RECEPTION AT AUSCHWITZ(September 1940)
It was almost a relief to be notified that my interrogations with the Gestapo were finished and I was to be shipped the next day, September 3rd, to the labour camp, Auschwitz.
I was lucky - one of the few men who survived those trips from Pawiak prison in Warsaw to the Gestapo Headquarters. Men had been coming back blinded or with broken legs, pulled nails and smashed testicles. We were accused of belonging to the Polish Resistance Organization (ZWZ) [In 1940 there were many resistance organizations in Poland. One of them was "Zwiazek Walki Zbrojnej" or ZWZ (Organization for Armed Resistance) formed by the Polish officers who escaped being interned in German Prisoner of War Camps. ZWZ was a nucleus of the future "Armia Krajowa" (Home Army) as opposed to the Polish Army under British Command and another Polish Army formed in the Soviet Union from Polish prisoners of war captured by the Soviet Army during the 1939 Polish campaign] and we had little hope of getting out of our predicament alive. We knew nothing about Auschwitz, but labour camp sounded like a sanatorium after our encounters with the Warsaw Gestapo.
The cell door opened and my friend Mietek Lebisz and I were called out. We had both been professional officers in a cavalry brigade, the cream of society in pre-war Poland - a fact which only intensified for us the shock of prison life. Though we did indeed belong to the "underground," we had continually countered the charge during our frequent interrogations. Armed, however, with a list of names that included our own, taken during an attempted arrest of a fellow officer, the Gestapo naturally remained deaf to our denials.
How much things had changed since the days preceding our arrest, when I had made a livelihood of operating a small jewellery store in a Warsaw suburb. Now I was marching down steps and along corridors into the gloom of the prison yard. I glanced at my watch. It was one o'clock in the morning. The night was cloudy and humid, and the searchlights, directed towards the yard, pierced through a heavy steam rising from wet concrete. It must have rained not long ago. The prison yard contained a foul smell, but compared to our overcrowded cell, it seemed as if we had emerged into heaven.
After about 200 prisoners had assembled, we were loaded onto trucks under the armed escort of the SS men [* SS was an abbreviation for the German name "Schutzstaffel - (Protection Squad) formed before the war. They were bound by a personal oath of complete loyalty to Hitler himself. Later they served as an elite Nazi security corps.]. The voice of the commander rang loudly from the top of one of the trucks: "Do not even think of escaping! If you dare to move from your place on the truck, you will be shot dead!" The convoy moved noisily into the dark streets of Warsaw.
"Mietek," I whispered, "what are our chances of escaping?"
"Not great, Kon. Apart from those bastards on the trucks, there are motorcycles on both sides of our column."
The trucks rolled on through the sleeping city. All windows in the passing houses were dark, their occupants asleep and unsuspecting of what was going on in the streets below - perhaps not even caring. Probably my wife was also sleeping soundly in our apartment. I wondered what she thought about my transport to Auschwitz. How much did she care?
Suddenly the trucks stopped. My whole body was immediately alert.
"Watch out, Mietek!" I whispered.
At an intersection another column of trucks was crossing. Because of the darkness we could not see who it was. Perhaps a military convoy. Looking down from our truck we noticed that the motorcycles were gone. Mietek grabbed my arm and pulled me towards him.
"Maybe we should knock out our two guards and the whole truckload of men could run. Some of us could make it."
Unfortunately, we were sitting at the front of the truck and the guards were at the other end. Two rows of ten men each sat between them and us; the guards also maintained a small space between themselves and the nearest prisoner.
We started to push our row towards the guard on our side. Understanding our manoeuvre instantly, the men in the opposite row also started to push. As a result, the last man in the row moved ever closer to the guard, almost touching the barrel of his rifle. In our excitement, however, we were no longer watching the street. Although the motorcycles had gone, the pavement was full of armed SS men walking along side our column of trucks.
"What's going on there?" one of them shouted, pointing his rifle menacingly at us. "Why are you crowding the guard? You have enough room in front. Move or I shoot!"
We moved back to await another opportunity. In the mean time, the long column of trucks we had stopped for, had passed by. Moments later our own column started up, turned and followed them.
No further chance to escape was granted us, and we finally arrived somewhere outside the city where a long freight train stood waiting in the glare of the searchlights. We watched an unusual, almost orderly activity taking place. The occupants of other trucks were jumping down, forming into groups of about forty, and then climbing into empty boxcars. There was no shouting, no brutality, no threats; it seemed as though all these men were simply filing onto a holiday train.
Immediately we knew who these people were.
"Those fellows were caught on the streets," said Mietek. "It looks good for us. They must be going to Germany as forced labour and no doubt that's where we're going too."
"I'm not so sure," I replied, "but at least we're not being shipped somewhere for execution."
Indeed, when our turn came, we were counted and added to the men we had been watching so keenly. joining one group, we climbed together into a boxcar, carefully noting that SS men were posted on each end of the roof; they would also be riding in the passenger cars at the beginning and end of the train. When every-body was loaded, the train hissed, jerked, then proceeded to move us to our new destiny.
At first we could not see anything. People were moving around in the dark trying to find a place in our crowded quarters to sit down. Mietek and I found ourselves in a corner. When our eyes adjusted to the faint light coming between the boards of the boxcar, we were able to assess our situation. This only made me worried and upset, but Mietek sat calmly with his legs crossed and smoking a cigarette as if he were in the officers' mess -
I leaned over to him and said, "Mietek, we have to try to get out of here! I don't want to be a prisoner until the end of the war."
Giving me a tolerant look, he replied, "Do you think we'll lose the war without you? When we arrive I'll tell them I'm an officer and that I was mistreated. I am sure the German officers will understand this and will transfer us to some officers' camp."
Mietek had been thoroughly indoctrinated to believe in the high social standing of officers and the chivalric treatment they considered their due. As a result, he was reluctant to attempt an escape, especially if it involved soiling one's hands and garments. I was not so sure of our status and persisted in trying to convince him to think of ways to escape.
"We're not going to an officers' camp," I said bluntly. "The best we can expect is hard labour. You know, digging ditches, that sort of thing."
"They will never make me do it," he proclaimed. "But perhaps you are right. Maybe we should try to escape."
The only possible way out was through the wooden floor of the boxcar. Desperately we tried to pry away some of the boards. With no tools but Mietek's penknife, the work was extremely difficult.
"This is a hell of a job," he grunted and continued attacking the floorboards.
In about three hours we managed to remove one board. The second would be easier. During this time the train kept slowing down, at moments even stopping long enough that we could hear the voices of the SS guards as they walked alongside. Obviously our best chance would be to slip down to the tracks as the train started to move and let it pass over us.
Once again we felt the train apply its brakes, only this time it shunted between tracks. This was the opportunity we were waiting for. As we pried up the second board with all the energy that we could muster, the train came to a full stop.
We could hear the SS guards jumping off, shouting some thing and running along both sides of the cars. Through the cracks in the boards we saw strong searchlights directed towards one side of the train, the other side still in darkness. No buildings or train station of any sort was visible, though we thought we could make out a high embankment. It appeared we had stopped somewhere in the country - an excellent place for our getaway. Shouting voices and the incessant barking of dogs pierced through the night at some distance from the train.
"Get ready, Mietek. Once the train starts moving again, we'll drop down to the tracks and let them go on without us."
"Listen!" he said, raising his hand to silence me. Then soberly, "This train's not likely going anywhere. I think we have arrived at some German paradise. Can't you hear them shouting?"
We strained our ears to detect what was taking place outside. Sure enough, the shouting was moving to the end of the train and the barking dogs got louder. Then we heard the rolling sound of opening doors in some distant boxcars and voices yelling "Out! Out! Out!" There was also the sound of men screaming either in terror or terrible pain.
For some reason, our transport train was being unloaded in the middle of a field.
"This doesn't sound like an officers' camp, Mietek. Why are we unloading? They're shooting at somebody!"
Gunfire cracked repeatedly over the clamour of shouts, screams and barking.
"Maybe some idiot tried to escape," said Mietek.
The shifting sounds of the rifle shots and barking did give the impression that someone was being chased. We concluded that something terrible was happening and anticipated a violent reception when our own door opened. I pulled Mietek back to our corner, thinking this would be the safest place for us; it might give us those split seconds needed to make the right decision.
"If we can find out what's happening," I said, "we might avoid being shot right away."
Finally the door of our boxcar shot open. We could see nothing in the sudden glare of the floodlights. Voices shouting "Out!" and "Fast!" were coming from somewhere below, but how far below it was impossible to tell.
Nobody moved. Blinded by the intense lights, we stood paralysed, not knowing what to do. It did not last long. From our corner we saw several men, enormous silhouettes against the light, climbing into the car carrying things resembling baseball bats. Dressed like sailors, it was immediately clear they were not SS men. In no time they were swinging their clubs, hitting left and right at anybody seeking protection at the back of the car. To avoid being hit, those furthest from the door began to push forward, while those in front either fell or jumped from the car. Two men, whom we later recognized as "kapos," stood on either side of the wide doorway using their clubs to bat the prisoners out. ["Kapo" originates from an Italian word for a head or a boss. Kapos in Auschwitz were recruited from notorious German criminals and were given the power of life and death over camp inmates.] One after another they plunged into the night, swallowed up by the darkness except for their voices that trailed further and further away.It was time to act.
We had to avoid the clubs of the kapos, especially those of the obviously dangerous ones beside the door. In the commotion of unloading, someone stepped on our loose floorboard, sending it flying in our direction. This was a weapon I could use. Reacting instinctively, I shoved the board between the ribs of the nearest kapo, sending him tumbling out of the car.
"Jump now!" I shouted to Mietek.
The embankment was not as steep as we had anticipated, but it was quite long. Upon landing we sprang to our feet, only to find ourselves face to face with the kapo I had just helped down with the loose board. We ran on both sides of him. On this occasion, it happened that luck was with us. For some reason, he believed the one who had hit him was still in the car and climbed back through the open door.
But the danger was not over. Surveying the scene, we noticed a corridor formed by more kapos and SS guards with dogs. Through this gauntlet we had to run, avoiding both the clubs of the kapos and the teeth of the dogs. Not so fortunate were those who moved more slowly or were already injured. Many older men had either broken their legs in the fall from the train or had had their heads split open by the kapos' clubs. At the end of the corridor the previously unloaded prisoners were forming into a column, five men abreast.
This time it was Mietek who grabbed me, pulling me towards the column with the words "Let's fall in ... this must be what they want us to do."
Again guided solely by instinct, we ran to join the middle of the next row of five. Men were immediately added to our left and right. Those to the sides of us, as it turned out, were directly exposed to the kapos and SS men, buffering us from their wrath. We were also lucky not to be at the beginning or end of the columns. Men in the first five rows were taught by the swinging clubs which way and how fast to go. The last four rows were compelled to carry injured or dead colleagues and still keep up with the column.
"I think they expect us to march as though we were on parade," said Mietek. "Tell the fellows beside you to stay in line and I'll try to do the same. Maybe that will keep those kapos off our backs."
In this manner our column finally reached the entrance of the camp displaying its enigmatic sign, embraced in curved iron above the gates, Arbeit Macht Frei (Freedom through Work). Later on we were told what it meant. The only freedom to those who entered was through the chimney of the crematorium.