In and Out of the Nazi Camps
By Israel Turk
This is Part Three
Click here to read Part Two
Click here to read Part One
Our barracks, which were located in a former Jewish neighborhood, ranged from sturdy buildings to flimsy, substandard structures that looked as if they were built overnight. Surrounding them was a 10 ft. high chain link fence.
Since our barracks were situated near the track, it was easy to get information about the outside world. Polish workers and train conductors, who were paid employees of the German military, frequently told stories loud enough to be overheard. We heard reports of acts so abhorrent it was difficult to believe they were carried out by fellow human beings.
We heard about the floors of the boxcars that were covered with chemicals. As the Jews stood smashed together in the compartment, they quickly discovered that the little air they had, the little air they so desperately tried to breath, was poisoned.
We listened, horrified, to the tale of the train that was emptied out before it reached the extermination camp. The train stopped in a treed area. The stronger Jews were ordered out and forced to dig large ditches. The Jews that remained were moved to a stationary boxcar, one that was equipped with specially placed pipes. SS soldiers pulled shut the boxcar door. As the graves were being dug, a diesel engine roared. Exhaust smoke filled the boxcar. The sounds of screaming and moaning scorched the air like a funeral march from hell, continued for about 45 minutes. Loud, desperate, pleading sounds, and then silence.
The SS guards opened the boxcar door, ordered the grave-digging Jews to drag out the bodies and throw them into the grave. When the train cars were cleaned out, the laborious Jews were not rewarded but shot. Their bodies were thrown into the same graves they so dutifully dug.
The latest tale was about the train that my mother and sisters were on. A Ukraine guard that rode the train told a Polish watchman its fate. The story soon reached our barrack. I dreaded hearing the news.
Following a four day journey, the train reached its destination 160 miles away: Belzec extermination camp, home to six gas chambers.
Belzec, gas chambers - I heard the words, heard where the train went, but could not respond. My relatives, my mother, my sisters were taken to Belzec.
I wondered if they even made it to Belzec or if they suffocated on the train. Remembering all the other stories we had heard, I came to the sickening realization that they all must be dead - my relatives, my little sisters, my mother; all of them dead, never to be seen again.
I wondered how they died. I wished I had died with them.
Belzec. Gas chambers. I heard the words but yet I didn't. I was numb.
My extended family, once so large and joyous, had deteriorated to five - three cousins, Michael and myself. It was now us against the German troops, us against death.
We dreaded seeing the grey and the black - the German uniform. A symbol of strength and conquest for its countrymen, it was a death sign for us. The eagle emblem, the swastika, the belt buckle that declared Gott Mit Uns (God is with us), the tall black boots - the soldiers proudly wore the outfit that was sewn with our blood. As intimidating as it was, it was not the uniform we feared, but the soldier inside of it.
When an SS soldier was nearby, we were under a constant death sentence. One wrong move, one right move - it didn't matter what we did; if an SS soldier was in the mood to kill a Jew, he would.
Although my agony and fear were constant, my silent terror was eased whenever I looked at Michael. He was my older brother and, regardless of how weak we both had become, he was still my symbol of strength.
A few days after the departure of my mother and sisters' train, we were lined up outside of the barracks and given new job assignments. Hochtif, a private German firm, was set to build a locomotive station. For their construction crew, they wanted 200 of the biggest, strongest looking men. Not surprisingly, they chose Michael. Since I was small and skinny, I was relegated to carry coal from the boxcars.
Our new assignments gave us a new start. Like always, the daily routine helped bring a touch of normalcy into our lives. We were still active, still alive, and we had a reason to be kept alive. Our daily work routine became our daily breath.
Adding further normalcy to our lives was the fact that we were fed. Unlike our previous holding areas, at this camp there was a kitchen. In the mornings we were given tea and a small piece of bread. In the evenings we had either cabbage or potato soup. Both were always more broth than substance. To drink, we had coffee that was so watered down it looked and tasted like hot water with coloring added to it. Regardless, we looked forward to our meals. After what we had been through, this was good.
There were also ways to supplement the meals. Working with us were non-Jewish laborers who were paid by the construction firm.
Their money gave them buying power on the black market, which was the only way to get things. It also gave them trading power on the jobsite. Since the nearby stores had been forcibly closed and since they made meager wages, they were eager to trade for almost anything. When they came to the jobsite with food, we would barter with whatever money, household item or personal belonging we still had. Many Jews gave up nearly everything they owned for what seemed to be the most valuable commodity of the time - bread.
Not only did the food sustain me, being near my brother also did. Although separated during the day, at night Michael and I saw each other. For about three months, we shared the same barrack and slept in the same bunk. We did not speak much; no words were needed. Just by being there, we brought each other comfort.
But this soon came to an end. Hochtif ordered its construction workers to move to a barrack in Pustynia, which was about two miles away from where we had been staying. Although the village was farther from the site, it was resourceful. he village was used to replenish Germany's food supply. Area farmers were ordered to bring the SS troops their wheat. This, in turn, was shipped to Germany.
Michael and I were no longer in the same barrack. Fortunately, we were still able to see each other at work. Many days when I had a smaller boxcar to unload, I would finish about an hour early. I was not allowed to return to the barracks alone; regardless of when I finished, I had to wait for all the others in my group to finish before I could go back. Rather than hang around at my site, I would walk down the tracks to see Michael. Fatigued and sick, I would sit on the rail near his site and wait for him. My body shivered; I was freezing, even in the hot July sun.
When Michael saw me, he would come near. We said nothing, just looked at each other. We were both going through the same hell; we were tired and torn. No words were needed.
But the day visits weren't enough; at night I was lonely without Michael. I grew restless and longed to be with him. In my desperation, I found a way to do so. When his group was preparing to leave at the end of the day, I lined up with them, pretending to be a construction worker. I followed him to his barrack and spent the night.
The bunks in his barrack were not that bad. There were three levels and each worker had their own section. Although they were adequate, they weren't as comfortable as the ones in my barrack. Not only were the mattresses cozier, we had warm blankets and a pillow, items that were left behind by Jews who had been sent to the death camp.
But comfort didn't interest me. I didn't want the blanket or pillow, I wanted my brother. Even if the Jews in his barrack had to stand to sleep, I would have gone there to see him. Nothing could have stopped me.
Sometimes while I was there, Michael and I would stare at each other. No thoughts, no words, no expressions, we simply stared. But those occasions were rare. Usually we just sat near each other and, at night, we shared the same bunk.
Going there was a risky thing to do. Because his group of workers was fewer and more specialized, they were patrolled by the railroad police - Ukraine guards who often liked to impress the German officials. At random times during the night, a guard would line the Jews up outside of the barrack and count heads while another guard searched for anyone hiding inside. They always anticipated that a Jew would be on the loose - either running away from the camp or, if he had been in hiding, running into the camp in search of overnight shelter. If your barrack's headcount was off, you were all subject to be shot.
It was dangerous for me to be there, not only for me but for the others. Everyone knew that yet no one complained. It was rare when anyone spoke at all. Brutalized and broken, we kept to ourselves. At a time when we each could have used a friend, we stayed private, dealt with our trauma alone. In addition, we did not know who to trust. After seeing so many turn against us, including our fellow Jews, we were suspicious of everyone. So we just existed and waited for our next command.
Even if the others in the barrack were concerned about my presence, they would not have spoken up. Michael was favored because of his ability to fix shoes. Since they were working construction, their shoes were always worn through. Using materials and tools that he must have bartered for - nails, a small hammer and thread, Michael repaired them. He spent his evening hours sewing and patching the torn sides and worn soles. The finished products may not have looked any better, but they once again offered protection, which was an essential element, especially during the winter months. Michael fixed their shoes as a favor, without asking for anything in return. By not complaining about my visits or pointing me out to the guards, the other Jews repaid his favor.
I was proud of Michael. Similar to the mornings I spent watching my mother bake, I found great pleasure and contentment watching him repair the shoes. I lied on his top bunk and watched him, Michael, my brother, who was studying to be a tailor.
That night we were awakened by a harsh shout.
The commands of "Out" woke everyone up, forced them to relinquish the safety of their dreams to line up outside. The confusion created as they were leaving the barrack gave me an opportunity to hide. While the guards were busy outside lining up several hundred people, I was busy inside hiding.
Scampering under the bedding, I positioned myself between the mattress and the wood slats. I lied still and waited. When the barrack was empty, the guards came in, searched it with their flashlights. I saw the light beams, knew they were looking, looking, the footsteps, the floor creak; they were almost next to me. The room is dark; they only have flashlights. Stay still, don't make a sound, don't move, don't breath. My dauntless heartbeat reminded me that I was alive. The straw mattress held me with its stiff arms, comforted me, buffered me from death. The light beam swept by, closer, swept by again, and then it was gone.
After the guards ordered everyone back into the barrack, I came out from under the mattress. Michael looked but said nothing. There were no words to say, no emotions to feel. If I survived, I did. If I didn't, then he would have had to go on alone. Although he said nothing, I knew he was glad I was still there.
Every day I unloaded the coal from the boxcars. I had no special gloves to do this with; I emptied it with my bare hands. The tips of my fingers were constantly bleeding from the sharp edges of the coal. But I continued working, emptying the train cars, gasping from the black dust.
I had one of the worst jobs in the camp and, since I had nothing to bribe the Ukraine railroad police with, there was no way out of it. Hour after hour, I emptied the boxcars. I also tried to avoid notice. If a watchman was bored, or if he did not get enough gifts from the Jews, he would find someone to beat. Depending on his mood, my small size made me either a prime target or not worthy of the beating.
This was my life. I was 17 years olds.
Whenever I got the chance, I would walk down the tracks to visit Michael. But I was not always able to do this. Usually, when my daily assignment was complete, I was given another job. Once the boxcar was empty, I then had to stack the coal in order to make room for the next shipment. Even though I knew I had already labored enough, I could not complain. The Ukraine and Polish railroad police stood over us, watched our every move, stood in wait for the opportune time to spew their anger at us.
One day a Ukraine police officer could wait no more. Saying we were not working properly, he ordered me and some other workers to go with him. It was time for punishment.
I did not follow the others. Instead I rejected his complaint, told him I had done nothing wrong, that I was working properly. He pointed his gun at me.
"If you don't start walking, I will kill you."
I began walking.
He took us to the basement of the railroad station and shut the heavy door. It was a small room and there were no windows. I sat on a long bench with about eight other Jews. In the cold dark basement we sat and we waited. We all knew what this room was used for; we all knew why we were here. Everyday, those who had done something wrong, those who had somehow or another inflamed an officer, were put into this holding tank. When night fell, they were led out of the basement and into the fields. There they were shot, one by one.
From my barracks, I routinely heard the brazen shots fired one by one. I heard the faint screams of the Jews as they pleaded for their life, the even fainter screams as they realized there was no use, and the dreadful silence as they faced their death. At times, the shots and screams seemed to last until dawn.
Now here I was, seated in the basement of doom, awaiting my destiny, a destiny I once thought was controlled by God.
We sat there for hours. Finally the door opened. The Ukraine guard took us one by one to the SS commandant. I was taken last. When the guard told me to follow him, I walked behind him carefully, silently, fearfully. I knew that the SS commandant was the big guy, the one in charge of the entire camp, the one who ordered the killings.
The guard opened a door. In the room sat the uniformed commandant with his large German shepherd dog. Beside them stood our Jewish camp leader; he was holding a stuffed leather handbag.
The commandant looked at me and said nothing. The Ukraine guard told him how I complained, how I did not work and how I argued with him. The commandant looked quizzically at him then looked again at me. The Judenrat with the handbag asked if I had any money. I said I did not.
My heart sunk. I knew this was it; this was my end. Without a bribe, I was useless, disposable. I knew all along I could not go on forever. My parents were gone, my sisters, my oldest brother. Sooner or later my luck would also run out.
"Why did you do this?" the commandant asked. "Why did you argue?"
"I wasn't doing what he said," I responded.
"Just answer the question, why did you argue?"
"Because it's not true," I said, "it's wrong."
I did it. Instead of standing there shamefully, as if I had done something criminal, I held onto the truth, the goodness, the one pure thing left in this demented version of life. They could take away my family, my religion, my pride and my being, but they would never be able to take away the truth.
I waited. My life now sat in the hands of the commandant. Whatever he ordered, I was prepared for.
He stood from his desk and walked toward me. Behind the eagle and swastika emblem, behind the black leather boots was the man who had suddenly become my god. He paused a moment and sternly shouted his order.
"Los! Go, get out!"
His words echoed in my ears, embraced me with hope. I was free to live, at least for now.
The train station that Michael was helping to build was near completion. Through the barrack grapevine, we heard that once the job was finished, the workers would be sent to another camp and eliminated. This meant Michael and my three cousins were being targeted. We knew we had to do something.
Escaping was out of the question. It seemed everyone was against us. We had heard the stories of Jews hiding out, Jews being turned in by Polish police or Polish citizens, Jews being killed. My cousin's wife had been in hiding with her young child. When she could take the concealment no longer, she went outside. She trusted in goodness and could not fathom a world that would hurt her and her innocent child. They were never seen again.
We were the hunted and even our former neighbors were hunting us. For every Jew that escaped, there was a boot-licking civilian eager to keep the German troops on their side.
I reminded Michael about our last resort, our hidden treasure - the gun he and Leib buried in the fields outside our home. Michael said it was no longer there. For better safekeeping and to avoid being caught with buried items, they gave it to the Matugas, our Polish neighbors, to hide in their house.
The location may have moved but the fact that we had a gun remained. I volunteered to sneak out of camp to get it. With a gun, we could escape. We could hide in the forest or village until the nightmare was over. We wouldn't be able to use the gun on the German soldiers - they were too well-trained and had better weapons, but we could use it on any civilian that tried to turn us in. We wouldn't even have to shoot them; all we would have to do is point the gun at them and they'd run away.
In my bunk that night, I spoke about my plans to Victor Bloch, an acquaintance from Pilzno who was about 10 years older than me.
"I'll go with you," he said.
I worried that he might hinder my flight. I was small and quick; he was taller and slower. But I knew he was all alone, his family had been killed, and I knew that he was tired of living under the German command. So I agreed.
Whereas my plan was to get the gun and sneak back into the camp, Victor had no intentions of coming back. Once we traveled the 8 mile distance into town, he planned on hiding out until the end.
After work the next day, we plotted our escape. We knew we would not be able to climb over the 10 ft. high fence without being seen. Bright lights from a nearby building lit the field, and the SS commandant, the one who a few days earlier chose not to shoot me, routinely kept watch there. We would have to go under it, at night.
I stuffed a small piece of bread under my shirt and waited, never thinking about the dangers that lied before me. It was simply something I knew I had to do.
When the skies got dark, Victor and I snuck out of the barrack. We quickly dropped to the ground and crawled through the deep grass, pushing ourselves like abnormal snakes, avoiding the scope of the lights. Once we reached the fence, we picked a spot and began digging with our hands. The dirt was solid but breakable with force. We dug faster, harder, furiously. My fingertips, already torn from unloading coal, stung and throbbed but I kept digging. This time the pain that I felt was for the benefit of me, not the German soldiers. This time I controlled my pain.
When the groove was large enough, we lifted the bottom of the fence and burrowed through. The sharp metal ends tore our clothes and scraped our skin, but we did not care. In comparison to what we both had been through, these self-inflicted exit wounds were easy to bear.
We crossed over and were now in the wheat fields. But we were not safe yet. At one end of the field was the train station and German headquarters. At the other end was the main road, which was bordered by forest. It wasn't difficult for us to decide which direction to take. Staying low, we proceeded to the main road.
Although going through the forest to Pilzno would have been safer, it would have taken too long. Instead, we walked along the edge of the road, secure that, if needed, we could dash into the thicket.
The road was hilly, which worked both for us and against us. Although the hills hid us at times, they also exposed us.
We walked along quickly, cautiously, not saying a word. We both knew that at any moment, our plans, our lives could be ended.
Ahead of us, about a mile away, a headlight shone. Instinctively, we stopped. It sounded like a German motorcycle. We dove into the forest and began running. Through our heaving breathing, we heard the motorcycle stop, heard the heavy footsteps, the twigs breaking underfoot.
The footsteps kept coming. I feared we would be found. By running we were making too much noise, leaving a trail.
"Victor, stop," I said. "Stop running."
We lied on the ground in a remote area and listened, waited. We heard the footsteps approaching, the branches snapping. The German guard walked a few feet, then stopped, walked, then stopped, walked, stopped, walked, stopped, looking, looking, looking for his enemy, his weak, ostracized enemy, looking for us, the hunted, hoping to find us, hoping to kill us right there in the trees. But he had no flashlight. We breathed slowly, cautiously, and waited.
Finally he headed back toward the road. The motorcycle engine roared then faded into the distance.
Seeing that it was too dangerous along the road, we stayed in the forest. But still, we were not safe. In the midst of the trees was a small village. We knew that every village had watchmen, civilians who looked out for and turned in any escaping Jews. This village's watchman saw us. His dogs began barking.
"Stuj!" he called out in Polish.
Again we were being ordered to stop. We didn't.
We kept walking then ran, across the mangled boughs, through the big trees, down a steep hill, trying to keep our balance, trying to run faster. Ahead of us was a shack. I threw open the door. Inside, small branches were piled high. We closed the door, buried ourselves in the branches and waited. The watchman and his dogs ran past the shack and kept running.
We knew we couldn't stay in there. Dawn was breaking and the farmers would come out soon to gather kindling for their wood stoves. We moved to a nearby pig stall which was, fortunately, empty. Ignoring the insects and odors, we sat in there until daylight, knowing that the watchman who was looking for us would probably finish his shift at 6 a.m.
Slowly we crawled out from the pig stall and began walked. We passed people from the village and kept our composure; we strolled right by them as if we too were non-Jews.
We walked and walked. From the top of a hill, I finally saw the River Wisloka and the bridge that crossed it. We were almost there. I saw the clock on the church tower that said it was noon. And I saw a fully-uniformed SS guard, patrolling the bridge, waiting to capture Jews.
We hid in the forest and waited for nightfall. Making a move in daylight was too risky. Not only was the SS soldier watching the area, several Polish police officers were too. We considered swimming through the river but knew it would be too cold. The clothes we wore were the only ones we had; we couldn't afford to get them wet. So we crouched in the trees and waited.
Although we thought we were well hidden, we apparently were not. A man came over to us, asked us if we had any guns. Whether he was a fellow Jew or a civilian did not matter. By him approaching us, we realized it was time to leave the forest; it was time to cross the bridge to Pilzno.
I suggested to Victor that we separate. I knew that, since I was small, I had a better chance of staying undetected if I was alone. He agreed. I advised him to take the dirt road once he crossed the bridge to avoid the Polish police station, which was on the main one. We wished each other well and parted ways.
I took a deep breath and walked across the bridge, past the tall German guard, past his tormenting rifle. To avoid suspicion, I knew I would have to look at him, just like any other young boy would do, just like any non-Jew would do. So, I glanced at him, saw his ruthless helmet, the chinstrap, the stripes and the badges, the rifle. Curiously and nervously, I eyed my hunter. He didn't notice me.
I walked along the dirt road then turned to look for Victor. He was on the main road. The Polish police were riding their bicycles on the same road. Sooner or later they would see Victor. I ran across the field and began waving my arms to get his attention. When he noticed me, I motioned with my hand, telling him to follow me. He stood for a moment, dazed. He had just passed the German guard on the bridge and was disoriented. I kept motioning with my hand. Finally, he gathered his senses and joined me.
We followed the river until we ended up near my neighbor's house, the Matugas, the keepers of my father's gun. Here, Victor and I again parted ways. We had reached our destination. I would get the gun and return to the barrack. He would find a place to hide and never return again to the barrack.
Victor fulfilled his plan; he never returned to the barrack. He was spotted by Polish citizens as he walked along the road. The enthusiastic helpers turned him over to the German troops.
When I got to the Matuga's house, I went to the backyard and waited for Celek. In my mind I had it all planned: I would get the gun from him, hide it in my shirt, run back down the dirt road, over the bridge, past the German guard, through the forest, through the wheat field, and under the fence. I would go back to the barrack and with the gun, I would help Michael escape.
Celek and his mother saw me out the window and came outside. Along with them came two Jews, both only a few years older than me, who had slept overnight in the Matuga's attic. I was shocked but happy to see that our neighbors were trying to help. Because I was there, the young boys left; ran through the fields to their next hiding place. It was too risky to keep us all there.
I asked Celek for the gun. He said they no longer had it - his mother got worried so they threw it into the river. I said nothing, could not speak. I wanted to believe him, wanted to believe that his poor mother was afraid, like my mother was afraid, wanted to believe that they really did intend to help us, just like they were helping the young Jews in their attic, wanted to believe that they couldn't have, they wouldn't have sold our gun for their own gain.
Celek and his mother invited me in, fed me, let me spend the night. I thought of hiding out permanently but realized that was not what I really wanted. I didn't care about saving me, I cared about saving Michael. Back at the camp, Michael and my three cousins were waiting for me, were counting on me.
The next night, I thanked our neighbors for their daring hospitality then headed back to the barracks - without a gun.
Curious, I passed by my family's house. It was now occupied by a Polish family that we knew, a family with four children, a family we frequently borrowed things from. Because the father worked for Pilzno, he was one of the first to be offered Jewish possessions.
I looked into their front door and saw our furniture, our belongings. On their kitchen table, on our kitchen table, was a loaf of bread and farmer's cheese. The mother saw me.
"Can I have a piece of bread?" I sheepishly asked.
She looked at me then quickly turned away. "No, we do not have any."
I walked to the road. The road. It used to be such a big part of my life, a happy part. It was the road that led to school, to Cheider, to the market with my mother, to the river with my friends. And it was the road that always led me back to my home, our home, the Polish family's home.
Standing at the road, it was impossible not to see our neighbors walking to church. As always, the ladies wore big, fancy hats and the men wore black suits. Usually this was a pleasing sight, but with the turn of events, it became a life or death situation. With their sheer volume, the Polish churchgoers, our German-serving neighbors, reminded me that I was outnumbered.
One called out to me, yelled for me to stop. I ran until I got to the field. Another called out to me, and then another. Everyone wanted to catch the running Jew. They called out and they ran, but they could not catch up to me. When they lost my trail, I stopped running and walked. I walked along the main road and I walked across the bridge, past the German guard, past his chin strapped helmet, past his impetuous stare, past his tormenting rifle.
The trip back was easier without Victor. I was fast and I was small. The fact that I was returning without the gun did not bother me. How could it? I was not a real person, I was a subhuman creature. Like a bug, I did things by instinct: My brother needed to escape, I went for the gun. The gun was gone; I crawled back into the camp. I had no thoughts; I simply did.
In the few days that I was gone, conditions in the camp had gotten worse. Word of liquidating was out and panic had begun. When I crawled back through the fence, I saw children running everywhere, trying to hide, trying to escape. In this former Jewish community, there were plenty of places to hide - in basements, attics, storage areas. But none of these offered safety. I saw the children being chased like wild rabbits, being grabbed from their hiding places, dragged by their legs, lifted by hands much larger than their own, smashed against the wall until their heads bled. I heard the death cries of children too horrified to scream and I heard the gunshots.
When I told Michael that the gun was gone, he said nothing, but I could sense his disappointment. I convinced myself that they would not eliminate him. The men in his group were the biggest, the strongest. Surely they would be needed for the next construction project. The SS troops were interested in the children, the useless, innocent children, not Michael.
Michael's group continued to report each morning for labor and everything seemed normal. They would gather at a bungalow and a worker from the German construction firm would pick them up and bring them to the site.
One morning when they gathered at the bungalow, they were met by armed Ukraine guards. The strong young men were not taken to the construction site; they were pushed into a boxcar.
At work that day, I loaded and unloaded coal from the trains. Down the track from where I was working sat the boxcar Michael was in. When I was able to slip away, I walked down to see him, to be with him. There were two small openings near the top of the wood slats. I pulled myself up and pressed my face against the wood to see inside, to find Michael. There were at least 200 men on that boxcar; it was impossible to locate my brother. I called his name. One of the other workers told him I was there. He struggled through the mass and reached me. He asked if I had any money, in case he needed to buy something at his new camp, the camp they would be taking him to. I told him I had none.
A Ukraine guard shouted at me, pointed a gun at me, put his finger on the trigger. I returned to the coal piles and began loading.
The next morning, Michael's boxcar was gone. Its destination: Birkenau.
He did not go to another work camp, he went to a death camp.
That was it; I was the only one left.
I breathed. I existed.
For the next few months, I continued working at the same camp, loading and unloading coal. I felt as worthless as a fly and I felt like I belonged there. There was no other world for me. During the day I followed orders; at night I tried to sleep.
This regimented routine changed when a notice of evacuation was announced. A truck parked in front of the barracks and we were ordered onto it. People started pushing to get on, fearing that those who did not get on would be shot. It was late and there were labor camps nearby; they were in a hurry to get into their new barrack, claim their new bunk and get some sleep.
When that truck left, another came and then another. I did not rush to get on. What was the use? Why hurry to go from one hell to the next?
I boarded with the last group.
After a three-hour ride, we reached our destination: Plaszow, an extermination camp. The gates opened and we climbed out of the truck. German and Ukraine guards encircled us.
We were ordered to march through the gates and wait at a corner. Next to us were the rows of barracks. On the hill before us was a large trench, a mass grave. We stood at that crossroad for hours, looking, wondering, waiting.
The guards brought out an empty suitcase, held it in front of each of us and demanded that we toss into it anything of value - our jewelry, our watches, whatever we had left from our life as a person. I had nothing to contribute.
We were then led to a barrack and told to undress for a shower. At that time, I knew we would not be killed.
The showers were in a large room. At least 50 at a time were herded in there to clean up in the lukewarm water. There was no soap. After our rinse, we were again lined up outside. Those who were a tailor or other professional were separated. The rest of us, the laborers, were given our work orders.
The Plaszow camp was built on the site of a Jewish cemetery, the largest near Krakow. The area was hilly, which hindered the German military's plans of constructing more barracks. In order to properly build, they would have to level the land. I was chosen for this detail. Under the direction of a German firm, my work group was to demolish and level the cemetery.
The clearing out of the bodies was very systematic. First we laid wagon tracks in the area where we would be working. Then we removed and destroyed the headstones - huge, beautiful, marble monuments. The broken slabs were delivered by wagon to the home of Amon Goethe, the SS commandant. Jewish laborers used them to build a sidewalk that ran around his house and horse stable.
Next, a German backhoe operator helped us exhume the caskets and bodies. The driver was merciless. His backhoe usually ripped into the caskets, exposing and tearing the corpse inside. Once the bodies were scooped out from their graves, the worker would climb out of his backhoe and search them for gold teeth or other valuables.
Using shovels, my group would then load the dirt, caskets and bodies onto large wagons. The wagons were deep, allowing us to load vertically the caskets that were not torn in half. But they were not deep enough. Open caskets, disintegrating corpses, and corpses that had been mutilated by the backhoe, were often hauled shamelessly. The deceased Jews, who for years rested so peacefully, had suddenly become unwitting tokens of our public mortification.
We pushed the wagon of caskets and corpses uphill on tracks. When we reached the cliff, we dumped our loads as landfill. The Jewish corpses, many which could have been distant relatives, were being used to level the ground. On this mound of bodies, we sprinkled bags of lime in order to lessen the odor and prevent disease.
This desecration of Jews by Jews would have horrified me a few years earlier. But at this point, there was no longer a notion of Jewish. All had been destroyed. We were not Jews; we were not even human. We were just a pair of hands.
Whether I was hauling rocks from the quarry, coal from the train or caskets from the graves did not concern me. Physically and mentally I was being pushed to the limit of human endurance; at any time my body could give out, could leave me in the ditch where so many other depleted workers had fallen. My only thought was survival.
Despite this resignation, this silent admission that in order to stay alive we must hurt our own, we were still taunted, still hated. As my group hauled a wagon of Jewish caskets up the hill, a young German worker watched, yelled for us to move faster. He jumped on the front of a wagon, grabbed a handful of dirt, and threw it into our eyes.
We had become this young boy's pastime, his joke, his ego.
Even fellow Jews found pleasure in our pain. At Plaszow, we were routinely supervised by Jewish order police - the ordnungdienst. Serving in the capacity of a police officer, the O.D. patrolled the death camps. They answered to the commandant and carried out the orders of the SS troops. In the barracks and on the jobsite, they were responsible for us. Each day, they reported to the SS troops how many Jews worked and how many were missing. They also reported any acts of noncompliance.
To distinguish themselves from the other Jews, the O.D. wore a white armband and caps with a reddish band around the rim. To impress the SS troops, they often beat us as we worked - sometimes with a whip, other times with their hands.
Although Tenenbaum, the O.D. of my group, was usually nice to his 20 workers, his allegiance was to the Germans. While excavating a building at the main gate, across from Commandant Goethe's residence, I asked to be excused. It was right before noon and I wanted to step away, catch my breath. Tenenbaum said okay so I headed toward the restroom, which was a hole in the ground at the camp.
When I walked by the commandant's house, a door opened. A German shepherd ran out barking. I kept walking, lightly, hoping it was not after me but fearful that it was. I knew the situation was out of my hands; at that moment, the dog was in charge. I wanted to run but worried if I did, the dog would chase me, maul me. Worse yet, I worried that if I ran, the commandant would think I was suspicious and shoot me.
Commandant Goethe stood in his doorway and blew a whistle. I was unsure if it was meant for me or the dog. The barking stopped.
The silence frightened me; the commandant was notorious for shooting Jews from his doorstep. I wondered if I would be shot.
He said nothing and, with his dog, headed to the worksites for the daily reports. This always put fear into the workers - when Commandant Goethe walked around it was usually for the purpose of killing.
In an attempt to avoid the commandant and his dog, I took the long way back. While gone, Tenenbaum told him that I was missing, that I was at the toilet and that I left right before noon. The commandant left a message: I must report to him after he finished his camp rounds.
When I returned from the toilet, Tenenbaum told me what happened.
"When he comes back, I'll have to turn you in," he said. "I have no choice in that matter."
The other workers were terrified that we would all be shot. Everyday, we saw the commandant at the other sites, shooting workers at will. It usually was impossible not to see him. Not only did he travel with a fully-uniformed entourage, he was 6'5".
Goethe and his German shepherd moved down to our site, the last stop on his rounds. He stood near the road with five lieutenants, each with their own dog. To his right was John, the lieutenant that always seemed to be at his side. John was big - nearly 300 lbs., and acted comical. His voice was squeaky and his expressions were jolly. But he was an oxymoron; although his composure was merry, he killed Jews as frequently as Goethe.
They formed a half circle and folded their hands across their chests. Tenenbaum ran before them, saluted them. He pointed out me and another worker.
"There they are, they're working," he said.
"Bring them over," Goethe commanded.
We stood before them. Next to my 5'1" body, they seemed huge, monstrous, larger than life. The other worker began trembling. I did not care; if the commandant wanted to shoot me, he could. I looked at Goethe. He was loaded with weapons - a rifle, pistols, his dog.
"How come you weren't working?" Goethe asked, looking down at me from a 45 degree angle.
He waited for a response. I knew if I didn't answer, I was automatically guilty. I also knew that there was no right way and no wrong way to answer his question. Regardless of what I said, if Goethe wanted to kill me, he would.
Looking him in the eyes, I resorted to the truth.
"It's not true," I said in German. "I was working; I only went to use the toilet."
Goethe looked down at my short, little, Jewish body. I saw the snarl of his dog, the guns at his side. I was ready for his decision, ready for his bullet.
"Ferschwind desapier. Disappear!" he said.
I stood motionless, shocked. Tenenbaum, who wanted to put an end to this uneasy meeting, shooed me along. "Go, go, go," he said.
I felt lucky. For another day, another hour, another moment, I was granted the chance to survive.
....to be continued next month
from the December 2005 Edition of the Jewish Magazine