Beyond the Fire
By Israel Turk
This is the Conclusion - Part Four
Click here to read Part Three
Click here to read Part Two
Click here to read Part One
I met up with Commandant Goethe another time. My next assignment was to help
build a route to his new residence.
My group had to gather rocks from the stone quarry and load them onto a
wheelbarrow. We had no shovels to work with, just our bare hands. We would dig out
the stones, fill our wheelbarrow, and push our load uphill to where the road
was being laid. All day long, there was a continuous line of wheelbarrows going
back and forth to the quarry.
Since the job was directly related to the commandant, we were watched
constantly by German guards. They would ride up and down the quarry in a car or on
horseback. In their quest to impress Goethe, they made us their target practice.
If it looked as if a Jew was not working hard enough, if his load wasn't full
enough, or if he was having a problem pushing the wheelbarrow up the hill, he
was shot in the back of the head. We could not even pause a second to catch
our breath; if we did, bang. The German soldiers smiled as they aimed, laughed
when they scored.
We learned quickly not to look at the soldiers, lest we give them any ideas.
When we passed them, we simply walked by like dutiful servants. This was not
always possible. One day, while pushing the heavy wheelbarrow, I saw Goethe
from the corner of my eye. He was standing in front of his new residence with a
young German woman. They were about 15 feet away from me.
I walked by as if I didn't see them. The commandant pointed his gun at me.
I tightened my nerves and continued pushing the wheelbarrow. What else could
I do? Whether I lived or died was not my choice. Everything depended on the
bullet. Everything depended on Goethe.
The young woman grabbed his arm. Her voice sang out.
"Mach kein spass."
She told him to stop joking around, to put the gun back. He did.
The route we took with the wheelbarrows passed the front gate. Everyday we
saw the trucks bringing in the newcomers. And everyday there were more - 50,
100, 200 Jews, lifeless beings, many who had been in hiding. Resistant spirits,
they had been running from what they feared most – the death camps - only to
end up there anyways.
We saw them climb down from the trucks, march through the front gate and
stand for hours at the camp's infamous crossroad. We saw the German and Ukraine
guards lead those who looked like capable workers to the barracks. And we saw
the faces of those who remained at the crossroad - women, children, weaker older
men, standing, waiting, wondering.
We knew what their conclusion would be. We knew what was going to happen.
With our wheelbarrows, we passed them by.
If there weren't enough newcomers on a certain day, the SS troops relied on
the Jewish ordnungdienst to bring more. The O.D. would pull Jews from the
barracks and the worksites, put them on a sideline, line them up, then deliver them
to the SS troops. As they did this, they laughed and joked: "This one is
good, take this one."
The chosen Jews were led to the newcomers, forced to stand with them for
hours at the camp's crossroad.
While I pushed the wheelbarrow in and out of the quarry, I saw Ukraine guards
lead the Jews up the hill, their guns pointing the way. I saw mothers walking
helplessly up the steep path, clutching the hands of their innocent children.
And I saw German soldiers standing boldly on the top, clutching the barrels
of their guilty guns.
One day, as the line passed, I heard a child ask his mother where they were
going. The mother squeezed his hand tighter but said nothing, fearing she
would be heard, fearing she would be shot, fearing the answer to her son's
I knew where they were going. I had seen their destination, prepared it. When
I wasn't working in the quarry, I was ordered to dig the graves on top of the
hill. Each pit was about 50 ft. x 50 ft. We would dig all day, continuously,
and we would dig as the Ukraine guards brought up the newcomers.
Once the newcomers reached the top, we were ordered to step away. With
rifles, German and Ukraine guards shot at will. The killings did not scare us. We
knew we wouldn't be shot; they needed us further down, to dig another grave.
Those who were not shot immediately upon surfacing were lined up next to the
grave. They were lined up so that they could see inside of it, so they could
see the Jewish bodies piled up like a mountain, so they could see, smell and
fear their inescapable destiny.
They did not look into the grave for long.
The soldiers shot the fresh targets with the goal of dropping the body into
the grave. Those that did not fall in were shot again, and again, and again,
the force of the shot jolting the body, pushing the body, moving it closer to
the edge. Those that still did not drop in were left for us. When the game was
over, we cleaned up the mess, threw the stubborn bullet-ridden bodies into the
pit, made room for the next day's newcomers.
Our lives at Plaszow were very structured. Each day at 5 a.m., a Jewish
policeman walked outside the barracks blowing a bugle. Breakfast consisted of hot
water that was supposed to be tea, and a piece of hard bread. We then went to
the field, lined up in groups for our supposed roll call, and waited a few
hours. When the German guards felt we had stood there long enough, we were marched
to our job site.
After work, a large pot of soup was waiting for us outside the barrack door.
When our spokesperson brought it in, we lined up with our small cups and
awaited our portion. Once the pot was empty, we placed it outside the barrack door.
It was easy to get extra food at Plaszow. Tailors and other outside workers
readily gave away their allotments; the meals they ate outside of camp were far
superior to the ones they received inside.
Still, I was often hungry. Whenever possible, I checked the empty soup pots
in front of other barracks to see if there were any drops left. If there were,
I would lick them with my tongue. One night a Jewish policeman saw me and
yelled, then chased me away with his leather whip.
Except for the unpredictable beatings and shootings, each day was the same:
horn, breakfast, inspection, work, soup, sleep. My existence was conditioned
and primary, but I never questioned it.
It was all I knew and it was all I had.
Everything changed one winter day in 1943. I was pulled to the side during
morning inspection and grouped with about 500 others. We were loaded onto four
boxcars. This did not scare me because I did not believe we would be killed. If
that was the intention, the guards would have marched us to the top of the
hill. Still, the uncertainty of being taken away from what I knew was troubling;
the conditions on the boxcar were even worse.
The boxcars stayed on a side track all day. Late that night, we felt the jolt
and heard the noise – our boxcar was being attached to a train. For the next
few days, we rode back and forth, back and forth on the track. It was bitterly
cold; there was no food or water and very little moving space. I wanted to
sit but didn't dare. If I did, someone would have sat on me, suffocated me.
These were not people on the boxcar - they were creatures, less than that.
Creatures protect their own. We thought only of ourselves. I couldn't simply say,
"Hey, be careful, I'm sitting down here; keep an eye out for me." These beings
had no eyes, had no brains. They simply stood, breathed, and followed their
instincts. If someone died along the way, if their body fell to the ground, no one
cared. The fallen corpse became a cushion to sit on.
In my upright position, I dozed on and off. It was cold but, since there were
at least 150 bodies crammed into the boxcar, I did not freeze. The thought
that we may be headed to a death camp never crossed my mind. Nothing crossed my
Four days later, we reached our destination: the city of Czestochowa. The
distance to get there was less than 100 miles.
German and Ukraine guards opened the boxcar doors. Snow was on the ground and
it was very cold. We were taken to a nearby warehouse, a former textile
factory. Bundles of cuttings were everywhere. Looking around, I saw no dead bodies,
no signs of killing. I was relieved to think that finally we were in a place
that did not have mass murders and mass graves. Although we were still in the
frying pan, this flame did not seem as hot as the others.
A German in civilian clothing walked in. He introduced himself as Commandant
Barteschlage and, despite his deep, forceful voice, seemed tolerable.
"Come, move in closer so you can hear me," he said.
We gathered around him, relieved that he was speaking to us not with a gun,
but with words.
"This is going to be your new home," he said.
The warehouse was very cold. Wind blew in through the door and the thin walls
offered no protection. I looked up at the tall ceiling; it was about 15 ft.
high. Our new home didn't feel much like home.
Barteschlage explained that for our comfort, a heating unit and cooking
facilities would be brought in. He then told us why we were there. We would be
working for Krupp, a German armament manufacturer. Our job was to remove the
textile equipment from the plant next door and load it onto boxcars. We then were
to bring in and set up ammunition machinery.
Toward the end of his speech, he asked who wanted to be the group
representative. A Jewish man of about 50, who spoke German well enough to make the
commandant smile, volunteered.
Joles, our self-appointed leader, was in charge of assigning workgroups and
organizing the Jewish police. This resulted in a hierarchy of Jews. Influential
people from Krakow, one of Poland's biggest cities, quickly banned together
in order to be in the same group. People like me, who had lived in a small town
or village and had not led prominent lives, were excluded. Although we all
rode in on the same box car, we were suddenly very different.
Favored by Joles and the newly appointed Jewish police, the big-city groups
were given easier job assignments. The rest of us were given the muscle work;
my group was ordered to move out the textile equipment.
When the kitchen facilities were built, Joles appointed one of his favored
groups to cook and distribute the food. The flour, grains and potatoes were
delivered to them by the SS commandant and the rest was up to them. Again, it
resulted in an unfair hierarchy. Privileged groups received one loaf of bread for
every six people; the rest of us got one small piece for 10 people.
In addition to bread, we were given a bucket of soup each night. Our group
was always the first to be served. This was not a complimentary move. We were
given the floury broth from the top. By draining this excess liquid, those
served after us were able to enjoy a chunky vegetable or potato soup.
The warehouse became our sleeping quarters. Using wooden boards, we assembled
three level bunk beds. Unfortunately, these offered little resistance from
the drafts. The influential groups quickly claimed the upper berths, which were
not as cold. My bed was on the bottom. In an effort to keep warm, I often laid
a piece of paper over my chest, using it as a blanket.
Our sleeping area was routinely inspected by the O.D. This way, the SS
guards, who were afraid of disease, would not have to get too close. Once again, the
ordnungdienst picked on those who weren't privileged. If you were accused of
doing something the O.D. did not like, you were taken to the middle of the
floor and given 15-20 lashes with a whip.
During morning inspection one day, I was accused by the chief of the Jewish
police. He said that I hid a can of urine under my bunk. Typically we used a
hole in the wall to relieve ourselves. Those who were too weak or too sick to
get out of their bed sometimes used any available container. This was not the
case with me. It was not my can of urine. Because I slept in the lower bunk and
because the can of urine was under my column of bunks, I was blamed.
The O.D. chief called me out to the center of the floor for my punishment of
20 lashes. I refused. There were no German guards around to impress, so I
couldn't figure out why he was picking on me. He was as much a Jew as I was.
The others in the sleeping area said nothing, turned away. The O.D. walked
over to my bunk. He looked at me and I looked at him. It was Jew against Jew. He
ordered me again to the center of the floor. He grabbed my arm and began
dragging me. I ripped myself out from his grasp and punched him in the nose. Blood
ran down his face and he stormed out of the warehouse.
Hitting an officer, even a Jewish one, meant you would be condemned to death.
I expected to be killed.
A short time later he returned with three other Jewish police. They dragged
me out, took me across a bridge to the River Warta, and gave me my orders: I
was to stand at the edge of the river and look in. An armed Ukraine guard stood
menacingly at the nearby front gate. I expected to be shot at any moment.
On that cold winter day, I stood on the river edge, stood waiting for the
bullet that would hurtle me into the freezing water below. I heard German and
Ukraine guards approach me from behind, cock their pistols, laugh, then walk
I imagined bubbles on the water, imagined the bubbles as Jews, watched each
bubble pop then vanish into nothingness, waited for my bubble to pop.
I looked down into the water and waited, minutes, hours, getting dizzy, not
daring to move, holding myself steady.
Later that night, a guard approached me and, by orders of the commandant,
sent me back to the warehouse.
The Jewish police ignored the fact that I was sent back. After all, I was
only one of their many targets. By the time I returned to the warehouse, they
were already focused on their next victim.
The punishments they administered were often as cruel as that dished out by
their superiors, the SS commandants. If the O.D. had guns, they too probably
would have shot us at will. We became everything they hated about themselves;
beating us was like breaking a mirror.
We were often ordered by the Jewish police to crawl outside on our stomachs.
People begged for mercy, cried out that they could not go on any longer, they
were exhausted, starving, their knees were raw. The O.D. responded by shouting
"Zdechni crouck," die if you can't take it. They then quashed the affliction
of Jewry by stepping on our backs.
After my group finished moving the ammunition machinery in, we were given
new assignments. Mine was to help manufacture the lead for the points of the
Regardless of any machinery woes, I was expected to produce a certain amount
every day. If I came up short, I was kicked and beaten.
Polish workers from the outside were hired by the German military to assist
in the munitions plant and help carry the finished products to the trains.
Whenever they broke for lunch, I would walk near them with several other
starving Jews. As they casually savored their food, we would ask for a bite, beg for
a bite, scour the ground next to them in search of leftovers, dropped pieces,
crumbs. Some of the paid workers would throw us a piece of bread or offer a
small portion of their food. Others chased us away with their horse whips.
Things began to change in the fall of 1944. The Polish workers spoke of a
Russian liberation and gradually stopped coming to the plant. Several German
officials and soldiers left and those that remained were tenser than usual. In the
plant, just a few civilian supervisors remained. If not for the Jewish
workers, the place would have looked deserted.
It was obvious the war was getting closer and that our misery was going to be
over soon. Yet I could not concern myself with that; I thought only of going
to work each day and, hopefully, getting a little bit of potato in my flour
One night, the Jewish police came into the warehouse with a list of more than
300 workers that were to be sent away. The SS commandant was not involved in
this list; the Jewish police devised it on their own. It was an attempt not
only to please the German officials, but also to take action before they did. If
the O.D. could load up a boxcar before the German soldiers did, they could
guarantee that they would stay put. Liberation of Czestochowa was on the
horizon; the Jewish police wanted nothing more than to be there when it happened.
The Jewish police began calling out the names of Jews that they did not
favor. Mine was one of them.
We were led to a nearby warehouse and locked in. The next morning, we had to
walk a few miles in the snow to get to the train tracks. Unlike the usual
boxcar marches, there were no armed soldiers leading us, no German guards, no
Ukraine guards, no guns. It was just three or four civilians, escorting us to the
train. The thought of walking away crossed my mind but quickly vanished. After
all, where could I go where I would not be seen? Where could I hide where I
would not be caught and turned over to the SS troops? It seemed the entire
world was against us; all we could do was whatever they told us to do.
We were loaded onto boxcars. The train sat on the rails for three days before
finally leaving. We then spent five days going back and forth, back and forth
on the tracks.
While we struggled for warmth and air on the train going nowhere, the Jews
who remained behind in Czestochowa were liberated by the Russians. On January
17, 1945, freedom was realized for the influential Jews, the Jews who were able
to bribe themselves into power, who hoarded the potatoes and vegetables, who
granted themselves the best bunks, who policed us, beat us, kicked us, stepped
on our backs. The wartime abuse had ended for the Jews who stuffed us lesser
Jews into a boxcar then shipped us away.
Our train finally reached its destination. We were no longer in Poland, our
homeland. The Jewish police and their influential friends had sent us to
Germany - to Buchenwald extermination camp.
German and Ukraine guards opened the boxcar doors and ordered us out a few at
a time. It was here we realized a few passengers had died. On the journey,
they were held upright by the mass of bodies. Once the boxcar emptied, their
dead, limp bodies fell to the ground.
We marched in the snow past the large entrance gate. The guards ordered us to
remove our clothing then left us standing in the cold for five hours. While
we shivered, they contemplated what to do with us. I had a sharp pain in my
side and worried I might fall over. I used all my strength to hold myself up,
knowing that if I fell, I would be shot.
Finally, a guard took us out from the cold and brought us into a basement. He
led us through several long hallways and then locked us in a large windowless
There were no chairs or benches, just cement walls and floors. On the ceiling
were showerheads. Naked, we sat on the cold concrete floor and waited for
what we assumed would be poisonous gas. Despite the gravity of the situation, I
was relieved to be sitting inside rather than standing outside in the frigid
We waited and waited, minutes, hours, staring at the walls, staring at the
showerheads. On so many occasions, I assumed I would die by way of a bullet; I
now realized how wrong I was.
The pain in my side grew sharper; I told myself it no longer mattered. Soon
there would be no more pain.
The showerheads made a noise. I looked up, faced my killer.
Cold water dripped out.
Cold water. Instead of poisonous gas, tiny droplets of water fell, touched
our naked skin, told us we were still alive.
The door opened and we were ordered out. We were taken into a large barrack
that had stacks of clothing in it. The clothes were from Jews who had been
killed, Jews who actually had been gassed. Like us, before they went into the
shower room, they were ordered to remove their clothes. A French prisoner was now
in charge of the final pieces of their lives – their clothes.
We stood in a line and took whatever the French prisoner handed to us. I
ended up with a navy blue winter coat, which pleased me greatly since the heavy
wool would keep me warm at night. The coat was in good condition except for the
back. As was customary with all the clothes, a patch of prison-striped
material was sewn into a cutout window. This identifying patch helped ensure that we
did not escape.
Once we were dressed, we were lined up in front of a barrack. For hours, we
stood there in the cold - shivering, waiting. Fortunately, at least this time
we had clothes.
A Ukraine guard counted us and ordered us to go inside. Against the barrack
walls were three levels of wooden boards. All of us, hundreds of us, were to
fit onto those boards.
The guard ordered us to lie on the bunks horizontally, sardine style, with
our heads hanging over the side and facing the floor. This allowed more men per
bunk and also made it easier for him to watch our every move.
Even during feeding time, we were to remain in this position. When our bucket
of soup was delivered, we had to climb over each other to get our portion. We
then climbed back, being careful not to spill any, and returned to our prone
position to drink it.
Just about the only time we were allowed out of the bunks was in the morning.
After standing on the field for a few hours, we were taken to a
specially-designated barrack. Inside were tables with medical equipment and doctors. We
were separated into lines and told to wait for an injection from each doctor.
Once finished, we were to wait in another line for our return to the barracks.
The rumor was that the German military was experimenting on us; using us like
mice in order to test their medical treatments. Hearing that and realizing
that the German doctors would not likely be injecting us with anything good, I
would sneak out of the line I was put in and join the line of those who had
already received their daily dosage.
For about four weeks, that's all I did – lie in the bunk like a sardine,
stand outside for hours, or line up for injections. Finally, I was selected with
others to be put onto a boxcar. The train moved back and forth on the rail for
about two days. I did not think about where we were headed and did not care. I
just stood in the boxcar and waited.
We wound up at Mittelbau-Dora, an underground complex of tunnels. Here, far
below Kohnstein Mountain, the German military stealthily built its rockets.
There were thousands of people of various nationalities at Dora: Russian,
Jews, French, Belgian and more. We were gathered outside, divided into separate
barracks and given our job assignments, which all centered on rocket
My job was to unload from the trains the skeletons for the V1 and V2 rockets.
The heavy aluminum sections each weighed more than 100 pounds. With me on one
end and another worker on the other, we carried the pieces through the brutal
winter weather - without gloves. Our hands froze and our skin cracked. But we
could not stop or even pause. If we did, we would have been beaten.
When a job inside the tunnel needed to be filled, a plant supervisor came
outside and selected a group of workers. The group they chose included me.
Finally, we were taken out from the cold and into the elaborate tunnel complex. It
was huge. There were intersections with direction signs and long streets, some
that ran close to five miles. Railroad tracks allowed trains to enter and
freight elevators allowed access to the upper level. For an underground structure,
it was bright – lights were strung everywhere.
Following brief instructions on what we were supposed to do, we were put on
the assembly line. My task was to sort cases of small tubing, wires, and
valves. Once that was done, I had to piece them together.
Despite our long hours, we received minimal food. In the morning we were
given a slice of bread and watered down coffee. In the evening, we got soup. Every
once in a while, we were given potatoes cooked in their skin. But as time
went on, we were given less and less to eat.
Our existence there revolved around the building of rockets and each morning
we were reminded of the rigid adherence expected of us. After being grouped
according to our job assignment, we were led to the plant, which was located a
few miles away. At the front gate, an orchestra of German and non-German
inmates played lively German music. Our instructions were to march to the beat of
the music. If we failed to do so, we were pulled out of line and beaten or
Once at the plant, we were put right to work. Although we knew no details
other than what our assignment was, we knew by the nature of the project and from
the desperation of the German supervisors to get the rockets built as quickly
as possible that the war was escalating, closing in on them.
The German guards became very guarded, suspicious. Any minor thing was
considered sabotage. If a laborer was not in his right location, or was not working
properly, it was considered subversion. Consequently, several men were accused
of sabotaging the rockets. These men were hung from a crane, right inside
the tunnel where we could see them. Every day and every night we passed their
dangling bodies while walking in and out of the plant. After two or three days,
their bodies were taken down, only to be replaced by new ones.
Sundays were our day off. But they were usually the most gruesome. Instead of
going to the rocket project, we were taken to a large field. Here Jews were
randomly pulled out of line and hung in front of everyone. While this was being
done, German officials gave us a speech about the dangers of sabotage and
warned us that if we did anything wrong or if we did not work fast enough, we
would be next. On many Sundays, we stood the whole day watching our fellow
workers getting hung.
In addition to the SS soldiers, we had another dehumanizing agent – body
lice. At first, it was maddening - the itching, the open sores, the scabs; but
within time, you learned to live with it, like a dog lives with fleas. At night,
I would scoop off the bugs with my hand and toss them onto the floor. Some
Jews did not have to worry about this problem - they were so dehydrated, their
bodies were worthless even to the lice.
Occasionally we were taken to an area that had a large metal tank. We were
ordered to take off our clothes, tie them into a bundle and put them inside the
tank for fumigating and steaming. The process took about two hours. As we
waited, we stood naked, shivering in the snow. When we finally did get our clothes
back, we did not have to scratch as much. But the fumigating was only a
temporary solution; our beds were still full of lice.
More and more, we heard planes overhead. The war was getting closer. The
atmosphere at Dora was cautious and tense and our movements were restricted. When
we finished working in the tunnels, we were not permitted to walk outside,
lest the reconnaissance planes flying overhead see the location of the rocket
plant. We would wait and wait to leave, then fall asleep waiting. On several
occasions, my navy blue wool coat became my mattress and my blanket as I slept on
the tunnel floor.
One night while waiting to leave, I saw a nearby city bombed. In response, I
saw the German military's anti-aircraft guns fired. I knew the allies were
getting closer, but that did not matter. Here in the Dora tunnels, the SS troops
were still in charge.
Late one April night, we were ordered out from the barracks and onto the
large field. A train waited on the nearby track. Jews and Russians were ordered to
step forward; all others were to return to the barracks. I did not step
forward. It was late at night, I was tired, and I would have rather died than spend
the night squeezed into a boxcar.
I stood back and watched as the Jews and Russians were given a piece of
bread, loaded onto the boxcars and shipped away. I blended in with the thousands of
people left behind and returned to the barracks.
My evasion didn't last long. The next morning, everyone was given a piece of
bread and loaded onto freight cars. Camp Dora was being liquidated.
Our ride out was far from glamorous: The freight cars were coal carriers with
open roofs. Squeezed into the front portion of each car were more than 100
workers. Behind them was an SS guard, who took up one third of the space for
himself. To prepare for inclement weather, he covered his portion of the roof
with a tarp then stood under it. Anyone who accidentally stepped in the tarp area
would be shot.
Weak and exhausted, I ate my bread on the first day of the journey, figuring
since I'd be dead soon anyways, I may as well eat it now. Besides, if I left
it, someone would have taken it out of my pocket. Someone did take something
out of my pocket – a glob of soft green soap wrapped in a piece of paper. They
must have thought it was bread.
On the second day of the train ride, my stomach rumbled and rumbled. It would
not stop and seemed to get louder, fiercer, like a wild animal demanding to
be fed. I despised the sound of it.
The journey was long and the weather was warm. A few times when the train
stopped, the guards invited us off to relieve ourselves and to get some water.
But they would not open the freight car doors. To go outside, we had to climb
over the top. In addition, despite our starvation and weakness, anyone who tried
to climb in and out but could not make it would be shot.
During one of these stops, I decided to get out, hoping to quiet my
starvation with a few drops of water. It was about 6 ft. to the top of the freight car
and I was weak from hunger and illness. Somehow I managed to crawl up the wall
and reach the top. I pushed myself over and ended up in the crowd, on the
ground, with an SS guard standing nearby.
Only about five of us were allowed out at a time and we had only a few
minutes to alleviate our thirst. A guard stood holding a bucket of water. I waited
in line to get some. When it was my turn, I took a sip.
That was all the water I would receive.
"Los, los," a guard shouted.
It was time to return to the boxcar. The guard hurried us along, pushed us
with the butt of his rifle.
Although there were ladder rungs on the outside of the car, we were not
allowed to use them. Those were for the SS guard. The rest of us had to climb onto
the front bumper, grab onto whatever was available, hoist ourselves to the top
then climb down the interior wall in order to get in.
Feeling weak and disoriented, I hoisted myself to the top. When I pushed
myself over, I realized I was not where I should have been. Right next to me was
the tarp. Under it was the German guard. I was too close. No one was supposed
to get near or even look that way; that was our instruction.
One of the other workers mumbled, "Jew, Jew." Because I did not leave Dora
when the Jews and Russians were rounded up and shipped out, because I risked my
life to stay an extra night in the barrack, I was the only Jew in the boxcar.
Although the non-Jewish worker shared the same freight car, the same hell as
me, he suddenly deemed himself better.
I moved away from the tarp and waited for a response, knowing that the SS
guards either killed you or ignored you. I expected a bullet at any moment, but
heard and felt nothing. The guard chose to ignore me.
The water I drank helped my starvation momentarily, but soon my stomach
screamed out again, louder and louder, non-stop, every day, every moment.
After eight days, we arrived near Bergen-Belsen. When the door opened,
thousands of us practically fell out. With two guards in front of us and one in
back, we walked several miles to the death camp. We did not move in the tight,
marching lines we had grown accustomed to; instead, we stumbled to the camp in
loose groups of desperation. People dropped to the ground like rags. Some
crawled for the entire route. Others sat in the ditch and, like wounded horses,
waited to be shot.
My legs were ready to collapse. Knowing I had to continue, I took off the
heavy winter coat I received in Buchenwald, the navy blue wool that had become my
mattress, my blanket, my only belonging. I tossed the coat to the side of the
road, knowing I no longer had a need for it. The weather had warmed up and
the coat was weighing me down. In addition, I assumed I would be dead soon
anyways. I was too weak, too famished, too sick to continue much longer.
Once I shed the coat, I was able to keep walking, barely.
The SS guards no longer gave us orders. They didn't have to; they knew we
weren't going to run away or try to escape. We were weak, near our last moments
of life. The game was over and we had lost.
Sometimes the guard in front of the line stopped and looked back at us. He
said nothing, simply shot those who had fallen or stayed behind.
When we reached the front gate of Bergen-Belsen, a heavyset German soldier
motioned us in with his hand. Thousands of people were already in there, lying
on the ground, starving, diseased, dying. They lied so helplessly, nearly on
top of each other, and they died so quietly. One moment they were living, the
next they were dead. When they succumbed to the abuse and left this world, no
one noticed, no one cared.
We stumbled in and joined them. I fell to the grass and laid there for days,
moving only to pick up a leaf or a blade of grass, put it in my mouth and
chew. Like the thousands of others, I laid there helplessly, waiting only for my
turn to die.
Through my semiconscious state, I heard the sound of heavy military vehicles
passing by. The British were trying to liberate us.
On April 15, 1945, a British tank came into the camp. There were no cries of
jubilation, no shouts of joy. There was no response at all. We were starving,
sick, practically dead.
I could not think of war, of liberation, of our freedom. All I could think
about was my next breath. The tank that came in might as well have been a German
tank. It did not matter.
British and Jewish soldiers rode around in a vehicle announcing from a
loudspeaker that we were now liberated, we were free. Then as quickly as they rode
in, they rode out.
Free. I was 19 years old and I was free. My parents were dead, my brothers
and sisters were dead, my relatives were dead, and I felt dead.
The German troops were gone. I was free.
I was still starving, still sick, still weak. There still was no food and my
family was gone.
I did not feel free.
Despite our liberation, we remained under supervision; this time to be sure
we did not spread our illness, our disease. A Hungarian guard, a former helper
of the German troops, stood at the front gate, making sure we did not leave.
Our body lice had spread typhus. We were now being quarantined.
For days, I laid on the ground, dying like the rest. My heart, my breath,
everything was shutting down. The stench of death surrounded me, invited me in.
British soldiers walked around looking at us, stunned by the site of 60,000
emaciated, lifeless bodies; amazed at the mounds of rotting corpses. We were
their freak show, their unbelievable scenery. Once in a while they threw us a
A cigarette. What good was a cigarette to people dying of starvation? Yet it
was all they had to offer.
Not everyone went hungry. The gypsies that layed next to me ate whatever they
could catch – mice, small snakes, insects. They offered me some of their
findings. I couldn't partake. Even though I was dying of starvation, I just
couldn't bring myself to eat the live critters.
I wasn't the only one. A Jew who was tired of surviving on leaves and grass,
walked over to a curiously placed dirt mound. He brushed away some of the dirt
and discovered soup ingredients. Potatoes and beets were piled in the dugout
and covered with soil to prevent them from freezing.
Deliriously, he announced his find. Using what must have been reserve
adrenaline a mob of people got up from the ground and ran to the mound.
I saw them run by and also saw that their destination was not far from where
I was laying. I knew if I could get just one potato or beet, I would be able
to survive. I pulled myself up and ran with the others.
We flung the dirt away from the potatoes, the beets. The food scattered
everywhere. I grabbed a beet then tried to get another. The one I already had in my
hand fell to the ground. People fell to the ground. Others stepped on them as
they pushed toward the food. The Hungarian guard shot his gun above the
crowd, tried to restore order to the starving, dying Jews. I picked a beet up from
the ground and ran.
When the chaos was over, I took a bite of the beet. My body would not accept
it. I had been without food for so long that, now that I had some, my stomach
would not open up. I couldn't eat it. I tasted its flavor then set it down.
The chronic digestive problems, which were widespread, did not stop us from
searching for comestibles. A group of Russian inmates, who were more able than
the rest of us, routinely snuck out of the camp to steal from nearby farms. On
several occasions, they snatched a farmer's cow, cut it up, and brought it
back in pieces. They then made a small outdoor fire and cooked the meat in large
buckets. When it was done well enough to eat, they invited anyone able to
walk to come over and get some.
When the British finally did bring us food, they fed us from a distance. A
helicopter dropped canned goods from the air - processed meat and other foods
that were so greasy and rich they caused more damage than good. These provisions
were for normal people; we were not normal. We were dehydrated, starving,
dying. Our systems were shutting down and could not handle regular food.
Unfortunately, for many Jews, this meal was their last.
The British were equipped to handle military concerns but not health ones.
They were not prepared to nurse 60,000 dying people back to health, and did not
have the training or equipment to do so. But they knew how to fight a battle.
The British soldiers began hauling in German prisoners of war. The same guards
who tortured us were now locked in beside us. Some of the Jews that were able
to stand went over to the guards, taunted them, kicked them, hit them. The
British soldiers moved their prisoners of war to a separate location, to protect
them from our ardent anger.
A few weeks later, the British army sent in a medical staff. Accompanying
them were the Red Cross as well as medical students. Despite their aid, hundreds
of people continued to die each day from weariness, starvation, dysentery,
typhus and other sicknesses.
Once things were under control, those well enough to leave were allowed to
board awaiting boxcars. I was transferred with about 6,000 others to the city of
Celle in Germany. Following medical examinations, we were put on a train to
Libeck then taken by boat to a displaced persons' camp in Sweden.
Awaiting us were outdoor shower stalls. Many of the Jews had to be dragged
into the stalls. They were afraid – afraid of undressing, afraid of the water,
afraid of the showerhead.
We were free.
Beyond the Fire
Even after we given the okay by the Swedish medical staff, our struggles
continued. Few people cared about the surviving Jews, and those that did offered
only minimal help. Despite the hell we had come through, our depletion of mind
and body, our sadness, our loss, we were expected to survive on our own.
For days, weeks, I silently questioned: Where do I go? What do I do? Where is
While still in Sweden, I met my future wife, Lili Lax. A native of Hungary,
she had survived Auschwitz. Because of this, we had much in common; she knew my
story and I knew hers. Like all survivors, when I first met her, she was
hungry. I wooed her with a stick of salami and a loaf of bread.
After our marriage, we said goodbye to the homelands we loved, the life that
we knew, and the memories we feared, and moved to America. We now have two
grown children – Bernard and Rachel, as well as three grandchildren.
Several times during the 1970s and 80s, we traveled to Poland. On our first
visit, I showed Lili the sites of Pilzno: where the synagogue once stood, where
the markets were, my school, the forest I played in, the river. I also showed
her my family's home. Rather than drive there, we walked, using the same road
I followed as a child.
As we neared my former neighborhood, I saw a huge roof sticking out. I
recognized it as the apex of my family's home. We walked toward it. Memories churned
in my stomach to excite me and, at the same time, to sicken me.
I could not approach the house right away. Instead, I stood at the corner
looking, glaring, remembering - the happiness, the sadness, my family, my life.
The house looked the same, but the property around it didn't. Our once
spacious lot was now being shared with a newly built home.
The people inside my family's house saw us staring. A lady came outside and
walked over to us. Though years had passed, I recognized her. She was one of
the daughters of the family that took possession of our home when we were
"Oh, you're alive?" she asked in a shocked tone.
"Yes," I told her. "Many Jews survived and many, like me, now live in the
I could tell by her face that she feared I was here to reclaim my family's
property. The thought of leaving her home – my family's home – troubled her.
I recalled my mother pulling my little sister's arm, forcing her to leave the
house and cloth dolls she loved so dearly, helplessly leading her baby to the
What the new occupant did not realize was that I lived thousands of miles
away, in a different country. I no longer had a need for the house. I no longer
had a reason for the house. It was far too late.
For a few awkward moments, we stood talking. She told us her father had died
from sickness and that her sister lived next door in the newly built home.
We ran out of things to say. She did not invite us inside. Lili prodded me
along, said we have to get going. So we did. We walked down to the next stop on
our list: the Matuga's house.
Mrs. Matuga ran outside and hugged me. Holding my hands tightly, she looked
up to the sky and blessed Jesus. Although she was thankful to see me, she was
also sad. I reminded her of the dreadful years, the years in which she lost her
With tearful eyes and wavering tones, she told us that Celek was killed by
the SS troops. Known for helping whoever he could, Jew or non-Jew, Celek had
come under the envious eye of others. He was turned in by a fellow neighbor,
Jasiek, the son of the midwife who delivered me and my siblings. Jasiek went on to
live long after the war but died at the age of 55 from alcoholism.
Mrs. Matuga graciously invited us inside, offered us food, beverages and a
place to stay. She was the same woman I remembered from long ago; the woman who,
when the SS troops first invaded Pilzno, selflessly offered us shelter in her
basement. Before the war, during and after, she steadfastly remained our
kind, generous neighbor. But, on a personal level, Mrs. Matuga had changed. She
looked much older, much sadder.
After catching up on each other's lives, we said goodbye. To get back to
town, Lili and I again walked past my family's home. This time, the new occupant
ran outside and invited us in. Saying it was too late, we declined.
On subsequent trips to Poland, we always went first to Mrs. Matuga's, then
down the street to my former house. During our second visit, I took the new
occupant up on her previous offer - I went inside my family's home.
I stood and looked around, frozen by the memories. The doors, the doorframes,
the windows - they all looked the same. In the kitchen I saw the wooden
bench, the one my Grandmother would sit on to stay warm. I tried to envision Bubbeh
sitting on that bench, wearing her short leather and fur coat. I tried to
hear my father telling her to move away, she was too close; she would set herself
Sorrow erupted in my stomach and I wished I could rewind the clock. I longed
to see Bubbeh again, to hear my father's voice again. I longed to see my
I walked through the house, room by room. The new occupants said nothing; let
me silently recall all that was dear to me.
I saw the memories and I wanted them. I thought of removing the doorknobs,
the knobs I remembered so vividly from my childhood. But, looking around at the
barren home, I decided against it.
I looked in the attic and saw a scale my father always used for weighing the
grain. I was tempted to take it with me, pack it in my suitcase and take it
back to my home in America. I wanted to display it, to show everyone an item
that once belonged to my father. But, I let my temptation pass. It was obvious
the new occupants of our home were struggling financially and it was also
obvious that they were still using the scale. I looked at the scale, touched the
scale then left it in the attic.
Outside, I walked over to the stable where we kept our two horses. Hanging on
a nail near the entrance was the small kerosene lamp my father used when he
made his nightly rounds, when he checked us as we slept. This I could not leave
behind. I removed the lamp from the nail and took it with me. After all, this
was my family's house. This was my father's lamp.
When I was finished looking around, the new occupant offered us food. I
thought of the time when, after escaping camp to get my father's gun, her family refused to give me a piece of bread. Now, years later, she was offering me
salami, fresh pierogi and bread.
She also offered to let us stay there a few days. At first, I thought that
was a silly idea; it didn't make sense to stay there. But then I felt that it's
my house; I want to sleep in it one last time. Lili and I spent the night.
Although my visits to Poland are no longer frequent, I still keep in touch
with the occupants of my family's home - I frequently send packages to them,
things they may be able to use. It's the least I can do. Even though they took my
family's property, financially, they're a long way from leading a normal
life. I cannot forget about them.
I also cannot forget about the Holocaust; that would be impossible to do. It
is a part of me. In my office at home, I am surrounded by large pictures of
it. In my spare time, I write letters, campaigning to have Jewish memorials
built; memorials marking the mass graves, memorials for the ones who have been
In the aftermath of the Third Reich, there are still many wrongs, many wounds
left to bleed. The site of the synagogue in Pilzno does not commemorate the
burning of all that was sacred to us. Instead, it houses a casket manufacturer.
When my wife and I visited Belzec, the death camp where my mother and sisters
were killed, the grounds were polluted and swarming with flies. Bones from
shallow graves had surfaced. During one of these visits, I picked up a small
bone, one that could have been my sister's. What should be a sacred burial ground
has become nothing more than an unkempt tourist site.
My biggest concern is the lack of Jewish remembrances. Six million Jews were
murdered during this tragic time in history, yet at the sites of the mass
graves, there are no Jewish monuments to honor those who were killed – our
families, our ancestors, our fellow Jews. Rather than unite to memorialize the
senseless killings, we have chosen to ignore, to forget.
I cannot forget.
I carry my memories with me; I cannot escape from my past. Like a video
scene in my mind, I see it continuously – taking them, dragging them, torturing,
killing them, throwing them in a large pit by the thousands. But I also have
learned to live and love the life I was granted, the life that was not taken
away by an impulsive pull of the trigger.
There are times when I am reminded of the ugliness of mankind. I have come to
realize that our cruelty and betrayal against one another will never go away.
It will always smolder, in different forms, in different fires. It will kill
and it will destroy, and it will tear our lives apart, until those of us lucky
enough to survive are forced to continue in this world alone, abused and
This is the Fourth and Concluding Segment
from the January 2005 Edition of the Jewish Magazine