A Holocaust Memoir of a Slave Laborer
narrated by Louis Arthur Norton
A long time has passed, but I sill clearly remember an event that seemed so innocuous to my young mind at the time. The summer of 1939 was like most summers. I had just turned twelve years old and school vacation was almost over. Nothing exciting or unusual was happening apart from an unexpected incident. One day, mid afternoon, the front door bell rang. It was a shy, hesitant ring of someone who would rather not intrude. When mother opened the door there, in the dimly lit hallway stood a middle-aged man pressing his hat to his chest. Clean-shaven and well dressed, he had the appearance of a banker or a lawyer, but with a look of embarrassment on his face.
In polite German he hesitated, then asked for some food. He said he had owned a hardware store in Germany. The Nazis demolished his store, confiscated all of his belongings, put him on a truck and drove him and other local Jews to the Polish border where they let us go. He had no money and no place to stay. He offered to wax the floors or any other odd job in return for some food. Mother quickly set the kitchen table. She gave him some chopped liver with rye bread and a bowl of thick beef stew with carrots and potatoes. He ate eagerly, never looking up. Finishing his small meal he said he did not want to stay, but wanted to look for his family. Mother stuffed a few zlotys into his hand. He kissed Mother's hand and silently left, dissolving into the stairwell's shadows. This extraordinary visitation was an omen of our future.
My given name is Natan, but my surname is not important. I was born in Poland in 1927 and raised in its Upper Silesia capitol, Katowice, an important industrial center near Krakow. My father was a successful businessman and my family and I lived at twenty-nine Slowackiego Street in a large furnished apartment. One of our prize possessions was an elegant Bechstein grand piano. Mother wanted me to become a famous concert pianist. My mother's voice periodically came from the back of the apartment to remind me to practice my Czerny finger exercises. My eyes focused on the music sheet as my fingers first struck one chord, then another. The notes filled the room, echoing from wall to wall.
Practicing piano, with its repetitious exercises, was boring. When I could, I would sneak out to visit our handyman Albert who lived in a small cabin in the corner of Father's shop yard. Albert and our huge German shepherd dog named Rolf were my best friends. Albert was my idol. He knew everything about all the different machines in the house and garage, how they worked and how to repair them. He could take them apart and put them back together with the confidence of a skilled craftsman. I felt so important when he, at times, trusted me with some simple tasks.
Becoming an engineer was father's dream for me. I was only twelve, but he had it already planned out. I was to attend a technical school in Lvov, where I would become an engineer. He used to tell my mother how easy I found it to work with tools associated with their repair, an area where I seemed to have a natural talent. My parents had very different dreams about my future.
In the summer of 1939 no one was paying much attention to rumors of war. There were a few days of summer vacation left so mother decided to visit her sister, Aunt Steffa, in Krakow. It was only an hour's train ride from our home in Katowice. One night during our visit, I awoke to the sound of airplane engines then I heard loud, thunderous explosions. One by one, the planes dove over the roofs of the still sleeping city; a bomb detonation and a cloud of smoke followed each dive. A distant siren started to whine, followed by another and another, until their frightening cacophony filled the air. Nazi Germany had attacked Poland. It was Friday, 1 September 1939.
The Polish railway system was disrupted, so we were stranded in Krakow. A few days later father and our chauffeur Albert arrived in the family's Daimler. The Germans converged on Krakow from the west and south. Most of the Jewish population, only barely aware of what was happening to Jews in Germany, fled east towards the Russian border. We packed what we could into the Daimler and drove towards Lublin. It seemed like all of Krakow was on the road. Airplanes, at first two small silver dots, quickly caught up with us and made a pass above our heads. They looked so harmless, some people waved. On the next pass however, they dove and opened fire on the unsuspecting column of refugees. The screams of the wounded producing a horrifying sound of terror that rose to the sky. My father quickly threw me from the car into the roadside ditch and jumped on top of me almost smothering me with his body. The two planes made one more pass and disappeared to the north. This was our first close encounter with war.
It was obvious that we could not outrun the Germans, so we decided to return to Krakow. Our car was now on its side in the ditch. Taking whatever we could carry, we started back to Krakow on foot. Several days later we came to the small village of Wieliczka. Father knew a farmer there and negotiated with him to shelter us in his house for a fee. He gave us one very small room with access to a well, but the toilet was an outhouse in the back. There was a small iron stove in the corner, a bucket of coal, a bed and a rickety table next to it. We spent our evenings clustered around a kerosene lamp speculating what might happen next.
One morning Father disappeared and came back with my grandmother, Aunt Steffa, Uncle Jacob and his wife plus their little girl. The small room became crowded with seven people living in it. During the day all the adults did different chores. My grandmother who was a small, frail woman always usually dressed in an ankle length black skirt and a white blouse, was in her late seventies. "Bubbe," as I called her always wore a shitel or wig. She frequently prayed, chanting verses in a language I did not understand. Each Friday night she lit Sabbath candles from a supply that she had brought with her. She firmly believed that in the end God would save us from all evil. She never gave up hope. Her advanced age, however, did not stop her from cleaning, cooking and mending for all of us.
From Bubbe I learned how to mend socks and patch holes in my pants. While she cooked and cleaned, I would fetch buckets of water from the well outside or dig up potatoes in the nearby field. She also taught me to recite the most basic Jewish prayer called the Sh'ma: "Hear O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one." This chant helped me keep my faith in the horror years yet to come. Its repetition became a basic survival skill that, in the end, helped save my life.
My thirteenth birthday was coming up and, just like every Jewish boy, I looked forward to my Bar Mitzvah. Grandmother taught me the tenants of our religion, told me about the traditions of our people and had me recite various prayers after her until I had them memorized thus preparing me to pass from boyhood into my religious adulthood. But this was one Bar Mitzvah that would never happen.
The Nazis announced new edicts every day. The list of restrictions grew longer and longer. Jews were not permitted to do this. Jews were not permitted to do that. Jews must wear a yellow Star of David. Jews cannot walk on the sidewalks. Jewish children were not permitted to attend public schools. We heard that in Krakow all Jews were being herded into a dilapidated area of the city. All Jews were ordered to leave their homes, bring only a few personal belongings and find quarters in the overly crowded new "Jewish ghetto." Everything left behind went to looters.
German patrols swept through Wieliczka every few days, dragging out any Jew they could find. Helping and hiding Jews was now a crime punishable by death. The farmer who had hidden us became frightened and insisted that we leave. Father persuaded him to at least hide just me. With my blond hair and blue eyes, I could pass for a non-Jew. He could tell his neighbors that I was his nephew from a distant village so that they would not inform on him. Father gave him more money and assured him that he would pick me up after the war.
On 27 August 1942 all of the Jews found by the Nazis in Wieliczka were assembled at a railroad station, crowded into boxcars and taken away. Without me, my family had made its way to Krakow. For the next few weeks I lived with the farmer and his family. I helped with the daily farm chores, fetching water, collecting chicken eggs, cultivating, and weeding. Most of the time, though, I tried to stay out of sight.
The Germans continued to search for stray Jews in Wieliczka. One day, as a truck full of troops pulled into the farmyard, the farmer hastily put me in the barn and covered me with hay. The soldiers did not discover me, but after that we knew that we had to find a secure hiding place. We lifted a few floor planks in one corner of the farmhouse next to the foundation. There we dug a hole just barely large enough for me to squeeze into with a small opening for air. When the German patrols made their regular rounds, the farmer would lift out a plank, let me crawl into the hole and replace the plank. There was no light and poor ventilation. The sound of the heavy German boots on the floor just above me caused me to hold my breath or take very shallow breaths to avoid being discovered.
The Germans now started to make surprise raids day or night and used specially trained dogs to find Jewish hideouts. The farmer now kept me in the hole for long periods of time. The vulnerable "Jewish" animal he concealed from the German predators made him increasingly nervous. Finally he said hiding me was too dangerous. I had to leave.
The next quiet moonless night he gave me a chunk of black bread and, on a small piece of brown paper, scribbled an address in what was now the Krakow ghetto where I could supposedly find my parents. He had me pack my belongings in a cloth bundle, and then took me to the nearby railroad tracks. Once there he told me the direction to walk to reach the city. He said if stopped, I was to pretend that I was a poor Polish boy collecting pieces of coal that had fallen off the trains. I did not know why he did that, but I was thankful. It took five full days to walk the ten or so kilometers to the city. Not trusting anyone, I walked for a few hours by night hiding, while in the fields during the days. On the fifth day I found the ghetto, sneaked by some German guards and miraculously located my parents. For the next few months we were united again. While there, I like all inhabitants of the ghetto had a yellow Star of David patch sown my outer garments. In the center of this badge was the German word Jude or Jew inscribed in faux Hebrew letters. In the eyes of the Nazis this emblem of identification perhaps served another purpose-humiliation.
One day in early October 1942, the Krakow ghetto was sealed off. No one was getting in or out. Only men with German issued identification cards assigned to special work details were lead out to work. Father and I were given one of these work cards and at dawn were marched out from the ghetto to a series of nearby locations. When we returned to the ghetto one evening, we found its streets empty and quiet. The ground was littered with papers, toys, pieces of clothing, and discarded suitcases. Mother and my Bubbe were gone along with all of our relatives and most of our friends. They simply vanished. We heard that Mother had been deported to the Belzec extermination camp never to be seen or heard from again.
Those who remained in the ghetto were under German orders to be liquidated. Father and I were moved to the labor camp in the nearby Plaszow with its double rows of high, electrified wire fence and watchtowers. We were now called political prisoners, ordinary people whose only crime was being born as Jews.
My vision of life became distorted into a surreal scene. When the Germans invaded, I had only completed the sixth grade. Now the opportunity to further my studies, play music, play sports, discovering the adolescent pleasures of dreaming about the opposite sex, and a first crush were deigned to me. Our apartment, mother's loving voice, the smells of my favorite foods, my pal Albert and my beloved Rolf all became a distant blurred image. The brutal reality was the incomprehensible prison camp and its many inmates, their senses dulled, milling around like ghosts of the persons they once were.
Every morning at dawn we trudged under guard six abreast to work in the nearby factory. After twelve exhausting hours we marched back to the camp. My survival instincts took over and I slowly adjusted to the dreary routine of avoiding the Schutzstaffel or SS men and the Kapos.
The Kapos wereconcentration campprisonersassigned by the SS guards to supervise forced labor or carry out administrative tasks. This system was designed turned victim against victim; therefore Kapos were pitted against their fellow prisoners in order to maintain the favor of their SS guards. Kapos were spared physical abuse and hard labor provided they performed to the satisfaction of the SS guards. If they displeased the SS hierarchy, the Kapo would be returned to the status of ordinary prisoners and then subjected to those whom he had tormented. Some were Jews and showed flashes of humanity to their fellow prisoners, but many became known for their brutality toward other prisoners.
Father was in a different work detail so we did not see each other during the day. Some nights we would sneak out from the barracks. Hiding in the shadows to avoid the searchlights, we would meet in the dark to spend a few precious minutes together.
Upon returning to the camp one evening I saw an unusually large number of armed guards in long coats and rifles slung over their shoulders. They herded us into the barracks and locked up. An SS man accompanied by several camp guards barged into the barracks. A skinny prisoner who carried a small toolbox was shoved into our midst. Screaming and prodding us with their rifle butts, the guards made us form a line in the barracks. The scrawny prisoner with the toolbox set up a small table, opened his toolbox and took out a strange instrument. Supervised by the SS man and guards began dragging people to the table. Two guards firmly held each prisoner as the thin man tattooed the letters on their left wrist. This marker to identified concentration camp prisoners and was used to distinguish an escapee if he successfully fled a compound. I did not know what the letters meant, but I knew that I did not want to be tattooed.
Defiant, I dodged their grabbing hands.I wanted to become invisible.There were fewer and fewer people left inline and it was getting difficult to hide. Someone from behind pushed me forward and two guards grabbed me forcing my left hand to the table. Their vice-like grip held the palm of my hand firmly on the table's rough surface. I kicked and screamed in an attempt to break their grip, but within seconds, the repulsive ink stigma on my wrist.
When I was released I scampered to my high bunk. Enraged, I looked for any sharp instrument that might be used to get the tattoo out, but could not find one. I then tried to suck the ink out. Stubborn and defiant, I bit deeply into the skin until all the ink and pieces of flesh were gone. In time my wrist healed. The offensive tattoo was gone, but the scar it left reminded me of that dreadful event -and it still does to this day.
Then the executions started. Every night a long procession of prisoners slowly passed by my window, dragging their feet in silence. Occasionally we could hear the machinegun's staccato fire. This was followed by the muffled growl of tractors moving earth to bury the dead. The horrific scent of death clung in the air.
Rumors spread that if you belonged to a work detail, you might be saved from execution. Father and I noticed that one of the Kapos was regularly taking a group of prisoners to work outside the main camp. Joining that detail might provide an opportunity for us to escape. Shortly thereafter my father seized an opportunity to talk to the Kapo. I stayed some distance away, but I heard them arguing in Yiddish. Then the Kapo turned to look at me, apparently assessing my abilities.
Finally the Kapo waved to me and we joined his detail. No one knew much about Kapo Beim. He came from one of the nearby villages where was the Germans captured him as he and his family tried to jump onto a train to go north. He had succeeded in sending his wife and two daughters into hiding.
Most of the Kapos were as vicious than the Nazis themselves. Kapo Beim was different. A tinsmith by trade, he had spent most of his life fixing leaking tin roofs in Krakow. Judging by words that he commonly used, he had little or no schooling. He yelled and cursed in Yiddish pretending to be tough - especially when the guards were around. His ragged clothes somehow looked neat. With his pants legs neatly tucked into his boots, his dark olive green jacket tightly buttoned, and a black beret cockily tipped over his right ear, he looked like a soldier from some unknown army.
Kapo Beim appeared to be a man who spent most of his life doing physical labor in the open air. He was short in stature, but always full of energy. One easily sensed that he was determination to survive. He had an unshaken belief that the war would soon be over. Using smuggled cigarettes, money and other bribes he shielded us from the viciousness of the guards and sadistic Kapos.
From the very first day Kapo Beim seemed to like me. He took me under his protection watching out for my safety. I was appointed as his personal helper, carrying his toolbox full of battered tin snips and hammers, his beaten up kerosene blowtorch, and an assortment of soldering irons. My arms loaded, I followed him up narrow stairways to fix roofs. While I moved cautiously placing my feet on the slippery inclines, Kapo Beim, in his element, hopped around erect and surefooted like a mountain goat.
High above the city of Plaszow we peered at the horizon. As a fresh breeze fill our nostrils, we somehow felt free -without the war, the camp and the guards. We were two improbable friends, a small boy who once played the piano and a tinsmith. This illusion always ended when the shrill factory whistle signaled the end of the workday and the brutal reality of electrified fences and wooden bunks.
Once Kapo Beim reached into his breast pocket and carefully retrieved a small creased photograph of a young woman and two small girls, the blurred image of his wife and daughters. He exuded confidence that some day they would be together again. Then, with his gaze hardening fixed on the city below, he mumbled about them being safe and that the Germans would never get them.
A day or two later, when we assembled for the trek back to camp, Kapo Beim had just finished counting his detail. He became agitated jumping back and forth looking from the head of the column to its rear and repeating the tally several times. There was no mistake; the count was short. Two men had escaped. The guard at the gate always counted the rows in the morning and again in the evening and Kapo Beim was responsible for bringing his entire work detail back to the camp. For a few days, we inmates covered for the missing men by creating some diversion such as shuffling around to confuse the guards and slip them up on the count. One day, a guard at the gate noticed the shuffling and sounded an alarm. We were rapidly surrounded, ordered to stand still and be counted. The escape was discovered. Kapo Beim was taken into the guard shack while we were escorted to our barracks and locked up.
Next morning, the camp was unusually quiet. The customary commotion created by the formation of work details was missing. No one ordered us out to work. We began to speculate what would happen next. The Germans did not tolerate escapes from the camps and often retaliated by executing the entire work detail. The day dragged on with one rumor replacing another. The night came and still nothing has happened. The camp was eerily silent, yet there was a palpable sense of anticipation.
About midmorning on the following day hundreds of soldiers poured from military trucks and took positions around the barracks. With loud shouts we were ordered to assemble in front of each barracks in long rows, six deep. Shortly afterward all the prisoners from the Plaszow labor camp were marched onto a large central rectangular field. Once there, we were ordered to stand and remain silent in a four-sided formation.
Armed guards with their snarling dogs took positions all around us. Machinegun barrels pointed menacingly at us from the watchtowers. I was sure that the guards in the towers were there to cut us all down. Frantic, I quickly plotted a way to duck the expected onslaught of bullets. Then I noticed a newly built small platform in the middle of the field. It was about five feet high, with a stout pole immediately adjacent to it. Near the top of the pole was a long arm, perhaps used to support a heavy street lamp. A sturdy rope with a large noose hung from this arm. Under the rope was a three-legged stool. A small group of soldiers appeared at one corner of the field. Leading the entourage was an SS-officer in a black uniform, stiffly walking in his knee high boots followed by a non-descript spectacled man in a white coat. Immediately behind them were four armed guards surrounding the diminutive figure of Kapo Beim.
Kapo's small frame was barely visible between the four big guards. His hands were tied behind his back and he walked briskly with his head high, his black beret cockily pulled over his right ear. The legs of his pants, as always, were neatly tucked into his boots. Once at the platform, two of the guards effortlessly lifted him up and stood him on the three-legged stool. One of the guards tightened the noose on his neck. Suddenly, the silence was pierced by the Kapo's clear high-pitched, voice. "Brothers", he yelled in Yiddish of the top of lungs, "the war will be over soon. Take care of my wife and children."
Just as the wind carried his voice to the corners of the field, a black uniformed SS man, yanked the small stool out from under him with one quick decisive motion. Kapo Beim dropped straight down, then his feet threshed, feeling for support. None was there. Within seconds his listless shape started to slowly sway from side to side in the bright sun his head unnaturally bent sideways and down. He moved back and forth - a ghoulish pendulum.
The man in the white coat walked up to examine the body. He whispered something into the SS man's ear. The SS officer nodded slightly, turned to the swaying form, then he pulled a handgun from the leather holster on his belt. The black clad officer whose peaked cap was emblazed with a Totenkopf (a silver skull and cross bones death's head) fired two shoots into the hanging body, their quick pops cracking the silent air. Kapo Beim, the mensch, was no more.
The prisoners stood motionless as if frozen by a spell. A large black raven squawked, interrupting the tense silence but adding to the drama. In the second row, dwarfed by the men around me, I stood transfixed. A light breeze gently swept my blond hair as all eyes became riveted on the wooden scaffolding in the center of the field. Tears blurred my vision. The Nazi bastards had taken my family, my youth, my material possessions, my health, and now pillaged my faith in humanity. I just starred at the ground rather than the limp lifeless body hanging from the end of a rope, I remembered that Bubbe believed that God would save us from all evil. Was God present? Why did He permit this wickedness - deeds that defy comprehension? Was this unwarranted suffering beyond the control of a benevolent, controlling creator?
One day I was paying too little attention to my job and severely lacerated my left hand. The cut was very painful and I was unable to washed the wound with clean water. I bandaged it with some papers from the trash-bin and a greasy rag, hoping that it would not become infected. I also hoped that I could cover the injury from the guards. Accidents were a potentially catastrophic problem for slave laborers. After working for hours at mindless tasks without sufficient food and rest, it was easy for one's mind to wander. When an accident happened, the guards usually showed little to no sympathy. Medical care was generally non-existent for the prisoners, and where it was available, it was largely rudimentary. As a rule, disabled prisoners were considered expendable and usually shot. The only exception might be a highly skilled worker, one who was considered valuable to the Reich and not easily replaced.
Shortly thereafter father and I were reassigned at the whim of a nameless bureaucratic Nazi. This was the last time that I saw him. There was no time for a goodbye. Later I learned that he was sent to the Gusen labor camp where he died on 3 February 1945, tragically just a few months short of the war's end.
It was now the early summer of 1944. I had not yet turned seventeen, but now as prisoner number 86916, I was a concentration camp veteran. When I was being reassigned, my left hand was still bandaged in discarded papers. Fortunately the guard in charge of prisoner triage did not notice it. As the wound healed, its scar became a reminder of the Plaszow slave labor camp.
Selected for transit to another unknown camp, I along with many others was stuffed into securely sealed freight cars. Short on food and water, many prisoners got weaker by the hour. The heat, the stench of unwashed humanity and lack of toilets made breathing difficult. I lay on the floor jammed with my face down, but feeling lucky because a little fresh air was coming from a crack between the floor and the sliding door.
After what seemed like an eternity of standing on sidings or slowly moving forward, the train apparently had arrived at its destination. The heavy wooden door of my car opened suddenly with a reverberating bang. Those of us that could either jumped or slid to the ground and breathed the frosty morning air. The dead or those too weak to move remained on the floor of the car. No one paid attention to those left behind. We soon learned that we were at Mauthausen-Gusen concentration camp, a grim complex built in Upper Austria.
My eyes gradually adjusted to the light's intensity. At first glance this seemed to be a harmless and peaceful place. We stood on a clean street lined with neatly painted mostly white buildings. Colorful flowerbeds in front of each building added to the deception. Then the selection started. Guards herded us, single file, toward a uniformed Nazi officer. With a barely noticeable motion of his white glove, he pointed to those who seemed strong to move to the right. The weak, the old, the women and the children were waved to the left.
When my turn came, I briefly looked into his cold and indifferent eyes. A faint movement of his white glove sent me to the right. Once the unit reached some predetermined number, we were shoved into a covered truck. We then waited as truck after truck was loaded this way, evidently until the selection was over. The German soldiers ordered the lorries to form a long convoy and we started moving out of Mauthausen.
The overloaded truck I was in swayed from side to side as it ground its way up a mountainous, winding road. With every turn, we sloshed around like fish in a bucket of water with every turn. Through a small gap in the canvas cover, I noticed that we were passing through a small town. This was the railway junction town of Saint Valentin, Austria, a place where the Germans had set up a factory to manufacture Germany's Panzer tanks. I soon learned that slave labor was used to produce this heavy equipment.
After a few days life in Saint Valentin, I settled into a debilitating routine of twelve hours of factory work and twelve hours off. Shortly after dawn, we marched through the usually empty village to work surrounded by armed guards with their dogs. The early morning's silence was disturbed by the sound of hundreds of wooden clogs on worn cobblestones and by an occasional bark or snarl from the dogs. Sometimes I would see someone gaze from behind partly drawn curtains at the slow procession of human skeletons, six abreast, dressed in striped suits, winding through town. The scene was repeated in the evening, but the return walk to the barracks always seemed much longer. In the evening, back in the camp, we received the only "real" meal of the day, a slice of heavy dark bread and a cup of watery cabbage stew. Sometimes a piece of grey fatty meat could be found floating in the soup.
Rows of dark grey machines filled the factory turning out hundreds of different tank parts. My job was to move a big wheel two revolutions clockwise then two revolutions counterclockwise, then catch the finished piece, and advance the bar stock. I was not told what the pieces were used for, I just had to make it over and over again. This unvaried cycle was repeated exactly every minute for my entire twelve-hour shift. At noon, a siren wailed announcing a short break for one-half an hour. Another siren blast signaled the return to work. The machines then started up again and we worked until the evening siren announced the arrival of a shift change. The monotonous movements of the wheel put me in a trance-like state, halfway between reality and a daydream. Months of boredom and starvation were taking their toll on my mental and physical ability. I was starting to feel numb and indifferent.
When winter came, the routine at the plant changed but only slightly. The factory's siren warned of air raids as well as marking breaks and shift changes. When the air raid warning sounded, we were rushed to a densely packed underground shelter. We recognized a hit by the flickering of lights and cloudlets of dust dropping from the ceiling. When the bombs exploded close-by, the walls trembled and we cheered. As winter progressed, the raids grew more frequent and the bombing more accurate. The factory developed gaping holes in the roof; sections of the walls collapsed. Some of the machinery had been destroyed, but the factory continued to operate. In spite of the successful bombings, the end of the war seemed distant. I felt hopeless and resign to what ever fate had in store for me.
A supervisor of my factory section, perhaps in his late sixties, walked between the complex machines, with a slow and heavy gait. From time to time, he inspected a finished piece by bringing it close to his eyes and peering at the product from behind his wire-rimmed glasses. His glasses always slid down his nose and he would push them back up with a quick, impatient motion of his hand.
Most of the time he just threw the pieces that I had produced back into the tray and continued down the aisle without even looking at me or even acknowledge my presence. As a civilian he was not permitted to talk to the prisoners. Likewise, we were warned not to speak to civilians under any circumstances. If he found something wrong with one of my pieces, he would motion to me to move away from the machine. He then worked on it, adjusting its controls and sometimes smoothed out burrs with a grinding wheel that caused white sparks to erupt under his hands like a tail of a mysterious comet. When he was satisfied, he carefully set my piece back in its holder. When finished, he stepped back and motion for me to resume work. Once, he gave me a short glance. His fleeting eye contact somehow showed a spark of humanity. Was this only my imagination? I craved for some signs of friendliness in this inhuman hostile environment.
Just as the supervisor finished adjusting my cutting tool and was ready to leave, the noontime siren sounded. Frigid winds frequently blew through or around the partially destroyed wall of the buildings, enveloping us in numbing could. Not far from me an empty oil drum with some charcoal glowing inside that served as a makeshift heater. The civilian tool setter sat in a corner, near this warm oil drum and slowly opened his lunch pail. He took out a small package wrapped in brown paper, opened it with great care and, in an unhurried motion, took a small bite.
I could smell it. It was fresh bread! I could not take my eyes off him. He sat by his toolbox and slowly, bite after bite, consumed his sandwich. When the last remnant was gone, he crumbled its brown wrapping paper into a ball, got up, and walked up to a nearby trash barrel. When he raised his hand to drop in the paper ball, he held it in the air an instant longer than necessary. Just then, our eyes met. He discarded the paper ball into the trash-bin, closed his lunch pail, and walked away.
When I noticed the guards talking among themselves, I darted to the barrel. Bending down into it, I grabbed the brown paper ball, and quickly shoved it under my striped prisoner's jacket. Within a second, I returned to my workstation. With one hand on the wheel of the machine, I hastily pried open the paper under my jacket with the other. I felt something soft. I smelled it before realizing that it was a chunk of fresh bread.
From that day on, every day, the civilian tool setter brought two extra thick slices of bread thinly spread with lard. He wrapped them in paper and, at the end of his lunch break, threw them into the trash barrel. Every day I retrieved them as soon as he moved away. No one suspected that he was helping a prisoner. We never spoke. We developed a silent covenant between us that continued for the next several months. I started to wonder who he was. Was he really just an old tool setter or perhaps an angel sent to save me from starvation?
One day during the spring that followed, we were not marched to the factory. A line of covered trucks rolled into the St. Valentin compound and I, along with the other prisoners, was herded into trucks that took us back to Mauthausen, a well-known death camp. Once there, most of us just fell on the rough-hewn boards that served as our bunks. The guards slammed the doors shut, plunging us into total darkness.
Being locked there day after day without food or water, I lost track of time. The air in the barracks grew putrid. It became harder and harder to breathe. As days passed many people expired. It was almost impossible to distinguish those who were still alive from those who were not. Like most of those who still showed signs of life, I became half-delirious. Half-awake I envisioned the elderly tool setter. I could almost feel his presence right next to me, sternly looking at me through his wire-rimmed glasses.
Suddenly we heard an unusual noise outside the wooden the barracks. The heavy steel bar that sealed the door shut from the outside made thumping noise as it hit the hard ground. The portal opened and the barracks was flooded with light. I covered my eyes against the glare. I wanted to get up, but could not muster enough strength. I only succeeded in raising my head a little. In the doorway stood a tall figure wearing a strange looking helmet. His backlit silhouette appeared like a creature from another world. As if coming from a great distance, I heard three slowly voiced words, "Oh -my -God!" spoken in unfamiliar English. My feelings at that moment are difficult to describe; bewilderment, relief, elation, overwhelming exhaustion -but mostly the realization that for me the war had ended and prisoner number 86916, (now once again a person named Natan) had survived.
In time all the physical injuries I suffered as a prisoner healed. I regained the use of all the fingers in my left hand, except for one. That visible scar continuously reminds me that the camps were all real. The memories of those years race still through my head. No language can adequately describe the horrors that I lived through yet there are stories about individual acts of compassion and kindness - sparks of light in a time of darkness and indifference; a nameless few put their own lives on the line and, at times, eased the agony.
When I was repatriated from Mauthausen in May 1945, I was weak and emaciated. I had the good fortune to be treated in an American field hospital and was well cared for. After my partial recovery, I was astonished to see British soldiers with a golden Star of David over two vertical blue stripes as their unit insignia. They were former Jewish Brigade members searching for Holocaust survivors to aid and assist those who wanted to emigrate from Europe to Palestine. The members of this former brigade had alliances with diverse political groups in Palestine, but all had the same goal -the establishment of a Jewish homeland state. One such group recruited me and, in time, smuggled me by sea to the "Promised Land" to become a soldier to help in the establishment of the State of Israel.
from the 2015 Editions of the Jewish Magazine
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