On the way to the lavatories, alas, what sights we saw. We must have been made of tempered steel to endure under such conditions. Heaps of corpses lay behind each shack. They were naked, skeletal, and dried out. You could count their bones! They lay there until they were collected and burned. We saw a huge shute, with ten men harnessed to it by ropes. It was piled high with corpses, some with their heads to the right, others with their heads to the left, laid out in rows and tied to prevent their scattering. A baton-wielding kapo accompanied them. It was not clear whether the corpses were thinner than those dragging the shute. The corpses were unclothed, those dragging the shute were clothed in rags and all of them were Jewish, may G-d avenge them. In this way they were brought to the crematoria!
After visiting the lavatories we were visited by different gentlemen with a card index, accompanied by others with sharpened wooden needles. They asked for our names, ages and dates of arrest, which were recorded on the cards. Then they used a wooden needle dipped in blue coloring to puncture each number on the left hand. One of them asked me when I was arrested and I replied that I have never been arrested. He gazed at me as if I was an idiot and asked If you were never arrested what are you doing here? Thats when I realized I was a prisoner! Until then I always believed that you were a prisoner if police placed handcuffs on your wrists and brought you to court for a specific crime. The judge would then pass sentence. But here innocent people were ordered to climb on a train.... and after they did so they were brought to a certain place and called prisoners - without a trial! No trial and no judge! And the crime? A very serious crime indeed - the crime of being a Jew!
Poor Hank, my brothers son, was really a baby. He was well grown, but really a baby, only twelve years old. He had not begun to see the world, and suddenly he was a prisoner! He stood at my side, trembling with fear, and my soul trembled with him! My heart was bursting with pain! I forgot my loved ones in the knowledge that they were already gone, I forgot myself, and my only concern was to save this young orphan - perhaps a small remnant could be saved?! He wanted my advice, as if I knew better! He wanted to give his age as eighteen - his childish instinct was sound. An evil inclination inspired me to suggest that he give his age as sixteen, and the poor child obeyed my stupid advice...
At noon they brought barrels full of some kind of food. I am sure that if it was offered to pigs they would refuse it. Some sort of greens, like boiled bean husks, hard and dry and totally tasteless. This was our lunch... Hank turned his face away - he couldnt even look at it. This spoilt child from a rich home was accustomed to such a good life that even after three and a half days without food he couldnt look at it. I told him to forget everything if he wanted to stay alive, to eat what he was given and to do what he was told - thats the situation and we cant change it. In the evening we received 250 grams of bread with a little tea and a small bit of sausage. That was supper.
The Gypsy Camp
We were taken to a different hut in a different camp with different bunks. These bunks were 1.80 meters wide, and the length of a man, ten people on each level. There were three levels. Once again the width between the bunks was 50-60 centimeters, and 60 men had to manage here... We each received two blankets. We had no need of pillows - you could always use your fist, and anyway the bunks were built on a slant, so the head was higher, and in truth you can get used to anything!
The new camp didnt even have a fence yet. The huts were the same as those I described previously - long, with a gate at each end - in fact, they were built like stables. At one side of the entrance was a little room for the block leader - he was the king and the entire empire was his. On the other side was a small storeroom with all kinds of things. To keep order there were three Shtubel dinstis (servants of the king). One was Russian and one was Polish, and I never learned their names. The third was a Jew named Zolty, a Polish name which translates as yellow. All three were sadistic murderers, and to our great shame the Jew was the worst. He had arrived at Birkenau three months earlier from France.
He was a Polish Jew from Lodz, a baker by trade. For a time left-wingers and suspected communists fled from Poland to France. Immediately following the German victory in France the first thing they did was to arrest foreign Jews and transport them to Auschwitz-Birkenau, and among them was Zolty. Those who excelled in murder were chosen as block servants and block leaders. He was coarse and ill-mannered, a typical baker. He had authority and his victims were Jews. They were going to die anyway, and now he had the opportunity to rob them and steal their meager food rations to fatten himself, thinking in this way to increase his chances of survival. He attempted to curry favor with the soldiers and the other bosses, never taking into account that the situation might someday be reversed... In the meantime he continued to beat, to rob and to steal, and people died like flies of starvation, thirst and sickness.
Our hut held about six hundred people. The day we arrived in Birkenau a transport came from Czechoslovakia and fifty of them were put in our hut - all that remained of the entire transport! Another transport came from Holland, and from them too only fifty remained. They were also added to our hut. So altogether we were six hundred. One day the three block servants chose three helpers from the Czechoslovakian Jews. To do them justice I should mention that they were allied together like one family, in contrast to those from Holland. The new helpers took their responsibilities very seriously, and promptly began beating the Polish Jews and stealing their food, which they divided among themselves. After more than two weeks in this hellhole lice began to breed. There was a lavatory in the hut, separated from the bunks by wooden planks and equipped with barrels. You can imagine the smell! People lay close together without washing or changing underwear or clothes. Illnesses spread rapidly, people burned with fever but there wasnt even water to drink. When we went outside we collected snow and swallowed it, but that made us even more thirsty. Twice a day they distributed tea, but sometimes the servants would pour it out instead of giving it to us. They kept a bucket of tea for themselves and poured the rest away, but there was nobody to complain to...
For the first two weeks I tried to avoid being noticed by the murderers. I kept a low profile, and the boy remained by my side. We managed to avoid even one beating. Then it happened that the three helpers were caught stealing food. They were all beaten and demoted. Zolty needed new helpers so he called for volunteers - he needed four. Out of all the men one stepped forward, a young lad from Bialystok. He seemed nice enough, very young and pleasant. Since there were no more volunteers Zolty began to pick them himself. He chose a Jew from our ghetto who had been a food merchant, a really fine man, intelligent and honest. I knew him well, and before the war I had business dealings with him. Since he had no choice he accepted the task. Another Jew from our ghetto was chosen, a simple man but good, a shoemaker by trade - Ill tell you more about him later. In this way Zolty walked all the way along the stove until he caught sight of me! I was hidden behind the other men, next to the wall by the bunks, but Im tall, so he spotted me and chose me for his fourth helper. I was devastated, but it was forbidden to refuse so I, too, accepted the task.
The first evening they made us share out the bread ration. The block leaders three helpers sliced the bread, cutting each loaf into five sections instead of four, and stealing 20%. They stole more than half of the sausage and the margarine. While we were handing out the bread they stole my portion so I didnt get any. The following evening as I climbed into the top bunk all ten men reached out to me at once, and one of them very nimbly grabbed my bread. Then he put out his other hand and snatched another piece of bread. I demanded that they all climb off the bunk and began searching for my portion but all I found were crumbs. Naturally I took the whole portion still in the thiefs possession, but instead of keeping quiet he began to yell. Zolty heard the noise and arrived with his club. He didnt ask for explanations but instead he gave me a blow which made my head bleed!
Two days later potatoes in their skins and soup were brought for our lunch. The potatoes were poured out on a blanket but they didnt share them out for a long time. People lay on the bunks staring hungrily at the food, and it was my job to make sure that nobody stole any. They lay there and watched. Some braver characters began to steal forward, snatch up a potato and flee. If I held a club and brought it down on one or two, the game would be over, but how could I beat a Jew for stealing a potato?
Worse was to come. A Jew lay behind me, starving to death and pleading for mercy. Bring me a potato, he begged. Fool that I was, I didnt take one for myself, but for this man I bent down and stole a potato. As I turned to give it to him, Zolty the murderer came running towards me carrying a long, thick club and gave me a two-handed blow on the side of my head above my ear. Although it was midday everything turned black, I spun around like a spinning top and fell onto the bunk. To this day I dont know why he didnt kill me. Once again, I must have been made of steel. for 24 hours I couldnt hear anything but the sound of bells ringing in my head. I realised that I wouldnt stay alive much longer if I kept this position.
The young fellow from Bialystok was outstanding. He looked so young and innocent, but within a very short time he learned a special technique for beating people up. He would smash his elbow into his victims face, and the strongest man would keel over. Everyone wondered where he learned such tricks and such agility, and eventually it transpired that he was a criminal who had served time in a Polish jail before the war. One day when everyone was outside Zolty sent me into the hut to make sure nobody would steal anything. I came in and looked around. When I peered under the bunks I saw a crate full of stolen sausages which had not yet been bartered for vodka and other valuables. The helpers hadnt put it into their little room, but hidden it instead under the bunks of starving people, so that, if the SS men found it, they would beat or kill whoever slept on the bunk. I confess that I immediately made up my mind that if an SS man would ask what Im doing here or discover the theft, I would not be Zoltys victim. I would rather bury the three murderers for all the beatings I had received from them and for the blood of all the others that they had shed. Fortunately nobody found it, so I had no need to inform on them...
We stood in the snow all day, barefoot and nearly naked. Our feet sank into the sticky mud under the snow. They arranged us in lines of five, then they ordered us to remove our coats and turn them around with the opening at the back, and march to the other end of the camp. There stood 2 or 3 men holding spades. Everyone had to hold his coat open at the edges while they placed some muddy earth in the seam. Then they counted us again and everyone marched in lines through the mud to the other side of the camp. Some people lost their shoes, and as they bent to fish them out of the mud they earned a clout on the back. This is how they walked, to and fro...
At night, when everyone was asleep, two murderers stood guard by the gates to make sure nobody went out. The camp was not yet fenced in, so an SS soldier with a machine gun stood at each gate. If anyone stuck his head outside, they shot him. When the block leader wanted to go outside on duty or to drink with his mates he would announce it loudly, and the soldier would acknowledge the message and give him permission to leave. One day I asked Zloty why he stayed up on watch all night when he could be sleeping, and I offered to stand guard in his place. He asked whether I could find someone else who would also be willing to do so, and I said Id see. I figured that in this way I wouldnt have to deal with other people, and nobody would beat me for being useless. I would even get a bit more soup and bread and I could sleep all day... I offered the position to another Jew, who jumped at the opportunity, and we became night guards. By nature I dont like to be questioned, nor do I like asking questions, so I didnt ask what I should do if someone came in for inspection. We spent a few nights on watch and all went well. I spent each day sleeping on a heap of blankets, alone on the bunk - truly paradise. I had a bit more soup and bread to share with my dear nephew. Things were good, I wasnt beaten and I didnt have to beat others, G-d forbid.
I was standing next to the front door one night, while the other man stood at the back door. Suddenly my door opened and five murderers entered: two SS officers, two block leaders, including our own, and the camp director who was very high-ranking, although he was a prisoner - he was an international criminal, like all the Germans in the camp. I am a great coward by nature, but when I find myself in a fix my fear leaves me and I become a tiger... Within seconds I had an idea - I sprang to attention and yelled loudly: All is well, everyone is asleep. I shouted for two reasons: a) so the other guy would hear me, and b) not to show my fear. The chief officer took two strides towards me, looked at me in astonishment and asked whether I was a Jew. I answered in the affirmative, and he asked where Im from. I told him that too. It seems to have satisfied them, because they left. Some of them were carrying clubs to protect themselves, so that would have something to honor any victim they came across.
They went towards the rear door. I dont know what happened there, it seems that the poor guard was asleep, because I heard the order to bend over, and each of the five beat him. He was so strong - he didnt make a sound. In Pruzany he had been renowned for his courage. Apparently he straightened up, because then I heard a dull thud. There were several mugs on the stove, and one of the murderers hit him hard on the head with a mug, with such force that the mug sank into his skull. They called me to bring a bowl of water. There was a water tank between the beds of the block servants, but we were forbidden to touch it. Now I had the opportunity to take some water. I brought it over to them. What I saw there was horrible! The man stood there, a mug embedded in his skull and blood streaming down - and yet he remained standing! He himself removed the mug and lowered his head into the bowl of water. The bowl filled with blood as the murderers stood and watched... A few minutes later they sent him to sleep and left us. He managed to undress and lay down on the bunk. A short time later our block leader returned and asked where the poor fellow was sleeping. He approached him and told him to dress. He put on his trousers, but when he reached for his coat the block leader told him there was no need right now, as if he needed him to carry out some minor errand. He took him out of the hut, and I realized that he wouldnt be coming back and I would never see him again. For a while I waited hopefully, but no! When we went out in the morning to be counted I saw him lying by the wall. He had been strangled. They had a system - they would tell their victim to lie on the ground, then they placed a stick of wood on his throat and stood on it with both feet. Within seconds he would be dead. Thats what the murderer did to his victim.
The day after we were counted, a doctor would come by and order us to put out our hands and stick out our tongues. Just by looking he could tell who suffered from diarrhea or any other sickness, and he would write down their numbers. Every day he wrote down a few numbers in each block, and a short while later those people would be called into the hut, and from there they would be taken away, never to be seen again...
One day the block leader came into the hut and ordered all sixteen year olds to step outside. Two children came forward, one of them my nephew Hank. They were each given a bread ration and told they were being taken to a trade school to learn building, and that was the end for him... To this day I cannot forgive myself - why did I insist that he register his age as 16 instead of 18, as he had wanted?
There was a space of about 15 meters or maybe slightly more between the blocks - I never measured. Next to each block or hut was a ditch to collect standing water, so the area was always muddy and sticky. This was considered a suitable place to torture people. As yet there were no paved roads. One day an SS man came by and chose 20 men, including myself. For his entertainment he instructed us to lie down in the mud and roll from hut to hut, back and forth. Anyone who rolled too near a ditch was booted into it. After ten minutes of this sport, we were all lumps of mud. He then ordered us to run into the hut and get cleaned up within ten minutes. People rushed to clean off their clothes but I didnt. Instead I stripped and hung my clothes up to dry. What could I achieve in ten minutes? The soldier didnt come to check. The next morning my clothes were dry, and after I rubbed them a bit they were clean.
One Sunday we were taken out and told to remove the lice from our clothes and our bodies. We stripped half naked and got to work. One of the Czechs was wrapped in a blanket because he was cold. He stood next to me, and the block leader stood in front of us. We didnt notice him giving Zolty a signal, but Zolty the butcher understood immediately. He called to the other man - this was a really brawny fellow, brother to one of the block helpers. They went into an empty hut, and one minute later Zolty reappeared by himself. Fifteen minutes later a horse drawn wagon came by, and the poor fellows corpse was hoisted onto the wagon and hauled away to the crematoria.
The next day, after we had been counted, the SS block leader (I should say the SS man but its very hard for me to call him a man so Ill just say SS or soldier) gave the order for us to open our shoes and show him our rags. Some people wanted their feet to stay warm so they tore pieces off their blankets to pad their shoes. The murderers had discovered this so they came to check. Whoever was found guilty had his number recorded, which was never a good sign...
I never did things like that, because I didnt want any trouble, but I had been lucky enough to receive a pair of rags from a worn old blanket, when they distributed the clothes. A story is told of a rabbi who went to buy a cow for milk, but instead he bought a bull. His wife went to milk the beast, but saw that it was a bull. That night an epidemic broke out, and all the cows died. In the morning she returned to the cowshed and saw the bull lying dead, so she came home and said For milking its a bull, but for dying its a cow! In short, my number was also noted.
After roll call we all went into the hut and I climbed up to my bunk to sleep. An hour later a soldier entered and announced that everyone whose name was written down must come forward. I lay there unmoving, my eyes wide open, and pretended to sleep. But I decided to check whether he was holding a list of names - and he wasnt. The others climbed down and stood in a line. When he had enough men he approached the first one and hit him so hard that he fell down, and then did the same with the second and the third, all along the line. Everyone was lying down, including me, but I was on my bunk... After that the hero departed.
I have not yet explained why they called it the Gypsy Camp. We were the first inmates. After we had been there three weeks they brought in a large contingent of gypsies from Germany, including women and children, together with all their parcels, placing them in huts opposite ours. The gypsies stretched curtains between the bunks and organized a sort of family camp. We were ordered to take them food, but they didnt want it, because they still had food in their suitcases and trunks, so they gave it back to us, which is what we had hoped for. In my heart I thought: Youd better get used to it. Soon you will lick out your bowls just like the rest of us...
We spent six weeks in that camp (Krentin Lager). During that time our number dropped from six hundred to three hundred. Only one of the Dutchmen survived, the others died like flies. Approximately one third of the Czechs remained, and just over half of our number, because we were more accustomed to suffering. After six weeks they again carried out a large selection, sending the healthier people to Auschwitz [this is a reference to Auschwitz I], while the weaker ones went to smaller camps in the area, which also belonged to Auschwitz. In these camps the conditions were more hellish, starvation was quicker and death was more frequent, but we only learned this later.
I forgot to mention another important detail. During our six weeks in Birkenau we were permitted to wash twice - how? Not far from us stood an empty hut, with a well nearby. Inside the hut were long troughs. We were sent there naked through the mud. Each of us received a piece of rock-hard soap, imprinted with the letters R.I.F., which stood for rein yiddish fet (pure Jewish fat). They said that the Germans made soap from the fat of burnt Jews, in the same way that they made mattresses and other things from the womens hair... Two men stood next to the well, drawing up water and pouring it into the troughs. Everyone who could get near the water cupped his hands and tried to wash like that. You can imagine what sort of wash it was! And without a towel.
The soldiers didnt only deceive the Jews. They told the gypsies that their young men were being conscripted to the army, and then they collected them, took down their names and started to train them. They gypsies were delighted - after all, they were German citizens. They knew how to speak the language and they were also very good at singing German songs. Gradually all the young men were taken from their families, to the joy of their parents. Of course they were really conscripted to the gas chambers. Later I will tell you what happened to their families. Now Im going back to that last day in Birkenau. We spent all day standing outside. It wasnt so cold anymore because it was close to Pesach. The days were longer and the sun was warmer, but there was still some snow and the winds were still cold. They marched us to Auschwitz before nightfall. To this day Im not sure of the distance, but gauging by the time it took us, Id estimate four or five kilometers. On the way we met some Jews from Maltz. They were almost unrecognizable, they were so thin. We looked at each other without speaking, and that was our final leavetaking - I never saw them again.
We arrived at Auschwitz at night. This was an added torture they thought up. When people had to be conveyed from place to place, they would first keep them on their feet from morning to night, under the impression that they would be setting out shortly. They would finally march them off in the dark and when they arrived at the new place they were kept standing for the rest of the night while they made arrangements for the necessary huts or blocks. This would go on for half the next day as well, so nobody ate or drank for more than 30 hours...
We came to a wide iron gate with the overhead inscription Arbeit Macht Frei (work makes you free!). The gate opened. Once again they counted us in case a mistake had occurred... and then they took us to the washroom. We came into a boiler room with a stove for heating the water. We were ordered to strip, keeping only shoes and belts. Every new place we came to they took away our clothes. This had two purposes: Firstly, they wanted to disinfect our clothes, and secondly the kapos and servants went over them thoroughly in the hope of finding loot. I dont remember how I managed to smuggle in 15 Russian gold rubles. I found them hidden in the coat they gave me at Birkenau. Apparently I had hidden them in my shoes, Im not sure, but in any event I smuggled them in.
We stood in that room, squashed together like geese... Just to abuse us, the servants would occassionally pour a stream of cold water over us from a rubber pipe. When we screamed he switched to another pipe and we received a jet of scalding hot water instead. This went on until he tired of his sport, and as the screams increased they started beating us with clubs. This went on for half the night. At midnight they finally took us into the showers, and the game recommenced: ice cold water, screams, boiling water, screams, ice cold water! After the shower we received clothes, underwear and even a hat - rather strange looking but a hat nevertheless. Everything was blue and white striped, like convict uniforms. They brought us to the third floor - dozens of tailors were sitting there, and we had to wait, naked, while they sewed a red and yellow six-pointed star with our personal numbers onto our trousers and coats. Thats how we sat until morning. In the morning they took us outside, still naked, with only our shoes to protect us from the snow and the icy wind which pierced our flesh like a knife. The reason for this was that the block leader had sent our clothes back to be disinfected again. We stood there for about 45 minutes, but it seemed like an eternity.
After roll call they put us into the block. At the entrance I received my first slap for some offense - to this day I dont know why. As a rule I remembered when I was beaten and why, but this time I had no idea - apparently it was a cash deposit...
At noon we received our clothes and lunch - one liter of soup. I should mention that the block was clean, with a red painted floor and a long carpet between wooden beds. Each man had a bed, two blankets, a good, thick straw mattress and a straw pillow. Exemplary cleanliness! Downstairs at the entrance were showers and toilets. Everything was so clean it shone.
In the afternoon we had another roll call for the new men, surrounded by block leaders and SS guards. Once again they wrote down our names, numbers and professions. People were assigned to blocks according to their professions, each with its own block - I was listed as a stitcher and sent to bakleidung werkstelle (clothing workshops), in other words, shoemakers. They had no need for a stitcher, so they made me into a shoemaker. There were two kinds: the experts, who repaired leather shoes, and those like me (although some of us were really good), who repaired wooden shoes. Nu, for that you really dont need to be an academic with a diploma! I was certainly capable of hammering iron nails, but sewing patches by hand? Out of the question, especially for someone who never learned how its done.
Luckily I was with a friend from my town, Mendel Yungerman. He had a heart of gold, and he was also a fine shoemaker. He sewed patches for me and I hammered nails for him. We had to repair six pairs of shoes every day, and it was always the luck of the draw: if I had six pairs that didnt need much repair, it was a good day, I just needed to make sure that they kept me busy all day. But if I had six pairs in tatters, I was in trouble. At nightfall, half an hour before we stopped working, we had to clean up and hand in the repaired shoes. The kapo, a non-Jewish Polish murderer, collected them. He had a helper, an old Polish non-Jew, a really evil man. He would look for any reason to find fault with the Jews, even a tiny nail in the wrong place. This he would gleefully report to the kapo, who would administer a beating. The following day that shoe would be added to the six new pairs.
Approximately 600 men worked in the workshops - shoemakers, stitchers, tailors, hatmakers, beltmakers and ordinary labourers. It was a large place: cellars, two storey buildings and stables. Once it had been a Jewish factory - a very large tanning plant. Stinking pools of water still remained. Murderous kapos were in charge, under the supervision of the uber meister (director in chief), who was a German citizen. It was said that he was a former concentration camp prisoner who had been castrated for homosexual practices. I dont know how true that was and it really doesnt matter. He was released from the concentration camp because he had connections in high places. Otherwise he would never have been released - that was the rule. The Nazi monster intended, after victory, to convert the concentration camps into labor towns where prisoners would remain to the end of their days.
This uber meister was a murderer, a real monster. He lived in a luxury apartment in the middle of the plant. Whenever he came outside everyone trembled, not knowing where to hide themselves... One evening I was sitting in a corner near the pools, together with some other prisoners. We were working on womens hair. Our job was to unbind braids and remove all hairclips and combs. I suddenly spotted the sadist coming towards us with his special whip - the dried penis of a bull. He was dragging a poor Jew with him. Even now when I think of it, I shiver and my hair stands on end! He told him to stand next to the pool, and then kicked him, so that he fell in. In winter the water was very cold, and the smell was so foul it made you feel sick. Whenever the unfortunate man reached the side of the pool, he received another hearty kick, until his head sank beneath the surface. After repeating this several times he let the man out, but for dessert he ordered him to lie down on a stool, and gave him 25 lashes with his whip before leaving. Dont ask how the poor fellow survived. Perhaps there are some Jews who have an extra soul under certain conditions - one soul departs and another comes in its place. Or else the body develops some kind of armor-plating to withstand all the sufferings and troubles of this world.
My wooden shoes inflicted terrible sores on the soles of my feet. I didnt want to see a doctor - I was afraid of them, but the kapo pulled me out of roll call and forced me to line up with the sick people, because he saw that I couldnt walk. I was sent to the hospital! I had a short brown coat, padded with cotton, where I had hidden the 15 gold rubles. It was a wonderful hiding place. If they carried out a search, nobody could find them, and even if they were found, I had an excellent excuse - I had no idea they were there, since this coat was the one they gave me. At the hospital they immediately took away my clothes, as was customary in every new place. But they left my shoes! The 15 rubles went with my clothes... I was taken to be shaved and showered, and from there straight to the operating table. After the operation I shared a bed with two other patients - the strongest one could lie in the bed but the other two were obliged to sit. I chose to sit, because I didnt want even more pain after my operation. I stayed there for a few days, receiving even less food than before. They distributed less bread here because the patients didnt work. Those who worked received an extra ration of bread twice weekly - 500 grams, half a loaf, as well as 100 grams of sausage, which could be traded for a portion of bread (250 gramsof bread). But this didnt apply in the hospital. A few days later I came out of there, pale as chalk, but I wasnt returned to the shoemakers.
They sent me to the group of odd jobbers. This was a large group - approximately 400 men who were sent out to the bau platz (building site). Hundreds, perhaps thousands of huts lay there waiting to be assembled, and our job was to load them up on lorries for dispatch to all sorts of camps. There were even some civilian workers there. The place was large, and the soldiers didnt stand near us - they formed a ring at a distance to make sure nobody escaped. It wasnt bad - there was always the chance of earning an extra piece of bread, but seeing that I was new I stayed at the back of the group when we went in and out of the camp. On the morning of the second day, during roll call, a short German kapo came by and took me and some others to do some work for him. Off we went like lambs to the slaughter... I was with a very young German Jew and we were supervised by the kapo, his helper and two SS men - four dogs altogether against two Jews. Nu, would anybody envy us such a pleasure?
Thank G-d I have always had the ability to adapt to every situation and every type of work. As it is written the Lord compensates for every shortcoming. For example, when someones leg is too short, his other leg is too long, in compensation! Thats how it is with me - there are always miracles in this world. The kapo liked me, and he asked where I learned to work so well. Thank heavens my sense of humor never deserted me, and I told him that I was still learning in Auschwitz Technical School. He found that most amusing, and asked me, in that case, wheres the university? I replied in the bunker. There was a cellar in the camp - bunker in German. Anyone who sinned, depending on the nature of his transgression, could be punished by the routine methods - stoning, burning or strangulation, or they could be locked into the bunker, without food, and severely beaten every day. Only those few fortunate people who were exceptionally strong came out alive. From then on the kapo regularly asked me when I planned to enter the university, and I would reply that my grades arent good enough. This pleased him so much that nearly every day he gave me his soup ration, or divided it between the young German and myself. The gentiles almost burst with envy, but it stopped them from having fun at our expense.
Once we were guarded by two Ukrainian SS - these were quislings who had defected from the Red Army to enlist in the German SS. Their love of Jews was well known, and they wanted to make trouble for me, but they didnt succeed. An angel stood between us, and all they could do was stand nearby and grind their teeth like ravening dogs, hurling juicy Russian curses. I pretended not to hear. When the soup pot arrived at lunchtime the kapo gave me an extra portion as usual, and thats when the two dogs found a way to avenge themselves - they ordered me to clean out the pot. They probably thought I would be humiliated, not realising that I could lick out everything that stuck to the sides and bottom of the pot!
People have different desires at different times. There is the desire for riches, for happiness... Our greatest wish was for a bit of bread and a little soup to relieve our hunger. Our pangs of hunger were so severe that they became an ache in the stomach. Words cannot describe the skeletal figures who would drag themselves to the buildings to scrabble in garbage barrels, hoping to find a crust, even a rotten crust, or a moldy scrap of bread. But who was rich enough to toss it away in the first place?
On morning I decided to barter in order to earn something. I took my bread ration and went out in the street. There were streets in Auschwitz, and a marketplace between blocks 18 and 19. Anyone with something to buy or sell came to the market. There were those who lay in ambush to catch the traders and snatch their loot. In the street I met a Russian and asked what he had for sale. He had a package of coarse tobacco and a packet of thin cigarette papers. What did he want for it? A bread ration. Good, we have a deal! Now, what do we do with the tobacco? We go further. Along came someone looking for tobacco. What will he give for it? One bread ration. So now I have one bread ration plus a packet of cigarette papers. I found a customer for that too, and received another half ration of bread. From that day on I became a trader!
But everything comes to an end. When we came back from work that evening, instead of dismissing us they brought us to the assembly grounds - never a good sign. Something had happened or was about to happen! They had set up tables with people sitting next to each. For every ten people who passed they stopped one and wrote down his particulars, which could mean serious trouble. How could it not involve me? If theres trouble, Im sure to be in it! They wrote down my name and block number - why? Only G-d knows. When I arrived at the block I was informed that I would not go out to work the following day. I was going to the transport - I was being sent elsewhere. That night I dreamt that my mother æ"ì came to me to give me a pair of shoes as a gift... and I knew what path I would take...
Everyone left for work whileI remained with the block servant. He was a Czech gentile, but a good man. As a rule the Czechs were decent people. They may have hated the Jews but they never raised a hand to us. On the contrary, they often gave us a bit of bread or some soup... He told me to tidy the beds and straighten the blankets, promising me in exchange a bowl of soup at lunchtime. I set to work, and in one of the beds I felt some hard lumps in the mattress. When I lifted the blanket I nearly fainted. There were bread rations wrapped in blue paper and several containers of jam and oil. My mouth started to water and my hand reached out to take the bread, when suddenly, like an echo, I heard the word: Thief. I snatched my hand away and ran from the bed, but my evil inclination whispered fool, youre going to die anyway. Youre hungry. Take some bread. That gentile has enough... Any minute now youll be leaving this place... So I returned and put out my hand for the bread. Once again I heard the echo: T H I E F. Again I fled and looked around, but there was nobody there - only me and Satan.
My evil inclination mocked me again coward, fainthearted fool, help yourself to a piece of bread. I bravely snatched a bread ration and ran like crazy from the third floor to the bottom, gulping down the bread as I went. Oh Master of the Universe, if there truly is a hell, I passed through all its seven portals that day. Satan, my evil inclination, clung to me and taunted Nu, idiot, what now? The men will soon return from work and one of them will discover that his bread ration is missing. Hell start asking questions and then hell find out. Theyll point to me and say this Jew is a thief. Then the block leader will come with his helpers, theyll make me lie down in the corridor for everyone to see, and theyll remind me that stealing is an offence!
I wandered around all day like a crazy man. I kept praying that they should come and take me already - it doesnt matter where, just to get away from here... But G-d doesnt answer every prayer, especially those of a thief... When night fell the workers returned, everyone cheerful and talkative. Roll call passed uneventfully, and then everyone ran upstairs to their beds, including me, but my heart was bursting, not so much from fear as from shame. Not like a thief but like a decent person who was caught in wrongdoing - there is a vast difference between the two. My bed stood directly opposite the one where I stole the bread. I stood next to my bed as usual, but my knees were trembling as I watched the mans reaction to the theft... He was an intelligent person, quite young, a Czech gentile. They were permitted to receive food packages from home so they were never hungry. He climbed onto his bed, removed his shoes and stripped off his shirt. Then he took his razor and wash things and went down to shower, while I stood there trembling...
Eventually he returned, donned his pyjamas and took out his food. Then he noticed a bread ration was missing. He didnt get excited. He just remarked: A thief took my bread ration. He was probably hungry. I wish him well. I nearly burst into tears, I so much wanted to tell him that I was the thief, to thank him for unwittingly forgiving me... It was then that I made up my mind that I would die of starvation rather than take food from others!
Something else happened a short while earlier. One Saturday I was attached to a work party of about 60 men. They took us out of the gate to a truck covered with canvas. Everyone rushed to climb in, but I waited a moment to make sure of a handhold. Suddenly a received a blow from behind. I thought my head would explode, but from experience I knew better than to turn and see who was beating me, instead I leaped into the truck... We were taken to a field surrounded by a wall, apparently part of an old prison. The SS dogs were rushing around, and it was especially frightening for a new person like myself. The kapo pointed to a huge square block of stone, almost one meter high, and told me to smash it with a hammer and chisel - Ive never seen anything like it in my life, neither I nor my father ever smashed rocks. There was no time to think, so I attacked the stone most energetically, but it laughed at me and didnt budge. I was getting desperate - what should I do? The kapo returned and saw that I made absolutely no headway. He was a decent fellow. He explained the geological structure of the stone, showed me its veins, how to place the chisel and hit it with the hammer without too much effort, and the stone began to crumble. It took me about one hour to smash half the rock and I decided to rest when the dogs werent looking. The kapo returned later to see the results. Without saying a word he brought me a two liter bowl of chlebubka - soup thickened with stale bread. Whenever the murderers collected the parcels brought to Auschwitz by the Jews on the trains, they gave the bread to the cooks who used it to make this soup. It was known as the best soup, and got its name from the chleb (Polish for bread). That was my prize for working hard and learning well. Thank heavens I only worked there for one day.
To get back to my story. I spent two days in the block waiting to be sent away. At noon of the third day we were ordered to assemble near the kitchen. We each received 500 grams of bread and a piece of sausage made out of horsemeat... and who knows what else! We were not aware at the time that this was all our food for the next two days. We were loaded onto a freight train and after travelling for two and a half hours we arrived at Sventochlowicz, not far from Katowicz. A small train (kelman bahn) usually travelled this route.
We walked from the station to a field with five wooden huts. Two more huts stood outside the perimeter for the use of the SS - one was the office and the other was their living quarters. We were divided into two huts, or blocks, as they were called. One hut was the kitchen, and of the remaining two one was for additional prisoners and the other housed the showers. There was no fence yet, so this camp was used for Jews because Jews were not so quick to escape - the whole world was hostile to them. Every gentile was willing to earn a kilo of sugar for turning in an escaped Jew to the hangman. We waited around for two days without going out to work. Once they asked for 5 volunteers, but I firmly believed in never volunteering for anything. The 5 were sent to work in the kitchen, and everyone envied them. One of them was a friend of mine, David Zachuk, who died in Canada. When he came back from work he brought me a bit of salt, which was all he could smuggle out. From time to time they were able to eat beets, cabbage or potatoes, but if they were caught they were severely beaten for their crime. Then another 10 volunteers were needed but again I didnt go. On the third day they required 100 volunteers and this time I couldnt get out of it. They picked their volunteers with the aid of clubs, and I was volunteered along with the rest...
By this time we were starving - for 4 days all we had to eat was a little watery soup and one 200 gram slice of bread in the evening. Now we had to go to work! They took us through town to the railway station, where a train stood waiting, its carriages full of iron ore. Two men were assigned to each carriage, to shovel out the ore. You take a bit on the shovel but you dont have the strength to lift it... yet when you have no choice, you just do it. You either do what you have to or you surrender your soul. Since everyone has only one soul, we all want to hang on to it as long as possible!
By the end of the day we had unloaded all of it. By evening our clothes were reddish yellow, the colour of rust, instead of white and blue stripes. The following day everyone tried to get out of the work but it was impossible because we were all recognized by the colour of our clothes! We worked another full day but fortunately for us the Company Director decided that it didnt pay him to use such laborers. He said that two men should unload two carriages, not one... We learned that the SS were supplying various firms with laborers, whose wages were being paid to the government...
We didnt work the next day, but when Saturday arrived, in honour of the Shabbat they took us back to the station for another day of work, this time even more delicate. We had to unload containers of scrap metal, each weighing at least 60 kilos, two men per carriage.
A wooden plank formed a bridge between the carriages and the pile on the ground. Kindly take hold of this container, without work gloves, on an empty stomach... By the time we had unloaded the first one, our hands were crisscrossed with cuts, streaming with blood. Finally I found two scraps of cloth to tie around my hands, and continued working until nightfall, while my back felt as if it were breaking. Once again, the company did not find this profitable, and neither did I!!
Another transport arrived the next day - Jews and Christians, mainly Christians, who filled the other two huts. We were divided into work details. Most of us went to work in a munitions plant. To be one of a small group in such a small camp means certain death, but to be one of a small work detail means even swifter death... yet miracles always occur, thank G-d.
We were supervised by a German meister. He was a civilian and an engineer by profession, very serious, like all yekkes. We were brought to a nearby field near the munitions plant. Our small group was supposed to build a sewage line. They added a civilian laborer to our group. He was a Pole, a good man and a master craftsman. I had no idea what sewage was until it fell to my lot to clean out a sewage pipe! The meister caught my eye and told me to accompany him to take measurements. Did I have a choice? As the saying goes A stone falls wherever its thrown. He now had a new engineer! Fortunately he took a liking to me and he kept me at his side for a few days while he took measurements. After that, whenever he needed someone to carry out more complicated work which required some thought he would take me along together with the Polish civilian, who became my friend and sometimes gave me a few vegetables. I was tormented by hunger. Whenever my friend David Zachuk brought me salt I would eat it and then drink a lot of water, to ease my hunger pangs. Soon my legs swelled up, and I became dehydrated. Apart from my swollen legs hardly anything remained of me. In 14 weeks I lost 40 kilo through starvation and hard labor.
We built a sewage line. Everyone dug a trench section 2 meters long, 1 meter wide and 3 meters deep, every day. Our bodies dehydrated so much that in summer, when we stood against a wall in the sunshine, we shivered with the cold. People died like flies of starvation and overwork.
I want to tell you a bit about Sventochlowicz Camp. Everyone in our block was Jewish apart from the block leader (blok eltester), a German gentile who wasnt too bad. He was deaf, and also worked as the block barber. I arranged a minyan between the beds where we prayed every morning before leaving for work. All of us were in mourning and we all wanted to say Kaddish. We started with ten men but more kept joining us, until we also had Jews from other huts. Our deaf block leader was unaware of this. Our hut became a little synagogue and this continued until I left the camp.
One of the block leaders was a Jew named Neumann, of cursed memory. He was the only Jew I ever saw with a yellow-green six pointed star instead of a yellow-red one like the other Jews. Yellow was for Jews and red for communists. As far as the Nazis were concerned, every Jew was a communist! Green was for criminals. All the Jews wore yellow-red stars except Neumann with his yellow-green - apparently he was a notorious criminal. One day we were crowded into one of the huts. I think it was a Sunday but I dont remember why we were there. Neuman was passing the hut when he noticed through the window that someone was smoking. It was the brother-in-law of Aharon Dubinsky from Shfaim. To this day I have no idea where he found a cigarette. When one is destined for trouble, Satan finds ways for him to find it... even going so far as to provide him with a cigarette in the one place where they are impossible to find - leave it to Satan!!! Neumann burst into the hut even though it was not his own hut... but what difference did that make? When a wicked person is in command, he is sure to exploit it. The man had just enough time to extinguish the cigarette without leaving any traces, but the brute had excellent eyes, and anyway, it made no difference to him if the fellow was guilty or not. He forced his victim to lie down on the bench and administered 25 blows - it was frightful to watch! When it was over, he swaggered out like a hero. But the evildoer does not go unpunished! One day I was told that after I left the camp he was caught by the SS men for stealing food, and punished in the same way that he dished out so generously to others - 25 blows! And then he was dethroned! Before the war ended, the prisoners were transferred to Austria and Germany, and those from Sventochlowicz Camp were taken to Mauthausen in the Austrian Alps. When they arrived there the gentiles informed them that Neumann was a block leader - that was all they needed to hear! They beat him so hard that he begged them to kill him and put him out of his misery. They forced him to stick his head into a bucket of water and thats how he ended his life. Thats what they told me.
I keep remembering things: something was always happening - every hour, every minute! Who could remember and relate everything? We were tortured all the time, from morning to evening. Our entire lives were hell. Every second Sunday was designated a day of rest. Thats when the murderers would invent all kinds of volunteer jobs... On one such Sunday they made us unload ten boxcars full of cement - as volunteers, naturally. The murderers stood in two lines with clubs, and we ran between them carrying sacks of cement, while they beat us on our heads and backs. After all, the murderers wanted to finish the job as fast as possible! The cement was hot and it burned our backs, but who cared about it, when the murderers stood by and beat us with their clubs. It didnt matter if the blows fell on our heads or our backs, the important thing was to keep running with the sack of cement on our shoulders! Within two hours we voluntarily unloaded ten boxcars of cement...
On another such free day we were taken out of the camp. Next to a huge pit, a kind of pool, stood a mountain of garbage. Our job was to dump it into the pit, hurrying back and forth while the SS stood by with dogs to encourage us to volunteer faster... The railway tracks were not well built and our boxcar went off the rails... The SS sergeant attacked me with a whip made of electric cables, and began beating me on the head, while a huge dog, specially trained to deal with prisoners, snarled at me. At one lunge he ripped my trousers from top to bottom. Twice he sank his teeth into me, but there was nothing to bite into in my leg - I was only skin and bone. The murderer shouted at the dog nem fester - hold the Jew! The dog bit me twice and let me go, but the two-legged dog didnt leave me alone until we had righted the boxcar and straightened the track. When we returned to the camp someone asked me who the SS was beating so hard. I replied that I didnt see... What could I tell others that they had not already witnessed for themselves? It was enough that I knew.
One of the soldiers was very young, perhaps 19 or 20, and he really looked like a girl - blonde, rosy cheeked and round faced. So thats what we called him - girl. He was a good boy, every now and again he threw us a piece of bread, and he often joked with us. Whenever he was on guard we were delighted! We were digging a huge sewage pit, perhaps 16 meter in diameter and over a meter deep, when suddenly he was seized by a kind of madness, lowered his rifle from his shoulder, and began beating someone with its stock. His victim fell to the ground, but he didnt stop beating him until blood poured from his ears, nose and mouth. Then he told him to
stop working and rest a while. A few seconds later he told the poor fellow to come to the corner by the latrines that evening and he would give him some bread... When he arrived, the guard threw him half a loaf with the remark it was worth it, wasnt it?
I mentioned earlier that the camp was not yet fenced in. They took me with another ten men to dig holes for the fence posts in a potato field. We all fell on the potatoes and gorged ourselves. Have you ever tried to eat a raw potato? Try it! Youll save me the trouble of describing the taste. On the other side of the field, not far from us, stood the SS hut, and one of the SS apparently saw us eating, or perhaps he felt we were not working fast enough to please him. I saw him running towards us with his club and warned the others - the potatoes imediately vanished back into the ground... He dished out a few blows and left... Soon after I was sent with a wheelbarrow to collect bricks to place around the posts. It wasnt far from the field to the camp. Next to the gate was the kitchen, with cabbage heads heaped nearby, but opposite the kitchen was an army office. Through the open window I could see two soldiers sitting at a table, their backs to the pile of cabbages. My evil inclination, coupled with my hunger, tempted me, but I needed a plan to get a cabbage without falling into the hands of the murderers. I carefully piled the bricks onto the wheelbarrow, leaving a hole in the middle which I covered with another brick. Then I wheeled the load over to the cabbages and stopped as if I needed a rest. After a quick glance in each direction I snatched up a head of cabbage, shoved it between the bricks, and moved on... I returned to the other men and we all feasted like kings...
Before daybreak we had to run to the showers half naked and wash. It was icy cold, since we were so thin that our blood was never warm. One Jew took a chance by wearing his shirt when he ran to the shower. He was spotted through the fence by one of the SS, who rushed towards him like a cat after a mouse. The poor fellow had already taken off his shirt in the shower, but how could such a crime be overlooked?... He was ordered to strip completely. The showers were arranged on long tables covered by metal sheets. Along the length of the table ran a pipe with taps at regular intervals, about half a meter above the table. We would stand on either side and wash in freezing water. The poor fellow was forced to lie on the table, the taps were opened with full force, and he was scrubbed with a brush made of straw bristles, until his entire body was covered with blood. He was then permitted to get down from the table, while the murderer licked his lips gleefully, like a cat after swallowing a mouse. G-d in heaven, how I hated these butchers! How many prayers did I utter, how much did I plead to see their defiled blood shed as they shed ours!
Those who had lost a great deal of weight and become dried out were called musselmen. Most of them didnt eat the bread they were given because after they ate, the bread would vanish but the hunger remained. Instead, they wrapped it in rags and tied it to their belts, or to the string that held up their trousers. In this way they felt that they still had something to eat. Their eyes could see it, even as their souls slowly departed. One such fellow came to the latrine, forgetting for a moment that he still had his bread. When he opened his belt the bread fell into the pit. He stood there with a long stick, but the hole was large and deep. He struggled very hard, and eventually he fished out his bread, still wrapped in its rag. With my own eyes I saw this! I cannot describe how it looked, with everything that was smeared on it. He washed it off with a little water - and ate it!!! I wish I could feed it to the German Chancellor, so that he would realize why he is paying reparations to his victims!
There was one soldier who always stood guard in the corner next to our hut. Naturally he was outside the fence on a tower, equipped with a machine gun in addition to his rifle. It was his nature to call over any prisoner he saw, as if he wanted to ask a favor. The hut stood two meters from the fence, and as the prisoner approached the guard would point his rifle at him and order him to lie down, roll over and touch the fence, so that he would be electrocuted. Or else he would tell the prisoner to get up and run back and forth, as close as possible to the fence. He then had an excuse to shoot him, claiming that he was trying to escape. Once I was nearby, forgetting his tricks, when he called to me. When I came over he cocked his rifle and told me to start running. Off I went, but when he yelled for me to come back I just kept on running - and fled!
In the evening, when we returned from work, the lager kommandant (camp commander) would be waiting to play a game with us. Everyone had to bend down, place one finger on the ground and walk around it. Do you want to know what this feels like? Try it, especially when you are a little hungry. After three or four circles the head spins like a wheel... Everyone would fall over, and he would kick our thin, hungry bodies with his boots.
One day I was returning to work, freezing cold, although it was the middle of summer, when I came across heavy piece of iron which was used for crushing rocks. I held on to it and began pounding the earth, hoping to warm up, but from sheer weakness I overbalanced and one finger was caught underneath the metal. My fingerbone fractured, and the bone stuck out!
An SS butcher mounted his bicycle and ordered me to run in front of him all the way to the camp. I couldnt make it to the hospital because of the pain in my hand, and here he was ordering me to run!? But I ran, and how!!! Under normal circumstances I could hardly walk, but fear lent wings to my feet! At the clinic I was seen by the doctor, a Czech gentile prisoner, who used a bent needle to sew up my finger without anesthetic. When he finished stitching he told me in Czech that I was very brave! And if I screamed with pain I told him, you would have slapped me hard! He laughed and agreed that I was right. He gave me four hours off work... I asked him to write up a report so that I could be returned to Auschwitz as a musselman. This was in September 1943. The doctor said Listen, if I send you to Auschwitz, youre going to the crematoria! And weve just heard great news - Mussolini is dead, and in two weeks well be liberated!This may be true, I said, but Im going to die before that... Im asking you please to send me to Auschwitz. Theres a 99% chance that Ill go to the crematoria, but I still have 1% hope left... And he agreed.
The following day I went to work with my injured hand. Even the slightest movement made my head explode with pain as I stood there, trying to dig a sewage ditch with one hand... At midday an SS man called out my number and when I climbed out of the ditch he again told me to run. Once again he was on a bicycle and once again I ran... When I reached the camp they took away my hat and my shoes, which was never a good sign...
They told me to get into a vehicle with Red Cross markings. There were another two prisoners inside, a Jew and a Polish gentile. We each received a bread ration and off we went! We Jews gobbled up our bread but the Pole didnt even look at his, he was so weak that he seemed about to die. I couldnt think of anything but his bread, and my only hope was that he would died as fast as possible, so that I could inherit his portion. He didnt die and I didnt inherit! In the evening we arrived in Auschwitz. the truck stopped by the gate and Camp Kommandant Schwartz of cursed memory signalled us to move on, taking us to Hospital Block 9. It was the night before Erev Yom Kippur.
As I dragged myself painfully down the steps, my good friend Mendel Yungerman z"l came to greet me with the words Shmuel, youre a lucky man - youre going to live! There was a selection this morning, and nearly everyone was sent to the crematoria, but youre staying here! I was given a bed on the first floor, took a shower and went to bed. In the morning we got up, were counted, made our beds and received our tea, but instead of working we continued to lie in bed. At twelve noon we received a liter of soup as usual, and then we went back to sleep. At nightfall I waited for my daily bread ration but, annoyingly, the bread and tea arrived later that night. It was Erev Yom Kippur, remember, and I very much wanted to fast on Yom Kippur, so I decided not to eat! It wasnt difficult, because during the 14 weeks I spent in Sventochlowicz I was almost always fasting anyway.
I received my soup ration at noon and kept it by my bed until evening. In the evening I was also given bread, with which I broke my 48 hour fast. I ate the bread with the soup, a real feast, but then I had diarrhea (durchfal). Anyone who complained of diarrhea was immediately sent to be gassed, so I spent the next day and night in the latrines - I hardly moved from there! My brother-in-law Shmuel Chomsky heard that I had returned to Auschwitz and came to visit me. He stood outside the latrine calling my name. When I came to the window he asked me to call Shmuel Rubinstein - I was so changed that he didnt recognize me! I tried to persuade him that it was truly me but he insisted that I call myself until he was finally convinced and went away. I was sure hed gone to bring me a piece of bread, but - my mistake! He thought otherwise. Apparently he felt that if I was going to die anyway it would be a waste of bread... and he didnt return.
They had pills for diarrhea - they called them charcoal pills. I found a Jewish doctor, thinking that a Jew would be more merciful - I forgot that on Planet Auschwitz there was no mercy. I asked him whether there was any possibility of obtaining some charcoal pills. He asked whether I had diarrhea, and before I could reply he slapped me and told me to run quickly to a doctor. I hastily assured him that the pills were for a friend. He went away but the slap remained with me! In the bed next to me lay an old German Jew, eating white bread. He had a special diet because his Aryan wife sent him food parcels. I had a silver spoon which he coveted, and I offered to trade my spoon for his bread - I could always drink my soup directly from the bowl, but he didnt like the idea. Instead he went to the block leader and complained that I had stolen his spoon... The block leader asked me for the spoon and handed it to the other fellow, but at least he didnt beat me!
I remained in Block 9 until Hoshana Rabah. The murderers always chose Shabbat and Holy Days for their killings. On Hoshana Rabah the chief butcher, Dr. Mengele, came to the Block and ordered Juden Entrecht - Jews get in line! We all stripped naked and formed a line. The block leader brought a card index while the murderer seated himself at a table by the window. Each person in turn was ordered to turn around, so he could better view his victim. Then he asked number? and the block leader took out his card to record the verdict - eternal life! So it went until my turn, which was one before the last. I was fully aware that I had no hope, given my skeletal condition and overall weakness. As I approached the table I walked confidently and fearlessly, as if I was about to be liberated. As soon as I was told to turn around I called out my number 98078, before he asked for it. This made him very angry, and he barked: Cursed, dirty Jew, your bones are still strong enough to continue working, get out - schnell!. I had no choice! Only two of us remained. The other fellow was my neighbor from Pruzany Ghetto. He mocked me: Why did you do it? Before he even asked, you gave him your number? You practically volunteered for the gas chambers! I replied: Yes, smarty, out of 150 men I was the only fool to volunteer my number before he asked for it. The others kept quiet, and where are they now? And I added: Listen pal, theres no wisdom here, only stupidity, but the hand of Providence can transform stupidity into wisdom, and wisdom into stupidity!!!
The morning of Simchat Torah they brought trucks, loaded up all the people and took them on their last journey, may the Lord avenge them. At the last moment they released the Yekke who owned my spoon, and sent him back to the Block by virtue of his Aryan wife. Only we three remained. My neighbor had already been there for three months and apparently intended to remain there until we were liberated! I suggested that he return to work but he wouldnt hear of it. The day after Simchat Torah I approached the block leader and requested that my name be removed from the hospital list. He looked at me pityingly and replied: Look what you look like, man! If you remain here for another two weeks you can build up your strength before returning to work. I thanked him but told him I preferred to work, so he asked where I would like to go. I asked for the workshops, and he registered my request and sent me there.
In block 13 I was welcomed by my friend from Birkenau, whose name I unfortunately cannot remember. He gave me half a loaf of bread and a bowl of potatoes with bits of meat. I gulped it down so fast that I hardly felt I had eaten. That evening, when the group returned from work, I approached the kapo in charge of the work detail, the same kapo who had been there four months ago. I told him that I was a stitcher, not a shoemaker, but I wanted to remain in his group, repairing wooden shoes. He agreed, and next day when I reported for work he placed me next to the good shoemakers. It was my job to take apart torn shoes for use as raw material. The work went very well... But two hours later the villain changed his mind and replaced me with an expert shoemaker. I was sent to repair shoes and that didnt go well at all... so he took a club to me, added some slaps for good measure and threw me out. I was sent to do hard labor, chopping wood and hauling loads bigger than I was, in the cold and the snow. Our kapo was a young mischling, half Jew and half German gentile, a real character, who enjoyed taunting me. He ran back and forth to warm up, and each time he came near I got a fist in the belly just for fun. I knew I couldnt bear it much longer, I felt I was staring death in the face, so I made up my mind Let me die with the Philistines, and grabbing a log of wood I brought it down on his head! He was totally shocked and said in German: Hey, man, I was only joking. I replied: If you want to joke, hit your head against the wall, then Ill laugh too! He stopped immediately, and soon we were friends again.
The chief kapo was kapo Herman, of cursed memory. He was a very shrewd gentile and a real criminal. Once I was dragging a very heavy load of logs by myself, when he came by and lashed me three times on the head with his whip, which was made of an ox penis, so supple that it wrapped itself around my face, leaving three livid weals.
Everyone who worked with shoes had enough to eat, so they gave me their cold soup. I swallowed as much as I could, but it made my stomach and legs swell, and during the day my legs were like two barrels. When I lay down at night I raised them above the level of my head so the swelling would subside. They became thinner but my head swelled up instead, and I had swollen bags under my eyes. In the morning I staggered drunkenly until midday, when the swelling again descended to my legs. And so it continued every day, in both directions!!!
Nearby was a stable with horses. One day we were sent there to chop white beets for the horses. That was good - not only was it warm but we could eat beets together with the horses - it was theirs by right and ours by theft! Unfortunately for me, there was a young boy there, 12 or 13 years old, a Jew from Greece, who was apparently kept by one of the kapos for homosexual purposes. Everyone spoilt him, but for some reason he attached himself to me like a plague! He began throwing beets at me - each one weighed at least a kilo and they were hard as rocks. Eventually one of them hit me painfully and I couldnt take it any more and smacked him hard. I had warned him several times, but he probably didnt believe I would dare touch him. After I hit him he slunk away and I didnt see him again...
One day kapo Marschalek came by. He was a very smart gentile, very large, and everyone was afraid of him! He was head kapo of the shoemakers, a first class artisan, with eyes that saw everything, like the angel of death. Three hundred shoemakers worked there, including stitchers and makers of wooden nails, and he was in charge of everything except the other kapos and their helpers. He asked whether anyone knew how to operate a sewing machine. In the ghetto I had worked on such a machine, so naturally I presented myself. He set me to work on the night shift, telling me to sleep during the day. But when I saw the machine, I saw I had a real problem - only two thin needles remained, ideal for delicate work like silk, but hardly suitable for stitching wooden shoes. I was in no hurry to start working, but hunted around in the vain hope that Id find thicker needles. So I started anyway, and in no time at all I was left without needles. This was very upsetting, and I prepared myself for the worst, all the while searching desperately for more needles, but to no avail. It was hard for me to believe that the day shift worked with such needles!
We returned to the camp before daybreak, and I rushed to find some food. At one block the helper asked if I was hungry, and when I answered and how! he brought me 2 liters of soup, almost entirely frozen. I shoved my head into the bowl and within seconds it was empty. When he saw how efficient I was at emptying bowls he brought me another, and asked if I was still hungry, which I was, so he brought a third bowl of soup and half a loaf of bread. Each bowl held 2 liters of soup, but I swiftly downed the third as well. After thanking him and washing out the bowls I returned to my block, where I received some watery soup instead of tea, but at least it was hot. Another two liters of soup and half a loaf of bread completed my feast, and I fell onto my bed and slept soundly. But the day eventually ended and the thought of those two needles increasingly pricked me, as I envisaged my reception from the kapo. Nothing to be done about it, I only had G-d to turn to and pray that He would reply.
When we arrived at work, the day shift was preparing to leave. The kapo yelled out: 98078, get over here, and I approached him, shaking with fear. What have you done with the needles? he demanded, at the top of his voice, and warned me what would befall me if it ever happened again. But I could tell that he was aware that with such needles its impossible to mend shoes, so I kept my mouth shut, and the incident was closed, thank G-d.
I went to work and again found two thin needles - what on earth was I to do? I decided not to sew. Instead I hunted high and low for needles because I simply couldnt believe that the day shift used the thin ones. Finally I discovered, hidden right inside the machine, a needle as thick as a nail. My joy was indescribable. I set to work, repairing nearly 200 pairs of shoes during the night, and all three needles remained intact. When I finished working I returned the thick needle to its hiding place and inserted the thin ones where I had found them. Everyone, including the kapo, was amazed that I had repaired so many shoes with such flimsy needles - as if they had witnessed the miracle of Hanukka - but I didnt reveal the secret. And so it continued all week. On Friday night I dozed off at work and the needle hit a nail and broke! I had no choice but to break one of the thin needles, to conceal my secret. The following day one of the Jews on the day shift came to ask me for his needle. I played the innocent and asked which needle he referred to. He replied: You should be aware that more than one person has died near that machine, and you may not be spared either. There was only one way to reply to that - I grabbed a wooden clog in one hand and his collar in the other, cursed him soundly in Russian, and added Are you threatening me? Because if so, youre going to die right now! Naturally I never laid a finger on him, but it sufficed.
Luckily for me they cancelled the night shift, and the kapo placed me at the stitchers table, where I did practically nothing. All the others at that table were real craftsmen, skilled at their work. The kapo realized this immediately, but it would seem that the good Lord wanted to keep one remnant of my family alive, because the kapo took a liking to me and sent me up on the roof, which was piled with odd shoes in poor condition. I was instructed to sit there on my own, taking them apart for use as raw material. I found a couple of dollars right away, and realized that things were looking up! I had to decide whether I wanted to live or die, and if I chose to live I would have to take myself in hand!
Block 3 housed those who worked in Canada- the warehouses where they stored the belongings of those destined for extermination. Some 300 people worked there, and naturally they stole anything which could be bartered for food. One of them was Baruch Steinberg, a Jew from Maltz. When I went to see him he offered me a piece of bread, which I refused with thanks. He asked if I was embarrassed. No, I replied, What I really want is to earn a piece of bread, so Im asking whether you have something I can sell. He gave me a shawl which cost half a loaf, and told me I could get a whole loaf for it. All well and good, but I didnt have half a loaf to buy it with, so I asked for credit and he agreed. I rushed off to Block 14 which housed the electricians, 300 or more men who worked outside the camp with free Polish gentiles and often traded with them. On my way up the steps I met a Pole who asked if I had anything to trade. I showed him the shawl and told him the price was one loaf. He offered three quarters of a loaf. I stuck to my price but he stuck to his and I was so eager to see the bread that I agreed. I removed my portion and hid the remainder under my coat while I ran back to give it to Baruch. I ran because I was afraid of losing it, and then Id have nothing to give him. After receiving it he asked me how much I made on the deal, but not wanting to lose status as a businessman I assured me that I made plenty - dont ask. Then I asked if he had anything else. He didnt, but he introduced me to a friend who also had a shawl, as well a dozen handkerchiefs, still in their original wrapping. He wanted a whole loaf of bread, but agreed to let me take them on credit. Off I went to the same gentile, and when he asked the price I told him I would take nothing less than two loaves. He replied One and three quarters. When I heard that my whole being was filled with joy, and I agreed. He gave me one loaf of camp bread and a smaller, civilian, better quality loaf, explaining that the civilian loaf was worth three quarters of a camp loaf. I took the two loaves, and suddenly had an inspiration - a true business idea! I brought the two loaves to my creditor and told him to choose one, pointing out that the civilian loaf, while smaller, was better quality. He promptly chose it, leaving me with a profit of five bread portions, representing five work days...
I returned happily to my block, where my sisters husband Benjamin also lived . As it happened, that day we received an extra half loaf of bread and 100 grams of sausage. We always sold the sausage for an extra ration, while the half loaf lasted for three days. This time, I told him, were eating half a loaf with sausage - todays a holiday. Then I explained how I earned five bread rations. I gave him half a loaf, adding that G-d had showed me the way. My brother-in-law was a very honest, simple soul, who always worked at the same place and never earned extra rations. He had no idea how it was done. He rejoiced with me...
From then on, there was never a day that I didnt earn something. I stopped eating their soup except at noon, so they wouldnt suspect that my diet had drastically changed. The swelling went down as I began to eat the protein and fat which I had lacked. I gradually returned to normal, gained weight and lost my musselman appearance. I asked one of the tailors to make me a suit - striped, of course, but new and well-fitting, and I got a new hat as well. I kept myself clean and shaved regularly. A good appearance commands respect, and no hooligan dared raise his hand to me. I had the reputation of being a fair businessman - my word was my bond. Everyone with something to sell came to me. Wed settle on a price and hed go away satisfied. Anyone who wanted to buy came to me as well. Wed settle on a price, each trusted the other, and in this way we could continue to live...
I didnt trade with just anybody, for a simple reason: it was all stolen property, so if someone was caught he would spill the beans after the first slap... Also, I was discovering all sorts of things hidden inside the shoes - diamonds, money and gold. Then I was transferred to work in the cellar, where another 20 people worked at taking the shoes apart. Afterwards they brought in girls to work there as well. The warehouses were supervised by a German gentile, a real thief, and his assistant Yudel, a young fellow, clever as a whip. They were partners, and the SS man in charge of the whole thing was also in partnership with them. The reason Im telling you all this is because it involves me.
I worked independently, receiving my instructions from the kapo. By now I was so skilled that I only picked out shoes that werent empty - I could spot them a mile off. In the cellar were two kapos: one was a stupid old German gentile, a real idiot. The other one was the bright young mischling - half Jew, half German. Whenever the Germans decided to change his triangular symbol for a six-pointed star he would make a fuss and always managed to persuade them to postpone their decision - he was as smart as the devil.
In the meantime they began to bring Jews from Hungary, and their shoes made their way to our cellar. One day, a Jew was taking apart a shoe when a twenty dollar gold coin fell out. Thats serious money, and it rang out as it dropped onto the cement. Quick as a flash the young fellow jumped up and grabbed it, telling the Jew If you want to know how to find money, you should learn from him - indicating me! I asked him whether he thought Id ever found anything, and he replied No, never...
One day I came across a shoe which was almost entirely ripped, when I noticed a gold thread poking out of its heel... I turned aside to remove the heel and discovered a whole cache of gold: chains, rings, and a pair of earrings with 18 diamonds. I hid the earrings and sold the gold. Among the electricians was a French Jew, a very bright lad, Zalke (Bezalel) was his name. We liked each other very much and did most of our trading with each other. I brought the gold to him, to trade for margarine or cigarettes. He asked how much I wanted and I told him: 1800 cigarettes, which he agreed to, giving me a down payment of 100 cigarettes. Ten cigarettes were worth one loaf of bread. Twenty cigarettes would get you half a kilo of margarine. Sixty cigarettes bought good sausage, such as the SS ate. I bought bread, margarine and a whole sausage, which I shared with my brother-in-law.... The next day Zalke came and complained that it wasnt worth 1800 cigarettes. I said: So give me 1600 and he went away happy. In the meantime I took some more cigarettes, but he again complained that he was losing on the deal, so I went down another 200 cigarettes. Two days later he was back, trying to lower the price yet again. I had already received 1000 cigarettes and I was sick of the whole thing, so I said: Zalke, I have a favour to ask. Im prepared to forget the 400 cigarettes you owe me, as long as you dont go around saying youve found a stupid Jew and can do anything you like with him. He got the hint and said: Shmuel, Ill pay the 400 cigarettes - I dont want anything. I replied, In that case, Ill give you 100 cigarettes - it wont hurt me. So I took 300 cigarettes and we parted as friends.
One day Moshe Chomsky approached me. He said he had nothing to eat, and wanted me to give him something to trade, so he could earn a piece of bread. I gave him a large gold chain, telling him I wanted 100 cigarettes in return. The next day he came to tell me that the price was too high, he wouldnt be able to earn on such a deal. I said OK - give me 80, and I let him get as far as the door before calling him back. Moshe, I said, Do you remember when I came from Sventochlovicz? I came to you hungry, swollen, unable to stand, and you gave me half a loaf of bread. Now I have a request. Im giving you the chain as a gift, but only on condition that you promise me that if you ever need anything youll come straight to me, because I can never repay you for that bread. He promised and left.
There was a munitions factory in Auschwitz where they made hand-grenades. Some Hungarian girls worked there, including three sisters. They used to steal small amounts of gunpowder and smuggle it to the Sonderkommando who worked in the gas chambers and the crematoria. When they had collected enough gunpowder, they blew up a crematorium, killed some SS and fled - about 100 of them. The SS immediately took up their positions to prevent them from getting out of the camp. Of course they were all caught, except for two or three who managed to get away. They were shot, their bodies propped up on stools in two rows with spades under their arms to keep them upright, and all the Birkenau inmates were brought into the camp and forced to walk between the two rows, so they would see them and fear! We were also brought into the camp - apparently they feared a revolt! Naturally the Nazis conducted an intensive investigation to find out where the gunpowder came from, and eventually they located the three sisters at the factory. I saw them hanged - they stood erect with the noose around their necks and shouted: Down with Hitler! The soldiers slapped them to shut them up, but they only shouted louder, until the nooses were tightened around their necks. May their memory be a blessing. That evening all the girls from the kommando were taken to the new shower stalls near Auschwitz. They were positive they were being taken to the gas chambers but instead they found soldiers armed with whips waiting for them. Each one was forced to bend over a stool, to make it easier for for the sadists to hit them, and then each girl received five lashes, after which they were permitted to dress and return to the camp.
In our cellar were some Hungarian Jews. No sooner had they arived than they learned the word organizieren (organizing), which was a euphemism for stealing. When I heard them planning to steal shoes I warned them not to do it until they had learned exactly how it was done. They didnt trust me, suspecting that I feared there would be nothing left for me. Only once did I ever steal a pair of shoes - for a woman from my hometown who let me know that she was barefoot and wanted me to send her a pair. I was sorry for these Jews, and didnt want them to be beaten, but they didnt heed my warning. One of them put on a pair of shoes, leaving his own at work instead. That was certainly the way to do it, but then he didnt know what to do when he sold his merchandise. The next day he came to work barefoot, which was strictly forbidden in the camp. Rags - yes, wooden clogs - yes, but never barefoot! When he reached the gate an SS spotted him and asked the kapo to investigate. Since he was already barefoot, he should have complained that his shoes had been stolen but no! As soon as he arrived at work he rushed off to find his shoes and put them on. The kapo came to ask him where he put his shoes yesterday, and the poor fellow was soundly beaten. The right way to do it was to get some rags from your buyer and wear them to work. At work youd throw them away and put on your clients shoes - thats what they needed to learn! It was impossible to teach them because a fool would soon be caught and spill everything hed been taught...
In addition to all the things which came out of the gas chambers, such as single shoes, all kinds of satchels and ripped shoes, they would bring tefillin and tefillin straps. I used to collect them. I couldnt bury them, and I didnt want to leave them lying around because they would become defiled, so I would put them inside the stove when it wasnt in use, and pretty soon someone would light it. I didnt know whether this was permitted or forbidden, but I had no one to ask. It seemed right to me that they should be incinerated. One day a Slovak SS, a truly frightful anti-semite and murderer, came in. He came across a pair of tefillin and, catching hold of a German Jew, ordered him to put them on. The Jew replied that he didnt know how, whereupon the SS drew his pistol and threatened to kill him unless he obeyed. The terrified Jew complied, but the gentile felt that it wasnt done correctly, and called me over to check whether he had done it right. Naturally he hadnt, because he really didnt know how to put on tefillin, but I replied I have no idea. The SS then pointed his gun at me and said Im going to shoot you like a cat. I replied You can even shoot me like a dog, I still have no idea. The German Jew got a slap, but he didnt even lay a finger on me! The mischling kapo approached me and said: You want me to believe that you really dont know how to put on tefilling? I answered Dont talk nonsense. Let him give me the tefillin so that I can put them on and pray in a quiet corner by myself, but not to make fun of me, and he agreed that I was absolutely right.
On one of the rare Sundays that we worked in Auschwitz I was in the cellar as usual, with the shoemakers on the first floor, when suddenly they brought an Algerian Jew down to the cellar. He was an unusual type, tall and dark, and he had also been so severely beaten that he was almost at deaths door. What had happened? He spoke French and Arabic but no German. One of the shoemakers, a gentile, had attempted to steal the uppers from a pair of boots. Unnoticed, he then placed the lower sections under the Algerians chair. When the kapo discovered them, he asked who did it, but not only did the poor fellow not know, he also couldnt answer. The kapo began to beat him, and soon the SS came to see what was going on. The kapo showed him the boots and the SS decided that it was sabotage and joined in the beating until the man fell and was carried into the cellar. At this point the SS decided that a beating wasnt enough - he wanted to finish him off. He picked up a hammer, placed one foot on the unfortunate mans stomach and with all his strength aimed three blows at his ribs. The fellow didnt even react. I was certain he had died, and so they left him. When we returned to the camp we carried him with us on our shoulders and laid him down on the ground next to our block. Then we went to be counted, but to our misfortune they were one short, so they began to count again from the beginning - in a camp of 20,000 people this took more than half an hour. Once again, they were one short! They began searching and found a block servant who had fallen asleep and didnt hear the summons to be counted. In an attempt to protect him from a beating, we said that they forgot to count the dying man... That didnt satisfy the camp kommandant and he began asking questions. He was told that the SS had beaten the man to death. The SS was called for, because at that time there was already a regulation prohibiting arbitrary beatings. The SS justified himself by maintaining that the man was sabotaging the work. Sabotage? That was already something else! In the meantime the fellow had been sent to hospital. He returned two weeks later fit and well - it was amazing. He was then hauled before the camp kommandant and sentenced to 25 lashes, administered in the assembly yard! The poor fellow accepted his fate - did he have a choice? Then he was sent to the bunker (the cellar). Luckily for him a Jew from Lodz took him under his wing. He was a fine man, an athlete and a boxer. Whenever he encountered an antisemitic kapo or servant he dealt with them very swiftly. When the Algerian arrived at the bunker this fine Jew looked after him. He fed him and protected him from beatings. After a few weeks of this treatment, the Algerian looked as if hed been to a rest home...
I already mentioned that we had an old, stupid kapo with us in the cellar. He was as strong as an ox, and when the Hungarian Jews arrived he began beating them. I wanted to show them that they neednt be afraid of him. Half an hour before our work shift was over we had to sweep up and clean the place, but I hadnt done so for a very long time. Instead I went to talk to a friend, to tell him I had found something important. For some reason the kapo was in a strange mood, and he decided to show us whos the boss, although until that time he never bothered with me. He came at me, yelling at the top of his voice, demanding to know why I wasnt helping. I swiftly made up an excuse and told him I had no broom. Raising his voice even more, he informed me that there was a broom in the corner. To show my contempt I began to saunter very slowly over to the corner. The others noticed what was going on and began laughing, which really enraged him. He snatched up a spade, with the intention of bringing it down on my head. Thank heavens I was stronger by then. I caught hold of his hand, pulled at the spade and tossed it away, shouting Dont you dare touch me! while I kept his hand twisted behind his back. He tried to punch my nose with his other hand but I grabbed that hand too, holding both hands behind his back. He was practically foaming at the mouth as he yelled Let me go! I replied If you promise not to hit me, Ill release you. I held on a bit longer and then I let him go. The others applauded and began to make fun of him - well, this was really a revolt, this was going too far! He rushed upstairs and I knew I would be in great trouble if he brought the Meister, a Polish gentile who hated me but with whom I had had few dealings until now. I began to prepare an acceptable story, so that even if I was beaten, it would not be too bad. Meanwhile the whistle sounded for us to leave the workplace and return to camp... and the kapo didnt manage to tell on me. Tomorrow I may yet be punished, but I still had time to come up with something. After the daily count I saw the kapo relating the story to the Meister. This changed the whole situation. I appealed to two of my friends, the one who had fed me with potatoes, bread and meat when I returned from the hospital and another who I knew from the ghetto in Pruzany. They were both on good terms with the Meister. I told them what happened between the kapo and myself, together with a story I had concocted as an excuse. I also offered them a bottle of vodka in which to drown any anger or ill-feeling. They told me they didnt need my vodka since they had some of their own, I shouldnt worry, everything would work out fine. Some time later they came to tell me that the Meister would arrive in the morning with a stick, he would yell at me ferociously, but I shouldnt utter a word and that would be the end of the matter. The next morning I went off happily and the kapo rubbed his hands in anticipation. I entered the cellar and set to work, wasting no time, while the kapo awaited the other murderer, but hed already forgotten the whole story. The kapo lost patience and rushed upstairs to remind him. A few minutes later I saw the Meister coming in with a huge club, followed by the kapo. They both came over to me. You tried to hit the kapo? You know how I can hit you... And he continued yelling, without pause, until I couldnt restrain myself and said But Ive never seen you hit anyone without good reason. He liked that, warned me to take care that it shouldnt happen again, and walked away. The kapo looked like a whipped dog, and he didnt speak to me for at least three weeks afterwards.
One morning after the count the SS appeared, looking for able bodied Jews. Well, that fitted my description exactly, so I had to do something fast. I hunched up one shoulder and puffed out one cheek, and stood there looking like a pathetic creature. They came by, looked me over, and went on. They were selecting men to work in the gas chambers and crematoria. Only Jews worked there, and every six months they killed them all and brought new workers, so no witnesses would remain after the war. Afterwards the kapo came over, wanting to shake my hand. I told him that I would only give him my hand after he admitted who was right. He replied: What happened in the past is past. Now lets live in peace, so I gave him my hand and we shook on it.
Soon after that an alarm was sounded [this was in the summer of 1944. Apparently it refers to the American Air Force raid of September 1, 1944 in which 15 SS men were killed and another 28 severely wounded. Forty prisoners were also killed, including 23 Jews, and 65 prisoners were badly wounded, according to M. Gilbert, P. 285. H. Rubinstein]. American warplanes came over and all the workers were brought down to the cellar. The planes began to bomb us. That day I happened to be seated opposite a large window, and two Poles asked to sit there because they wanted to play chess. I moved away and went to sit on a pile of shoes next to the wall, with my new friend the kapo nearby... Suddenly a bomb fell on the building, penetrating the cellar and the stairwell, which was believed to be the safest place... All the Jews were huddled there, because the gentiles kept to the three stories which were all constructed of reinforced concrete and as a rule the Jews kept their distance from the gentiles. The blast shattered all the windows and a splinter pierced the throat of the kapo, who died instantly. The man who took my seat was wounded - not severely, but wounded nevertheless, while I escaped unscathed. The German who had told me that I would end up in the crematoria was also killed. About 60 men were killed and 120 wounded. I climbed out of a window and ran to help the wounded. I reached the cellar via the stairs. There I saw a Jew covered with rubble up to his neck, while a fire burned below. I began removing the stones, calling for help as I did so. A French gentile came to my assistance, and together we succeeded in freeing him. He was unharmed. A Jew lying at the side called to me by my name, although I didnt recognise him - later I found out his name was Buchen. He told me his leg was broken, so I lifted him on my back and carried him to the camp - it was then permitted to accompany an injured person without escort. When we reached the camp, the gate was open and hundreds of gentiles were rushing around to find out what had happened. Two of them took the wounded man to hospital, while others brought a stool for me to sit and rest. Questions rained down on me, but I answered in riddles, because I was so shocked and confused that I didnt know what I was saying. I had the impression that the whole building was destroyed and most of those inside killed or wounded. They could see for themselves that many dead and wounded were being brought out...
The night before it happened I dreamt that they stood us in rows and brought us into a pit. We were not escorted by Germans but by soldiers in unfamiliar uniforms similar to those of the Polish army. We realised that they were taking us to be killed, and everyone was crying terribly. In my dream I said to them Why are you crying? G-d will help us at the last moment - and then the bell rang and I woke up! My good friend Mendel came to ask me about my dream - he believed very deeply in my dreams - so I told him that I had a frightful dream but it didnt matter, because G-d would help us and we would remain alive. When he also returned safe and sound he kissed me and said Shmuel, you are a true prophet...
For a long time after that explosion, whenever the alarm was sounded those who were at work would rush down to the cellars, while those in the block would run down to the showers. From sheer panic, they would grip the pipes with their teeth - it was not to be believed! Soon after the explosion all the Poles in Auschwitz were sent to Germany, because the Russians were advancing and if any Poles escaped they had somewhere to flee to and plenty of friends to help them hide. No gentile Pole would hand over another Pole to the Germans. The Jews and the Russians remained, togehter with Germans and others such as the Belgians and the French. My brother-in-law Shmuel Chomsky who had visited me in hospital came to see me. Hes the one who saw me through the latrine window when I returned from Sventochlowitz, and didnt even bring me a piece of bread. Now he came crying to tell me that the Poles had left and he had nothing to eat. He used to polish their shoes and they would give him food from the parcels sent by their families. Why are you crying? I asked, dont you have any more shoes to polish? Or are you afraid that youll go hungry? Dont worry, as long as Im alive and I have what to eat, youll have too. I didnt even hint at the way he treated me when I was almost dying of hunger. I held no grudge, but kept my promise. I would take from my food, the very best, and endanger my life by sneaking out to his block so we could eat together, and he would not be shamed by having to come to me. That was the difference between us... I heard that his girl friend was still alive, in Birkenau, so I gave him cigarettes and nylon stockings to send her, so she would also have something to eat.
One day I heard that Berel Weinstein, a Jew from Maltz, had fallen from a roof and was now lying in hospital. I knew all about that hospital, because Id stayed there more than once, and I knew that the patients were very hungry. We had just received an extra half ration of really good bread and some sausage, so I ran to the hospital and shouted out his name. He appeared at the window, and I told him to come downstairs, where I gave him the bread and sausage and wished him a speedy recovery. On the way back I stopped to buy myself some bread but I was told that there wasnt any. Why? Because today they conducted a search and all the bread was confiscated. There was a group of about 100 bakers who were responsible for baking bread for tens of thousands of prisoners and SS. First they ate as much as they wanted, then they stole bread and smuggled it into the camp. In addition they sold their own portions, so if you had what to barter, you could always buy bread. But just today there was no bread to be had. I returned to the block and asked the servant for my portion. What, said he, didnt you receive half a loaf? I did, I replied, but I didnt receive the whole portion. Well, he explained, today the loaves were much bigger than usual, so each piece was really three portions... and I remained without bread. I wandered around the camp, looking for food, but there was really none to be had, so I stood still in the middle of the street, looked up to the heavens and said Lord of the Universe, why was I punished for the mitzva of visiting the sick? Now I have no bread... As I stood there, a young Russian lad came by and asked quietly whether I would like to buy some white bread, showing me a whole loaf. I asked what he wanted for it and he said the price was 20 cigarettes. Are you crazy? 20 cigarettes? said I, but he asked whether I was aware that today there was no bread, so I gave him 20 cigarettes and told my brother-in-law Benjamin that instead of black bread, were eating white bread today...
Whenever it was foggy in Auschwitz it would be very dark and we would go out to work later than usual, after the fog lifted, because they were afraid that prisoners might escape. One morning it was foggy for longer than usual. At ten oclock, when the fog showed no sign of lifting, they ordered that lunch should be shared out, so they wouldnt need to waste time again at noon. They brought the soup barrels and started doling it out. While this was still going on the fog lifted and it became light. The order was given to stop giving out food. The servants were delighted and began slapping everyone to make them move faster. The full soup barrels remained standing by the steps on the third floor. It really pained me to think of it, not for myself, but for those hungry people who would now go the whole day without eating. I decided to get my revenge on the servants, so as I passed by the barrels in that crush of people, I dipped my bowl in, filled it with soup, and then with one strong kick I overturned the barrel, spilling soup down the stairs and onto the heads of those below... What a fuss! The servants had a lot of work to do, cleaning and washing the stairs on all three floors as well as the corridor at the bottom!
As we were returning from work one wintery day, it became impossible to move forward because a crowd of people was clustered about 100 meters from the camp gate. Such a thing had never happened before! It was always carefully organized so that each work group arrived on time, one after another. One group would enter, followed by the next, and so on. Such a mass of people was a sign that something had happened - perhaps a search! We managed to advance a few more meters and saw all sorts of things lying on the snow. Everyone began to throw away everything in his possession, to avoid a beating. A Jewish boy stood in front of me, and I could see that he was shaking with fear. I asked him whats the matter and he told me that he had a bottle of vodka and didnt know whether to throw it away or not. I told him that I could help him and instructed him to change places with me and to tie the bottle tightly against his pelvis, using his trousers. I explained that they would search me but not him. Thats exactly what happened... In my pocket was a rag which I wadded up over my stomach under my coat, making my stomach stick out. Off I went with him right behind me, until we reached the gate. Five dogs stood between the lines, searching together with the secret police. As soon as I arrived I was grabbed by a soldier and pulled out of the line. He yanked open my coat and hauled out - a rag! The mountain had given birth to a mouse!!! He was most disappointed and demanded an explanation. I told him that the rag was for repairing my mattress! So why was it hidden? - It wasnt hidden, I was cold so I put it under my coat. Get out of here, you idiot! So off I went, me, the idiot, and the smart Jew didnt know how to thank me. He was one of the very few who managed to smuggle anything into the camp that day. For a Jew, a bottle of vodka represented two weeks worth of food... This is how we outsmarted each other: the soldiers by immense strength, cruelty and terror, and we prisoners by guile, cleverness and all manner of tricks... As soon as they uncovered one channel of smuggling, we would think up two more, otherwise nobody could have remained alive. The calories they fed us couldnt sustain life for more than three or four months, and then only if the prisoners received the food they were entitled to, which never happened because it was always stolen by all sorts of parasites. In the kitchen it was the cooks, in the storehouses it was the storekeeper and his helpers, and whatever arrived the block was stolen by the block leader and the servants. So how much finally reached the prisoner at the end?
After my finger was operated on, they gave me a weeks sick leave to remain in the block. Great! Exactly what I wanted - not to work on Rosh Hashana. I was back 5 days before Yom Kippur and I had to think of another ruse, because I didnt want to work on Yom Kippur either. I returned to the doctor, who had a Jewish male nurse working with him, and in exchange for a pack of cigarettes he gave me three more days. Another 20 cigarettes earned me another 3 days - so I got what I wanted...
On the eve of Yom Kippur, instead of Kol Nidrei we heard shouts: The whole camp must report outside the showers - Selektzia! The whole camp? It sounded like some new trick, a new method of deceit. But did we have a choice? We went, block after block, to the shower hut, Jews and gentiles together. There we stripped in front of two block leaders and the SS in charge of assembly reports - he was a volkdeutsch, a Pole who had adopted German citizenship. He sat on a stool wielding a club, and if he didnt like the look of someone as they passed before him he hit him with the club and the block leaders recorded his number. Nobody quite knew what was going on, but common sense told another story, although officially we knew nothing. I removed my bandage and walked straight, and thank G-d I passed. That evening they collected all those whose numbers had been recorded but then the gentiles were permitted to return to their places and only the Jews were left, so it was clear that they were looking for Jews. That entire night everyone was in panic, but the next morning the bell rang as usual, and the usual routine was followed: getting up, drinking, washing, dressing and going out to work. I was fasting and I was exempt from working. My friend Mendel came to ask me what to do. He was a very devout Jew and he also had an exemption from working that day. I looked through the window and noticed that it was misty, like the fog on our hearts. I told him: Mendel, today its a mitzva to go to work - I advise you and I also beg you to go to work! I had spent a long time convincing him that today I wouldnt be going out to work, but he listened to me and went out, while I remained behind! As soon as the last prisoner passed through the gate they closed it and the orchestra stopped playing. Then the order was given: All those with work exemptions are to assemble at the shower hut. A new selection! Once again I removed my bandage, squeezing my finger so it would not look so pale. We entered the hut and stood in three rows like the Hebrew letter ç. I was last in the first row on the left side. The selection started from the right side. The murderer approached the first man and demanded to know where he worked? Why was he exempt from work? For how long? Was he a Jew? And his number was recorded. The same procedure was repeated along the row. When he came to a gentile he released him. He had already passed along the right side without releasing any Jews! The first of our group suddenly sprang out of the door and fled! He was lucky. A few seconds later the questions began again, and a Jew was dismissed! Meanwhile another one of my group fled, but one of the block leaders noticed and ran after him, but came back empty-handed. I also wanted to flee but I couldnt make up my mind. Suddenly I noticed that he dismissed another two Jews who worked in important jobs. One of those who had been dismissed was a bit confused and walked off slowly, so he was recalled and his name recorded. My turn was coming up, and Id already decided not to run away. When I was asked why I wasnt working I showed my finger, which Id been pressing all the time so it looked redder. How many days had I been off work? Only four days... When was I returning to work? Tomorrow! Where did I work? In the factory. Get out of here - before he had finished speaking I was gone! That was the price I paid for observing Yom Kippur. Perhaps that was the reason why I remained alive?
In 1940 they built an Olympic-size swimming pool in Auschwitz. Every Sunday everyone who wished could swim there and they even held competitions. This was all for the benefit of the Red Cross. It went on until Christmas time. We didnt know what was happening at the battlefront, although we knew the Germans were suffering heavy losses. We gleaned our news from various signs, and when we were outside the camp we sometimes came across an old German newspaper. I would count the crosses - the obituary notices for officers and sergeants. I never found an obituary for an ordinary soldier, but for every officer, I counted ten ordinary soldiers killed. Was this calculation accurate? I have no idea. Perhaps it was wishful thinking, but it cheered my aching heart!
I have not yet described the cruelty of the SS women. I didnt see many of them, but what I saw what enough for me! Near their work place was a small camp of women, most of them Hungarians. In the evening, when they came back from work, they would hold an assembly to make sure nobody was missing. We could see them clearly from our building, which was very close by. The women would come to look for people they knew, or to talk, and sometimes we would throw them something to eat, or a few cigarettes. One girl stood there, very close to the fence, in order to hear better, because we werent allowed raise our voices. An SS woman spotted her and sneaked up behind her like a cat preying on a canary... We couldnt warn the poor girl, and the bitch grabbed her by the hair and drove her fist into her face. I think she broke her nose. After she left, her victim fled back into her hut.
In Auschwitz there was a block of young women who served as Mengeles guinea pigs. Sometimes we saw them when they permitted them walk to about, accompanied, naturally, so they wouldnt come in contact with men. Dr. Mengele the sadist performed all kinds of brutal experiments on them. We heard about it through rumors - even though they were carefully guarded, some people managed to contact them nevertheless, and nothing could be kept entirely secret.
Necessity is the mother of invention... necessity provides special antibodies, helping us to defend ourselves passively and if need be also actively! It teaches us to devise tricks, to deceive the murderers and the sadists. War is waged by stealth, and this was a terrible war, a war of survival. A war between people who were beyond the law, imprisoned, starved, naked and bereft of everything, against a sadistic and cruel regime unparalleled in history. They had a mighty army which had conquered half the world, which knew no bounds, which recognized no laws, neither legal nor ethical. And yet the downtrodden ones found ways to defend themselves and to stay alive. Whoever did not experience it and just read about it, cannot understand. You may hear the stories related by simple people but they dont have the skill to describe in clear pictures exactly how it was, so that the listener feels the tragedy and comprehends the struggle to go on living. Even the most talented cannot give an accurate picture to horrify all the succeeding generations, when nobody is left to tell the tale of those who passed through - when they are no longer alive. Those who experienced the Holocaust are regarded as sheep going meekly to the slaughter. Nobody appreciates the bravery of these sheep who had no horns and no fence - or rather, a fence which had been trampled on all sides by millions of tigers, lions and wild beasts. Above them were murderers armed with hand grenades, rifles and pistols, hunting their prey. Who can describe the feelings of a person hiding in the chimney of an oven, while the ghetto is being liquidated and the soldiers are going from house to house in case someone is hiding? They ask why we didnt flee to the forests and join the partisans - as if everyone could go into the forests! Could everyone join the partisans? What of the women and the little ones? Who can describe the dangers lurking in the forests at the hands of gentile partisans? The number of Jews who met their death at the hands of gentile partisans has been repeated many times. Some lucky souls managed to join up with organized partisan brigades, even bringing weapons with them. They also suffered at the hands of the friends. What strength of character and nerves of steel were required of the Jews who passed themselves off as Aryans (gentiles), how much wisdom and cunning was required not to let slip a single word, day or night, even while asleep, among the families where they lived and the places where they worked. Not only the Germans were after them. Millions of gentiles assisted them, setting ambushes to catch Jews and thus earn one kilo of sugar... And even if a Jew could congratulate himself on speaking the language perfectly without a Jewish accent, what of the eternal sign of the Jew? How many medical examinations did he have to undergo, how many communal showers? How do you hide such a sign from those around you, especially those who are particularly curious? Yet despite these hardships and difficulties, hundreds and perhaps even thousands succeeding in outwitting the entire hostile world and remaining alive.
Lets return to Auschwitz! Time doesnt stand still, it keeps going, whether we are experiencing happiness and joy or sadness, grief and trouble. Every hour seemed to drag on for a year, and every day was an eternity. It was only the nights, when they let us sleep, that passed very quickly. And so we come to Christmas on the eve of 1945. That evening, while we were lying on our beds, the block fuhrer entered. He was an SS sergeant, drunk, the eternal hero. His appearance was always a sign for mortal terror... one slap from him and you were thrown right over and landed on the floor. And suddenly here he was, this sub human creature, drunk... when unexpectedly and shamelessly he burst into tears. We needed no honey to sweeten our lives, or butter to spread on our hearts. Could anything in the world have given us more satisfaction? The hero stood there and blubbered like any drunk, with his mouth wide open. He began to tell us that the Russians were advancing, and every place they came to they raped and killed the women. What were the women guilty of? And so on and so on... What joy in our hearts, we wanted to dance and prance. What we really wanted was to get off our beds and spit in the face of the swine - to drown him in it! Suddenly there was justice in the world! They were raping their innocent and righteous women - did you hear, they were even killing them! Had such a thing ever happened before?
Things continued as usual until December 28, 1944. Before daybreak a strange noise was heard in the block - everyone started talking because we didnt understand what was going on. Meanwhile a gentile caught a Jewish thief who was an expert in his field. He had stolen a food parcel from a gentile but unfortunately he was caught and severely beaten, almost to death. I had wondered why he always shaved his head, but that morning I learned that he never had hair. As a professional thief he sometimes had to disguise himself, so he removed all his hair and disguised himself by donning all manner of wigs. That morning I was visited by a man from Maltz named Berel Weinstein, the same Berel who was once in hospital when I brought him half a loaf and some sausage. He came to take his leave of me, because they were starting to evacuate Auschwitz. He was holding a small book of psalms (Tehillim) which hed kept hidden, and read a few chapters. I gave him half a loaf for the way and I never saw him again - he died somewhere, may the Lord avenge him.
The March of Death
Still nothing happened. As usual we prepared to go to work. We ate - everyone who had breakfast - and went out to work. At noon we received our lunch - everything was the same as usual. We chatted and prayed - perhaps a miracle would happen and they wouldnt have time to move us? Perhaps the Russians would hurry and capture Auschwitz? There were rumors that they had already taken Cracow - and that wasnt too far from here! At three in the afternoon - another order! We were instructed to stop working, we were returning to camp. When we arrived - another order! Take two blankets and prepare for the march. We didnt know but we understood that this was a death march! They sent us to the kitchen. Outside in the square stood crates filled with tinned meat and preserves and piles of bread. Each person received a one-kilo loaf and a half-kilo tin of meat. Then we were taken to a block near the gate and they herded us into a closed courtyard nearby. My brother-in-law Benjamin was there and we also met Shmuel Chomsky who was in another block. He told us that he was in the camp that afternoon, when suddenly he saw the Russian prisoners breaking a window in the kitchen storeroom and hauling out tins of meat. So he also jumped in and grabbed three tins. We made a quick calculation and decided that if they had given us one whole loaf each - four ration portions - then the march would continue for at least four days! The kitchen would not be coming after us. What should we do? I discovered a way out of the yard and, leaving my bread and meat with them, I ran back to the kitchen, squeezed into the line and received another tin of meat and a loaf. When I realized how easy it was, I went back yet again, and whispered to the other guys that they should do the same, which they all managed successfully... Before leaving I asked my friend Mendel Yungerman æ"ì, who was an expert shoemaker, to hide some serious diamonds in the heels of my shoes, as well as two platinum earrings set with large diamonds and a ring with a huge diamond. I gave Shmuel Chomsky a pair of earrings set with 18 diamonds and two rings, one with a slightly smaller diamond and the other a wedding ring. I gave my other brother-in-law Benjamin 15 roubles in gold coins, hoping that at least one of us would make it out. Mendel insisted tht it was better to sew it into a belt next to the buckle but I disagreed. Granted it was a lot of work hiding things in shoe heels, but still... In the end I gave in. Shoes and a belt were the only items that always remained with us. The rest of our clothes were always taken away when we arrived somewhere new.
When night fell we received the order to move out. At the gate stood soldiers, checking us as we went by. The thief who had been caught that morning was walking in front of me, when the soldiers caught sight of his wounds and returned him to the camp. I was sure they would kill him, but after the war I heard that all the sick people who remained in the hospital were liberated by the Russians a few days after we left Auschwitz. Sometimes its even worth a beating! We walked out between two fences that had been erected all the way to the end of the camp, until we reached the highway. About half a kilometer beyond the fence we came across the first corpse - a bullet to the head and half his skull drained out like an empty can. We were accompanied on both sides by armed SS guards. In the middle of the night we reached the forest. Suddenly the order came to lie down in the ditch at the side of the road. At the time I thought we may be destined to lie there permanently, but when no shots rang out we all began to listen for the sound of Russian vehicles. My imagination was working overtime, guessing at one thing after another, but I was wrong. Once again we were ordered to get up and continue marching... We went on until the morning, feeling very tired by now. Suddenly I noticed a young fellow beginning to fall. A soldier had already spotted him too. He pulled him by the sleeve and advised him, like a good friend, to sit and rest for a while. The SS went on and the boy was already dropping out of the line when I pulled him back, wiped his face with snow and gave him my place in line, taking his myself. I told him to keep going, or else hed be killed. This is how the murderers took pity on the weaker ones, letting them sit and rest until the group passed, when the angels of death would come from the rear and shoot them. The men started to get tired and threw their blankets away. I told my friends to make an effort not to get rid of their blankets, it was like throwing bread away. I even collected an extra blanket from those that had been discarded. We carried on walking until the afternoon, when we arrived at a town whose name I dont know - I didnt see any signposts. There was a large fenced square, covered with snow, probably a sports field, where they let us sit and rest. We spread out our blankets and sat down, taking out the bread and a tin of meat and dividing them in four. The fact that the four of us were a united team helped us a lot. If someone opened a can of meat by himself he had to finish the whole thing, leaving nothing for the following day. After we had rested for a little while the order came to get up and move on again. We entered the town, and there we really felt and saw the war. Military vehicles were rushing about, lots of people were in the streets, the shops were open. As I passed a shop I saw that it was full of people and the back entrance was ajar. I slipped inside, all the way to the back, planning to escape, when I realized I was in prison clothes! So I returned to the group and continued marching. In the evening we reached a farm with a huge barn filled with straw. We all piled on top of the straw, the whole group including the boy I had saved. We ate something and fell asleep. The date was Friday January 19, 1945. Before dawn the boy hollowed out a space in the straw, all the way down to the floor, and told me that he wanted to stay there in hiding. I told him not to ask for suggestions. Nobody could advise him. Perhaps this place would be in Russian hands within a day or two, but perhaps it would take a long time, and on the last day the murderers might burn down the barn because they suspected people were hiding there. Their brains hadnt entirely dried up! At any rate, he decided to stay there. He clambered into his burrow and asked me to cover him up with straw. I did so, and I would very much like to know what happened to him afterwards. I never found out. I heard from others that for many days prisoners were brought to that place, so perhaps he joined another group and went off with them. Who knows?
On Saturday morning we set off again. There was no counting and no assembly. We just arranged ourselves in lines and continued walking. Not long afterwards we came to a small town or village. Two small buildings stood at the edge of the place, far from the other cottages. They were really small, with no doors or windows. To this day I sometimes think how easy it would have been to escape from there. We lay outside with no opportunity to sneak into the buildings. We had food but no water and the frost was very harsh. We spread out our blankets on the snow and lay down to sleep. From experience I advised everyone to remove their shoes because your feet freeze faster inside your shoes. I also had a pair of gloves. I filled one with straw and gave it to Shmuel Chomsky, keeping the other one for myself. I placed it on the area of my kidneys and lay on top of it to protect my kidneys. We all lay together, covered with lots of blankets, and I asked everyone who woke up to wake the others so we could see who was still alive. In the morning when we arose some people remained frozen on the ground because they had no blankets. They fell asleep and soon they became numb and froze to death!
We remained there until the afternoon. We were sure that by now there was no place left to retreat and they were going to kill us right there. But no! Both guesses were wrong. We were near a train station and they were simply waiting for a train! In the afternoon we were ordered to move on. We arrived at the station, where a freight train awaited us with open boxcars. We climbed up and squashed into the boxcars. The cold wasnt so bad, we had all those blankets to wrap ourselves in, and soon we were on our way. A small amount of food still remained, because we were careful with it. But we needed water! Water - gevalt, water! We travelled for four days. We passed Prague! The train stopped there early in the morning and the laborers and Czech gentiles threw us their breakfasts and lunches. Such good people, truly gold! Every one of them threw something. The SS went crazy, trying to stop them. A woman came with a hand cart laden with loaves of white bread which she began throwing into the boxcarts. The SS chased her, trying to seize the bread. She fled, but managed to throw the last of her bread into the end boxcart before vanishing... It was said, although I could not verify it, that while we were in Prague some people managed to escape. We stayed there for about two hours before continuing on our journey. We continued for another three days until we came to a place between high mountains. There we alighted from the train frozen, exhausted, starving and dying of thirst! Next to the road was a very narrow ditch where water still flowed, although it was winter and the cold was unbearable. I fell onto the ditch, snatched up water in my hands and drank...
Camp Mauthausen, Austria
As we came closer, we saw some huts on the mountain and realized that we were approaching that camp of ill-repute - Mauthausen. The first atrocity we saw was this: a track led from the top of the mountain to the bottom, equipped with a trolley of the sort that is used for transporting rocks to be crushed. But instead of rocks we saw some prisoners in the trolley. They released the brakes or the cable at the top - Im not sure how it was operated - at any rate the trolley hurtled down at top speed, and when it hit the bottom the prisoners were actually crushed to a pulp! Only evil beasts could be capable of such a thing. And this was not depravity for its own sake but for the sake of entertainment and pleasure!
We went up. A huge wooden hut stood next to the gate. They herded us into a space of about three meters between the hut and the electrified fence. Night fell as we waited in the Alpine cold. We began to search for water, water! There was a kitchen at the other end of the hut, where gentiles worked, naturally. You could buy water from them in exchange for a watch, gold, silver and so on. I offered them a new shaving kit with blades and a little cup. They threw it back - you dont get water for such a small item! Meanwhile people began to enter the building from the side next to the gate. We saw them enter, but nobody came out, so we assumed it was a small gas chamber, otherwise how could it be that nobody emerged? I tried to scrape some clean snow off the wall, but touched the electrified wires by mistake. Fortunately I only received a mild electric shock - a kind of weird shiver - thank G-d I escaped worse harm. We decided to sleep on the snow... wed already learned how... So we spread some blankets on the snow, covered ourselves with more blankets and lay down to sleep until morning. Those in charge were Polish and German prisoners, well dressed in blue suits with fine boots and clubs, as brutal and murderous as the Nazis. I was tired of waiting in line, so I decided to enter the building, gas chamber or no, just to end the suffering...
For this we were also expected to pay - for the right to enter Paradise. I had no choice but to hand over 3 watches for 5 of us. We were finally permitted to enter. It was a basement, not very big, with a shower for 3-4 men. At a table near the entrance stood a soldier wielding a club, with several helpers. We were told to strip, keeping only our shoes and belt, but when I went towards the showers, a soldier stopped me. First he took my belt and unpicked the seams with a knife near the buckle, where he naturally discovered all my loot. Then he started to interrogate me: :Where did you get this? I explained that when we left Auschwitz I had no belt, but on the way I saw a corpse and removed his belt. I had no idea that these valuables were hidden inside. It was a feeble excuse, but better than nothing! He continued: Well, now Ive profited, havent I? I replied that it was possible, I really had no idea. Werent you very rich at home? he asked. I assured him that we were very poor and barely had enough to eat. With that he stopped questioning me, delighting in his windfall. He gave me three heavy blows and let me enter the shower. The next in line was my friend Mendel who had thought up my hiding place - the soldier didnt even glance at my shoes! His belt was also unpicked, revealing 200 dollars. This was a very paltry prize, after the fortune he had taken from me, but it earned Mendel 5 blows. Being very weak, he collapsed on the floor in a faint. I was terrified that he would be killed so I grabbed him by the head and dragged him into the shower, where I opened the cold tap to revive him.
When we came out of the shower we were given torn shirts and underpants and they sent us outside. Those who finished showering before us were waiting for more people to join them. Then we discovered the secret of what happened to those who entered but were not seen leaving the building. We thought they had been put to death, but it turned out that they simply left by a different door. We joined them and together we waited for more people to arrive. The cold was indescribable. We were almost naked after our shower, standing in the Alps in the middle of winter in driving wind, frost and snow. Eventually they brought us to a warm hut, with a pile of mattresses on the floor. We were dropping with exhaustion, hunger and thirst, but we were strictly forbidden even to sit on the floor. We were forced to stand until nightfall, when they took us to another hut where the floor was covered in snow, the windows were open and we were surrounded by officials seated at tables. If it was cold during the day, you can imagine how cold it was at night. They recorded our particulars and issued each man a new number made of tin, which was tied around our wrists with metal wire. They kept us there until 11:00 p.m. and then we were taken to yet another hut. We entered and recoiled in shock - people were lying on the floor as if dead, wedged together like fish in a barrel - rows and rows of bodies lying head to toe without even a centimeter of space between them. The room was not large, but at least 50 more men had just been brought in. They started waking them up to make room for us. The servants brought out their clubs and began beating them, hitting one on his head, another on his feet. And these people, who looked as if they were already dead, began to lift their heavy, tired bodies. They were ordered to sit with their legs apart so that others could sit between them. This is how they remained all night. They sat in rows and soon the room became unbearably hot and people started screaming. The servants returned with their clubs and brought them smashing down on a few heads, and soon it was quiet... If they opened the windows, those who sat nearby froze, so they closed them again. Meanwhile the crowd of people fell asleep sitting up, which spoiled the neat rows, so in came the servants with their clubs to tidy them up again. This went on all night, every hour!
In the morning we arose and went outside to be counted. Try to stand in the biting cold wearing nothing but a torn shirt! When the counting was over we returned to the hut. We were forbidden to sit or lie down - only to stand! They gave us some tea. After seven days and nights we had only been given a little hot water, and we had no water to drink! As I left the room I saw barrels full of water in which stood all kinds of brooms, in case of fire. I tried to drink it, but it stank too badly. At the toilet bowl I let the water run for a while and using my hand I managed to scoop up some to drink. We were forced to remain standing all day, and in the evening we received a piece of bread with hot water. Once again we had to sleep in the same fashion as the night before. We spent three days like this - on our feet and naked...
Thank G-d on the evening of the third day they brought us clothes and coats. We dressed and were taken to a train with closed carriages. One soldier accompanied each carriage, and it was so cold that he permitted us to prise up a floorboard, break it in pieces and burn it for the heat. I dont know how long we travelled - two or three hours - but eventually we arrived at Evenzy. The train stopped far from the station so people wouldnt see us, and when we jumped out of the carriage we landed in snow up to our waists. Then we had to walk 4 or 5 kilometers. On the way we passed a hill where we saw some people. The dust was as thick as fog, and the lights around were yellow with dust. The people appeared like ghosts, wrapped in cement sacks to protect themselves from the cold, as they dragged rocks. Well, this certainly cheered us up.
The camp was about 2 kilometers further on. A fat SS with a long stick awaited us in the middle of the road. He walked between the lines and began beating us left and right, splitting heads open. This was our welcome... We later learned that he was the camp kommandant. Once again we were taken to the showers and again they changed our clothes. At daybreak we arrived at a hut with beds and mattresses, and were divided up two to a bed. We dropped onto those beds and slept. Rothschild himself never slept as sweetly as we did that night... and they let us sleep until quite late!
After that sleep they took us to the showers, where I finally had clean water to drink for the first time in ten days. We washed our hands and faces, but there was nothing to dry ourselves with. One sleeve of my shirt was coming unravelled so I pulled it off entirely and used it to dry my hands and face before replacing it on my arm to dry. This sleeve served as both towel and sleeve for the next 4 months. During that time we never once received a clean shirt or a towel. I had a fine, elegant pair of shoes because when I worked in the shoe warehouse in Auschwitz I could take my pick of the merchandise. But was was suitable for Auschwitz was not suitable for Evenzy. In Auschwitz there were roads and we worked in a clean, comfortable warehouse, but this was not the case in Evenzy. Here we had to work outside, on roads covered with snow and mud, in terrible weather. It rained or snowed every day. Within an hour my shoes had turned to rags, my feet were wet and frozen, and I had to find another pair of shoes. The best was a pair of wooden clogs - but where could I find them in this jungle? I decided to ask the block leader, a thieving dolt of a Pole. I took him an engagement ring that Shmuel Chomsky managed to save and in exchange he found me wooden clogs. I kept these until my imprisonment ended. When we returned from work in the evening my rags were wet so I spread them on my bed and lay down to dry them out or at least to warm them a little, so that I put on warm rags in the morning - but half an hour later it was already a different story...Tea is served morning and evening... We were already accusomed to the evenings. From the Nazis you learned to adapt to everything very quickly! As for the mornings: the first morning we received a bowl large enough to hold 3 liters of hot water in place of tea... that was supposed to feed ten people! All ten stood in a circle and the bowl passed from hand to hand. Each person received one mouthful! Naturally everyone tried to make it a big mouthful. The bowl went around, with each man watching the next one like a hawk to make sure he didnt take too much, until it was empty...
That first night we were sent to work on the night shift. In the mountains they smashed rocks by dynamiting them in a tunnel. Our job was to clear rocks off the ceiling so they wouldnt fall on peoples heads, pile them up and load them into carts, to be hauled away. The rocks were then pulverized for paving roads and building cement walls inside the tunnels. They built a networkof tunnels which extended for many kilometers, intending to place all the military industry inside to protect it from bombs.
There was a young fellow with me from Lodzh, named Asher Sitko. He was also my bedmate, because we slept two to a bed. The kapo was a Ukrainian Russian who hated Jews, and his helper, also Ukrainian, also hated us. They thought I was Russian because Id spoken to them a few words in Russian. Even though they had electric lights it was always dark in there, because we were all covered with dust from the rocks, so he never saw my Magen David. I told Asher Sitko not to open his mouth, so we could get through the night shift without being beaten.
Early next morning, after work, we came out to be counted before returning to the camp. A Pole came over to me and said something in Polish, and without thinking I replied in the same language. The kapo was astonished: How come this Jew replies in Russian when spoken to in Russian, and replies in Polish when spoken to in Polish? He raised his club and prepared to bring it down on my head. At the last second I yelled out So what do you lose by it? He lowered the club and cursed me in Russian, but left me alone. After the counting, just before we returned to camp, he again wanted to hit me, but restrained himself, hissing in Russian: Here you dont sit in offices, here you have to work... Its true that in Russia the Jews sat in offices and the gentiles did the work, but here it was different...
The second night we were also sent to work in the tunnels, but this time we worked in tunnels which had been completed and were ready for machinery. Near the tunnels stood a train, laden with heavy machines which we had to unload and transfer to their permanent positions. We were received by a meister (civilian professional), an Austrian wielding a cable, a Ukrainian kapo and his Ukrainian helper, both equipped with clubs as their badges of rank. We were divided into three groups and shown three extremely heavy machines which had already been unloaded. The meister explained the principles of hauling the machinery. All well and good! They were to be moved by means of three pipes. First of all the machine was raised so that a pipe could be inserted underneath, then we gave a slight push so that the pipe reached the middle of the machine. The second pipe was then inserted. Another push and the first pipe reached the other end, the second reached the middle and the third was pushed under while the first came out. It worked very well and the machine was gradually moved into its place. One of us had the job of changing the pipes. The kapo and his helpers supervised the other two groups, while the meister remained with us, yelling faster, faster as he beat us with his rubber cable filled with steel wires. I didnt receive any blows, but made a terrific commotion with my yells of encouragement, making sure that we all pushed at the same time so that the work would proceed faster. The men in the other groups were really unfortunate. They were at the mercy of the Ukrainians who couldnt explain anything, all they could do was beat their victims, which they thoroughly enjoyed. But the meister didnt mind beating us either, and the men were crying out in pain. I tried to comfort them - I knew from experience that the meister would not remain with us all night, and I was right. At ten oclock he turned to me and announced that he was putting me in charge of the group. We were to work swiftly and make sure the machine was moved to its designated spot, which was pretty far away, but not impossible. He made a mark on the wall and another on the floor, then he recorded the time and left. I suggested that we move the machine a few meters and then take a break. That became our work pattern - we paused to rest every few meters, continuing gradually, like the Jewish soldier in the Tsars army who rested after every shot he fired... The work progressed far better without the fear and the beatings. At midnight they gave us a liter of soup, which we hadnt expected...
We spent several nights working there and the meister came to depend on me. He also showed us how to unload the machinery from the train. That too was an art - otherwise one could easily be killed!, I was a good pupil, as they say, and soon learned this as well. On the third or fourth night the kapo became very angry and demanded to know why I had earned such privileges, and why I wasnt beaten like the rest. He rushed over to my group and without a word began to beat one of my men. Im a very impulsive person, given to quick decisions. I grabbed my iron crowbar and raised it above my head as if I were about to hit him. He jumped aside and I threw my crowbar on the ground. Then I began to curse him at the top of my voice in Russian, using every juicy oath I could think of. The meister happened to be somewhere in the tunnel, and when he heard my yells he came running to find out whats going on. I informed him that the Russian swine was interfering with my workers, he was beating them so hard that they couldnt work. He was furious, and warned the kapo that if he ever again interfered with our group hed teach him a lesson. The rest of the men promptly ran over to join my group - but how could I take them all?
My pal Asher was in my group, as well as a Czech Jew whose name I dont remember. I regret this very much, because I would very much like to find him. I know he remained alive! He was a fine man, learned, refined, G-d fearing and very wise. There arent many like him. One night as he went to the latrines he was caught by the SS and some kapos who beat him so badly that he barely managed to crawl back. My heart almost burst to see him like that, but I didnt know how to help him. In one corner was a pile of branches, so I told him to lie on the ground while I covered him with the branches. He lay there for the rest of the night until he recovered somewhat and made it back to the camp. We were given tea to drink and then went to sleep.
Our strength was gradually being sapped by the hunger, the arduous labor and the long workshifts - twelve hours at a stretch. My brother in law still had some of my valuables - 15 Russian roubles in gold coins, a Czech diamond ring and a pair of earrings with 18 large genuine diamonds. I began looking for ways to exchange them for food. Evenzy wasnt Auschwitz - one had to be doubly careful.
Our bunks were on three levels. My bedmate and I shared a top bunk. In the middle were some Jews who I only knew by sight, we werent really well acquainted. One Sunday when we were not working we were lying on our beds (by the way, we worked 13 days at a stretch and the fourteenth was free). I noticed that the two men beneath us had pulled their blanket over their heads and were eating something. I figured that if they were eating camp bread they had no need for secrecy, so their food was either stolen or bartered. It was certainly worth looking into...
I raised a corner of their blanket and said: Dont be alarmed, I only want your advice. I noticed that you were eating in secret - thats a good sign! If it was camp bread, you wouldnt bother to hide it. I have some things to sell but dont know who to turn to. Perhaps you can help? That way we can all benefit. They were most enthusiastic: Absolutely, we have great connections here. Just hand over your merchandise and youll receive whatever you want... I replied innocently: I cant give you anything, and I dont have any requests either. What I really want is to know how to earn a bread ration to ease my hunger pangs. They instructed me to bring whatever I had, so I took the ring with the stone from my brother in law and decided to take a chance. Meanwhile I discovered their names -Yankel and Leibel. I gave them the ring, informing that I wanted in exchange 10 dollars or 10 loaves of bread (a loaf of bread was worth a dollar). They agreed, took the ring, and informed me that I could get sausage, margarine or bread - what did I prefer? But then they returned it to me, saying the stone was fake, not worth more than two dollars or two loaves of bread. I realized that they had dealings with experts, and furthermore I believed they were honest and not trying to cheat me. But for all my caution, I fell into a trap anyway. I brought them an earring in place of the ring, telling them that I had the other earring as well. They were delighted, once again promising all kinds of things, I should just name my price. I asked for 100 dollars, fifty in cash and fifty in merchandise - bread, a bit of margarine and a piece of sausage. Great, fine, its a deal - they took the earring and said everythings OK. So wheres my cash? I asked. Well, there arent any dollars, youll have to take it all in food...
It was clear to me that Id been cheated. I told them Id have to check it out since the terms of our agreement had changed, and they agreed. I didnt get back to them until nightfall, because I spent the day trying to figure out ways to save the situation. The other earring was hidden in my pocket. My trousers were tied at the waist and at the bottom with steel wire...
That night we went out to work. In the middle of the night we were standing with a heavy piece of machinery near the passageway to another tunnel. At the time it was boarded up so we couldnt see the other side. We were resting, but I was yelling the whole time, as if I was encouraging my team to keep working. An SS murderer on the other side spotted us through a crack in the boards. He rushed round to our side and discovered us taking a break. He came straight over to me and pulled out my pocket, slashed it with a knife and threw it aside. You can imagine how my heart dropped. But I smiled and looked him straight in the eye. He demanded to know what I found so amusing and why I was laughing so cheekily, but I replied Not cheeky, I was just being friendly. He slapped me and left, and I rushed to pick up my pocket, but to my amazement the earring was gone! Unable to believe that such a thing could have happened, I continued searching until I discovered a hole in the pocket. This was truly the finger of G-d - I had been saved from certain death! Someone must have informed on me! On the other hand, I deeply regretted the loss of the earring. I untied the wires at the bottom of my trousers and began shaking them in case it had fallen down - nothing! My only remaining hope was that I would find it on or next to my bed. When we returned to the hut I rushed to search for it, but to no avail, and finally I despaired of finding it. After the evening tea I undressed before going to sleep, and carefully examined my trousers from the inside. There I discovered an inside patch, one corner of which had come undone, and there was the earring, which had fallen between the patch and the fabric. My joy knew no bounds! On the one hand I had been saved from a sure death, and on the other - no harm had befallen me! I looked upon it as Divine providence, as well as an excellent excuse for the two scoundrels who were trying to trick me. I continued to devise a plan to get the other earring out of their hands, and eventually came up with a story: A catastrophe - the other fellow lost the other earring and now hes forced to accept 25 dollars instead of 50 for the remaining earring. This was the best indication that the story was true, otherwise why would someone be prepared to take a loss of 50 percent? They promptly replied: Nothing doing. The other earring must also be handed over, otherwise this will end badly. This was the proof that they were swindlers and crooks. A different approach was obviously called for!
I left the earring as if I had forgotten about it, and went to see a Jew who had some dollars. I told him the whole story and asked him to give me 100 dollars for a few minutes, so I could lay a trap for the crooks. I wanted to bait it with something tasty, as one does for rats. Then I went to Leibel, told him that I only wanted to do business with him because I didnt trust Yankel, showed him the money and asked what I could buy with it. Leibel almost jumped with joy, saying: I knew it - that idiot was spoiling things for me. I can get you 100 loaves of bread for that amount of cash. Sssshhhh, said I, I could get the same amount for 70 loaves, and the two of us could make a very tidy profit. He was most enthusiastic, Lets do it! But I said Not so fast, first I have to go back and settle the price and I returned the money to my friend, telling him I had prepared the trap but didnt know what would come of it. Then I returned to Leibel. Nu, wheres the 100 dollars? he asked. I replied My contact agrees, but first he wants the earring back. Leibel, for all that he was a scoundrel, was also very stupid. Big deal, said he, heres the earring - and he returned it to me! The rat had been caught in the trap! I ran to give my brother in law both earrings, telling him that my trick had succeeded but my troubles were not yet over. In that I was entirely correct!
I kept out of the way until the evening, when I went to work. The other two worked the day shift, so there wasnt much chance we would meet. The only opportunity was on the free Sunday, which only occurred once every two weeks. Being experienced crooks they couldnt accept the shame of being outwitted by a simple man who turned out to be a lot smarter than they were. This was intolerable!
As a rule we were all counted at the same time, after one shift returned from work but before the next shift went out. Before the counting began, they got hold of me and warned me that if I didnt give them both earrings plus 100 dollars it would go very badly with me! What do you want, I should go find my contact right now? Wait for the free Sunday and Ill hand him over to you. You should both be ashamed of yourselves - why am I to blame for falling between two such scoundrels...
Meanwhile, yet another miracle happened... Since we worked at night, we slept during the day. We were in a place which was sometimes reached by American and British warplanes, and when the alarm was sounded we were all forced to rush to the shelter, which was located outside the fence, in the tunnels. It happened more than once that a man missed his footing through sheer exhaustion and fell onto the electrified wires, where he burnt to death. Sleep was becoming impossible and even the murderers were aware of this, so they moved us to another hut together with all the other workers on the night shift, and we were exempt from running to the shelters whenever the alarm sounded. I was delighted with the change, hoping that the crooks would not be able to find me and would leave me alone. In this, too, I was mistaken...
One day I was sleeping the sleep of the just, with my blanket over my head. Next to me slept my buddy and in the next bed was my learned Czech friend. Suddenly my blanket was yanked away to reveal Leibel the crook, who appeared to be crying! Through his tears he said: Get up, quick! Big trouble! I got 25 lashes without revealing anything, but as soon as they started to beat Yankel he owned up and admitted that you have the dollars and diamonds. Now the SS is waiting for you. I wasnt sure whether to believe him, but I said: Look, whats the point of me coming with you? Well both be beaten. No dollars will come out of this. I told you we must wait for the next free Sunday to settle the matter. Leibel the stupid crook thought he would scare me with his tale about the SS and I would hand over the diamonds together with the dollars. He had hit upon a stupid scheme - if the SS was looking for me, why would he need this scoundrel? Would the SS be ashamed to come in and haul me down off my bed? But I had to play along as if I believed him, because these crooks were perfectly capable of informing on me.
Sure enough, our next free Sunday came around and no sooner had I climbed into bed when the scoundrel was there: Nu! Its our free day! Once again I tried to calm him down: Whats the hurry? I just got here! Im exhausted and worn out... let me rest a bit, we have the whole day ahead of us. At noon Ill come and find you and you can do whatever you want. Just leave me alone... He went away and I rested for a while. Then I went to find my brother in law who had the earrings and my friend with the 100 dollars. I told them the whole story, adding that I didnt believe more that one percent of the crooks tale. I told them that if the crooks show them bleeding flesh and say its mine, they can believe them, but if they tell them anything in my name, they shouldnt believe a word of it! To make quite sure there were no slips, we arranged a secret sign, so that if we were all interrogated we would have the same story, but in different words, so nobody would suspect we had discussed it in advance. So we prepared ourselves for even the worst eventuality...
At about 1:00 p.m. the fellow returned. I launched into a long and involved story, explaining that Id been through the entire camp without finding my contact. Perhaps he was in hospital, or hed been sent to another camp. Perhaps he died! I gave him a name and number, as well as the number of the block where he should be found. (This information actually related to someone who had died the previous day.) I ended by telling him that as far as I was concerned, he could give the information to the SS, who would find him faster that we could. Thats the truth, and the best way of finding the man. If you still dont believe me, my names Shmuel Rubinstein, this is my number, I am in this block and heres the number of my bed. But I should warn you that before they come for me theyll beat the two of you as well. Possibly theyll hang all three of us, but I have G-d Almighty on my side! He stood there for a moment looking totally confused, then he began to walk away, but at the door he turned back. Once again I repeated my speech and eventually he left. At about 3:00 p.m. the friend who loaned me 100 dollars came to see me with a tale: the scoundrel had approached him with a tale of someone who wanted to buy 100 dollars worth of cigarettes. He suggested that my friend get 100 dollars from me so we could all profit. My friend told him that he didnt believe Rubinstein had anything to do business with, but hed ask anyway. He told me: Shmuel, you really fooled him - hes totally disappointed, then he returned to the crook and swore that I have nothing. Trust me, he assured the crook, if Rubinstein had anything at all to barter he would have told me about it. In the evening the crook reappeared at my side. He confessed that it had all been a put-up job dreamed up by Yankel. I just sat there and listened, and gradually he got to the point - Let bygones be bygones. Just give me 100 dollars and Ill bring you cigarettes! Are you serious? I replied, I cant believe youre doing this. Have you any idea what youve put me through? I really want to forget the whole thing, so Ill give you the name of someone who can give you 100 dollars, but I dont want to do any more business with either of you. I gave him the name of someone I didnt know, but I had heard a story that this man was once a partner of the two crooks. Together the three of them informed on a Jew to the SS and the Jew was hanged as a result. When Leibel heard his name he said Hell never give me money. Well, I dont know anyone else, I replied. And with that the episode was closed...
Two days later, we were returning to camp in the morning as usual. As a rule, as soon as we passed the gate everyone dispersed to his own hut, but this day they made us stand in orderly rows. We could already see that theyd brought stools, and soldiers were standing poised with whips, which meant they were carrying out a search. I always tried to be in the middle of the line, because you could never tell which side the trouble was coming from! Whatever I once had that was worth hiding was long gone... We were ordered to unlace our shoes and raise our hands - apparently they were looking for rags taken from the blankets. It was so cold that some people had torn strips from their blankets to wrap around their feet. They had already discovered some and the beatings had begun! Whenever there was trouble, it was sure to find me - I also had rags torn from old blankets. I actually received them legally but go explain that to a soldier. I tried unsuccessfully to remove the rags through various acrobatic contortions. Meanwhile the murderers were getting closer, although I tried to move further away. They were getting tired of the search, so they whistled for the block leaders to take over. The leader of my block, who was Spanish, came running directly opposite me. He understood that a search was being carried out but had not yet realised what they were looking for. As I trotted past him with my hands in the air he patted my body and let me keep going - and I fled! The cries from the beatings arose to the heavens. Everyone had a whip fashioned from a bulls penis, and each blow laid the flesh open. After 25 such blows you might remain alive but you had to lie on your stomach for a month and it was impossible to sit...
Soon after we ended the night shift. The first day after that we were sent to clear snow off the road. An SS standing next to me said: We dont need gas chambers here, people die without them - and he was right. A new contingent of prisoners arrived every two weeks and yet our numbers never increased, because people died like flies from starvation, hard labor, filth and beatings... Mainly from hunger! As the war drew to an end our hunger increased. A large clay bowl of hot water in the morning, instead of tea, to be shared among ten men who were suffering from colds. Each man received one swallow before passing it on to the next, who watched carefully to make sure he didnt take two swallows instead of one! The heat penetrated ones nostrils, and the resulting vapor sometimes dripped from the nose directly into the bowl! More than one unfortunate received a slap from the man at his side, who insisted on his mouthful ... until the bowl was empty. At noon we received a liter of soup which was nothing more than foul water. Anyone who discovered a few potato peelings floating there was grateful for his good meal. In the evening were given a piece of bread, black as mud - no one had any idea what it was made of... This was supposed to sustain us through 12 hours of hard labor, accompanied by brutal beatings!
The filth: Lice swarmed everywhere - even the walls were infested. We slept two to a bed on mattresses covered with dirty, damp rags. We lay on them to dry out and try to warm our legs. Months without washing, without soap or towels, not to mention a change of underwear - it was certainly not surprising that we were lice-ridden. When someone died his naked body was wrapped in a blanket and carried to the crematoria by two or three men. On the way, they would slice the flesh off his buttocks, if anything remained there, and eat it. The blanket would be returned for others to use. We ate coal, grass - whatever we could find. Anything to assuage the hunger, even a little. To this day I dont understand how people didnt simply go insane with hunger!... Our kapo was an old Polish gentile, a real murderer. As he carried out an inspection one day he noticed that some straw had landed on a middle bunk from the mattress above. He noted down the number of the bed and continued on his way. That evening, when everyone returned from work he called out the number and when the poor man stepped forward he was ordered to bend over a stool. One man was instructed to hold his head and his hands, while another man held his legs. The kapo then administered 25 heavy blows with a thick cable, using all his strength. Millions of lice didnt bother him, but a little bit of straw? How can such a crime be pardoned? Is it any wonder that people died? Men would collapse on their way to work - they would simply fall down and die. On the way back from work we had to drag the bodies of the dead and dying with us to the camps. Once I was carrying a dying man, together with 3 others. We had no stretcher so I held his head from the rear while the others dragged him by his legs. An SS murderer came up behind me carrying a log of wood, which he brought down three times havily on the mans head. The poor fellow didnt even groan. The murderer then remarked: You cursed idler, you cant even run - you need to be dragged by others! Go forth and seek justice among such people! Every evening it fell to my lot to drag a dead or dying man, because I had broad shoulders, and they needed strong people for this job. I soon realized I wouldnt last much longer at this. My buddy Asher Sitko was very thin and looked really pathetic, so I told him to pretend he couldnt walk and I would appear to be supporting him. This saved me ...
The camp stood on a hill. When we looked from the camp in the direction of the town of Evenzy it appeared as if the camp was in a valley. But when we went to work we climbed uphill, and this was only the outskirts of a mountain. The mountains were very high - we saw deer springing freely from rock to rock and we envied them from the bottom of our hearts! The climate suited the cruelty of the cursed Germans - when it rained it swiftly turned to snow, and every drop was so cold on the skin that it hurt terribly.
They took twelve of us to dig a ditch - the earth was iron-hard. Those who managed to get inside the ditch were luckier - first of all, from a distance they couldnt be seen. Secondly, it was impossible to measure their progress! I was working with Asher, who was too weak to lift his spade. I began to pound the rocks with all my might, telling Asher at least to move the pieces of rock which I had succeeded in crushing. After a hour of hard work I managed to dig down about half a meter. Our kapo was that same Ukrainian at whom I threw an iron bar when we worked on the machines. He was going crazy with his club, laying about him left and right, but as yet he hadnt touched me. While I was struggling to dig, one of the civilians came by and watched how hard I was working. Then he went away, returning a few minutes later with someone else who appeared to be an engineer. I noticed that they two of them were talking about me, so I redoubled my efforts. They went off and brought another man back with them. Now all three were watching me, and soon they brought a fourth man as well. I began to worry - who knew what they wanted of me? Each additional man appeared to be more important than the previous one. Then the fourth man approached me and asked if I was Jewish. When I said I was, he remarked What a shame youre a Jew. You work so well! I replied boldly: The fact that Im a Jew is not a shame at all. What really is a shame is that Im so hungry. I hoped that he would give me a piece of bread, but he just said Yes, the war... After the kapo heard this, he didnt dare to lay a finger on me, whether I worked or not!
Not far from us I saw a group of Jews carrying a huge metal plate on their shoulders while the SS and kapos beat them about their heads with clubs. It was horrible to see. Suddenly we were called over. An SS indicated a pile of sand topped by a huge crane such as was used to hoist bridges. It was extremely heavy, tall and thin, standing on a relatively narrow base and weighing a few hundred kilos. We were instructed to bring it down from the sand pile and move it to another location. Clubs were already busily at work, people were collapsing but the crane wasnt budging because there was nothing to grip or hold onto. The blows were falling like rain, when suddenly I yelled out, either from desperation or distress Stop! Ill bring it down myself! The murderer really like the sound of this, so he ordered everyone to step aside and I was told to get on with it. I instructed someone to hold it from the top to prevent it from toppling over, knelt down, and using a thick piece of wood and a metal bar I slowly shifted the crane. Gradually, slowly, without strenuous effort, I brought the crane down off the sandpile and moved it into place. Nobody was beaten, we returned to our work and our kapo didnt bother me any more.
One day the soldiers were hugging and kissing each other, looking very pleased about something. When I saw that, my heart dropped. We lived by signs - when they were unhappy it was a sign that things were not going well for them at the front, but when they celebrated it indicated a victory, and so on... I went to find out whats going on, and overheard a conversation between two civilians - Roosevelt, the American President, was dead! That calmed me down. Although it was to soon to rejoice, under the new President the air raids were stepped up and our hopes rose from day to day. It was crucial to hang on somehow. Meanwhile we went back to working in the tunnels. We did all sorts of jobs, none of them particularly difficult. On the way to work one day my buddy Asher began to move strangely, as if he was dancing. This was a bad sign, because people often danced that way just before they died. I grabbed his arm, rubbed his face with snow and did my best to revive him. Our meister at work was a civilian, an Italian gentile, a fine man, truly an angel. I told him what happened to Asher and requested permission for him to rest. He agreed, warning me not to let a soldier catch him. It was very cold in the tunnel due to the icy cross-draught. I used some gas-operated military equipment to heat a metal plate and placed Asher nearby to warm up until we went downstairs for our midday meal. We stood in lines waiting for our soup, which was shared out by an SS sergeant by means of a long handled ladle. If you werent quick enough, he brought down the ladle with the soup on your head and you had to lick yourself, while the soup flowed together with your blood... Asher felt a little better after drinking his soup, even though it was nothing more than foul water. As we returned to camp in the evening I asked if he had anything hidden away. He told me there were two cigarettes in the mattress. I was dumbfounded - he had them hidden all this time without telling me? I asked whether he was planning to bequeath them to somebody... then I sold them for a piece of bread, telling him to eat his evening portion and keep the extra ration to eat in the morning. Believe me, it is due to that extra bread ration that he remained alive. Today he lives in America, but I have no contact with him. I wish him well!!
One day when he was working somewhere else he received a blow in the face which broke his jaw. In the evening when we returned from work he looked so bad that I didnt recognize him. He told me what happened and went to the block doctor, a Hungarian Jew, to ask for a bandage. The doctor demanded his bread ration in exchange, which he handed over since he anyway couldnt eat. When he returned, groaning, to bed, I asked why he wasnt eating and he told me that the doctor had taken his portion. That made me very angry and I asked him whether it would make a difference if he died because he had no bandage or because he had no food. The next day he needed his bandage changed and I advised him not to take his bread ration when he went to the doctor. If he was asked he should say he hadnt received it yet, but promised to hand it over later... The doctor changed his bandage in exchange for a promise of more bread and when Asher returned to bed I told him to eat his portion slowly and leave the doctor to me. When the doctor realized that his patient wasnt coming, he came over to the bed to demand his payment but I got out bed, grabbed him by the throat with one hand and raised my other hand, which held a wooden clog. You dog, I told him, you spend the entire day sitting around the block at our expense, stealing our food. When this poor fellow came to you for a bandage you took the bread for which he slaved for 14 hours. You parasite - Im going to kill you now! He was terrified and began to plead for his life. I let him go with a warning that if he ever again refused to supply bandages without bread, he should just remember what had just occurred. He caved in completely, and Asher received bandages until his jaw healed.
My brother in law Shmuel Chomsky was in another hut. He worked the night shift, quarrying stones. At midnight he went to the latrines. There were always informers, kapos, SS and various servants lying in ambush there, all of them gentiles and murderers of Jews. He was caught and very severely beaten. I saw him being carried into the camp and was horrified. I advised him to go to the hospital but he didnt want to listen to me and the next night he again went out to work. Once again he went to the latrines in the middle of the night and the hooligans caught him and beat him again. This time he was brought straight to hospital. Ill come back to this later.
Sometime earlier I managed to get hold of an extra bread ration, I dont remember how! I kept half for myself and divided the other half in two, giving one piece to my brother in law Shmuel and the other to Asher. Asher said that one piece didnt really make a difference, but if I could give him two pieces then after the war he would repay me double! I didnt know whether to laugh or to cry - what sort of offer was that? Right now we were all starving to death and food was priceless, but here he was promising me that after the war, if we were lucky enough to be liberated he would pay me double! Did he think he would have bread while I would have none? Would I need his bread? In the meantime I succeeded in selling the earrings, for which I received the promise of 75 kilos or loaves of bread... To make a long story short, I eventually received 36 loaves and the rest are still owing... I shared this bread with my brother in law Shmuel and my sisters husband Benjamin. From time to time I also gave a piece to Asher...
People continued dropping like flies. The ovens burned non-stop, endlessly incinerating bodies. The war continued: on the one hand we had hope and the desire to remain alive, but on the other hand time was against us, and the angel of death lay in wait. A group of laborers returned from their work, not far from Evenzy, and reported that they had witnessed an air raid on the train station which caused a great deal of damage. The station was totally destroyed and the railway tracks were torn up. Instead of lying on the ground they stood up in the air, looking as if they were praying to the heavens... The train cars had burst apart - to prove it they showed us some sugar they had stolen from the cars. What joy! What hope!!! That night I had a wonderful dream: I was visiting Maltz and entered the home of Joseph Yaacov, who had taught me to sew. In my dream his old father Moshe Getzel the scholar was there as usual. A lectern stood near the stove and he was studying Gemara... They were very happy to see me, they brought out a bottle of vodka and poured some for me in a silver Kiddush cup. I held the glass and said Lchaim. May our eyes speedily behold the return to Zion and the old man said Amen fervently and with great emphasis. When I awoke my heart was pounding as if I was running a race. I announced to everyone: We will soon be liberated, and were going to Eretz Israel, and we went to work. On the way I related the dream to everyone I knew, because I had great faith in my dreams, which I felt were more like prophesies than dreams! I also wanted to encourage those who were weak and faltering. The hope and encouragement acted like a miracle drug!
Now I must go back a bit to describe what happened to three Jews who I mentioned earlier - I promised to get back to them... The first was the block servant in the gypsy camp. He was one of the ugliest murderers I ever came across. The day came when his paradise in the gypsy camp came to an end. He was sent to another camp, where he fell into the hands of others who knew exactly how to deal with him, and within a very short while he became a mussulman. Somebody once said that the difference between fullness and hunger is six hours - after six hours everyone is hungry! They sent him to the gas chambers, where he came across some of his friends from before who had also experienced the strength of his blows. He begged them not to hurt him, but to let him die in the gas chambers with the others. They told him that they knew exactly how to deal with him - this is what I was told - and they flung him alive into the oven...
The second was Neumann, who was the block leader in Sventochlowicz. He ended up in Mauthausen, where his reputation for cruelty preceded him. He was beaten so hard that his head swelled up, after which they brought a bucket of water and forced his head in until he drowned.
The third was the Algerian Jew who worked with us on the night shift, transferring heavy machinery from the trains to the tunnels. One Friday night they sent him with another man to lift a light piece of equipment off a boxcar and carry it to its designated place. Unfortunately the two of them were not careful enough - the machine overturned and the poor man was killed on the very eve of liberation. I was very sorry to see him die so needlessly. It upset me a great deal. I had known him since we were together at Auschwitz and I knew how much hed been through.
Now I want to return to my dream. That morning on our way to work I made a bet with someone that we would be liberated within a fortnight. After that, he came to taunt me every day, saying Nu, wheres our salvation? I told him to have patience and reminded him that the two weeks were not yet over. As they drew to an end it became very clear that it was only a matter of a day or two or even a few hours - but it was very, very hard to be patient. And still he came to tease me Nu, wheres your redemption? I replied Wait and see, it will be much sooner than you expect - Yiden halt sich - Jews, hold on, I shouted at the top of my voice, Dont be disheartened - its only a matter of hours now... The planes gave us no rest, day or night. It was the sweetest music I had heard my entire life...
Not more than two days later, on Friday, May 3, 1945, as we went to work we saw in the distance thousands of people fleeing from the town of Evenzy, both on foot and by horse drawn wagon, carrying bundles on their backs. We wanted to dance, the joy which flowed from our hearts warmed our whole bodies, as we beheld this sight! If only we could have sung hallelujah - but the SS still accompanied us. At the work site there were no meisters or civilian workers to be found. One after the other the planes came swooping down almost on top of the buildings and then flew off again. Instead of working we lay in the sun to warm ourselves and to enjoy the sight of the new refugees... what sweet revenge! At the same time we spotted the SS running around like drugged mice - they had forgotten about us! The kapo called us to push a boxcar but I impudently suggested he should call for some parasites like himself - let them work it out themselves, for a change! He cleared off, and we lay there, exchanging tales with one another. Our hunger was forgotten as we speculated on what would happen in these final hours. We guessed it was probably noon or even later, but no bell had summoned us for lunch, although the food distribution center was not far away. I suggested that we go back down to see whats going on and why we werent summoned for our meal. We came down to discover everyone in line as usual, the soup urns standing in place as usual, and the usual SS thief stood waiting with the ladle in his hand. Perhaps he was waiting for us? Indeed, no sooner had we arrived that he began to make a speech, addressing us as people and informing us that today or the following day at the very latest, we would be free. As one man we all began to cheer, Hurrah, Hurrah! and he fell silent. When we were quiet he continued If you behave well Ill share out the food, and kindly gave us our portions. Then we lay around until the evening, when they returned us to the camp. When we arrived at the block we were greeted with the announcement that there was no more bread! The block leader who had administered such a frightful beating over a bit of straw had vanished. Someone else came to inform us that the following morning we could sleep till 8, we wouldnt be going out to work. We all burst out singing and shouting for joy in all sorts of languages... Somebody reported that our block leader had been found dead. Someone else described finding a kapo stabbed to death. Here a hut burst into flames, there something else happened... I said to my friends Guys, dont move from your places. Now theres danger from another direction! So we lay in our beds until morning but none of us slept a wink! At 6:00 someone told us to come out to the assembly yard. I was terrified, because I suspected that the murderers might decide to kill us all at the last minute. I wanted to hide, but where? Frightened, but with no alternative, we went out and stood in our usual places in the assembly yard, where the Camp Kommandant (Lagen Fuhrer) awaited us, together with a large number of SS.
When it was quiet the Lagen Fuhrer called for translators, which was always the case when he had an important announcement to make. There were people in the camp from at least twenty countries: Czech, Russian, Polish, French, Italian, Spanish, Greek, Hungarian, Jewish and more... The translators took their places alongside him and he began to speak in a similar vein to the sergeant of the previous day: People, today or tomorrow at the latest you will be liberated by the Americans. Behave well so we wont have to use force... If we are bombed we will move you to the shelters if you want. Without waiting for the translation we all shouted at once No, we dont want, Were not afraid, Hurrah, Hurrah. The translators interpreted anyway. Later we discovered that the murderers had booby-trapped one of the tunnels and hoped to stage an air raid in order to get us into the tunnel and in this way to finish us off!!
We received neither food nor water that day. The SS vanished. They left old people to guard the perimeter of the camp, a kind of armed Home Guard. We wandered around, hungry and thirsty. Our only satisfaction was in seeing some of our former murderers - a dead body here, someone dying from blows there - who had been sure that nobody apart from them would survive. Now the day of judgement was at hand...
The Arrival of the Americans
This occurred on Saturday. On Sunday we were still wandering around the camp, unable to leave. At 3:00 in the afternoon an American tank appeared. It burst through the gate, which buckled and collapsed. Everybody including me streamed out of the camp. Near the gate was a hut - the murderers lair. I went inside. A German officer stood there. I opened a cupboard full of sheets, took one out and began ripping it to shreds - why? I have no idea! Perhaps I was thinking of bandages, or perhaps it was simply a desire for revenge! The officer asked What are you doing, man? In reply I kicked him in the backside, with all the anger and all the strength left in me, screaming Get out of here, you cursed dog! Believe me, he ran out of there much faster than I ever ran when they screamed at me... I spotted an urn filled with hot coffee, and without pausing to think that it may be poisoned, I poured myself a cupful and drank my fill. I looked for food but didnt find any, so I entered another hut. A soldier was just coming out carrying a filled knapsack and a pair of army boots. I snatched the boots away and used them to hit him on the head. He fled like a dog, leaving me to regret that I hadnt taken his knapsack as well. It was getting dark, but I still managed to find a camera, which I took in the hope that I could trade it for some bread. We had not eaten for three days... I returned to camp and hurried to the hospital to see if Shmuel Chomsky was still alive. I stood at the fence, calling his name, and he came to the window just as I did that other time. I didnt recognize him, so I kept calling and shouting while he pointed to himself! Finally I was convinced and told him to hold on, we would meet the following day. Then I went to sleep. The next day I took a friend who still had some of his strength left - I too still had my strength, although I dont know where it came from. Together we left the camp. Ill go on with this later...
Now I must go back, because I have remembered some important details. During one air raid we took shelter in an unfinished tunnel where we sat with our feet in water, while water dripped from the ceiling onto our heads. We were as hungry as dogs, beaten and humiliated. I sat between two Poles who were not aware that I was Jewish. They were discussing the Jews and decided that after the war they would handcuff the last Jew, put him in a cage and drag him through the streets, proclaiming that this was the leech who had drained their blood. At such a time and under such conditions they had no greater concern that what should be done with the last Jew! Nowadays we are told that some Poles were Righteous Gentiles. Well, Ive never met one!
Two days before liberation we were passing a hut, and what do you think we saw? It was full of imprisoned Ukrainian SS. The Germans apparently believed that they might betray them or flee, and for safetys sake they held them captive in a hut inside the camp.
On the Monday morning my new friend and I left the camp - it was our fourth day without food. The first building we entered was a chemical laboratory. Five seconds later it was impossible to tell what it had been. We destroyed it as thoroughly as the Germans destroyed our synagogue. We searched for food, but although we didnt find any we discovered a pocket watch which Henry or Daniel later received as a gift. We also found chemists scales. It was a shame to destroy them so we took them with us and handed them over to an Austrian gentile in exchange for half a loaf of bread, which we didnt eat. We searched all manner of storehouses and tunnels - its almost impossible to describe the things we came across - electrical appliances and various utensils... We finally arrived at a civilian labor camp which was totally deserted. In the kitchen we found a mound of potatoes which we stuffed into a sack and dragged over to a small hut. We opened the door (we had no need for keys!) to discover that it had been the office of a Nazi contractor. We began to organize it, throwing typewriters out of the window and smashing furniture. We came across a stove, which came in handy - we lit it, found a tin bucket and went outside to get some water. Nearby was a large wooden crate, secured with iron and with a huge lock across the whole opening. Who knew what lay within? We spent 15 minutes on that crate, until it opened to reveal a dry piece of bread, a pair of torn shoes, a metal bed and a large dry bone. That was all the treasure! We also found some salt.
We added the salt and the bone to the potatoes and cooked the whole lot together. I ate one potato - no more, but I told my pal to eat as much as he wanted. He ate a little. I suggested that I take some potatoes to the camp and exchange them for margarine, so that we could fry potatoes that evening and have a feast... We had decided not to return to the camp. We found beds, new mattresses, sheets and clean blankets and we washed and changed our underwear. He liked my suggestion about the margarine, not realising that I was deceiving him. So I took the bucketful of potatoes and made my way back to the camp. The first person I saw was Yaacov Yungerman, who was also my brother in law. He wanted to eat immediately, but I told him first to bring Shmuel Chomsky, my brother in law Benjamin and my buddy Asher, because I couldnt walk around with the potatoes - I could easily be killed for them! Within a very short while they were all there. Shmuel Chomsky turned up as naked as the day he was born and streaming with diarrhea like water from a tap. I brought blankets, spread them on the ground and wrapped one around him. I presented them with the potato bucket and gave Shmuel the bread because with his diarrhea he couldnt eat potatoes. Half of one buttock was almost gangrenous from the beating he had received that night. I sent him back to the hospital and took my buddy Asher Sitko back with me to the hut where I washed him, dressed him in clean underwear and put him to sleep in a clean bed. I warned him not to tell my new friend what had become of the potatoes... Instead I explained that when I entered the camp I was set upon by some Russians who stole the pailful, but I consoled him with the thought that we really had plenty - all that was necessary was to go to the kitchen and bring some more. He accepted my story with great understanding...
Another day had passed, and the Americans were also not forthcoming when it came to providing food. We cooked some more potatoes in the evening, ate them and went to sleep without fear of the servants, the block leaders and the rest of the thieving crew. I slept the sleep of the just. The next morning we began planning what to do next and how to organize the food. Meanwhile we ate potatoes for breakfast. At lunchtime I took the bucket and went off to the camp to see if anything was happening there. The Americans had cooked soup and were sharing it out. A huge line waited in front of each vat of soup. Total confusion reigned! I noticed that the lines were organized according to nationality: Spanish, Italian and so on. I joined the line of Italians - my coloring was similar to theirs and they accepted me without question. I stood there until I realized that I would never get anywhere if I stayed with them, such a useless lot didnt suit me! I wandered over to the Poles but soon saw that nothing good would ever come from them either because their line seemed endless. I attached myself to the Russians, who took charge of their line properly. Soldiers fired in the air from time to time to maintain order but it didnt make any noticeable difference. Within a short time I received really good soup, the way it ought to be. I ran with it all the way back to my hut, a distance of 2 kilometers, and we all ate it with great rejoicing...
In the meantime my new pal, whose name was Leibel, went off and found three new friends of his own - Polish gentiles. He brought them into the other half of the hut. I was somewhat annoyed but didnt say anything - it was very hard to judge others because everything was so illogical that each person was driven by his inner urges. The hunger and the drive to eat, the striving to be free, to adjust to freedom, to forget all the oppression - all this drove people to act without thinking. We had lived for so many years beyond the law that it was difficult to accept any rules. Everyone was utilizing this time to restore their health, fill their empty bellies and avenge themselves to some degree.
I took a shortcut through the forest to a different camp because I had been told that everything had been transferred there, including our kitchen, and I also wanted to see my brothers in law and my friends. On the way I ran into a group of thieves, dozens of SS, lying armed in the forest. I was sure they were waiting in ambush, like wolves or dogs, and I was unarmed - I didnt even have a stick to defend myself with. I would dearly have like to tell them a few words, using phrases from their own lexicon, but I dared not. It was enough that I could pass by without fear. They probably had not yet managed to surrender, or perhaps they had other plans. At any event, dangers still lurked everywhere...
I returned after visiting my friends. I had seen them all except Mendel Yungerman, my best friend from my hometown. He had died on Saturday, the day we were notified that we would be liberated. May his memory be a blessing. He was a simple, honest man, always prepared to help others without thought of reward. His wife and three children perished in Auschwitz. When I heard the news I returned to my hut, terribly despondent. I had hoped so much that he would remain alive and we could continue together... but fate let me down. It was even more upsetting that he died on the very last day!
Upon returning to the hut I suggested to the guys that we look for a more comfortable place to live. About 700-800 meters along the road leading to the old camp we came across a large, vacant wooden house, with beds, mattresses and a few sticks of furniture. We had no need for permission - once we decided, we walked right in. This building also had been divided into two partitions, so we took one half and the three Poles the other. We had no choice but to befriend them.
At midday I noticed one of them whispering to the other two. They all tiptoed out and ran towards the forest. I guessed that they were hunting so I followed them stealthily. We were very close to the concentration camp, right next to the road we climbed every day to work, returning with our dead comrades... and there in the forest were the houses of the loyal Nazis who had fled in fear of the liberation and the bandits. I watched the Poles approach one of these houses. They peered in all directions to make sure nobody was watching, broke a window and scrambled inside, with me hot on their heels. They explored downstairs while I made for the attic. I overturned a chest of clothes and went through all the pockets but couldnt find anything small and valuable so I threw the lot away. Downstairs in the salon I saw some fine crystal and glass objects and, remembering how a German sergeant and another soldier destroyed everything in the small synagogue in Maltz, I overturned the cabinet, smashing the beautiful crystal... I snatched up a down quilt, ripped it and shook the feathers into the air, telling them to fly, just as ours were sent flying... To this day I regret not setting fire to that house.... For myself I took only an alarm clock. Meanwhile two girls returned to the house and with breathtaking audacity, demanded to know who was responsible for the damage. Within a short time they became friendly with the Poles and they all proceeded to make merry together. The Poles gave them food and in return they gave what they had to offer... I was resting on the bed when they opened the door and looked in. One said to the other: Thats our clock. I snatched up a shoe and hurled it at them as hard as I could. The shoe hit the lintel and they fled.
We settled into our new quarters very comfortably. Leibel was an expert thief, he enjoyed stealing just for the fun of it! Asher was a schnorrer willing to beg for handouts, but I couldnt stand it. Leibel went out with the gentiles. They would travel by train to outlying villages, where they stole at gunpoint. If the villagers made a fuss it was enough to point a gun in a window - the homeowners would turn out the light and dive under their beds, while the guys emptied out a goatshed or a storeroom. They would bring back 10 chickens or a sheep, a bucketful of eggs, a pot of butter, cheese, whatever they could lay their hands on. Sometimes it would take 2 days before they returned. In the meantime I went to town for the first time. I visited Gemunden, which is a fine city on the banks of the river Fentessty, because I heard that ration cards were being issued there and I hope to find something to trade as well. The duty clerk asked for my address - did I have any documents? My documents were with that dog Hitler!!! The clerk saw by my face that it would be far better to hand over the ration card without asking any more questions! The rest of the guys came in, and together we prepared fictitious addresses, with street names and numbers. When asked to produce documents I said I only had a number, and I read it to her off my tin number-tag. In this way I managed to get another ration card. The only thing lacking was the voucher for cigarettes, which she tore off because there were no cigarettes to be had. As we came out I told the guys to think up new identities and go back again. They made a few changes to their appearance and once again they were issued ration cards. I decided that it would be risky to go back a third time, but as if I was newly born I went in anyway and requested a food ration. The clerk recognized me and said I think youve already been here. I replied Perhaps you think so, or maybe somebody was here who resembles me, but I arrived just this second. Where do you live? I gave a street name and number, and when she asked for documents, I said Where would I find documents, Maam? I only have a number. She thought she would catch me out with this, but I gave her my number from Auschwitz, and when she searched her files it did not appear, which proved that I had not yet applied for a ration card...
We found a boat and went for a sail. We were looking for bread, and found very good bread at a very cheap price, together with some butter and cheese. Money was no problem, Sitko had plenty - he was a born beggar. I couldnt bear what he did. I was prepared to enter a shop, collect all the items I wanted and then declare I have no money. I worked for you and now you owe me and the time has come to pay up. But I couldnt beg!
We returned to Evzeny and I went to town for the items available on our ration cards. We had heard a rumor that cigarette vouchers were available from the City Council. I approached the clerk, presented four cards and requested cigarette vouchers, which she gave me on the spot. When I came out, I gave my cards to Sitko and told him to add them to his and present them all together. He did so, and received cigarette vouchers for all of them. In went the others, everyone taking the same cards and just changing the numbers. When they had all been in, I took off my coat and hat, switched my number and went back inside. By this time she was demanding identification, because something appeared not quite right. I told her that my documents were with the Fuhrer, Hitler the dog, who only left me with a number. So give me the number. I gave her the number on my tin tag - the one on my arm I kept for later! Once I had my voucher, all the other guys followed my example - they were excellent pupils with a high IQ and they caught on very fast! When everyone had their vouchers, I said Listen guys, Im going to take a chance - Im going back in! A quick change to my appearance, a different number, and in I went. She said: I think youve already been here. Youre dreaming, Maam, perhaps someone else who resembles me... Please Miss, dont make fun of me, dont tease me, I dont have the nerves for it. Havent I suffered enough already? She handed over the vouchers without daring to raise her eyes. When she asked for my number I gave her the number from Auschwitz. When I came out I told the guys Thats enough for now. Well play the game again tomorrow but we cant go on with it any more for the time being. We found a tobacco shop with a long, orderly line stretching outside. When the five of us marched in and slammed our vouchers onto the counter, the saleswoman nearly fainted. We took nearly every cigarette in the place but everyone was afraid to utter a word, except one man who said Whats this? How dare you walk in without waiting in line and take all the cigarettes? Shut up, schweinhund, I snarled at him, Youve eaten and drunk our blood long enough. Not a soul made a sound as we walked out. Soon we came to a large mansion in a garden filled with trees and flowers, obviously not the home of poor or simple people! I walked straight up to the mansion, with Sitko right behind me. Through the windows they watched us approach, and we were met at the door by an elderly, aristocratic woman bearing a cup of hot water. Would you care for some soup? she inquired. I was furious. How dare she offer us hot water and call it soup? Without thinking I hurled the water into her face, and she rushed into the house, howling like a scalded bitch. The nerve of the old witch!!! If she had invited us in, offered us food or even talked to us, I would not have done it...
We continued on our way, the whole group of us, looking for eggs. We found a small shop dealing only in eggs. The elderly saleswoman was horrified when we cleaned out her entire stock but we had another problem - how would we carry them? An American field kitchen had been set up opposite, and I spotted some large cans of preserves nearby, which we collected, filled with eggs and dragged home. We ate as much as we possibly could, and when Shmuel Chomsky turned up, I gave him some as well. My pal Sitko told our new friend Leibel that I was distributing some of our food to my brother in law. When I heard that I thought I would go out of my mind - You swine of a human being - your meanness is beyond belief! I carried you on my aching shoulders, I shared my last piece of bread with you in times of hunger and pain, and you promised to repay me after the war was over... I abandoned my brothers in law in order to take you with me, I washed you, cleaned you up, fed you with everything of the best, and now you complain because I have given my brother in law some food!!! I should have slapped him hard a few times and thrown him out to fend for himself, but I didnt, and he remained with us. Meanwhile Leibel continued with his hobby while I became the cook. I must say that I became an excellent cook!
Leibel brought home a bicycle and the two of us used it to ride around, but Sitko didnt know how to ride a bike. Once or twice I joined the men who travelled to other villages by train. In Austrian villages the houses are not close together - there was quite a distance between them and each house was surrounded by extensive lands which included cowsheds, barns, goatsheds and chicken coops. There was usually also a dog. We came to one house and knocked on the door, but nobody answered. The door was finally opened by a large gentile with a mustache, who tried hurriedly to close it when he saw us, but I swiftly put my foot in the crack. He asked what we wanted and I told him to bring us food. He gave me a piece of bread but I threw it back in his face: This is all you have for a hungry group of people? Are you looking for trouble? I held the door open to remind him that if he tried anything, not only would he lose the door, but other things as well. This time he brought half a large loaf of bread with a nice-size chunk of meat, which I took with the remark Youre lucky this time!
I didnt spend much time in the villages. Once I was on a train with a number of laborers returning from work in forced labor camps. They left the train at various stops and eventually I was left alone in the carriage. I noticed that someone had left a bulging knapsack, so when I got off the train I took it with me and opened it behind a building. It was stuffed with rags and builders tools - there was nothing in it for me! What I looked for were clothes. As I passed by an Austrian house I noticed a pair of trousers, which I took. They were too short to be worn as long pants and too long for short pants, but when I cut them down with a knife they made a fine pair of shorts. We had plenty of food at the time, but clothes were in short supply... We were living very comfortably in our hut. Our buddy Leibel spent two days every week travelling around to bring us meat, eggs and enough supplies for the whole week. I was in charge of the ration cards and everything else. Meanwhile my friend Asher came back to us and began behaving like a decent human being.
Our official kitchen was quite a distance away, about 7 kilometers travel by road or 4 kilometers through the woods. Either I or Leibel, when he was around, would go by bike to bring food for the three of us. One Shabbat I woke up to discover that neither Leibel not Asher was anywhere to be seen... I looked for our utensils, because I intended to collect our food, but they were nowhere to be found either. This was a real puzzle. What was going on? Why would Asher Sitko go all that way to bring our food when I could go so much faster by bike? Something was going on and I couldnt figure out what it was. When Asher came back with the food I asked why he bothered when we had the bicycle. Feigning innocence he replied I couldnt sleep, and you were sleeping so soundly that I decided to go on my own. Very nice indeed, a true gentleman! Then he asked whether I had taken 200 American cigarettes from him. Where did you get 200 cigarettes? I asked. An American soldier gave them to me. I was very upset If you had 200 cigarettes, why didnt you give them to Leibel? Hes the only one who smokes. He endangers his life by travelling two days every week to bring us food. You parasite, all you do is sit at home and eat the best of everything and this is how you thank him for everything hes done for you? Im almost certain that he took the cigarettes, but dont you dare say a word to him! In the meantime I began to check out the matter... By Sunday afternoon Leibel had not yet returned and my pal Sitko had vanished once again. I rode to the camp but my friends werent there either. When Shmuel Chomsky saw me he asked Whats going on between the three of you? Asher Sitko told me that you said I should give him the 200 American cigarettes. I told him I hadnt seen you and you hadnt mentioned anything about cigarettes. Asher realized that he was cooking a porridge which he could neither swallow nor expel, so he returned to Shmuel and asked him not to say a word to me and pretend that nothing had happened. But of course something had happened. I was furious. Returning to the hut, I began to carry out a thorough search starting with Leibels mattress, where I discovered the cigarettes, still in their wrapping, together with my camera and a dozen leather soles I had found - I hadnt even noticed they were missing. Asher returned with food as if nothing had happened and I asked casually why he had gone out today. He replied simply that he couldnt sleep. Is this all about the cigarettes? I asked and he didnt reply. Then I burst out You good-for-nothing villain, is this how you repay me for all Ive done for you? I even abandoned my brother in law to save you. And yet youve been checking on me to see whether I stole your cigarettes. This is your promise to repay me double for sharing my last piece of bread with you? (My poor brother in law Benjamin had meanwhile died in hospital in Evenzy and I only found out two weeks later when his name appeared in a bulletin). I grabbed him by the throat and was quite prepared to throttle him. You scoundrel, I screamed at him, I should break your bones right now and throw your carcass away like a dog for those cigarettes, and for telling Leibel that I was giving food to my brother in law - was I stealing food from you? But I didnt do it and he remained with us until the end... Then I showed him Leibels mattress. I took the camera and the leather soles but warned him not to touch the cigarettes.
Leibel returned. I didnt tell him the whole story, I just said Look, Leibel, if you knew the miserable so-and-so had cigarettes, why didnt you simply ask him to give you some? Why did you take them by yourself and hide them? They dont belong to you any more than they belong to him. You endanger your life, spending two days a week wandering the roads, while he sits and eats everything we prepare. Now he gets hold of 200 cigarettes and he puts on such a performance... Asher remained but very little love was lost between us! As the saying goes, he paid for bread with stones. It is said of Rabbi Sonnenfeld that whenever he did someone a favor he gave him a small stone, explaining Since I did you a favor youre sure to throw a stone at me, and I wanted to make sure that the stone is a small one...
After we had been there for 6 weeks we heard that Israeli soldiers had arrived with a vehicle covered all over with Stars of David. When I heard that I almost went crazy - why did I not merit to see this glorious sight? When I checked out the story it appeared that nobody had actually seen it, but everyone could describe it in detail. Thats how the story spread, like the tale of Elijah the Prophet - nobody has ever seen him, but there are no end of stories about him... But it lit a spark inside me and without another thought I took the next train out of there. All I had in the world were a pair of army shoes, short pants stolen off a washing-line, no shirt, the coat of a German soldier, no hat, a knapsack with a bit of food, a dozen leather soles and a camera. I didnt even stop to think. When I look back today it makes me laugh - there was so much wealth lying around, just waiting to be picked up, if I hadnt been in such a hurry I could have taken plenty with me. On the other hand, to this day I dont regret it...
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This document was posted here with the permission of the Rubinstein family.