WARPED LIFEIN A WARPED WORLD
Thomas was waiting for me. He took me to one side and said he had something very important to discuss with me. It was all very mysterious. We went behind the block where he began to talk in a serious tone.
Witold Pilecki (Thomas Serafiński)
Organizer of Polish Underground Army (AK) in Auschwitz
"What I have to say to you, Kon, is in great confidence. You must swear on your officer's honour that you won't mention it to anyone without my consent."
"Thomas," I said, as gravely, "if it is such an important secret you have my word."
"Good," he continued. "My name is not Thomas Serafiński. It's actually Witold Pilecki."
"If that's your secret," I said, "then perhaps I should tell you I'm really 24, one year older than the Germans think I am. I've given my new birthday a date I won't forget - the 3rd of May, Polish Constitution Day. What's more, I'm an engineering student who's supposedly never been in the army."
"Don't interrupt," said Thomas, hesitantly. "I've more to say that is of greater importance."
I eyed him carefully, still unsure if I could trust this man.
Thomas continued: "I could not have been in the Wilno cavalry brigade for the last five years because in that time I've worked in Warsaw for Polish Intelligence. It is they who organized the underground army after the Polish campaign. In September, I volunteered to come to Auschwitz to organize a resistance unit here."
I was now definitely confused about the soft spoken fellow who stood before me.
"Thomas," I exclaimed, "you must be nuts! Who in his right mind would do such a thing? How did you do it? Don't tell me you asked the Gestapo if they'd be so kind as to send you to Auschwitz for a couple of years?"
"Please don't joke," said Thomas, now observing me more closely than I had him. "Polish Intelligence thinks that Auschwitz is going to be expanded into a very large extermination camp to house Polish freedom fighters. Here is an important place for our unit to function. Because I knew the Gestapo was rounding up people on the streets to send to this camp, I just happened to take a walk at the right time."
"If what you say is true," I replied, "you're either the greatest hero or the biggest fool."
It was even harder to believe Thomas's story because he looked so unheroic with his nondescript face wearing an almost naive smile. If anything, he seemed every bit the fool. But I liked him nonetheless, recognizing in him both honesty and a certain vulnerability. What I could not see was the confidence and strong will of a commanding officer, and for this reason expressed my reservations to his anticipated offer.
"You know, of course, that I have not volunteered to come here. I'm here because of the stupidity and overgrown ambitions of our high ranking officers, all competing to organize the under-ground units in Warsaw. Every one of them kept a list of the officers he had recruited. They were too stupid to memorize the names. When the Gestapo tried to arrest the bigwig whose list contained my own name, they found a ready roll call with which to go hunting. This is why Mietek, myself and others are now here for you to organize."
"You're absolutely right," said Thomas, evidently oblivious to my complaint. "I recognize here many senior officers, but I'm not planning to recruit them for our organization. Older people may not be able to cope with the stress in the camp. For that matter, some young people may not be suitable either. I propose to build a purely military unit with full responsibility resting on the shoulders of young officers like yourself."
I still had my doubts, despite his assured manner.
"Why should such an organization exist," I asked him, "'and how much can we accomplish in these conditions? Are the risks not greater than the possible benefits?"
"Those are good questions," said Thomas. "I will try to answer them for you. To minimize risk, our unit will operate on a system whereby only five men know each other. Only a contact man from the five and one other man will know me. The purpose of this is self-defence-against kapos and in an emergency, against the SS should a possible up-rising of the whole camp occur. The first and most immediate purpose is to help the weaker among us survive the camp."
Witold Pilecki (Thomas Serafinski)
Organizer of Uderground Army (AK) in Auschwitz
(courtesy of the Auschwitz-Birkenau Museum)
I reflected briefly on the sense of his proposal and found it surprisingly plausible "You can count me in. I may be as nutty as you are, but let's give it a try."
"In that case, you will be pleased to know that your friend Stan Kazuba is in your five-man unit," he concluded and by sudden impulse, hugged me.
Later events showed how important it was to have such an organization functioning in Auschwitz. At that moment, however, the scheme provided an effective psychological boost, allowing me to think a joint effort might actually be successful. This hope was much needed, particularly as the Germans had intimidated us into believing that none of us would leave the camp alive - a rational belief shared by others who had been inmates for more than a year.
My hope was transformed into confidence in one's ability to survive when, in 1943 and 1944, I helped to organize escapes from Auschwitz.
According to our colleagues who had been in the camp for three months or more, our drills and sport would last between four and six weeks. The thought of even a few more days of this barbaric treatment left some men in a state of complete despair. They were the ones who walked into the barbed wire surrounding the camp.
Any prisoner who approached within three metres of the fence was shot. It made little difference whether the man made it to the fence or not, for to touch it meant immediate electrocution. But the SS man in the guard tower knew he would receive a day off in town if he shot a prisoner attempting to escape, so very seldom did anyone reach the wire. Men who were shot did not always die immediately; the SS men generally had poor aim. In the event that they wounded their target, an SS man from the main guard room would come to administer the coup de grace by shooting the prisoner in the head with a hand gun.
I asked Stan, who had been in the camp for two months, how he managed to survive so long.
"I guess I am stronger than the others," he replied. "Our transport occupied two barracks when we arrived. Now we're in one and have more space than before. A man has to be very alert to avoid the kapos' clubs and at the same time conserve his energy."
This was valuable advice, especially coming from someone as reliable as Stan whom I had worked with in the underground in Warsaw. He was an infantry captain and a very pragmatic, no-nonsense man - of medium height, strongly built, and possessing a firm sense of Christian ethics. Stan never had difficulty making up his mind about what to do in any given situation. I always felt very good in his company; he did not talk much, but his behaviour was steady and reassuring.
The following days in Auschwitz proved to be more of the same - drill and sport. Each day our number was reduced by five or six. On the evening of the third day we got news that tomorrow there would be no sport; we would go to work instead. Older prisoners who had been working outside the camp brought back rumours that building materials were arriving for the expansion of Auschwitz. There was need for more labourers. Indeed, the next day about a hundred men were assigned to a working party in the so-called "industrial park." It was arranged that they would be supplied from our block, so sometime before six o'clock that morning, following roll call, we were added to the existing column of workers for an indefinite period.
I considered myself very lucky to be included in this group and no longer exposed to the senseless sport, the only purpose of which was to kill. My joy, however, proved somewhat premature.
The kapo in charge of our squad was a man called Siegrud, the first intelligent-looking kapo I had seen in Auschwitz. But his green triangle gave me reason to be cautious; as it turned out, he also was an infamous killer with a background of murder and bank robbery. Glaring out from his otherwise handsome face were the eyes of a predator. Although he had only one arm, he could beat his victims more effectively with that single appendage than most kapos could with two.
Siegrud was disliked by his fellow kapos because he was always showing off his intellectual superiority. His strength and cunning were further supplemented by a special martial art technique he had adapted to the conditions in the camp. I once watched him dispose of a man by beating him to death with his feet alone. A favourite with the SS men, Siegrud always occupied a position of power, which on this particular day meant complete authority over a working group of 300 to 400 prisoners. His two helpers, Alois and Alfred, simple brutes lacking in both sophistication and intelligence, shared in our fear. Siegrud did not have to say anything or even make a threatening gesture; his presence itself meant danger.
I was assigned to a group of about 40 men whose task was to unload sewer pipes from railway cars. Alfred, who was made responsible for our group, reported in turn to a foreman given charge of the immediate operation. The job involved selecting two men to climb to the top of a pile of pipes in an open car. The pipes were then handed down to others who carried them to storage areas a few hundred metres away. Work had to proceed at top speed - the usual demand in the camp. Because the best foremen, which usually meant the most brutal, were rewarded by being appointed kapos, they made liberal use of their clubs to control the traffic to and from the cars.
The physical condition of the workers varied widely: some were young, some old, some healthy and some almost in the Musselman state. Those who were old and weak collected all the beatings, giving the stronger the occasional chance to rest. To take this opportunity meant being constantly alert not only to the kapos and foremen, but to the SS guards who, because we were working outside the barbed wire of the camp, patrolled our group from all sides. As one of the younger and stronger workers, I found invaluable the older prisoners' advice about needing eyes in the back of one's head. It supplied me with the necessary moment or two to catch my breath.
However, these moments were few. Part of the unloaders' task was to keep the carriers busy, so the foreman paid special attention to their pace. Unloading the pipes was a tricky business in that it required both strength and a good sense of balance. When an accident occurred - for example, if a pipe were to fall to the ground and break - it was considered sabotage and the man responsible was killed on the spot.
The worst accident happened when Siegrud was watching. One of the unloaders; lost his footing on top of the pile and began to slide down. To stop his fall, he grabbed at a pipe which in turn started an avalanche. Pipe after pipe crashed down from the car, some landing on the backs of carriers, while the unloaders rode desperately on the peak of the avalanche.
Alfred and the foreman immediately rushed for protection from the rolling pipes. It was then that I saw, for the first time, Siegrud in action. With the agility of a cat, he took several leaps to reach the top of the tumbling mass where he grabbed the first unloader and smashed his fist across his face. The man did not move again. Then he jumped like a monkey to the top of the car where the second unloader was scrambling to get up from the pipes. Two blows from Siegrud's feet, one to the man's kidneys and the other to his head, sent the fellow flying to the ground. He then leapt to the ground himself, briefly surveyed the damage, and said to Alfred in a quiet and composed voice: "Clear those pipes at once."
Alfred jumped as if something had bitten him and almost hysterically began tugging on a pipe lying nearby.
"Not you, stupid!" Siegrud shouted. "Make those men do it!"
In no time the unbroken pipes were carried away and the broken ones were piled up beside the car. Siegrud picked one man from our group and sent him to the next car to be the unloader. Looking around again, he pointed to me. I was ready to climb onto the car when he stopped me and asked: "What is your profession?"
This was a most unusual and unexpected question. I was momentarily startled, thinking perhaps he knew that I had been a cavalry officer. Collecting my wits, I told him I was a university student.
"What did you study?"
"Mechanical engineering," I answered.
My reply must have come as a surprise to him, for he immediately continued chatting with me as if we were old friends.
"I am a mechanical engineer myself - graduated from the Polytechnic Institute of Berlin. What year were you in when the war started?"
"I had just finished one year," I said.
"Then," he continued, "you must have passed courses in physics, chemistry, some mathematics - let me see - engineering design, descriptive geometry. Is that right? Did you have a similar curriculum?"
"Yes, exactly," I said. "The curriculum at Warsaw Polytechnic is based on the Berlin Polytechnic, I think."
For about ten minutes we compared notes about the two institutes and the courses we had taken. Nobody worked. Alfred looked at us with his mouth agape while my colleagues stood by completely stunned.
Finally Siegrud decided to finish our pleasant conversation and said to me: "Now you climb to the top of the pipes on this car and if any more accidents occur, Alfred is going to kill you."
It sounded like a good joke to him and he walked away smiling. Fortunately, this was my first and last encounter with Siegrud, though I could observe him for the next three months supervising work in the industrial area. I could not help but wonder at his intelligence, which perhaps in itself was not worthy of my regard; in fact, it merely served, under these conditions, to make his treatment of others that much more inhuman. The love of violence in his brain was the same as that found in the simplest of men. He had the intellect, however, to apply this same primitive behaviour in more cunning and sophisticated ways.
Upon returning to the camp I saw Mietek, who had just finished a day of drill and sport. He informed me that things had improved somewhat since several kapos had joined work squads, leaving fewer to supervise the exercises. During the next few days, more and more men were required to join labour crews and eventually drill was officially ended. Most of the work force dug foundations for new buildings, built roads, drained swamps, excavated ditches for sewer and water pipes, or simply shovelled for sand and gravel. It was very difficult to get out of this trade; squads with better working conditions were already filled with older prisoners who would not be displaced by newcomers.
In the meantime, the weather grew steadily worse. Frequent rains turned the ground, mostly clay, into a slippery muck. Some days were bitterly cold and our wet pyjamas clung to our damp skin. This was when the first clothing appeared on the black market. It consisted, at that time, of cement bags with holes cut for the head and arms; a lining of a few layers of waxed paper offered reasonable protection against wind and rain. The transactions were generally carried out in the latrines, for anyone caught wearing or distributing these fashionable garments invited rough treatment from the kapos. I managed to "organize" a vest for a portion of my soup, and I must say it was an unbelievable improvement.
I was very fortunate to have good boots, particularly as none of us had socks. Within a few days, however, I succeeded in organizing a couple of rags which I wrapped around my feet to protect them from injury.
Mietek was not so lucky. His elegant shoes were in pieces in no time and he received Dutch wooden shoes as replacements. It was very difficult to walk in these shoes and almost impossible to run in them. Unless one's feet were covered by a couple of layers of rags, bad sores could easily develop that eventually became septic and remained open. For this reason, such things as shoes some-times decided the life or death of a prisoner.
I was to work with Mietek for the next couple of months in the industrial park, still under Siegrud's command. I had met up with Siegrud several times after our initial meeting, but he either did not recognize me or did not care to let on he had. Partaking of intelligent conversation with someone may have been simply a one-time fancy for him.
One day we were working in the group where Alois was in charge. Alois was just a common thief by profession. He did not have any education or any trade, and his only redeeming characteristic, from our point of view, was his laziness. Too indolent to beat up his men continuously, he only did it two or three times a day -just enough to maintain his good name. These beatings, however, were concentrated on one or two people and generally resulted in the death or near death of his victims.
Our job was to dig a long and deep ditch, God knows for what purpose. Freezing rain had made the ground difficult to dig and harder still to throw out of the ditch because it would stick to our shovels. In rare moments when Alois, a foreman or an SS man was not watching, we managed to catch a little rest and warm each other up by standing back to back, always keeping a sharp look-out for danger.
Alois had a small shack built in which he organized a wood stove. The sweet smell of smoke coming from the chimney indicated he had a cosy place there. From time to time he would run out the door swearing loudly to show the SS men his eagerness, then disappear again into his makeshift shelter to hide from the rain and cold.
This time, after emerging to discharge his tirade of elaborate swearing, he announced: "I need two professional carpenters to set up a woodworking shop!"
I immediately recognized this as a promise of better work, perhaps even under a roof. Several hands shot up, including mine. Alois looked over the candidates and selected me and another man. We followed him into another shack where he again announced: "This is going to be the woodworking shop. You will find here all the lumber and tools you need to make a workbench."
My companion remained silent, but I thought I should at least sound professional by asking him some questions.
"Where would you like us to put this bench? And have you some idea of how large it should be?"
Alois looked at me with the recognition of an expert.
"Just make a good bench. I don't know much about these things, but I sure will know if it's not good and then you'll wish you were never born".
Then he left us in the shack saying he would check back later to see how we were getting along. When he was out of sight, I turned to my carpenter friend with obvious anxiety.
"I hope you're a carpenter because I'm certainly not. But maybe I can help you if you'll tell me what to do."
While I was talking I detected sheer terror in his eyes.
"You're not serious!" he exclaimed. "I thought you were the carpenter and I could help you!"
He paused briefly to regain some of his composure.
"I'm sorry, but - my name's Marcinek. I'm a mathematics teacher. Perhaps you've seen some of my books in high school?"
I recognized the name immediately and said: "Yes, I know your books. They're very good. In fact, I relied on them to prepare for the competitive entrance examination to the Warsaw Polytechnic and won the scholarship."
A faint smile quivered on his lips.
"Now let's see about a workbench," I said, attempting to get down to business. "Do you know what it should look like?"
"No," said Marcinek. "I've never seen one before."
I looked out at the rain which was now mixed with snow, trying to picture in my mind how a workbench was constructed. It was comforting to be sheltered, if only temporarily, from the cold and wet. But we had to produce a bench. If Alois discovered our ignorance, we would meet a miserable end in the muddy trench outside. I was determined to fool him.
We began by making the top, cutting boards to the same length which we laid on the ground and nailed two pieces across. We looked proudly at our work and decided to hold a conference on how to attach the legs to this contraption. Neither of us had a clue where to start. My professor of mathematics used a stick to make complicated drawings on the ground, showing me the distribution of forces. But even after this lesson we were not convinced the bench would be stable without nailing it to the wall.
Now it was lunch break and Alois returned to inspect our work. The first thing he noticed were the nails from the crossboards sticking out through the top piece.
"What is this? A bed for some Indian Fakir? I will roll you on those nails until you're so punctured the stink leaks out of you!"
I had to think quickly what to say to save ourselves. Alois was not joking, he could do anything.
"Those nails are obviously too long," I said with as much assurance as I could muster. "That's why they're sticking out. We used them temporarily until you could get us some shorter ones."
He seemed uncertain whether this was a true carpenter's argument, but agreed anyway to bring us shorter nails. We were still faced with the problem of attaching the legs to make the surface of the bench rigid, for Alois would not even hear of nailing it to the wall. We decided to nail the legs at each corner using long nails from the top piece and to lean the structure against the wall, hoping Alois would not notice how wobbly it was. By the time we had finished this job, Alois was back with shorter nails.
He stopped in front of the bench, looked satisfied, complimented our work and slapped the shorter nails on the bench for our finishing touches. He was about to leave when the bench started very slowly to lean forward. As he slammed the door shut, the structure collapsed to the ground. We almost stopped breathing! But Alois did not hear the crash and walked away.
It was now near the end of our working day and we decided not to press our luck any further. We gingerly lifted the top piece and put it back on its legs. There was no time to replace the long, protruding nails so we just hammered them in, which made the bench even more wobbly. We then balanced the whole thing against the wall and quickly made our escape. Grabbing some extra spades which we found behind the shack, we ran into a ditch supervised by a different kapo and immediately began digging.
About ten minutes later we saw Alois returning to the shack. Seconds passed, then we heard a crash and saw Alois bounding out of the shack, swearing furiously and swinging one of the legs from the bench above his head. He rushed alongside his ditch trying to identify his carpenters, but of course, we were not there.
After this encounter with Alois I naturally tried to stay as far from him as possible. There was a continuous competition of wits among all prisoners to get attached to a working squad where better conditions would enhance one's chances of survival. An important factor that autumn of 1940 was finding shelter from the cold and the rain. A few men worked permanently in stables and in cow and pig sheds; they were among the privileged because of their ability to organize some animal food for themselves to ward off hunger. The top class were the scant few who worked in the SS kitchen outside the camp and in the prisoners' kitchen.
With the expansion of Auschwitz, a new opportunity arose for improved conditions because the SS needed tradesmen. Men who could work as bricklayers, stone masons, carpenters, electricians, glaziers, painters or in other trades were protected from the extermination practices of the kapos. The expansion also resulted in the resettling of Polish farmers within a ten-kilometre radius of the camp, and all buildings in the annexed area were to be levelled to reduce the number of places an escaping prisoner might hide. By accident, I was assigned for several weeks to this demolition squad.
This job had its benefits, for on the farms we could sometimes find old clothing to use as rags or underwear. Barns also yielded small amounts of spilled grain which could be chewed to provide a few more of the calories we so badly needed. Since our diet did not include fresh fruit or vegetables, cases of scurvy were widespread in the camp. But in the gardens and fields we sometimes found an odd carrot or turnip which gave us supplemental nutrition.
The work itself was not easy because we had no machinery. Everything had to be done with picks, sledge hammers and crowbars. Also, safety was not one of the kapos' concerns, nor was our system itself very safe, so accidents were not uncommon. We tried to remain as long as possible under the roof, demolishing first the inner walls and shovelling out the debris until only the supporting structure and roof remained. We then had no choice but to hack at the exterior walls in the rain and snow. The job turned out to be a mixed blessing: our kapo, who while supervising sheltered himself inside the house, was in no hurry to complete the demolition; the SS man forced to patrol the operation from outside, however, did all within his power to rush us to work faster.
Upon returning to the camp I found Mietek in very poor condition. He decided to join the lines of men requiring medical attention and stayed in the camp instead of going to work. Unfortunately for him, the first man to examine him was Leo, the campelder. Not only was Leo in charge of all blockelders and the top authority within the camp, he also had good- reasons for wearing a green triangle. His powerful position was the result of his tremendous physical strength and astounding ability to display a variety of ways to kill people.
He pronounced Mietek healthy so instead of getting the care he obviously needed, my friend had to join a group of prisoners doing sport for infringements of camp regulations. These exercises left him covered with bruises and barely able to stand. We decided that after the evening meal we would try to get him into the outpatients group, hoping that by this route he might find a place in the hospital.
Following the evening meal, however, Mietek felt much better. He was still very much in need of medical attention, but the cigarettes he obtained in return for soup and bread seemed to give him momentary comfort. It became evident to me that my companion was among those who turned into Musselmen psychologically before developing any physical symptoms. Our discussions revealed his indifference to practically everything but the occasional smoke that he said killed his hunger. Neither food nor the will to live mattered much to him any more.
Arriving at Block 16, we found the situation even worse than before. The crowd had grown larger. Men were pushing and clawing their way to the door, trampling over the fallen bodies of those weaker than themselves. We stood there in a state of hope-lessness when some male nurses came out to announce the hospital was full, that there would be no more admissions, and that the outpatients reception had closed. In stark contrast to those seeking help, the nurses were dressed in clean striped uniforms and looked healthy and well fed. Among them we recognized Fred Stoessel, a junior colleague of ours at the military academy before the war.
We started to shout his name: "Fred! Fred! Here! Come here!"
He finally spotted us and pushed his way through the crowd. As he came toward us, I marvelled at how he had retained his youth and handsome features while others, like Mietek, had slowly withered away.
"Germans got you too, I see," he said, standing next to us. "It's strange that our first meeting after school is in Auschwitz. Can I be of help to you?"
"I'm okay," I replied, "but Mietek has been done in by sport. Can you get him aid for his injuries?"
While the crowd in front of the hospital dispersed, Fred took us through the back door to the washrooms. Here all admitted patients, many of whom were already half-dead and unable to stand, were required to shower themselves. In order to save water, five or six patients were showered at the same time. They simply lay on the cement floor while frigid water was poured on them by one of the Kieliszek brothers, a somewhat retarded pair without much ability to contemplate human suffering.
Bill Kieliszek had developed his own method for diagnosing the condition of a patient. He would direct a very strong stream of cold water on the patient's body; if the patient moved, it was assumed he might survive. Those who remained still were pulled to one side and generally pronounced dead within an hour or two. Bill was proud to be regarded as someone who could make an accurate diagnosis. The SS doctor who inspected the hospital called him "Doctor" Kieliszek though the man was a cobbler by profession. Bill could not see the irony in this title.
Another duty of the Kieliszek brothers and a job they were more suited to be keeping track of the numbers of dying men. When a patient was stripped of his clothing, one of the brothers would write in ink a number on his chest. Patients diagnosed to die were kept together, each bearing a randomly inscribed number given him by a Kieliszek. In the fall of 1940, two or three bodies were often cremated together. At that time the camp authorities still shipped the ashes of the deceased - who always died of "natural causes" - to the family for a price. The random numbering on the bodies did not matter because the ashes were mixed later anyway.
After we had ample time to observe the admitting procedures, Fred returned with some peroxide and iodine. He washed Mietek's bruises, applied iodine generously and then, in the midst of the dead and dying, engaged us in a discussion about the camp, the reasons for our arrest and old times.
We discovered that Fred had a very low three-digit number. He had arrived at Auschwitz with the first 700 prisoners from Tarnow.
"We were the first Polish prisoners here," he told us. "You might say we were the founders of this camp. To have a proper reception for us, the Germans shipped here 30 kapos from the concentration camp in Sachsenhausen. Leo, who's responsible for Mietek's problems, received Number 1. We got numbers from 31 to 720. There was no work at that time. For one month we were doing sport which reduced our numbers by half.
"Hans Bock was given the responsibility of organizing the hospital. Although he's a criminal, for a long time he was a chief doctor and thanks to my knowledge of German, I became his assistant. Actually, Hans isn't a bad guy when the SS-men are not watching."
Although Mietek had never been formally recruited by Thomas into our special unit, he had overheard enough of our talks and in his usual carefree manner asked Fred if he knew of our organization. The younger man was more cautious and barely nodded in assent.
"I know we're not supposed to talk about it to anybody, isn't that right?" he asked, looking quickly at me. "In any case, we now have a Polish doctor in the hospital whose name is Dering. He's a friend of Thomas, from Warsaw."
It was now almost curfew and briefly exchanging a word of thanks, I urged that we hurry back to our barracks.
"Come again tomorrow night," said Fred as we parted. "I might be able to talk some kapos into putting you in a better working group."
Next day we were back in the hospital washroom where Kieliszek greeted us like old friends and went to fetch Fred.
"I have good news," Fred announced. "Mietek is to work in the kitchen peeling potatoes and should report there directly after morning roll call."
Fred also gave me the name and number of a man he called Jan who worked in a surveying group. In case they were looking for another worker, Jan was to give my number to the kapo in charge. Now, I thought, this is work I am much better qualified to do than carpentry. I later found Jan, who turned out to be Fred's junior in the military academy, and he promised to talk to his kapo at the first opportunity.
The following day I went back to my demolition work while Mietek joined the potato peelers. He was very pleased with the job which involved sitting all day scraping potatoes and throwing them into a barrel of water. I also learned that Thomas had been placed with the carpenters, a job arranged with the kapo through Dr. Dering.
Thomas would rarely volunteer to say to whom he talked or who else had joined the organization. The fewer names we knew, he argued, the safer it was for us. By 1943 1 knew most of the names anyway, for by that time I was making contact with a membership that had expanded well beyond our original five. After I confronted him several times, however, Thomas eventually admitted that he knew about Fred and Dr. Dering. He also told me to pursue my possibilities with the surveyors since this group worked outside the camp where we could make valuable contacts with the under-ground.
I went to see Jan again and in a couple of days I was summoned to join the surveyors by their kapo, Fritz, who turned out to be an unbelievable contrast to his counterparts. Despite his green triangle, Fritz was kind, helpful and hated violence. He would assist at work drawing our maps and would write the titles of our project in a beautifully ornamental Gothic script. He was a counterfeiter by profession.
My knowledge of surveying instruments and cartography came in very handy and in a couple of days I was working on my own, with two helpers. The three of us were always guarded by one SS man. However, we soon found out that not all of them wereexterminators. Some, especially the older men, were actually quite human. We could even impress them with our surveying skills and partake of a friendly conversation.
Sometimes we used our profession to our own advantage by placing instruments close to farmhouses or in farmyards. Polish farmers, knowing about the camp conditions and the hunger, often tried to treat the SS guard and then pass pieces of bread, with bacon, to us. Since the guard was forbidden from accepting anything from a civilian, tempting him with food worked as a sort of blackmail; by taking things for himself, he also had to allow us some food. Of course, the majority of SS men would treat even the Polish civilians like a lower race and any contact between us was regarded as either attempts at escape or as spying. We had learned to recognize these types. When under their guard, our surveying would always be done far away from any buildings.
Besides the occasional bits of food which kept us in better condition than others, our surveying work removed us, at least temporarily, from the daily threat of being killed. Our contacts with civilians also proved very valuable in the future. Sometimes we were able to send letters to our families in which we wrote the truth about Auschwitz, instead of the sentence dictated by the Germans: "I am healthy and feel good."
Letters were also sent to the Polish underground and soon underground men were making direct contact with us. Later, regular reports went out describing the main events in the camp. The underground transmitted this information to the headquarters of the Polish army in London, England, and from there it was broadcast to the rest of the world. In 1942 and after, this contact was also used to prepare the underground army for intercepting escaping prisoners.
SS men who sought assignment to the group to obtain extra food and cigarettes could also be persuaded, when the price was right, to allow us more in return than the bacon and bread passed to us by farmers. Sometimes these prices were high indeed, for the guards knew that, if caught taking bribes, they would end up in the concentration camp themselves. But greed is a powerful force and we always had several SS men conveniently working for our cause.
One day, returning from work, I again found Mietek in a very sorry state. Apparently Leo had decided that peeling potatoes was light work for weak people who had left the hospital as convalescents. Not that the room between the camp kitchen and the outside garbage box offered a perfect place for recovery: sitting on benches or on logs around a water-filled barrel, the peelers were constantly adjusting to alternating drafts of hot steam and cold air. From time to time, Leo would raid the group and inevitably find men who, in his opinion, should be capable of doing harder work. Those selected were punished for feigning sickness by being attached to a group doing sport for other offences.
Such was the treatment accorded to Mietek who, as a result, collected more bruises and a very nasty cut on the head. He turned almost instantly into a Musselman both physically and mentally. We decided to seek help again and finding Kieliszek at his customary chores, asked him to fetch Fred.
"You should not give up, Mietek," our colleague said upon seeing my companion. "When you look like a Musselman, you're fair game to be beaten up by anybody. Try to straighten yourself and walk with your head up."
"I know you are right," answered Mietek, "but I've just run out of steam. I don't think I can fight any longer."
"Don't worry," said Fred. "I'll talk to the hospital blockelder, Bock, to persuade him to admit you. Instead of going to work in the morning, join the group in front of the hospital."
The next day was very cold and rainy. I went to work with my surveying partners to find that one of those young, eager representatives of the "super race" had been appointed our SS guard. Although an empty farmhouse stood near our work area, we would be given no chance to get out of the rain. Instead, our SS man took the place for himself and set up a shooting gallery on the front porch. He had us bring a chair from the house, build a wooden support for his rifle, and in appreciation fired a couple of practice shots into the field ahead of him.
"Now you march out there," he told us, pointing along his line of sight. "For targets, I prefer you to those logs, and maybe one of you will give me a day off this lousy post."
We knew very well this was not just a threat, that SS men before him had earned their holidays shooting "escaping" prisoners. Our only hope was that the camp's top management regarded our work as urgent and important, a fact I tried to remind him of.
"If you shoot me," I said, attempting to sound matter-of-fact, "no work will be done and you'll have to take the responsibility. And if you shoot one of my helpers, you'll have to work in his place because the camp commandant expects this job to be completed today."
With these words we took our instruments and went into the field. The SS man sat in his chair taking aim at each of us in turn. He obviously enjoyed our fear. I told my helpers to ignore his antics and to avoid even looking at him.
Just before noon, while I was aiming my instrument at the rod held some distance away by my helper, a shot rang out. The bullet hit the ground just under my feet.
Turning to the SS man, I shouted: "You may have to finish the work yourself if you hit me!"
Even at the distance he was from us, I could see him reload his rifle and take careful aim at me. There was no place to hide, and running would certainly precipitate his shooting by giving him a good excuse to do so. I could only hope he was bluffing. The next few seconds were an eternity for me and my watching colleagues.
Finally the SS man raised his head, laughed loudly and shouted: "Midday break!"
I heard afterwards that this same SS man, assigned to guard a demolition team, had asked one of the prisoners to fetch him a sunflower from a neighbouring garden. When the man started to walk there he ordered him to run, then shot him in the back.
Though I had survived this ordeal, the day still turned out badly. In addition to the shooting scare, I was soaked through by the cold rain. Also, the results of the triangulation were not accurate enough; intimidated by our trigger-happy guard and preoccupied with keeping warm, I had at some point made an error in my calculations. Our kapo was concerned he would be punished for our unfinished work and reproached me for making an enemy of the SS man, whom he said would likely shoot me at the next opportunity.