OF MORGUES AND HORSESIt was on a day in late November, when a heavy snow fell and the temperature dropped below freezing, that the camp had its greatest mortality. Musselmen froze to death and squads working in the industrial park had to drag back unusually large numbers of dead or dying colleagues. That same day these working parties unloaded countless boxes that had arrived from the concentration camp in Dachau. According to the rumours, the boxes contained underwear, coats and caps.
This time the rumours were correct. After roll call each man received a pair of underwear and a cap, and those of us working outside were also delivered striped coats. The shipment, although late, was a real blessing, since the winter of 1940-41 was particularly cold and started unusually early. However, it also brought unwelcome guests - lice. These pests spread so fast in the dirt and filth of the camp that a new ritual had to be performed before going to bed: everybody would undress and try to catch lice in their under-wear. Deemed our "social hour," it was the only entertainment granted us. One ingenious fellow collected especially big, fat lice that he conscripted into a louse circus. There were lice pulling a rollwagon, lice with banners named after kapos and blockelders, and lice accorded personalities like those of Leo and Bruno.
Auschwitz officials carried out many unsuccessful attempts at delousing the camp. Men in block after block were obligated to surrender all their clothing to steam ovens, and mattresses were thoroughly disinfected. But as the unsanitary conditions prevailed, so too did the lice.
By now the numbers assigned to newly arriving prisoners had risen above 15,000, though the actual number alive was about half that figure. In order to accommodate the newcomers, three storey bunks were built by the carpenters and eventually additional blocks were erected. The camp officials also decided to segregate "professional workers" from the others. I was transferred to a block where, to my delight, I found that my friend and fellow officer Stan Kazuba was a roomelder. Also moved to our new block was Thomas, then working as a carpenter. This gave us more opportunities to talk about the underground army and in time, Thomas sent out his first reports through my civilian contacts to our headquarters in Warsaw.
Unfortunately, I was unable to perform this mission because two days after changing blocks Fritz told me I must find another working group. Apparently the SS man who had used me for target practice spoke to our kapo in confidence about assigning me to a less important task. His intent was to show me how good a shot he was by shooting me in the arms and legs without killing me. I did not relish the thought of proving his marksmanship, particularly since we both knew that a prisoner was only to be shot for an attempted escape and, therefore, was to be shot dead. In any event, my work as a surveyor came to an abrupt and disappointing end. Once again I had to return to the general working force, exposed to all the dangers which, for a short time, I had been lucky to escape.
December was not exactly the best time to begin again carrying a shovel and pushing a wheelbarrow.
Perhaps the only consolation at the time was that my number, 4618, considered low in comparison to those given recent arrivals, earned me a little respect from the kapos and even the SS men. The kapos knew that I and others like myself bearing "old numbers" must have influential friends somewhere to survive so long and therefore deserved better treatment. Such special considerations, however, did not extend to working times when we stood side by side with newcomers digging ditches.
"How did you last?" the kapos would ask, adding "if you didn't get a good taste of my club before, I'll show you how tough it is now!"
I thus began desperately trying to find a working group that would give me a better chance to survive.
Also important to me was to be allowed to stay in the tradesmen's block. This in itself was a privilege since the block contained no Musselmen, was generally cleaner (we still had lice but in smaller quantities), and we were more frequently and better treated for scabies, an infectious skin disease that had spread throughout the camp, leaving men scarred as if they were the victims of some terrible plague. The treatment of scabies consisted of smearing a tar-like paste all over the body until we were all black; another kind of paste, containing sulphur, was also used. As showering was infrequent, the paste tended to irritate the skin, especially around scratches and open wounds. The medication always seemed in short supply - so once again my friendly relationship with Fred proved helpful.
One day I went with Thomas to see Fred about organizing some sulphuric paste. Our friend would always assist us on these occasions. This time, however, while we were covering our bodies with the paste in the Kieliszek's shower room, Dr. Dering walked in. He started to swear and shout at the top of his lungs, ordering us out.
At that moment Fred returned, alerted by the commotion.
"Don't you know who these men are?" he asked Dering. "I thought you'd at least recognize your friend Thomas."
Although Thomas knew Dr. Dering from Warsaw, he pre-pared to leave without saying a word. But Dering stopped him, his expression completely changed, now very apologetic. He even invited us to his room above the showers after we finished our treatment.
The difference in the characters of these two men was startling. Thomas was a gentle, shy, unimposing person - hardly the type one would imagine coming to Auschwitz voluntarily to organize an underground movement. Dering, on the other hand, was an extrovert - loud, domineering, egocentric, confident, full of energy and with an insatiable desire to outshine anyone in his presence. He divided people into two categories: those whom he might need in the future, and those whom he could completely ignore.
We went to visit him with Fred. The doctor was likely thinking that someday he might need the services of the underground, for he was very kind to us, even offering Thomas and me some of his meal.
"There is a half a bowl of today's soup if any of you want it. They keep giving it to me. I suppose it is the German - 'Ordnung muss sein' (There must be order.)
He laughed at his joke and continued: "I do not eat this stuff. Cooks bring me some meat and guys here fry it for me with some potatoes. I love fried potatoes!"
This was a time when Dering could see for himself thousands of men dying from hunger. Indeed, Thomas and I did not look much better than half-dead Musselmen ourselves. We just sat there swallowing our saliva thinking about those fried potatoes. It was not very sophisticated tact Dering was displaying, but he needed to brag about his power and importance.
Still talking, he shoved the bowl to Thomas who readily accepted the offer. After finishing exactly half of the soup, Thomas passed it to me saying: "You must be hungry also." I hated Dering's attitude so much I told the greatest lie of my life: "No, I'm not hungry, thank you. You can finish it if you want."
Thomas polished off the rest of the soup while Dering continued to chatter.
"You know, I showed these German doctors how surgery should be performed. The other day I took an appendix out in three minutes flat. Those German doctors come here to learn from me.
"We had two cases of gall bladder surgery, so I let a young German fellow take one while I handled the other. You know, it took him four hours! Then I did my case. From the incision to the closing of the wound took me exactly 20 minutes!"
At this moment Thomas shyly interrupted: "Our organization is losing a very vital contact with the outside in the surveyors' group." He then described my encounter with the SS guard.
"That's no problem," said Dering. "What's the name of this SS guard? I can ask one of the SS doctors to talk to him and he will leave you in peace. Do you know I was a commanding officer in the Warsaw underground before I was arrested?"
I did not believe he could really influence that particular SS man so I immediately declined the offer, telling him that the kapo had already hired another man in my place.
"This is no problem either," said Dering. "Fred can fix you temporarily with the potato peelers and next week I will be looking for someone for our surgical outpatients' department. If I do not find anybody better, you could have that job."
This was an offer I could not refuse.
"Thank you," I answered. "I think it would be the best solution."
That was the end of our conversation. We went back to our barracks while Dering continued talking to Fred.
Next day, after the morning roll call, I reported to the kapo of the potato peelers. He already knew I was going to work in the hospital and assuming he might eventually need me to organize some medication, promised to help me dodge Leo. That was a very important promise. One day the kapo was in the kitchen and Leo appeared on one of his raids. Among the old and sick, my face stood out like a sore thumb.
Leo came directly to me.
"What are you doing here?"
"I am peeling potatoes," I said politely.
"What kind of a stupid answer is that?" he barked.
"There was need for extra help and I volunteered to do it."
Leo grabbed me by the shoulder.
"Now you are volunteering for sport!"
At that instant the kapo of the potato peelers walked in from the kitchen.
"Let me punish that man!" he shouted. "What did he do?"
"He is too healthy to work as a potato peeler," Leo replied.
My kapo laughed and said: "You're right, he is healthy. But he's not a potato peeler, he's a cook's helper!"
"Then what is he doing here?" pressed Leo, without letting go of my shoulder.
"We needed a lot of potatoes in a hurry. I had to use anybody I could spare!"
It was merely accidental that this statement coincided with what I had said earlier. Releasing his grip, Leo slapped me on the back and said: "All right then, show these Musselmen how to work fast!"
With these words he turned and left without examining the other men in the group.
This incident merely illustrated the system of mutual favours that had sprung up in the camp. Because Leo needed, from time to time, some extra food, he would not harm anybody working in the kitchen. My kapo, in turn, needed medication from the hospital and knowing I would be working there, protected me. The SS men also organized food from their kitchen and were therefore unusually polite to kitchen personnel. Each of us relied on a plan of mutual interdependence.
The SS men in the surveyors' group also required our help to get goodies from the civilians; consequently, they too treated their prisoners well. "To organize" something was a motto of the day: the better a man was at using his contacts, the more likely he would get what he needed. To organize also meant to steal, generally from the common supply rather than from an individual. The lives of prisoners, kapos and SS men consisted of the continuous process of organizing. It was also the reason some of us who could organize lived, and those who could not died. To survive at Auschwitz, one had to adapt to the laws of camp life. Some, of course, organized not only to survive but to satisfy their greed.
While waiting for my position in the hospital to open up, I stayed with the potato peelers for three weeks. It was a job that could keep one alive. Cooks would occasionally pass extra food to the peelers and we were spared direct exposure to rain and snow, though we were in no way protected from the cold. The shed in which we worked was unheated, but because our job was indoors we had to surrender our coats. Peeling potatoes in near-freezing temperatures was not the greatest pleasure. But it offered, most of the time, no direct threat to our survival.
At last I got the job I had waited so anxiously for. I had a shower, received a new, clean uniform and underwear, and was assigned to Dr. Dering's surgical outpatients' department.
Dering began his instructions by saying: "As I recall, cavalry officers do not have to think - they have a horse for that. Now let's see what I can teach you about treating injuries."
The man's arrogance irritated me beyond measure. Obviously he was making little attempt to endear himself to me.
"Please do not assume everyone besides you is stupid," I advised.
"You misunderstand me," he said. "I was also in the cavalry and let the horse think for me, but by then I had proven myself as a medical doctor."
"Then there's no misunderstanding,"' I said. "The medical men I saw in the cavalry couldn't ride. Obviously the horse had no choice but to take responsibility for the good doctor."
Dering was visibly annoyed and without further digs at the cavalry, continued his instructions. Because the camp hospital had a very limited number of medications, my training as a male nurse only took about five minutes.
"There is iodine and antiseptic powder for uninfected wounds, Ichtyol, a cream for slow healing wounds, and potassium permanganate for cleaning septic wounds. You will learn how to apply them today after roll call."
With these words Dering finished his remarks and walked away.
Directly after roll call I was inside the hospital door. Dering had introduced a new procedure to speed up the processing of patients. He first appointed two men to arrange the patients in line outside and separate out the "emergencies." Inside, two men sorted the patients needing surgical help, a change of dressing, or other medical attention. The temperature and the pulse rate of the patients was taken and only then were they permitted to see the doctor.
He performed with astonishing speed, ordering aspirin for colds, charcoal tablets for diarrhoea, or admission to the hospital in extreme cases. Each patient was granted no more than a minute or two of his time, yet he managed to see, in an hour, everybody who had been waiting outside. During these visits he made a large number of enemies. Perhaps 80 per cent of the men sent out the door were ill enough to deserve admission. But the hospital had room for only a few each day and Dering would admit only the number he could accommodate. Needless to say, his decisions were harsh; those unable to survive one more day were admitted and those who could last another two or three days were sent back to work.
Dering was eventually appointed chief surgeon of the hospital and Dr. Diem succeeded him in charge of admissions. A short, kindly man in his mid-forties, Diem offered a welcome change; he would see at the most 20 patients in two hours and examine them very thoroughly, admitting almost everyone. A more sensitive and compassionate man than Dering, he had no difficulty winning the admiration and respect of his patients. Perhaps his only flaw was that he was too methodical, for not infrequently several hundred injured and dying men were left waiting outside, many of whom did not have a chance even to reach the front door. Although Dering's practices seemed heartless and brutal, they were in those grim circumstances more rational. Of course, under normal conditions Dr. Dering should not have been a physician, but such conditions never prevailed at Auschwitz.
A common ailment at the time I began my apprenticeship was infection. Very often it would spread deep into the flesh and burst open at some other place on the skin. Dering showed me how to treat such cases. With one quick movement, he would insert long forceps into the wound until their end came out the other opening. Then he would pick a piece of gauze saturated in potassium permanganate and pull it back through the wound until he could draw the forceps free. Gauze was left in the wound until the next visit.
I received a lot of scolding for the way I performed this treatment. Instead of ramming the forceps through the wound, I attempted to find the path of the infection. This method was never fast enough for Dering, but the patients appreciated it and very soon all the men needing it done lined up in front of me whom they regarded as the "specialist." Dr. Dering was furious.
"If you continue to dilly-dally with patients like that," he warned, "you'll go back to work with Siegrud!"
Then, perhaps trying to justify himself, he added: "It is a painful procedure, but when I do it the patient doesn't even have time to scream."
I think that he believed in what he said because I later had the opportunity to see him in the operating room. He was indeed an extremely skilful and efficient surgeon. His darker side emerged as a consequence of his program for survival, based almost exclusively on a desire to gratify influential people. Dering was never too busy to treat a kapo or blockelder, even for a minor skin cut. He would also go out of his way to impress the SS doctors with his skills and his readiness to be of service. I suspected the majority of operations he performed were for the benefit of these doctors, with whom he would spend hours in the surgery discussing various techniques and strategies. Once, while performing surgery for a hernia, he removed a large portion of skin from the scrotum of a patient. To please a German surgeon, he had the skin tanned and then found someone to make a tobacco pouch out of it.
His indulgence of the camp authorities was later taken to extremes. Perhaps his most infamous decision resulted in him cooperating with German doctors on experiments in sterilization methods. After applying various doses of X-ray radiation to men's testicles and women's ovaries - using Jewish prisoners as guinea pigs - Dering removed the irradiated organs by surgery to examine the results.
When I asked him after the war why he did it, he replied: "They were all destined to follow the 3,000 or so Jews killed in gas chambers every day. The Germans could have killed them first and then removed the organs. I was actually saving their lives."
Ironically, following the war some Jews whose lives he "saved" were among the first to testify against him for war crimes.
In the winter of 1940-41 the first Jews were allowed to visit the hospital for treatment. Apparently, the order had come from Berlin that all prisoners should have access to medical care. Little did it matter whether the men sent to us were to be killed the same day; everything had to be done according to the regulations.
One day 12 men suffering from frostbite arrived from the penal block accompanied by their blockelder. I was on duty at the time. The men were herded into a corner of the emergency room. No one was allowed to talk to them. They were treated as all others from the penal block, although their only crime was that they were Jewish. Polish prisoners in the penal block were at least proven enemies, either captured as members of the Polish underground or taken prisoner in armed combat. The Germans kept these men alive, temporarily, in case more information could be extracted from them at a later date. Jews, on the other hand, were assigned to this block simply because they were condemned to die.
An armed SS man stood guard over the 12, excusing his presence by telling us, with the utmost conviction, how dangerous these men were and why it was necessary to maintain their isolation. It was later confirmed each of the Jews had been rounded up on the streets of Warsaw.
Dr. Dering was summoned to examine them. After a while he called me and another orderly to apply the treatment. In the hospital we were used to seeing all kinds of human misery, but what we saw now thoroughly shocked us. The man assigned to me removed his wooden shoes to reveal the two feet of a skeleton, completely devoid of flesh. The bones were brown in colour, probably frozen as well. Many of the other patients were in similar condition. How these men were able to walk, let alone perform the work expected of them, was beyond my comprehension. I had no idea what kind of treatment to attempt; it seemed impossible that anything I could do would help.
Dering, as usual, had a ready solution.
"Just sprinkle the bones with disinfecting powder and apply some bandages," he said and walked away. It was even too much for him.
While putting the powder on, the smell of rotten flesh and bones was so overpowering I had to interrupt the work from time to time in order not to throw up. I decided to complete the treatment by wrapping the bones in a thick layer of bandages, to make it easier for the men to walk.
But that idea was cut short by Dr. Dering who, monitoring me at a distance, barked: "Paper bandages!"
I interrupted my work, went up to Dering and said very quietly: "When they walk out into the snow, those bandages will last less than five minutes."
"Yes," he replied. "And how long do you think they are going to survive after they leave this place? More than five minutes? One hour? Maybe two? We have only a few cotton bandages and we need them where they'll be useful."
In hindsight, the logic of his response was perhaps irrefutable. These men certainly had not long to live and such rarities as cotton bandages could no doubt have served a better purpose. But I remember that at the time I was outraged. I also knew not all the cotton bandages were going to be used for people who really needed them - that Dering had established a cache for kapos and other influential people.
As time passed, Dering gave less and less of his attention to the underground, fearing his involvement might endanger him personally or compromise his position in the hospital. On one occasion, however, he agreed to the placing of a stolen radio under a sink in the German doctor's office; while underground men were installing it, he was conveniently at the other end of the camp establishing his alibi. He was too busy to see Thomas, and I also suspected I would be fired at the first opportunity.
The mortality rate reached its peak in Auschwitz in the winter of 1940-41. Deaths attributed to "natural causes" included killings by kapos and blockelders or the incidental shooting of prisoners by SS men. In 1942 began the mass exterminations in the gas chambers of Jewish men and women, most of whom never entered the camp as prisoners. Executions on a smaller scale, however, started in early 1941. Prisoners put in the penal block who survived too long or whose use to the Gestapo had expired - such as Polish officers or men the Warsaw Gestapo believed to belong to the underground - were led to the gravel pit behind the camp kitchen. One by one they stood before a firing squad and were shot at the command of an SS officer. After 1942 the Germans dispensed with this ritual. Small numbers, including those brought to the camp by the local Gestapo simply to be executed, were taken by Palitsch to the yard of Block 13 (later renumbered Block 11) and shot in the back of the head with a .22 calibre rifle, while larger numbers were sent to the gas chambers.
It was the job of the hospital to collect dead bodies wherever they happened to lie, undress them, write numbers on their chests and deliver them to the crematorium. The morgue, located in the basement of the hospital, was presided over by two prisoners, Albert and Alex. They had to attend all executions, collect the still-warm, bleeding bodies - often of their very good friends - and deliver them to the crematorium. Not infrequently, the corpses far outnumbered those they could handle, at which times other hospital workers were called in to help.
Fortunately, I managed to avoid this job, though by Auschwitz standards it ranked among the more favourable. I was always kept informed, however, by Albert and Alex, who were never too busy to miss giving me a first-hand description of who was executed and how.
Wladyslaw Siwek, Christmas Eve 1940
On Christmas Eve, 1940, 1 was invited by Albert to come down to the morgue for a Christmas dinner. It was a curious place for such an occasion, but then it was also one of the safest places in the camp. SS men did not go there; even kapos and blockelders avoided it. In the evening, when the last outpatients left and for lack of a better place to celebrate Christmas, I decided to accept the invitation.
The basement consisted of a large room with a cement floor and drain in the middle. At one end, a collection of corpses were stacked high to provide more floor space. A sort of table, made by stacking three coffins one on top of the other, had been erected in the centre of the room. It was covered with a white bed sheet and at its centre stood a Christmas tree. Around the table were more coffins which served as benches. In a corner opposite the corpses I spotted Alex leaning over a hot plate, busily preparing our feast. He was frying potato pancakes - our main dish.
We were joined in this setting by a Catholic priest who, after we were seated, said a short prayer for the dead and the living, blessed the food, then opened an envelope and took out a Christmas wafer. Breaking the altar bread into small pieces and passing them to everyone, he wished us all survival and a reunion with our families. Then we dug into the pancakes. Albert even treated us to a drink organized from the hospital's alcohol supply. I think it was rubbing alcohol because it was generously spiced with the camp's marmalade to kill the bitter taste.
We had no good news about the war or from our families, but somehow we managed to whip up some hope that eventually the Germans would lose the war and we would get home. We even sang a few Christmas carols. The general mood, in spite of the gruesome surroundings, was reasonably happy. Our celebration was certainly more than that provided to other prisoners who had to be content with eating their regular portion of food, killing a few lice and going to sleep. Upon deciding to go to bed ourselves, we had to pass by an Even livelier party going on above in Dr. Dering's room. Walking quietly by the door, we were horrified to see Leo suddenly emerge. Fortunately he was dead drunk, as was Bock who followed closely on his heels. Shortly after came Fred Stoessel, who had started the party with us but then joined the "upper class" upstairs.
Although I regarded him as a friend, it soon became evident to me that Fred was a power-hungry man. Because he spoke perfect German, he was popular among the kapos and blockelders for whom he would do little favours. In fact, a year later he himself became a blockelder of one of the hospital blocks. For now, he made himself useful to Bock and Dering and they gladly used him to expedite some of their orders. Fred was an early member of our organization and I am sure he hated the German authorities as much as we did, but he just could not help pushing for power.
The constant exposure in the camp to human suffering and death inevitably blunted in all of us both sensitivity and compassion, but the effect on many was nothing short of dehumanisation. Fred, Dering and others fell victim to this transformation which, of course, was what the SS authorities desired. As more and more Jews were discovered among the new arrivals, the Germans were incapable of exterminating them fast enough. Eventually groups of them were sent to the hospital where an SS doctor injected phenol directly into their hearts. Fred Stoessel and Mietek Panszczak were his assistants. I later learned they took over his job and also killed large numbers of Jews from the penal block.
"Why do you do this dirty work for them?" I recall asking Fred.
"Just think," he told me, "would you rather die instantly or be clubbed to death over several days?"
"You ask the wrong question," I said, "conveniently forgetting that the Germans have set up these camps to exterminate Poles, Jews and others. Why should we Poles, who are fighting Germans even here in Auschwitz, help them in this terrible scheme?"
But he was not convinced. He had been in the camp longer than I and had already become fully convinced that all of us would die there. As for the Jews, his excuse that "they cannot live longer than a couple of weeks anyway, so why not give them an easier death?" sounded remarkably like Dering's.
Attempting to imagine the gruesome business from his point of view, I asked: "Are these men not panic stricken when they see your long needle?"
"Oh no!" he replied confidently. "They never even get a glimpse of it. I simply tell them that before being admitted to the hospital they must have a vaccination. I seat them back to back on two stools, insisting that they hold each other with linked arms in case one of them faints. Then, hiding the needle with one hand, I handle each at a time. The injection takes only a fraction of a second. There's no sound. The other guy is still holding his already dead colleague and I do the same thing to him. Then Albert and Alex take them out through the door to the morgue downstairs and the next pair is admitted."
I thought I knew this man quite well, and yet I could not be sure whether he really believed what he was doing was right. No doubt others, including Palitsch, also had ready justification for the atrocities they committed. However, I am equally sure Fred Stoessel, injecting Jews from the penal block with phenol, and Palitsch, shooting condemned prisoners in the back of their heads, derived special pleasure from their actions.
Fred's willingness to kill was also utilized by the Auschwitz underground to eliminate spies. The SS political department as well as the camp security were always actively seeking informers to reveal any dangerous movements among the prisoners. The conditions in the camp were so terrible that, unfortunately, many weaker inmates agreed to supply the Gestapo with news of any suspicious activity in return for extra food or protection against beatings. The underground army had to deal with such people. The most common way was to frame such spies for stealing food from a kapo or blockelder and let the German criminals do the dirty work. However, the Gestapo also implanted in the camp special German spies who could speak Polish and pretended to have been arrested for activity in the Polish underground. These were the most dangerous and the most difficult to unmask.
By 1941, prisoners were employed as clerks in the SS offices to help administer the camp's complex organization. There were simply not enough Germans to fill all the positions in their highly bureaucratic system. Some of these prisoners were recruited by our organization and often supplied vital information about implanted Gestapo spies.
The system used by the Gestapo was at times very crude, enabling us to recognize immediately such spies. Once an SS man brought to Bock a new prisoner to be employed as a male nurse. Things like that did not normally happen. The special privilege demanded for the new prisoner naturally gave rise to suspicions. Fortunately there was also animosity between the SS doctors and the Gestapo. Dering promptly reported to an SS doctor that the Gestapo had implanted a man in the hospital to spy either on the prisoners or on the SS doctors. The SS doctor was furious, but because he was also afraid of the Gestapo, he insinuated to his superiors that everyone knew who this person was and that there was no point in keeping him in the hospital. Sometime later the man's number was called to report to the front gate. That was the last we saw of him.
Another incident proved much more serious. A new prisoner arrived with the transport from Krakow. His profession was listed as carpenter, so he was assigned to the carpenters' group in which Thomas was working. He claimed the Gestapo arrested him on suspicion of belonging to the underground army, that he had been suspicion of belonging to the underground army, that he had been interrogated several times, but after ten days in prison was shipped with others to Auschwitz.
It was a normal state of affairs. There were hundreds of men in similar circumstances and the fellow was accepted as trust-worthy. After several days Thomas confided to me that a new man in his working group was eager to organize an underground movement in the camp. Following extensive questioning, Thomas decided to recruit him for our work and introduced him to four of his immediate contacts. A couple of days later, members of the group that had arrived by train from Krakow told us they suspected one of the men among them to be a Gestapo agent. This suspicion was quickly traced to our carpenter.
The men who shared a cell with the new prisoner informed us that each time he was taken for interrogation, the Gestapo found out exactly what was said in their cell. Moreover, two of their colleagues had been executed as a result of information leaked from the prison. We started to watch the man more closely. He was indeed pumping everybody for whatever they would tell him. We then asked one of our spies to check his file in the political department of the camp. The file was normal, except that it omitted such obvious details as a home address and proceedings from interrogations with the Gestapo. In their place we found one sentence: "Special assignment."
Now that we knew he was not just an informer but an SS man, we were faced with the problem of getting rid of him without any reprisals from our own Gestapo. He already knew too much and we had to stop him from talking to any of his compatriots about his discoveries. Arrangements had no doubt been made for him to meet with some high ranking officers and to attend other very important meetings. Our plan was to somehow get him into the hospital where Fred could take care of him. Unfortunately, he insisted on being in perfect health and did not want to go, even for a visit. Then one of our men who worked in the stables brought us some laxative used for the horses. On an evening when the carpenters were cooking for themselves special food which happened to be stolen from the SS magazines, we implanted it in the man's portion. Our spy liked the food, although he was curious how it had been removed from magazines he believed were so well guarded.
After the roll call he started to run to the latrine. I think he suspected this was not an accident, for at one ponit he asked to go to the front gate. Two of our men took him under the arms, arguing it was dangerous to go there at that time because the SS sentries were under orders to shoot. It was true and he knew it.
The only place for help was the hospital. Fred arranged the admission and performed several tests to mislead the SS doctor into thinking the man suffered from meningitis. Next morning, at the routine check-up, Fred described the symptoms to the SS doctor. It turned out, however, that the doctor recognized the spy as one of his own and demanded a more thorough check-up. Expecting this, Fred proceeded to carry out a great deception.
One of the check-ups involved a test of the spinal fluid. While the SS doctor was watching, Fred took a fresh syringe from the autoclave and pretended to prepare himself for extracting the sample of fluid. At that moment, he switched to another syringe full of pus taken from the infected wound of a prisoner. He then injected the pus into the man's spinal column and invited the SS doctor to take the actual specimen. The doctor had never before performed this test and, pleased the needle was already inserted, promptly obliged by drawing out some of the contaminated fluid. After examining the specimen under a microscope, the doctor was so alarmed by the condition of his special patient that he immediately arranged to transfer him to the SS hospital outside the camp. About an hour passed before an ambulance arrived to take him away. By then the man was delirious. He died two days later.
The doctor admitted to Fred several days after the incident that the man was a member of the SS from the Krakow Gestapo.
"If I hadn't taken the spinal fluid from the fellow myself," he told him, "'I'd have been sure you Poles killed him."
One day in March, 1941, Fred came to me and said: "I think that tomorrow you'll have to start looking for another job. Dr. Dering has decided to fire you and hire one of those important lawyers who arrived from Warsaw a few days ago."
This was terrible news, for it meant returning to the general work force in the industrial park only to experience again the hunger, cold, hard labour and constant danger of being killed.
"Could he not give me at least a week to find another job?" I inquired.
"Don't let him know I told you -this, but you could ask him to suggest you to some kapo. He knows them all and I'm sure that on his recommendation you'll find some safe place of work."
Without wasting any time I sought out Dering, who was busily manicuring his fingernails in his room.
"May I talk to you for a few minutes?" I asked in the most composed manner I could muster. I knew that at this moment he was in a position to make a decision on which my life would depend.
He was not pleased to see me and said very abruptly: "What do you want to see me for? I've got a lot on my mind and don't have time for small talk."
It was not the best start, but I had to get confirmation of Fred's report. Discreetly omitting names, I asked if he intended to let me go.
Dering practically shouted at me as if I had done something terribly wrong.
"I need people who are fast workers and who don't dillydally with patients! This isn't a sanatorium - one has to work hard or else you're out!"
I understood this hostility was intended only to reinforce his decision. He had recently complimented me several times on my ability to grasp medical problems and had even been surprised that I could, after his surgery, close the wound almost as fast as he could. Knowing he would dodge the real reason for my firing, I wanted to obtain from him at least a little time to find something else.
"Would it not be possible for me to stay a few more days, so that I can ask around about the availability of another reasonable job?"
"The decision has already been made by Bock and as you're aware he is the highest authority here. Besides, I've made arrangements for your replacement."
There was no point in prolonging this conversation. I decided to waste no more time and to start immediately looking for other options.
The first people I visited were Stan Kazuba and Thomas. Not only were they good friends, but I had been able to help them get extra food from the hospital and any medical attention they needed. Stan tried to talk to his kapo in the carpenters' shop but without much success. We also asked his blockelder about a job in the block but he too brushed us off with the excuse that everything was running fine. My one consolation was that, because I still worked in the hospital, blockelders and kapos were at least talking to me instead of using their clubs for faster communication.
One of my former patients was a foreman with the electricians. I found him in his block and asked if his group had a vacancy.
He gave me a puzzled look, then said: "The kapo is examining everybody before allowing them in and you, as a male nurse, haven't a chance. Besides, you're the best male nurse in the hospital, so why are they letting you go?"
"I have to tell you this secret," I said, drawing close to him. "I'm not a male nurse at all. In fact, I learned everything I know in the hospital. I'm actually an electrician."
His face registered disbelief, then he grinned sympathetically.
"Listen, I'd hate to see you hurt, but if the kapo were to find out you're not an electrician that would be the end of you."
I agreed with him, but still maintained that this was my profession. My insistence eventually won out.
"If you're so sure of yourself, let's go to the kapo and let him examine you right now. At least your only risk is that he won't have a job for you."
The kapo, Hans, wore a green triangle and was a safecracker by profession. My request pleased him, primarily because it gave him the opportunity to boast about his own abilities. He stated proudly that he had studied electrical engineering at the university and would soon find out whether I was telling the truth.
The interview began with the question: "If you want to drill a hole in a safe, can you plug your drill into an ordinary wall outlet?"
"Yes," I replied confidently. "The drill won't consume more than 15 amperes, so there should be no problem."
"Oh!" he said. "That's very good, but now tell me - if you want to drill a big hole in the concrete wall around the safe, can you still use the outlet?"
"It depends on the size of the drill's motor," I told him. "There is usually a little plate that gives you that information, and from it you can determine whether a wall outlet is sufficient."
Not expecting this answer, he paused briefly to recover his composure, then exclaimed with a self-satisfied smile: "You see, there you are wrong! The kind of drills used to put holes in concrete would burn fuses every time you tried to use such an outlet."
Our conversation continued for about an hour, during which time Hans exhibited his wide knowledge about different kinds of wires, electric motors, and even the kind of insulators required on electric poles. I had only to agree with him to make him happy. After the examination he pronounced me a professional electrician and said he would admit me to his working group the moment he needed someone. When we parted, I noticed the foreman regarding me with admiration.
"You must be a very clever man," he told me. "At times, I myself didn't know what the kapo was talking about."
I refrained from answering, thinking that Hans did not know what he was talking about either. My satisfaction was short-lived, however, when it occurred to me that I was still without a job.
Stan Kazuba offered me another hope. Next morning he was to start a new job in the tannery working under a kapo with real expertise in tanning; he was a Pole from Silesia but spoke better German than Polish. Stan proposed to talk to the kapo in a few days about hiring me.
I could always return to the potato peeling group, but Leo had come to know me as a male nurse and once I was out of the hospital, he would be only too glad to treat me to some very special "sport." My possibilities were almost exhausted when I saw Lui, the rollwagons' kapo, heading for Block 16. Since I was still employed there, I offered him my help which he gladly accepted. He had received a nasty cut from a dirty nail and the wound was getting septic. At the hospital I cleaned and disinfected his cut and applied a dressing. I also gave him a piece of gauze and bandage to allow him to change the dressing. When he discovered I had been fired and was anxiously seeking work, he became very concerned and suggested that I join his rollwagon to replace a man he had recently lost.
I inquired: "How did you lose this man?"
"Well," he said, "it was very unlucky. The man was caught stealing food from the SS kitchen and Mamma killed him."
"Who is Mamma?" I asked.
"He's a kapo in the SS kitchen. Mamma is just the nickname given him by men working there. His real name is Fritz Biesgen. He's got a green triangle and can be very nasty, but because he's usually good to his men they call him Mamma, sort of out of affection."
"In that case," I said, "he sounds like the type one should avoid."
"Not at all " said Lui. "My rollwagon works around the SS kitchen all the time. We carry out garbage, deliver potatoes or other produce and sometimes even deliver bread, sausages, ham - that sort of thing. Mamma always lets us have some extra food but he doesn't like it if someone steals from him."
On hearing this, I became more interested in the job. It seemed as though one could survive there in spite of the heavy work and the exposure to all kinds of weather. In any case, I had no immediate alternative so I gratefully accepted the offer.
Rollwagon driven by human horsepower
(courtesy of Auschwitz-Birkenau Museum)
Next morning, after roll call, I reported to my new job as a human horse.
The group consisted of eight people and Lui. It was responsible for transporting goods to and from an area outside the main camp occupied by the SS quarters, magazines, storerooms, offices and SS kitchen. Our main task was to collect garbage and take it to the dump. At the request of the SS, we hauled almost anything.
My seven companions were not very strong, nor were they in the best physical condition. Also, Lui's promises of extra food turned out to be slightly exaggerated, but within the first couple of weeks I received a small portion of raw turnips we were delivering to the SS kitchen. Food conveyed to the SS sentries was always precisely counted and the soup was enclosed in 50-litre kettles, so we had no chance to organize anything.
Worst of all was the cold and damp March weather. The roads over which we had to pull our rollwagon were unpaved and often we found ourselves ankle-deep in mud or slush. A full load made for particularly hard pulling. The men were always hungry and after several weeks I was as hungry as they were. I knew extra soup was usually waiting for me at the hospital, donated by Fred or other men with whom I had worked, but the fact that I had been fired made me reluctant to accept their offers. Intense hunger eventually rules one's will, however, and soon my workmates and I were planning together how we might steal some extra food.
A hobby of mine before the war was to perform magic tricks for my colleagues. It occurred to me that this small talent might again be brought into service.
Normally, the food for the sentries was transported from the kitchen, with Mamma supervising the procedures. To steal from Mamma was very risky. I never forgot that I was the replacement for a man who had attempted to do just that. But my hunger constantly provoked me to consider ways of succeeding without getting caught.
One day the SS kitchen failed to receive the regular delivery of bread that usually came by truck, so our rollwagon was sent to the bakery to collect the goods. Among our team was a professional baker *. I asked the kapo to appoint him and me the official counters of the loaves. Lui knew well what I had in mind and warned that the counting was done by the German baker who was also an SS man. All I needed, however, was a brief moment to divert his attention. I asked our baker to talk to this fellow about baking, as one professional to another, or to occupy him in some other way.
When we arrived at the bakery, the bread was ready to be counted on the table near the door. I started taking it, two loaves at a time, putting these into our bread baskets. Each time I took two loaves the SS baker counted them aloud. Our baker, whose name was Fred, tried to strike up a conversation with him, but to no avail. The SS baker kept counting religiously. Fred was desperate. He began demonstrating, with large gestures, how the bread should be kneaded. In his eagerness, he knocked an empty basket to the floor. This was the advantage I had been waiting for. By then I was also counting aloud with the SS man. When the basket fell I took three loaves, continuing to count, of course, in the usual two's. The SS man counted with me but Fred noticed my manoeuvre. He repeated his diversion by knocking some metallic forms down off the shelves. This, of course, resulted in another loaf to our credit. At the end of the count we were two loaves short. Lui demanded a recount but the SS baker was adamant about his calculations.
"Don't be stupid!" he told our kapo. "You'd better take two more loaves or your heads will roll."
We humbly accepted two more loaves of bread and started back to the SS kitchen. Extra food in the rollwagon would have been sure evidence that we were stealing from the SS, so the bread had to be eaten as fast as possible. The first loaf was cut into nine pieces with the largest for Lui; it was eaten almost instantly. As we were about to cut the second loaf, however, one of the SS cooks came out of the barracks and joined us on the way.
At the kitchen, Mamma called for men to unload and count the bread again. I hastily volunteered and jumped on the wagon to help with the unloading. Pretending to be hot I took off my coat and threw it on the floor of the wagon. We unloaded basket after basket while Mamma watched and no doubt checked our count. One basket, of course, contained an extra loaf. I turned this basket over to show it was empty and the loaf rolled right under my coat. Mamma could not possibly have seen it because his vision was obscured by the side of the wagon. When we finished unloading the number of loaves proved correct. Mamma smiled broadly at me, obviously satisfied, and I breathed with relief, waiting for him to return to the kitchen. But Mamma did not do so.
Instead, he jumped into the wagon with me. His face turning serious again, he looked at my coat, then at me, and then with the tip of his boot lifted the edge of my coat. I stared him right in the eye, wondering at the same time how I was going to avoid being killed. Then Mamma suddenly burst out laughing, slapped me on the back and said: "You old crook, you! How did you do it? You almost fooled me! Nobody can fool a super-crook like me! What are you going to do now?"
Without much thinking, I said: "I guess we're going to eat it."
Mamma almost choked with laughter.
"I like clever men. You've done well. Go ahead and steal from the SS, I do it too. But don't get caught or I'll have to kill you like I did the other guy."
He then hopped out of the wagon and disappeared into the kitchen. In a few minutes he returned with a half kilogram of butter under his apron.
"Eat it fast and remember, you never got this butter from me."
We had a real feast that day.
Unfortunately, we were not called again to haul bread and our hunger returned. Prisoners invented many ways to combat their cravings. Some chewed wood to a pulp and swallowed it, giving them the impression they had a full stomach. But the worst thing, perhaps, was to talk about food. While we pulled our rollwagon our baker would describe to us how one made cakes, tarts and French pastry. Each of us paid full attention to his methods. I think I could probably make a French pastry today - a testimony not only to the accuracy of his description but to the interest his words commanded.
I continued to check with friends for any opportunity of getting a better job, but with no success. It seemed as if I were stuck with Lui's crew, though I maintained hope that Stan Kazuba might arrange a transfer. There was still no possibility of my working in the tannery, but one day Stan brought me a gift that looked something like boiled meat.
Noticing my uncertainty about what to do with his present, he smiled and said: "Eat it and tell me if you like it. Then I'll tell you what it is."
My ravenous stomach told me it tasted delicious, whatever it was, and I thanked Stan heartily for it. I knew that carrying any food through the front gate was forbidden and in bringing it to me he was risking his life. I was so happy at finding my hunger momentarily abated that I almost forgot to ask Stan what it was I had eaten.
"You probably never thought steer's ear could taste so good," he remarked. "I can bring you more, every day in fact. When we tan the skins I cut out the ear, then boil it in the drying room on the coal heating oven."
I gratefully accepted the offer, warning him to be careful not to get caught.
Spring finally came, even to Auschwitz. Snow melted, the ground began to dry and in the fields the first green blades of grass poked up to face daylight. Buds gradually appeared on the few trees left around the camp and, as usual at this time of year, new hope was shared among prisoners that perhaps this year would bring an end to the war. Unfortunately, events proved quite the opposite. The German armies attacked the Soviet Union and advancing with astonishing speed, proclaimed victory after victory. We found the news hard to believe, but the broadcasts over the BBC confirmed almost all the German claims. In their jubilance, our guards treated us with even more cruelty.
One day, two blocks were separated from the rest of the camp by barbed wire and the first Russian prisoners of war were brought in.
They were a sorry looking lot. Dressed in torn and dirty uniforms, they appeared tired and hungry. Apparently they had had no food or water during their two days journey from the Russian front. They told us the situation was hopeless. The German Army was so much better equipped they had no chance at all against it. Many officers and prisoners of war had been shot on the spot, their bodies left to decay on the ground where they fell.
The first Russian prisoners of war, though not required to work in Auschwitz, were exterminated in another way. Left alone in two barracks, their food rations were cut in half on the grounds that they did not work. That meant they received fewer than 700 calories a day. Hunger and unsanitary conditions soon started to decimate their population.
Our lot, in the meantime, was not much better. I was still pulling the rollwagon, unable for at least two weeks to organize extra food. Our hunger increased as our strength lagged. One day the wagon got stuck in the mud while loaded with garbage from the SS quarters. No matter how hard we pushed and pulled, it refused to budge. We decided to make it lighter by unloading some of the garbage onto the sidewalk. This time, however, luck was not with us.
An SS man caught us in the act and furiously ordered Lui to beat us up for this misbehaviour. But Lui was not a violent man; he tried to appear angry and shouted a lot, but the confusion left us uncertain whether to pull our wagon out first or remove the garbage from the sidewalk. Then the SS man took out a pencil and paper and wrote down our numbers.
Before leaving us he announced: "Since your kapo does not know how to punish you, we'll see you get proper punishment in the camp."
It was hard to imagine anything worse, for the SS rarely made idle threats. We were now faced with undergoing one of three types of punishment administered for such an infraction. The first was flogging - the usual dose being 25 strikes on the naked bottom. This ritual was performed by Leo while all prisoners were forced to remain standing and watching. Leo, the campelder, used either a bullwhip or a wooden club, which inevitably resulted in severe bleeding and such deep haemotoma that the victim would lose almost all the flesh, whatever was still there, from both buttocks. The second possibility was to be hung on a pole by the hands which were tied together behind one's back, a treatment that generally dislocated the shoulders and elbow joints. The last punishment was to be shut away for a number of nights in a bunker of the kind in which people were condemned to die of hunger.
Needless to say, we returned from work that day without much to look forward to. I informed Stan about our situation and asked him to save my food ration for me, knowing that if our numbers were called we would not be able to visit our blocks before the punishment was administered. Any hope for a pardon was immediately dismissed at roll call when we caught sight of Palitsch holding the list with our numbers. Each was called in turn and we stepped forward. I will never forget how the rest of the prisoners looked at us. To be summoned by Palitsch meant only one thing - execution.
At the conclusion of roll call, Palitsch turned to Leo and said: "Fake them to the penal block, I will be there shortly."
At least we knew there would be no flogging. Our destination was either the bunker or the pole.
Upon arriving at the penal block we noticed, apart from prisoners going about their normal activities, several people dressed in civilian clothes whom I assumed were brought from outside to be interrogated by the Gestapo.
Leo delivered us to the blockelder of the penal block and left. We were locked together in a small room, probably used also for interrogations, and were told to wait for Palitsch because he wanted personally to hang us on the pole. Several minutes later Palitsch appeared with the assistant of the penal block, a blockelder whom I recognized as one of my patients in the hospital. They chose four men to accompany them and left us to wait for our turn.
As we sat there my friend, the baker, became covered with a cold sweat and started to tremble uncontrollably. Although the rest of us seemed resigned to our fate, we too found the waiting period incredibly unnerving. About 30 minutes later the blockelder's assistant stood before us.
"You guys are lucky," he said. "Palitsch had to go somewhere and asked me to hang you up for half an hour. Let's go!"
We did not know what had happened to the first four men and were afraid to ask.
In silence we followed our "hangman" to the attic of Block 13 where, on one side, were several stools. Above them and attached to the rafters were heavy ropes suspended from blocks. The assistant blockelder had two helpers, Jewish prisoners who at the time were also roomelders. They instructed us to climb onto the stools and tied our hands behind our backs. Then the blockelder's assistant pulled with the full weight of his body on the end of each rope in turn.
I was the first to be lifted up. My arms were pulled back with a jerk, I lost my balance and a terrible pain shot through my wrists, elbows and shoulders. I desperately tried to find the stool with my feet, but it was just centimetres beyond my reach. I did not faint but the pain was so sudden and so sharp I did not even have time to cry out. When the four of us had been hung my friend the baker and the man next to him fainted. The assistant blockelder then left the attic saying he would be back in half an hour. Grabbing a bottle of ammonia, the Jewish helpers stuck it under the noses of the two men who had fainted, advising us that it was better to remain conscious so that our muscles would take up some of the tension, thus lessening the severity of our dislocations. It did not make sense to me at all; I felt my arms were already out of joint and was now able to touch the stool with my toes.
One of the helpers noticed this and said: "You are really lucky Palitsch is not here. He removes the stools and then pulls everyone down to make absolutely sure the joints are dislocated. This was what he did to your four friends. When he pulled, you could hear the joints crack!"
"Thanks for the entertainment," I gasped, "but can't you loosen the ropes so we can rest a little more on the stools?
Both of them answered almost simultaneously.
"You must be joking! Palitsch would kill us instantly! Be-sides, it would not help you much. Your joints are already dislocated."
I was still concentrating on putting more weight on my toes when I noticed that all feeling had gone out of them. After about five minutes I felt no pain anywhere.
"You see," remarked a helper knowingly. "You've got used to it now. But if Palitsch were here he'd pull you down every five or ten minutes to remind you what pain's really like!"
This was a terrifying thought - to be pulled down.
We remained almost in limbo for what seemed an eternity. Finally the blockelder himself arrived and without even looking at us, pulled the ropes behind us, releasing them instantly. I tumbled to the floor on my face, hitting my forehead against some wood bracing the corner, my arms still behind me. The pain returned with a vengeance, only this time there was also relief that my ordeal was over.
Our hands were untied and we heard the blockelder's voice bark "Out, you swine dogs!"
To get up without the help of your arms is not an easy matter. On top of that, my toes were still numb. But noticing the blockelder was about to kick me in the kidneys I unwound like a spring, jumping to my feet with a gymnastic skill I did not know I had. When the gate of Block 13 closed behind us and we were alone again on the camp street, my aching and useless arms seemed small payment for the joy of being alive.
Stan was waiting for me at my block with a portion of soup and bread. Unable to hold even a spoon in my hand, Stan fed me like a baby while discussing what I could do tomorrow. To work at the rollwagon was impossible without movement in my arms, but Stan had already thought about this and within minutes we were at the hospital asking Fred if I might be accepted there for a couple of days.
. Unfortunately the request had to go to Dr. Dering whose response was a definite "no." The only alternative was to work with the potato peelers. I was uncertain whether I could even peel potatoes with my hands; besides, if I got in the way of Leo a real disaster might result. I thus decided I had no choice but to return to my job at the rollwagon.
Lui was surprised to see me because no one else came and he had to assemble a new team. While he was putting one together, we saw the baker being chased out of his block by the blockelder. Apparently he had tried to stay as a room helper but had been forced to rejoin the rollwagon. Lui was a decent guy and arranged a place at the wagon where we had only to pull with ropes fitting over our shoulders. The rest of the team steered the wagon and did the loading and unloading.
It was along time before I could use my arms normally. Fortunately there was no permanent damage. Others were not so lucky.
Towards the end of May, when our rollwagon was routinely collecting garbage from the SS kitchen, Mamma told Lui that one of his potato peelers was sick and asked if a member of our squad could replace him for a day. As we were hauling no heavy loads that morning, Lui agreed. To select his helper, Mamma inspected each of us to see how clean we were, paying particular attention to our hands. I was always much cleaner than my colleagues so I was not surprised when Mamma stopped in front of me.
"You old smuggler!" he said, instantly recognizing me. "So you want to work for me, do you?"
I did not have to think twice. Potato peeling in the SS kitchen was safe. Though one had to be young and healthy, no kapo would dare to bother a worker under Mamma's protection.
I agreed enthusiastically, hoping it might become a permanent job.