TERROR AND CONDITIONING
We had had little time to think about what was happening to us. What kind of a camp was this? Who were these cruel kapos? Where did the Germans find these men who behaved worse than animals? Was all this savagery just a form of intimidation to enforce their authority on new arrivals?
In time we discovered that we had stepped into a world with new rules for human - if it can be called human - behaviour. In the beginning, there was nothing that could be called "good" or "bad" in the camp. It was more like a game of hunter and hunted one side out to destroy while the other sought to survive. The kapos, we learned, were the most hardened of prisoners carefully selected from German prisons. They appeared to work hand-in-hand with the SS guards. In these surroundings, the more quickly a prisoner learned and adapted to the rules, the better were his chances of surviving one more day.
We marched through the gate and stopped between two rows of red brick buildings. Most of the SS men turned back, presumably to escort in another group of prisoners. At the end of 'the building in front of us we could see men in white and dirty blue striped uniforms running out to arrange themselves in columns, five abreast. Our metamorphosis, like those before us, was about to begin.
When our turn came, we entered a room and stood facing ten men, also prisoners, also Polish. They had already been here perhaps two or three months. We were instructed to undress and as we did, they wrote down, very thoroughly, a list of our belongings which were then packed into large paper bags. This gave us a false sense of security. Surely, we reasoned, if the Gernans wanted to kill us, they would not make such a fuss about our personal property.
Yet, strangely, all future events in the camp were as well organized: the mass executions of Jewish people, the killing of Russian prisoners of war and the systematic extermination of Polish prisoners were each conducted in an orderly manner. Files were kept on every prisoner; records were maintained with respect to every occurrence in the camp; all bodies were counted precisely, whether alive or dead.
From our belongings we were allowed to keep only our shoes and a belt. Once stripped, we were marched to another row of prisoners called the barbers, who shaved our heads and body hair, then sprayed us generously with disinfectant. The barber who shaved me looked with great interest at my shoes.
"Someone will take those away from you," he said. "Why don't you sell them to me for three pieces of margarine."
They were good skiing boots, waterproof, with a double leather lining. I decided to make a counter-offer to my friendly barber.
"I've smuggled in two packs of cigarettes inside my shoes. If you help me save these shoes, I'll give you both packs."
We hastily struck a bargain and the barber took my shoes into another room. Meanwhile our group was told to move on to make way for the next lot of prisoners. just when I thought I'd said goodbye to my footwear, the barber re-appeared carrying some-thing that turned out to be my shoes, smeared with paint and tar.
"Here you are," he said, proudly. "No shoemaker would do a better job."
"These are ruined!" I complained. "Now neither of us has a decent pair of shoes!"
The barber looked at me as if I were out of my mind and remarked dryly: "Auschwitz is not a sanatorium. You'll learn a lot in a hurry here, particularly that shoes looking like that won't be stolen from you. They'll wipe clean later. Now, where are my cigarettes?"
We were led next to a shower room where we deposited shoes and belts on the floor before climbing beneath the shower heads with one little piece of soap. Right away I realized how helpful my barber had been. As we showered the kapos kicked around our shoes and belts, selecting the best for themselves. Nobody touched my shoes.
It was in the shower room that I witnessed for the first time an incident that thoroughly shocked me. A sudden commotion erupted and two kapos chased some naked men across the floor. A Jew had been found in our group.
"Look," I whispered to Mietek. "What are they doing to this poor guy? They actually want to kill him, for no reason other than that he's Jewish."
Mietek turned to watch what was happening and his officer's pride again dominated his common sense. He walked slowly towards the kapos - tall, handsome and naked, but with the authority of an officer - and exclaimed in Polish: "Why are you trying to harm this man? This is ridiculous, let him go immediately.
For a moment the kapos were stunned. Fortunately for Mietek they did not understand a word of what he had said. He must have looked very comical to them, standing there naked with soap on his serious face, because they burst out laughing.
"You must be one of those crazy Polish lunatics!" one of them shouted in German. "You'd better get out of here in a hurry or we'll play circus with you too!"
With these words he raised his club and struck Mietek over the shoulder. As Mietek turned, the kapo kicked him so hard that he fell and slid, on the soapy floor, back towards our group under the showers. The kapos then turned back to their prey who had been trying to hide among the others. Dragging him out in front of an SS man, they started their vicious circus again.
Two SS men came over to watch and the kapos entertained their guests by torturing the man. It took me a long time to comprehend this role playing. The kapos apparently felt no animosity towards their victim; he was merely a prop to act out their scene. The SS men viewed the spectacle like two Roman dignitaries engrossed in a gladiatorial exhibition. Since the "gladiators" them-selves were prisoners, their lives depended on the fancy of their audience. It was thus not unusual for the kapos to try to incorporate some crude kind of story line into the killing. Almost always the prisoner would be hit so hard that he would tumble to the ground.
"Get up! Get up!" the kapos shouted. "You shouldn't be lying down in the presence of the SS!"
They then proceeded to kick the man, generally in the kidneys or testicles. When he struggled back to his feet, he was beaten further as punishment for his misbehaviour. There were variations on the theme - for example, breaking a prisoner's legs, then ordering him to run. Since he obviously could not do so, he had to be administered a "just" punishment. The SS men meanwhile stood by and smiled with approval, adding an occasional encouraging remark to a kapo or an insult to the tortured man. The kapos, in turn, performed to the best of their abilities, showing how strong they were and how well they knew where and how to hit a man to cause the most pain.
After the poor man fell unconscious or dead, we were herded into the next room where we received our striped uniforms. Those without shoes had to wear Dutch wooden shoes. We were also given items of identification which, from then on, substituted for our names: a piece of white cloth with a number printed horizontally on it and a piece of red cloth in the form of a triangle. These we had to sew on the left side of our jackets and pants. Above the number went the red triangle bearing the letter "P," identifying us as Polish political prisoners. We learned the meaning of other colours as time passed: kapos wore green triangles with no letter and a one- or two-digit number, indicating that they were German criminal prisoners; there were also purple triangles for Jehovah's Witnesses (conscientious objectors), pink for homosexuals, and black for people caught trying to emigrate from Germany.
Jews wore a double triangle made of red and yellow cloth formed into the star of David, as well as a black dot. These people were assigned to Block 13, a place reserved for dangerous prisoners who had to be specially punished. Inmates of Block 13 were strictly forbidden from mixing with the other prisoners.
Mietek and I were assigned to Block 3, one of many buildings formerly used as stables and military barracks. Dressed in our striped attire, we were marched reasonably peacefully to this next destination. Here we learned quickly about a new authority: a "blockelder" named Hans Bruno and his assistants. They were kapos assigned to be in charge of "blocks" (buildings) as blockelders, or else in charge of a room as roomelders. Bruno was a large, muscular man with broad shoulders, a wide face and small, light grey eyes. His face and voice were completely devoid of expression, and he moved like a robot. Only his green triangle indicated to us that he was a dangerous criminal. He and his assistants took command of our column in front of the block, divided us into four groups and led us into one of four rooms that was to become our new home.
It was by now four o'clock in the morning, though time for us had already lost much of its earlier significance. Our "bedroom" was about five by ten metres, its only luxury being the thin layer of straw strewn across the floor. Twenty-five of us were assigned to this room. We had to remove our shoes and crowd inside. Shoulder to shoulder we stood, not even imagining that there could be space to lie down. Bruno and his assistants soon came with help. Propped imposingly in the doorway, he announced in German, not caring whether any of us understood:
"You are now in the concentration camp Auschwitz. The only way out of here is through a crematorium's chimney. I am the blockelder and these are your roomelders. Anybody who doesn't obey orders will be killed."
Only a few of us made some sense out of his speech. His next command, however, had a universal impact.
Many could do no more than shuffle around; some attempted to crouch while others made an effort to sit. We simply had barely enough room to move.
Bruno and his helpers acted swiftly to rectify the situation. Jumping into the room, they trampled over the men already on the floor and struck out with their clubs at anyone who still stood. In twenty seconds everyone was lying huddled on the cold floor. The next command came like the sudden report of a rifle.
This time we all jumped as fast as possible, even if it meant step-ping on someone else's head or stomach. Then a third command rang out.
Everyone was down instantly. The blockelder switched off the light and said: "Have a good night." Each of us lay there very quietly. Immediately, the light went on again.
"I said goodnight," said Bruno, "and I expect the same good manners from you." Then he repeated "Goodnight," adding "Tomorrow I will teach you how to be polite."
The lights again went out and Bruno departed. In the darkness we tried to adjust our bodies to the small amount of floor space without uttering a sound. Lying on my right side, I was disturbed by asthmatic breathing and groaning from someone behind me, but after whispering to him to be quiet I went almost instantly to sleep.
I do not know if my companions fell as quickly to sleep as 1, but I think I knew instinctively that I would need strength for the following day and should get as much rest as possible. I felt no self-pity, no need to speculate about what tomorrow would bring. There was no fear, no excitement that could have kept me awake. My brain simply stopped functioning, saving the necessary energy for what was to come. The ability to conserve energy was, for me, the major reason why I was to survive five years of hunger, cold and exhaustion - both physical and mental.
We were awakened early to the charming voice of Hans Bruno.
"Get up and all out! Up and all out!"
I sat up, wide awake. To my surprise, some of my fellow prisoners were still asleep. I shook the guy in front of me and he jumped as if something had bitten him; so amusing was his reaction, I even found it in me to laugh. Ready to go out, I picked up my shoes which had served me as a pillow and noticed that my other neighbour remained curled up on the floor. I shook him hard but he was cold and stiff. For a moment I experienced a strange feeling -I had slept with a corpse. When I had poked him to be quiet a few hours earlier, he was probably dying.
Suddenly one of Bruno's assistants appeared in the doorway. I took my shoes and ran into the yard, instantly forgetting the dead colleague.
The location of the Auschwitz concentration camp had been well chosen. Situated in the middle of a small swamp, the camp occupied what was formerly a Polish military barracks, including horse stables, on the banks of the River Sola. On the opposite side of the river, about four kilometres away, was a small town bearing the same name as the camp (Oswiecim, in German, Auschwitz). In later years the main camp expanded into the surrounding farms between the rivers Sola and Vistula, an area which also gave birth to the infamous camp Birkenau, named after the farm which it occupied. By 1942, Birkenau was a hundred times larger than the original camp Auschwitz, with facilities to exterminate daily Jewish transports of 3,000 to 6,000 men, women and children.
The strategic location of the camp was, of course, far from my mind that particular morning. In the cold dampness of dawn, the heavy fog and partial darkness were somehow very welcome. I felt more secure, as if I could hide in this fog - perhaps even escape. Putting on my shoes, I found myself next to Mietek.
I recalled Mietek's episode with the kapo and his narrow escape from death. His assumptions about a Polish officer's status in the hands of the Germans were, of course, preposterous and dangerous. And yet, I could not help reflecting on how much he looked the part of a true officer. He was tall and very handsome -a young and dashing second lieutenant; the rest of us never had a chance with the girls when Mietek was around. Aware of his attractiveness, he carried himself with self-assurance and an air of superiority that made him even more desirable to the young women.
Now he was sitting beside me putting on his light, elegant shoes, more suitable for a business suit than the striped pyjamas we were wearing. As I was suggesting to him that we explore the surroundings, a host of uniformed prisoners emerged through the fog. Their pyjamas, however, were dirty and their faces grey and thin, indicating that they were part of the first transport from Warsaw that had arrived in Auschwitz two months earlier.
Anxiously, we started to ask all sorts of questions: How is it in the camp? What are they going to do with us? Do people die here, and why? Are we going to work? What should we do?
The older prisoners seemed reluctant to give us precise answers. They only said it was very tough and that we had to have eyes in the backs of our heads. We could relate to this advice al-ready, but its full significance took a few days to dawn on us. They also informed us that the first two or three days would be particularly hard, consisting primarily of a military drill. Neither Mietek nor I thought gravely of this - we knew all about military drills from our training in the academy. What we did not know was that this drill would be one with a difference we could not anticipate.
The main reason the prisoners had come to us was to barter. Everything was offered on the camp's black market, from clothing to food. Bread was the measure by which the value of all items was estimated; it was to the prisoners as gold is to the international monetary system.
At that moment I was interested only in water and set out to find some to drink and to wash myself. I did not have to look long, for daybreak revealed a water pump in the middle of the yard - the only pump in our camp of 5,000. As I approached the pump I was warned by a prisoner that the water came from the swamp and would make me very sick. I noticed, however, several men with their shirts off washing themselves without soap. Finding a few pieces of soap, saved from the shower, in my pocket, I quickly scrubbed my face and hands in the icy water.
To remain clean under these conditions later proved essential for survival. Lack of hygiene resulted in the spread of skin disease, a kind that covered one in itchy pimples which, when scratched, bled and later resulted in badly infected wounds. A dirty or diseased prisoner was, to an SS man or a kapo, like a red rag to a bull. Punished for their neglect, these men became the first to be exterminated.
It was much later, however, that we realized we were in an extermination camp and not a concentration or working camp. The entire routine in Auschwitz was designed to intimidate prisoners and keep them in constant terror, thus facilitating the control our superiors had over us. I think it was also designed as a training ground for SS men destined to rule conquered nations. Intimidation was included in every detail of a prisoner's life.
The least expected place for terror was the camp's latrine, located behind our block and surrounded by a low fence. I noticed that from time to time a kapo would rush into this retreat, beating people left and right until in no time the place was empty. The kapos' action puzzled me for I could not see why one should be attacked in a latrine. Later I understood it as part of the German character: everything must be done in an orderly manner, in the latrines or elsewhere. Only a certain number of people could be allowed in the latrines at a certain time, and for a limited period. Standing in line was not allowed and all attempts to snatch a few extra moments of comparative peace in those surroundings must be prevented. The most dangerous time to be caught there was when a kapo from Block 13, the so-called "penal" block, led to the toilets his pathetic squad who were strictly forbidden any contact with others. It was then advisable to be indifferent to everything but getting away like a streak of lightning These kapos did not beat -they slaughtered.
But this was our first morning in the camp and we did not yet understand from where the danger might come. Suddenly, as if a silent alarm had been raised, everybody interrupted what they were doing and rushed towards their barracks, much like a flock of birds startled by a hidden predator. I took it as a danger signal and also ran.
In this instance, however, my instinct was wrong. It was breakfast time. From out of the camp kitchen came prisoners carrying 50-litre kettles of hot coffee, two men to a kettle. Within our block, bread and pots of margarine had already been divided into even portions by the blockelder's assistants. Each loaf of bread was carefully measured before it was divided into five equal portions.
Everybody watched the assistants like hawks. This first morning we still had not experienced the real pain of hunger, so the ceremony appeared unnecessary and even unimportant. Not long after, however, it became the most important event of the day and the division of bread was regarded by all of us as something sacred.
In time, we also discovered why the blockelder and his assistants looked so healthy. After the first night four men were lying dead in our barracks. The number of portions, however, had been assigned the night before, and the four extra portions had gone to the management. It occurred to me that perhaps the violence of the previous night had had another purpose besides discipline. I later learned that this was a regular practice of the kapos and blockelders, through which they arranged more food for themselves.
After breakfast I found Mietek walking around with a cigarette in his mouth, and asked him where he got it, since we did not have any money to buy it in the camp store.
"A fellow gave me the whole pack for the miserable piece of bread we were delivered this morning," he said, contentedly.
I also smoked, but I knew one had to pay a high price for this luxury, in prison or in a camp. A piece of bread did not seem a high price for a pack of cigarettes, but at the time we were not aware that the bread would be our major source of nourishment. As a matter of principle, I decided to quit smoking for as long as I was in the camp. Mietek was to pay dearly for his weakness.
Our discussion about the business aspects of bartering was soon cut short by the announcement of roll call. Each block had its place in the central yard. Block 3 assembled a short distance from the entrance gate, where Bruno and his assistants arranged us in two rows, laying the dead or half-dead at the end of the rows. Arithmetic was evidently not one of their strongest assets, for they counted and recounted our group several times before they were satisfied that we were all present.
After a while the gate opened and several SS men entered the camp. They went to f he other end of the yard first, from where we heard the commands of a blockelder.
"Attention! Hats off!"
The whole block responded in military manner, first standing to attention, then raising their hands to their caps and removing them with a loud slap against the thigh. Those who had not yet been issued caps, such as ourselves, were still expected to make the same motion. SS men recounted all prisoners, dead and alive, and, in the military manner, reported their findings to a higher ranking SS man called a Raportfuehrer. This man then commanded the entire camp to stand to attention and in turn made his report to the camp commandant. The next command was "To work!" The old prisoners ran in all directions, forming squads which were taken over by kapos, and marched to their daily chores.
The Raportfuehrer at that time, and for the next year, was a young corporal named Palitsch. Clean-shaven, with a wide forehead and long, thin mouth, he had the look of an arrogant schoolboy about him. Because he and his wife lived just outside the camp, prisoners could often see this happy couple playing with their two small children and hear them call each other by affectionate names. Ironically, inmates at Auschwitz would remember him best as the most cruel of executioners.
Only a few of the SS men liked to beat or torture prisoners themselves. Most of them preferred just to watch the spectacles put on for their benefit by the kapos. But Palitsch was different. He decided to make a reputation for himself as a man who could far outdo the brutality of any kapo. On occasion, local Gestapo units supplying prisoners to Auschwitz would send as well a list of men to be executed. Initially, executions were carried out by a firing squad commanded by Palitsch. Later the young Raportfuehrer assumed this duty alone.
Prisoners to be executed were led to Block 13. There they were undressed, their hands were tied with wire behind their backs, and then, one by one, they were led into the courtyard within the block where Palitsch would shoot them with a .22 rifle in the back of the head. Some-times men, women and children brought from out-side received this treatment from Palitsch without even being admitted to the camp. I was told by other prisoners who had witnessed these executions that when he was delivered a woman with a baby in her arms, Palitsch would not bother to shoot the child. Instead, he would smash its head against the end wall of the courtyard, taking pleasure in watching the mother's despair, then shoot her in the normal manner.
I observed this man for three years. Outside the camp, he was a loving husband and father who behaved as though he were completely normal. In fact, it seemed that the more he loved his family, the more he wanted to decimate his family's enemies. He probably believed himself to be a very patriotic German.
A good deal of the work assigned to prisoners was at times carried on outside the camp. The working "commandos," as they were called, marched through the gates singing jubilant German songs that sounded like "Holla-Reya, Holla-Rha." It confused me that these men were so cheerful, until I discovered that these songs were taught by the kapos who forced squads to sing them going to and coming back from work. Almost every working squad carried back with it several dead bodies - prisoners killed by the kapos while on the job - and assisted the many injured who could hardly walk. Viewing the spectacle on a daily basis, the gay melodies sounded both bizarre and obscene.
Our block did not go to work that first day. Bruno needed some helpers whom he intended to select from among our ranks. He began by asking those of us who had been in prison before the war to step out. Nobody did. Obviously he did not inspire much trust. Then he explained that conditions in the camp were like those in prison; in short, he needed experienced helpers. Most of the men in our transport had been rounded up at random from the streets of Warsaw, so it was unlikely that all deserved the designation of political prisoner. In any case, six people stepped forward to be counted.
Bruno then asked who spoke German. This time about 16 men stepped out. He asked them several questions, such as: What was their education? What did they do before the war? He appointed the man with the least education as block translator, and used him to interview the first six who had previously been in prison. Their offences ranged from theft and assault to murder. He selected one murderer and three thieves. They were to be our immediate authorities responsible for keeping order in the rooms, bringing and distributing food, enforcing bedtime and wake-up calls, restricting use of the latrine, and generally ensuring that we behaved according to Bruno's whims and desires. They were also told to learn German by the following week or have Bruno "teach" them.
The last position to be filled was that of the block registrar. It was his task to keep an accurate count of our group - who was dead and who sick - primarily to determine how much food our block should receive from the kitchen. Bruno expected the writer to cheat in his count so that more portions would be allocated than we had mouths to feed. This was called "organizing." The term was common among all prisoners and in time everyone tried to organize what they could - food, clothing, cigarettes, or any other necessities.
We learned subsequently that Bruno had selected what be-came a privileged class of prisoners, intended to replace his assistants who, as kapos from working squads, were too busy to help him keep order in the block. Indeed, the new management did not prove much better than the former. This was, for many of us, our first introduction to the elaborate system of privileges one can find in any prison setting at any time. The greater the responsibility, the bigger the pay-off.
While the selection of our supervisors was being made, several kapos approached our block. Bruno collected his six new appointees and announced that the kapos were now going to teach us the camp's basic drill. The first instructions were to stand at attention and pretend to remove and replace our imaginary caps. (We did not receive our caps until early December, almost four months later.) We then learned to march in step, a relatively simple exercise had it not been for the German "military punishments" that were instantly administered when our group failed to respond in unison. These included running in step around the yard, duck walking, walking with t ' he knees bent and the hands suspended above the head, somersaulting, rolling sideways across the ground, or simply turning around with the eyes closed. When these punishments - which took much more time than the actual drill - were not executed to the satisfaction of the kapos, the real punishment with clubs was generously administered.
The punishing exercises were, in fact, another test for survival. Rolling around too quickly would provoke dizziness, which was what the kapos were waiting for to inspire their crippling clubbing. One could not be too slow either, however, for a kapo at the end of the column was always ready to punish those who failed to keep up with the rest. The first victims were generally older men or the ones who had made their living working at desks and consequently were in poor physical condition. At the end of two hours, as many as a dozen of them remained lying on the ground unable to move. It made no difference whether they died then and there; those still alive could no longer walk, and nobody was allowed to help them. Indeed, no one wanted to help them.
Our metamorphosis was well underway, conditioned as we were to abandon our sensitivity to another's suffering. We an knew that the men stretched out before us were condemned to die or were dead already. This was an instinctive rationalization, the same as exists in a grazing herd when a predator kills one among them. The rest know very well they cannot help; furthermore, they are only too aware that the predator's preoccupation with the dead or injured buys their own lives a little more time.
The bell sounded for lunch. We collected our dead and injured companions and marched back to our block where we were allowed to disperse.
In the meantime, our newly elected "roomelders" had been very busy. They brought from the kitchen a large, round pot containing 50 to 75 litres of a black coffee substitute, its only redeemable feature being that it was hot. Each of us, by then, was the proud possessor of a tin bowl in which we received one litre of coffee to go with the remaining bread left over from breakfast.
The lunch break gave us unbelievable joy. It was as though we were allowed to catch our breath after a long and exhausting run. The kapos returned to their barracks and left us alone. Al-though we ourselves were not allowed to enter the barracks, the weather was good; the fog had dispersed over the marsh and the sun was shining through the hot and humid air.
Sitting on some stones next to Mietek, I examined his badly bruised shoulder. Being a tall man, he had to perform the entire drill in the first five of the column and in closer proximity to the aim of the capos' clubs.
"Those bloody kapos," he complained bitterly, "know nothing about military drill. If they'd only let me take charge, I could have the whole block marching like it was on parade- and without hitting anyone!"
This remark took me so much by surprise that I could not restrain my sarcasm.
"Where do you think you are? In the military academy drilling cadets? Look at yourself - you look more like a bum or a convict than an officer. We must forget what we were and do the best with what is left of us."
Apparently our discussion was overheard and understood by another prisoner sitting nearby who came to join us.
"Excuse me," he asked, "but are you both officers in the Polish army?"
I considered this a very indiscreet question. During my interrogations by the Gestapo, I had never admitted to being in any way connected with the military, fearing possible repercussions. Mietek, however, had not been as cautious, informing them he was an officer while denying that he belonged to any underground organization. (Such admissions were later to be regretted: in the fall of 1942, all men known to the Gestapo as former officers were executed by firing squad.)
Suspecting such a direct question, I became silent. But Mietek, in his customary fashion when the military was mentioned, stated his rank quite openly and asked why the prisoner wanted to know.
The man smiled shyly and introduced himself: "My name is Thomas Serafinski. I was a captain in the cavalry of the Wilno Brigade."
He did not look like a cavalry captain, perhaps because of his non-athletic build and youthful, freckled face. He also spoke very softly, without authority - a man who preferred to listen rather than express opinions. His soft eastern accent, however, immediately endeared me to him and no doubt accounted for him later becoming my closest friend after Mietek.
At that moment my sole concern was to find out more about him.
"You're from the same part of Poland as I am," I said. "Maybe we have some common friends. My name is Piekarski, does that mean anything to you? I've heard that my parents were captured by Russians and sent to Siberia."
"If your father was a physicist," answered Thomas, "he was my professor in my first year of university at Wilno. Science was not my best subject but he was an excellent teacher, so even I could understand it. But because I wasn't in Wilno when the war broke out, I don't know what happened to him or even to some of my own relatives."
Although disappointed that he had no news of my parents, I was delighted to hear that he knew and respected my father. But things were still not clear to me.
"I suppose I can tell you that I also was in the cavalry of the Wilno Brigade, which makes me wonder why we didn't meet. Surely you'd remember a second lieutenant from the 9th Horse Artillery Division who used to beat all the cavalry officers in horse jumping?"
"I'm sorry to disappoint you," said Thomas with a smile. "But for the last five years I've been in Warsaw and must have missed witnessing the triumphs of horse artillery over the cavalry."
I saw that my boasting did not go unnoticed and quickly responded: "I didn't mean to brag - and I'm sorry we missed each other before the war and during the past year in Warsaw. I feel I owe you some explanation of why I gave up my riding career. You see, I always wanted to be an engineer. However, after matriculating from high school, my parents could not afford to send me to the school for the artillery reserve cadets in Wlodzimierz. As you know, many young men were deciding to finish their one year military service before further studies. But, after one year the situation at home did not change and I decided to become a professional officer and applied for admission to the Military Academy in Torun. I graduated in 1936 as a 2nd Lieutenant of Artillery. Having very good marks in mathematics and technical subjects along with excellent riding ability, I was assigned to the 2nd Horse Artillery Division in Dubno."
Only half of our lunch time had passed when Bruno emerged from the barracks and shouted for ten volunteers. It struck me, however, that he said nothing about why he needed them. Already I had established one important rule that could be applied to camp life: do not volunteer for anything. My assumptions were borne out some time later when Bruno asked for men who could play the piano. The request was so unexpected I almost raised my hand, but immediately decided against it. Three men happily stepped for-ward in anticipation of displaying their talents, without questioning whether the camp even had a piano. Bruno then playfully announced that three was just the right number to clean the latrine; since he had no tools for the job, he required men with the proper manual dexterity.
This time, however, there were no volunteers. This did not surprise Bruno. He merely selected ten volunteers himself. Thomas and I were among them. We followed Bruno into the barracks and noticed that our roomelders were already hard at work stuffing wood shavings into the mattresses. A new luxury was being added to our accommodation!
Thomas was appointed my working partner. Together we developed a system: work only when someone is looking. Thomas picked up our previous conversation and asked me how I had ended up in Warsaw and now in Auschwitz. It sounded like an interrogation, which later on I found out that it was, nevertheless I was glad to talk to someone from my home town. "After two years in Dubno, in spite of riding opportunities, I came to the conclusion that I was not cut out to be a professional officer. Shortly after being transfered to the Wilno Cavalry Brigade, I discovered that there was a competitive examination for the whole Polish Army for the possibility of studying engineering. I was studying at every free moment and as you can guess I won the Military Scholarship and was admitted to the Warsaw Technical University."
"That must have been a very hard examination," said Thomas, "but that was two years ago. What did you do to deserve your glorious assignment to Auschwitz?"
"The rest of the story is probably similar to yours. After finishing one year of University, the war broke out and I was assigned to the 22nd Light Artillery Division. I was wounded in this war fighting Germans, but then the Soviet Army invaded Poland, and while in the hospital I became a Soviet prisoner of war. I escaped from the hospital, came back to Warsaw and married the girl I was engaged to before the war. Being a professional officer, it was only natural for me to join the Polish Underground Army. Our commanding officer, a captain in the cavalry like yourself, was an idiot. He kept a list of our names, and kept our addresses and pseudonyms right beside our names. This is why Mietek and I are here!"
Thomas smiled his shy enigmatic smile, said that not all cavalry captains were idiots, and suggested that we should talk about other, more pleasant things.
We found other common friends whom we had known before the war and as a group decided not to finish too early, hoping to stay in the barracks when the rest of the block returned for the afternoon drill.
Luckily, it worked out that way. Stuffing mattresses was much easier than straining one's wits to stay alive during drill or the inevitable accompanying exercises that the kapos called "sport.
That afternoon I was introduced to the camp's special transportation method. Five men, including myself, had been sent to the store rooms to receive blankets. Bruno and the blockwriter went with us. We were directed behind the kitchen where we found several wagons of the kind pulled by two horses each. Little did we suspect that the five of us would become the horses: two men in front at the thin, one behind, and one on each side of the wagon. This system, as I later discovered, was common in all German concentration camps. Our vehicle, referred to as a "rollwagon," had to be pulled at the run when empty and as fast as possible when fun. In this manner we transported about 400 blankets between the kitchen and our block. It was difficult work, but as we ran past the men rolling on the ground, the slower ones encouraged by the blows of the kapos' clubs, we were glad to be pulling our rollwagon.
Stuffing mattresses, piling them with blankets at the end of the room and sweeping the floors took us all afternoon. Not until shortly before evening roll call did we have to join the others for sport. It was then that we saw the working squads return. Singing German songs, they came marching through the main gate where they were counted by the SS men, to be sure their numbers were the same as when the squads marched out that morning. Behind every squad were men riding in wheelbarrows pushed by their colleagues; some were dead and others badly injured. It looked as though going to work was not much better than staying in the camp to do sport.
After the roll call we received our first major meal - a half litre of soup. A concoction of hot water, barley and potatoes, the soup did not have much taste but seemed sufficiently nutritious. Later we found out that receiving this soup was a mistake; it was generally distributed only on Sundays. On weekdays the common fare was yellow water with some turnips floating in it.
Finishing supper, Mietek and I discovered we had some time to ourselves before being called to bed, so we decided to explore the rest of the camp.
In 1940, the concentration camp at Auschwitz consisted of 20 barracks, nine on one side of the camp and 11 on the other. In the middle, facing the kitchen, was the roll call square. Later on, a second storey was added to all buildings and eight new barracks were built around the central square. The kitchen was also expanded in order to feed more prisoners and long gal-lows, made from steel rails, were placed in front of the building in full view of the square.
At public executions 20 people could be hanged there at a time, their bodies left to dangle from the ropes until the following day. The placement of gallows in front of the kitchen constituted another kind of intimidation. Prisoners who went to the kitchen to receive their only real pleasure, the highly treasured food, had to dodge the hanging bodies of their friends.
The same perverted sense of humour inspired the camp commandant, Hbss, to order the formation of an orchestra in 1941 to accompany the singing prisoners going to work and later returning, when they would be dragging the bodies of their dead comrades. Once, to verify the humane treatment of prisoners, the camp was visited by the Red Cross; at such times, the orchestra played a deceptive role in helping to persuade the visitors that Auschwitz possessed a contented, even cheerful atmosphere.
Mietek and I walked across the roll call square, approaching the other side of the camp and penal Block 13. We had noticed a conspicuous void in the vicinity of this block. Everybody seemed to walk around it, as if it were infested with some terrible disease. No one was allowed to come out of it and nobody wanted to go in. As we got closer to the block, a rollwagon arrived at full gallop pulled by the inmates wearing black dots. The blockelder of Block 13 stood on the wagon with a long whip, thrashing his "horses" and enjoying the fast ride. Prisoners either in the square or between buildings ran to both sides to avoid not only the rollwagon but the swinging whip of the blockelder. I imagined this man as a Roman emperor driving his carriage through crowds of slaves. No doubt he shared the illusion.
When the rollwagon finally came to a stop in front of the penal block, the doors opened almost immediately. From the depths of the block and amidst shouting and swearing emerged prisoners carrying by arms and legs the naked bodies of their colleagues. When they got near the wagon, they would swing the bodies from side to side and throw them onto a pile of corpses already forming on the wagon floor. It was not a pleasant job. The bodies were dirty and covered with human excrement, but the men carrying them did not display any visible emotions.
The whole scene was macabre, even for those of us who had seen enough death. When the corpses went flying through the air, waving their arms and legs, they looked like horrible ghosts on their way to some sinister ritual. Also shocking was the number of bodies removed from the block; the wagon, which had side walls, was filled to the top. It was so heavy the men could not even budge it, giving the blockelder a good excuse to whip his slaves in the most vicious manner. The effort was not co-ordinated, however, so when one whipped man was straining to move the load, the others were recuperating from the previous beatings. Finally the blockelder tired of his whipping and called for four men from the block. With their help, the rollwagon started to move slowly towards the crematorium.
We asked one of the older prisoners what had happened within the penal block that had killed so many people. Apparently a large number of Jews had been discovered in our transport, all of whom were sent to Block 13. Among them was a famous Polish strong man named Schmelling who succeeded in impressing the Germans with his tremendous physical strength. Some kapos had tried to match their strength with his, but were no competition for the big man. Consequently, Schmelling became a privileged prisoner within the penal block. As a Jew he could not leave the block, but he received as much food as he could eat. In return the SS men required demonstrations of his muscular power - in particular, to prove that he could kill a man with one blow. Other Jewish prisoners were supplied as the subjects, and the SS men eagerly bet on either Schmelling or his victims.
In 1940, the average life span of a Jew sent to the penal block was four days. By comparison, extermination methods used on the Polish prisoners were mild. In spite of this, however, a count made a year later of prisoners left from our transport revealed that out of over 2,000 men, only 120 of us remained alive. Many of the Jews who accompanied us from Warsaw faced an early execution, as did others who came after.
Schmelling was an exception. He lived almost a year.
Another exception was a rabbi who arrived at the camp with a good knowledge of the German language. Unlike other Jews, he was sent to our Polish block and went to work every day to the German office where he translated the Talmud into German. I recall that he was in much better shape than the rest of us, but do not know whether he survived Auschwitz.
Mietek and I were returning to our barracks when we noticed another crowd of people in front of Block 16, the camp's hospital. Although later expanded to occupy a total of three blocks (numbered 20,21 and 28), the hospital facilities at Auschwitz were never adequate. Indeed, many of the camp building programs attempted to keep pace with the constant increase in prisoners. The penal block would also undergo expansion to include the ' neighbouring Block 12, both blocks changing their numbers to 10 and 11 respectively. The infamous wall where Palitsch performed his executions was then connected with the penal block itself; today's visitors to the camp can readily identify the wall by the decorations of fresh flowers left by the families of those who lost their lives in the fight to free Poland.
This particular crowd lined up outside the hospital was trying to get medical attention - something many prisoners could only hope for. Because Polish doctors initially were not allowed to work in the hospital, the task of treating patients fell to "Doctor" Bock, a German criminal who was also in charge of the facilities. To look the part, Bock was always dressed in an immaculately clean white coat, sporting a stethoscope around his neck. He was allowed to wear long hair that framed a face both serious and full of authority. Prisoners randomly appointed by Bock to serve as orderlies said he performed all kinds of surgery with disastrous results, but human life in Auschwitz did not have any value anyway.
Bock's orderlies were now "seeing" patients in front of the building. Looking over the crowd, I estimated its size at over a thousand men, all near death. The hospital, however, had only enough room to admit about ten people per day. Those ready to die were the first admitted, helped by their companions through the main door and into a room where Bock conducted his medical practice. Even among those few Bock found some healthy enough to give an aspirin, a kick in the pants and instructions to get out.
The main criterion for admission was the patient's temperature. Visible physical injuries were treated with iodine and some-times wrapped in paper bandages. Prisoners dying because they were weak and hungry did not have a high temperature; in fact, their temperatures were often far below normal, permitting Bock to pronounce them healthy and return them to the regular camp chores and drills.
It was among this crowd before the hospital that I first saw people actually dying from hunger. They were known in the camp as "Musselmen" (a corruption of the German word for Moslem, Musselmannen), so called because their weakness caused them to sway from side to side, or from front to back, giving the impression they were bowing in prayer. [The symptoms and condition of these men are well described by Dr. W. Fejkiel who was a Musselman himself. He later worked in the camp hospital where he had the opportunity to study and diagnose the condition. See "Wspomnienia wiezniow obozu oswiecimskiego" (The Publication of the Museum in Auschwitz).]
German documents found after the war estimated that prisoners subjected to the hard physical exertion of camp life and receiving 1,500 calories of food per day survived an average of about three months. Perhaps initially this number of calories was given to each prisoner. But because all the privileged prisoners (such as kapos, blockelders and others) ate as much as they wanted, the amount of food remaining for ordinary inmates was well below that expected.
The Musselman condition started after a man lost about one-third of his normal weight. Physical symptoms, apart from the weight loss, included swelling of the feet and often the entire leg, stiffening of the joints which further hampered movement, and diarrhoea. Their faces wore a greyish-blue colour and indicated quite clearly that they no longer cared about anything or anybody.
Their only interest was food, about which they could talk for hours. Those who had been cooks or connoisseurs of food would describe to others, in great detail, how gourmet dishes were prepared and how they tasted. Such speakers always drew an appreciative crowd who would ask for further details to imagine better the taste or appearance of the food. Otherwise, Musselmen were antisocial, irritable and non-communicative. They generally gathered around the kitchen where they could at least smell the food, or they searched through the garbage which in the camp rarely yielded many edible delicacies.
They were not very choosy. Musselmen would eat raw potato peels and rotten pieces of turnip; they would lick dried fat from the garbage cans or spilled soup from the ground. Only in eating were their movements fast. They were always first to finish their soup, after which they would stand around to watch those still eating, following with eager eyes each spoonful. The purpose of this vigil was the sheer pleasure of imagining the ingestion of food, as well as the hope of receiving small handouts or even permission to lick an empty bowl for the service of washing a dish.
Musselmen still in the early stages of this stupor tried their luck by mixing with working squads who received extra soup from their kapos for performing special tasks. I never could find out what these tasks involved or how one managed to become one of their kind. I did notice, however, that few Musselmen were successful in obtaining their goal. The kapos, who could spot them immediately by their appearance, rewarded their efforts with nothing more than a hard smack on the head with the ladle.
Quite often Musselmen would hang around the kitchen when some late delivery of food was to be made. Though Musselmen generally were unable to act as an organized group, blockelders and kapos knew of their possible danger and consequently escorted the food carriers past the starving men and into the kitchen.
One day bread arrived late and had to be delivered to the blocks after evening roll call, when all Musselmen were on the loose. A crowd of perhaps 50 watched as the bread was carried in wooden crates towards the blocks. All eyes were on the bread. They were as though hypnotized, unable to see the kapos escorting the baskets or the SS man, armed with a rifle, who accompanied wagonloads of bread into the kitchen.
I could understand what was going through their minds. No reasoning, no consideration of the consequences if the bread were snatched occurred to them. In fact, they had no thought even of taking it. Only one image passed before them: to take a big bite out of an entire loaf and have the heavenly taste of bread in their mouths, and then to swallow it, and swallow it, and swallow some more. Nothing else in the world mattered. No price was too high even for a single bite.
In a flash, as if at some sharp command, they flung them-selves on one of the baskets, rushing at the loaves with their mouths open in an attempt to eat them then and there, like a pack of wolves tearing apart a fallen deer. Naturally the crate bearing the bread fell to the ground, breaking into pieces. In seconds a seething mass of human bodies tumbled on top of each other, biting one another, punching and kicking to get at the loaves. The kapos rushed in with their clubs, striking at the struggling mass with all their strength. Their clubbing was as bad for the bread as for the men, but could make no impression upon the ravenous throng.
The SS man emptied his gun into the middle of the crowd. But by then the Musselmen had achieved their dream. They were taking big bites out of the loaves, unaware of their cracked skulls, broken bones and bleeding bodies. Kapos and blockelders came running from the neighbouring buildings and began slashing down their victims like a machine threshing grain. Dead bodies lay scattered about; others, half-dead, swayed to and fro with movements of scarcely conscious despair, attempting to salvage some bread crumbs from the dirt which they instantly stuffed into their mouths. The rest stood by watching with sharp interest in case, in the clamour, a chance should present itself to obtain a scrap of bread for themselves.
The state of the Musselman was the final stage to which most men in Auschwitz were driven before death. All previous patterns of behaviour were peeled off like the skin of an onion, until only the instinct of self-preservation remained. Never did they hesitate to steal food from a hungry companion, even if this meant instant death. Fathers were caught stealing bread from dying sons, and sons from fathers. Some Musselmen admitted to the hospital had to have their hands and feet tied at night to prevent them from taking food from dying comrades. Finally, the thought must have entered their minds that even survival was meaningless; they were going to die anyway, so why should anyone stop them from doing the only thing that mattered and would ever matter.
The almost irreversible pathway to the crematorium was often the result of constant diarrhoea and then ever-healing wounds caused by scratches, boils or injuries received in the camp. Untreated, diarrhoea led to dysentery and infection, which, in the conditions at Auschwitz, was nearly always fatal. For these reasons, as well as for their proclivity to steal food, Musselmen were not well tolerated by other prisoners. Not only did they present a health risk, but also their clothes were constantly soiled with excrement since they were unable to control their bowels. They were therefore shoved together in a corner close to the door, where at night they would not have to step over the other sleeping men.
Considering the hopeless conditions, it is interesting that there were relatively few suicides in Auschwitz. Those who did commit suicide were generally in reasonably good physical condition.
Indeed, when I reflect on my own existence in the camp, I often wonder why I did not end up in the crematorium. We did not receive underwear and coats until late November, and our striped pyjama suits offered little protection against rain, cold, or frosty, foggy mornings. Perhaps as much by luck as by design, I somehow managed to escape getting the flu, a cold, or even a sore throat; and though I received no more food than my fellows, I never reached the Musselman stage. One practice I followed religiously was to eat my food very slowly, having decided to derive from every bit all possible nutritional value. To bolster my resolution, I made a sober assessment of the situation: there was only so much food and a Emit to what one could do about the conditions in which we lived. I therefore had to do everything in my power to survive.
Before my arrest I had been very interested in yoga, through which I learned about breathing exercises, conservation of energy and meditation. When there is nothing else to fall back on, one grabs at anything that might fend off death. A large number of studies today show that the mind can influence the physical condition of the body. I did not know about such things at the time, but I must have done a great deal right because in three years, fewer than one per cent of the 2,000 or so people sent to Auschwitz in July of 1940 survived. Fewer than 20. Those who survived had, of course, a lot of luck. But even luck could not help when almost the entire camp was dying of hunger.
I had been in the camp barely a day when I first discovered I was hungry. It was a hunger quite different from that which I was to experience later on - what one might call a healthy hunger. I wanted to eat something, but I could also do without it.
It was dusk, and Mietek and I were walking silently between two rows of brick buildings. We still had one hour to wait before we could enter our block to crawl into bed. The autumn evening was so beautiful and we were so deep in our thoughts, we did not notice that, moments later, we were standing in front of our barracks.