THE DEATH OF MIETEK AND FATHER KOLBE'S SACRIFICE
After evening roll call, I was shocked to see I someone resembling Mietek lying at the end of our rows among the dead. Approaching the bodies, I discovered it was indeed Mietek, half-conscious and displaying the wounds of a severe beating.
There was no time to be lost. He had to be taken to the hospital at once. I succeeded in pulling him to his feet, but his legs were so stiff he required all the support I could give him. I desperately looked around for help, but men had begun lining up for evening soup and no one wanted to risk losing his portion of the food.
I do not know how I managed to drag my friend across the roll call square to Block 16. By the time we arrived Mietek was unconscious, so I laid him on the ground in the rain and rushed into the washroom to find Fred.
But the one man who could help was unhappy to see me.
"I can't possibly admit him," Fred told me. "Do you know what this silly ass did? Bock examined him and was ready to admit him only because Mietek's my friend, but that wasn't good enough for Mietek. He had to be doubly sure so he rubbed the thermometer so hard it registered 42º Celsius. Bock knows these tricks, of course, and for attempting to fool him sent the guy to Leo for a special treatment of sport."
I had to agree with Fred; Mietek could not have done any-thing worse to jeopardize his chances. Bock, playing the role of medical doctor, was especially sensitive to any attempt at interfering with his official diagnoses. If a man dared to undermine his power, he had to pay for it. But understanding the situation did not change the fact that my friend needed care immediately.
"Mietek is dying," I said. "Would you at least come out with me to look at him?"
The sight of our badly beaten companion must have soothed Fred's anger somewhat.
"Let me see if Bock will be forgiving and compassionate enough to admit him now. I doubt it very much, but let me try."
A short time later both Fred and Bock emerged from the hospital. Bock examined Mietek, gave me a lecture on honesty in the camp, then ordered Fred to admit him. It was an unusually magnanimous gesture from a German criminal.
When I returned to my block all the soup was distributed; I had missed my main meal. However, I was glad that Mietek had a friend in the hospital and a good chance to get better.
Next day the weather improved significantly and my surveying team got a previously tamed SS man as our guard. We went first to the farmhouse where each of us received a piece of bread with bacon and coffee. Watching the guard as he munched on the bacon together with his prisoners, I thought of how little he looked like a member of a super race. His gun stood against the wall within easy reach of any one of us, offering an ideal means of escape; we were also a long way from the camp. It did not even occur to us, however, to use this opportunity. An escape at that time brought responsibility on the prisoner's family, who were brought to the camp and hanged in front of the kitchen. The remaining prisoners were also punished by having to stand at roll call while ten men were selected to starve to death in specially constructed concrete cells called bunkers. Without windows, they were so small one could not stand erect and so narrow one could not sit down. This punishment was later "improved" by putting ten men in a bunker at a time. What happened in that cell before its occupants died was difficult to imagine - even for us, who had become used to all sorts of brutality.
Bunker with bricks removed from one corner
to show the smallness of the interior
(courtesy of Auschwitz-Birkenau Museum)
The Germans liked this type of punishment so much they apparently devised a means of watching their unfortunate victims and ensured that plenty of these chambers were constructed in the penal block. Prisoners would sometimes spend 12, 24 or 36 hours there for such minor infractions as "sluggishness" in removing one's cap in front of an SS man.
Fearing such severe repercussions, the underground army agreed in 1940 to discourage escapes. Indeed, those of us who found opportunities to flee had to make very tough decisions for the next year and a half, until the regulations were changed.
I went immediately to the hospital at the end of our working day to check how Mietek was doing. Fred informed me that the poor man could not pass even Kieliszek's diagnostic procedures. He had died on the cement floor of the shower room without regaining consciousness.
Late in 1940 the camp was surrounded by two tall encirclements of barbed wire, punctuated at intervals by guard towers perched high up for the benefit of SS men armed with machine guns. During working hours an outer as well as an inner ring of sentries guarded every working area in the camp and its surroundings. The sentries of the outer ring, though far removed from the working squads, were also positioned on high wooden towers within sight of each other.
If, at evening roll call, all prisoners were accounted for, the outer ring was withdrawn. Should someone be absent, the outer guards remained in position and we were kept standing in the square while a special detachment of kapos and SS men with dogs went out in search of the deserter.
Very often the "escapee" proved to be one of the Musselmen who had retired into some tight spot to die in peace. But whatever the reason, no prisoner could budge from his position until the man, living or dead, was found. On one occasion we stood at attention for 36 hours. Many among us were killed or severely beaten by furious blockelders who had to join us in waiting out the search without food.
There inevitably came a time when someone actually was missing. Kapos and SS men searched every inch of the outer ring but came back empty-handed. Apprehension on a new scale ran through our ranks: because the missing man was from our block, ten of our block-mates would now be chosen for slow death in a bunker of the penal block.
The wait was unnerving. We were standing in two rows about five paces apart. Up came Fritsch with his deputy, Aumeier, and the infamous Palitsch. Behind them marched the SS men responsible for the roll call procedures and a couple of SS guards with dogs. Aumeier walked slowly down the ranks, often stopping and looking into the eyes of the terror-stricken prisoners. Occasionally he would point at a man with his riding whip and the victim was immediately dragged out in front of the block. Several of my colleagues were already standing there. A grave silence prevailed during this procedure. Even the usual shouting of the SS men was absent.
When they finally approached my row, I noticed a look of complete indifference and even boredom in Fritsch's eyes.
My face has an unfortunate characteristic: my mouth is shaped so that it appears I am smiling even when I am in a most serious mood. I was obviously as scared as everyone else, but my face did not show it. As Fritsch came up to me he looked surprised, paused, lifted up his whip - his eyes showing curiosity and interest for a second or so - then he walked away. Looking back at him I somehow knew that it would not be my turn to die, though he went through almost all the motions to select me. Perhaps it was that moment of eye contact that saved me. I will never know.
Fritsch passed along, followed by Aumeier and Palitsch. As Palitsch walked by me, he said: "You were lucky this time." I knew that I was lucky but I regretted that Palitsch had registered my face - he was a dangerous man to know. At last ten men were selected. The commandant returned to his place in front of our block, said something about the joint responsibility for escapes, and was prepared to walk away when an incident occurred unlike anything else in the history of the camp.
From our ranks a prisoner suddenly leapt forward. He was about 50 years of age, quite thin from hunger and wore Dutch wooden shoes, but his face and light blue eyes were lit with a radiant smile. Boldly and in a loud, clear voice, he said: I would like to speak to the commandant!"
Everyone stood astounded. A prisoner asking to speak to the commandant? At this time and in such a daring voice?
Even the kapos were dumbfounded and did not move to silence him. The SS men just looked at Fritsch, wondering what he would say. Fritsch seemed to be interested. Turning to the prisoner, he asked him in an almost polite voice: "What would you like to talk to me about?"
The prisoner pointed to a man standing among those condemned to die and who was crying like a child. Then he said, strongly and evenly, the smile still clearly visible: "I want to ask you, sir, to let me change places with this man."
"Is he your son?" asked the commandant.
"No sir, I have never seen him before. But he is young and I haven't a very long time to live anyway."
The commandant frowned, then simply nodded his agreement and walked away.
The prisoner went up to the man, tapped him on the shoulder and gently pushed him back into the ranks. Then, still smiling, he took his place among the condemned.
St. Maksimilian Kolbe in 1940
(courtesy of the Franciscan Friary
The man who displayed this heroic behaviour was a Roman Catholic priest named Father Kolbe. Sometime later Fred informed me that our Doctor Bock went at night to the bunker, dragged out the semiconscious Kolbe and injected phenol into his heart, causing instant death. We interpreted this as an act of euthanasia, delivered by a German criminal to a saintly Catholic monk.