Thus I somehow became a permanent member of the SS kitchen potato peelers.
The former farmhouse in which the kitchen was located stood just outside the periphery of the outer circle of sentries, so special guards were assigned to patrol us during our working hours. It was a privileged duty for these guards; generally they sat chatting with the SS cooks and of course stuffed themselves with the choice food.
Potato peelers worked in what was once the sun-porch. We had a beautiful view of green meadows and a corner of a forest that extended all the way to the river. Seated at the edge of a world we had left behind, it was difficult to concentrate on peeling potatoes. Our attention was drawn to the spring flowers blooming in the meadow and the dark trees of the forest - a gate to liberty. This proximity to freedom made me realize that I was not the person I had once been. Transformed into some kind of concentration camp being, I was almost incapable of imagining that, in this other world within our sight, people were well fed and lived peaceful lives. At some uncharted time I had passed through a looking glass separating our world from theirs and was now unsure which was real and which fantasy. My speculations were interrupted, however, by Mamma shouting and swearing at us to peel more potatoes.
It was, considering conditions in Auschwitz, an excellent job. Almost daily we would get extra food from our colleagues who worked in the kitchen as cooks. These included two legitimate cooks, one butcher, and two university students from Warsaw. The German cooks, each a member of the SS, generally overlooked this special treatment because they wanted to have their work force operating efficiently. The head cook, a non-commissioned SS officer, was so pathetically stupid he might have been considered funny were it not for the power of life and death he held over his crew of prisoners.
Thwarting hunger was for almost all prisoners their sole concern. Thomas, Stan and I had discussed this problem when we set out to form the first underground units, recognizing that a man could be relied on only when not ruled by his appetite. Now that hunger no longer dominated my life, I started to pay more attention to under-ground activities and participated more frequently in its conferences.
We had anticipated a time when the Germans might decide to kill all prisoners at once. It was inconceivable that they would ever let us out alive after witnessing the atrocities. Thus, as early as 1941, we decided upon constructing a proper military organization divided into a series of brigades, each with a separate commanding officer. One organization would operate during the day when working groups were out of the camp and a different one at night when everyone was inside the barbed wire.
The organization's plans for taking control of the camp had to be continuously revised as members died and new ones joined. Also, with the expansion of the camp, unexpected obstacles were constantly thrust in our path. Perhaps the most significant change was the replacement of the single barbed wire fence surrounding the camp with double barbed wire supported on concrete posts curving inward. A high voltage electric current now ran through the wires while under each row of fences were buried concrete plates several meters deep. SS guards posted in high towers armed with searchlights and machine guns further discouraged any possible resistance.
We decided that success was only possible if we received sufficiently advanced information to make a pre-emptive strike during the day when the SS guards were more vulnerable and when prisoners were working inside the SS quarters and around the armoury and ammunition storage. Plans for taking over the camp in daylight were relatively simple. Our commando force would break into the armoury after silently disposing of the three SS guards who marched outside the buildings. We would replace these guards with our own men dressed in SS uniforms. A rollwagon would then distribute arms to key points outside the camp while the commanding officers outfitted their men in the armouries. We estimated that within a couple of hours we could have an armed force twice the size of the SS unit manning Auschwitz.
The most dangerous obstacles were the two rows of towers, one surrounding the main camp and the second, much larger, encompassing the prisoners' working area. This included a the store houses, SS quarters, stables, the SS armoury and even the fields, vegetable gardens and sand pits. We appointed sharpshooters, generally professional commissioned or non-commissioned officers, to set up posts on the towers once they had disposed of the SS guards. This accomplished, the few SS men directly supervising working groups would represent no serious problem.
Once the plan had been worked out we faced enormous temptation to put it immediately into effect. However, as part of the Polish underground army with headquarters in Warsaw, such action had to be co-ordinated with partisan units outside. Our ecstasy about the plan and our certainty that it was workable inspired us to send a special report to headquarters notifying them we were ready to begin operations at any time.
I believe, even now, that we were in an excellent position in 1941 and 1942 to destroy the SS garrison and take over the camp within a matter of hours. The incentive was strong enough. To end the miserable existence of our animal-like life - each of us waiting our turn to be exterminated - and to pay back all the humiliations we suffered suddenly became a very real possibility.
But there was one serious problem. Out of about 7,000 men, only about ten percent were strong enough to fight and bear arms. The rest were sick or Musselmen-like creatures who, once we took command of the camp, would instantly become our responsibility. I remember very clearly the heated arguments over the second phase of our uprising. The older prisoners, myself included, were of the opinion it was worth it. Even if 1,000 men reached the partisans, it was better than resigning ourselves to extermination. Thomas, as a commanding officer, as well as Stan Kazuba, Henry Bartosiewicz and many others shared my views. Those opposed centred on prisoners in the hospital. They maintained that to drag along the sick and infirm would slow down the fighting unit to the extent that all would perish, and to leave them behind would not be fair. In any event, it was not our decision to make - we had to wait for the command from headquarters.
We kept our plan in effect for two years, but the command to go ahead never came. We were baffled. How could the underground abandon us to our fate when we asked for so little help? One possible answer was the Germans' new method of discouraging escapes. Instead of selecting ten men to die in a bunker, a practice ended in the middle of 1941, the Gestapo was now arresting the entire family of the escapee, transporting them to Auschwitz and publicly hanging them in front of the prisoners' kitchen.
To compensate for the underground's apparent reticence about our plan, we became active in arranging escapes by notifying ahead of time the families involved to change their addresses. Almost all the escaping men carried out one message: "We are being exterminated here by the most cruel methods! We can stage a successful uprising! We need direction to the nearest partisan unit and the sabotaging of roads to slow down other SS units who will try to cut us off!"
And still the command to go ahead never came.
In the meantime a power play surfaced within our organization. In 1941 some senior officers, arrested for underground activity, arrived at Auschwitz. Thomas decided against recruiting them, feeling that they lacked the stamina to endure both the camp conditions and the Gestapo's interrogations. These officers, however, were not about to obey orders of a former captain. I myself was a commanding officer of one of the camp brigades, but previous to my arrest was only a second lieutenant. They overrode our authority and in partnership with their former subordinates escalated the organization's clandestine work. It soon became obvious that the situation could no longer be ignored.
We found a compromise. For security reasons, senior officers whose rank was known to the Germans were excluded from the organization. Those in Auschwitz under false identities were admitted, however, and Colonel Rawicz was made a commanding officer.
This sudden, unhealthy expansion of the organization created new uncertainties. How would new members stand up to the interrogating tortures of the Gestapo? In the bunkers of Block 11, the local Gestapo (also referred to as the political department) used many techniques to make people talk. One of the best known was the "swing." The prisoner was hung by the feet, his hands tied together so that his genitals protruded. While swinging towards the interrogator he was struck on his testicles with a riding whip, repeatedly told to "think of something interesting" to say. Other tortures employed the usual instruments for breaking fingers or pouring boiling water into the nose of the victim. It was difficult to predict who would be the last to break down; usually older people could endure much less. Whenever someone was taken to Block 11 for interrogation, the men who had worked with him prepared themselves to go next.
The year 1941 was full of military successes for the German army. With every victory, the Germans became increasingly confident that a gigantic slave state could actually be created. According to Hitler, all Jews were to be killed - what was called "the final solution" to the Jewish problem; other nations, including the Polish, converted into a labour force and deprived of higher education, were to work only under German supervision. It was very difficult for German nationals not to be spellbound by the promise of a "glorious future" in which they, as the super race, would govern other inferior races.
Hitler created the greatest deception in the history of mankind, convincing his countrymen that Jews, more than any other peoples, threatened the purity of the Germanic race. In Auschwitz all Jews who had any kind of physical deformity were killed and their skeletons sent to the Berlin museum as proof of their race's many imperfections. All other nations, too, were imperfect, but the danger of contamination was not as great and the urgency to exterminate them less pressing. Even our kapos, who were themselves prisoners and condemned criminals, believed themselves superior simply because their mother tongue was German.
This philosophy was reinforced by the economic success of Germany before the war and its proven military prowess during the early part of the war. The breakdown began in 1944 when the elite German army, expecting easy victory over the Russians, was forced to flee from a people whom they considered culturally inferior and akin to animals. In 1941, however, the doctrine of the German super race was at its peak and all government offices, including the camp administration, were operated according to the Führer's plan.
Work began near Auschwitz on a "Buna" factory to manufacture synthetic rubber. It was to be the largest factory in Germany. Thousands of prisoners were allocated to the task and construction proceeded at literally neck-breaking speed. There was a two-fold purpose to this: to build the factory quickly and to exterminate as many of the "'inferior" Poles as possible. The mortality rate at Buna Werke exceeded that of the main camp which was already so high the crematorium, working day and night, could not burn the bodies fast enough. Later in 1941, the Germans came to the conclusion that killing Jews without getting any work out of them was inefficient. From then on more thorough selections were made from Jewish transports; the fittest went to the Buna Werke and the rest were killed.
Gradually Auschwitz lost its exclusively Polish character. Small groups of prisoners from Czechoslovakia and Austria began arriving. The grand plan for Auschwitz became more evident after the visit of Adolph Eichmann, the man in charge of "the final solution." A little later, an inspection by Himmler himself precipitated more changes which we witnessed in the years following. The first change was the founding of a new camp close to Auschwitz, called Birkenau. Intended to accommodate 200,000 prisoners, this camp included several new crematoriums which later proved insufficient to handle the vast number of corpses.
Another event of great historical importance also took place in the middle of 1941: several hundred of the hospital's sickest men, as well as the remaining Russian prisoners of war, numbering about 600, were transferred to the basement of Block 11. That night the window shutters were closed and crystals generating the new poison gas Cyclon B were thrown in, marking the first extermination of large numbers of prisoners by gas in Auschwitz. The amount of gas required was badly estimated and men did not die instantly. The groans and rattling of windows were heard all through the night. Male nurses, brought in the next morning to take out the corpses, found the sight was so horrific even their hardened nerves could not take it. [A detailed description is given in W. Kielar's "Anus Mundi" (Krakow: Literary Publications, 1976)]
In 1941 the German government began a formal program of indoctrination to help regulate the behaviour of the entire country. Soon, sufficient numbers of individuals were killing anyone who was Jewish and Hitler's personal policy ripened into an official one initiating mass extermination. The whole population of Germany was now conditioned to believe in the superiority of its race, tolerating the worst kind of modern slavery. By the end of the war not one small town or village in Germany would have failed to witness the SS escorting through its streets columns of concentration camp slaves, visibly starving and suffering from severe physical mistreatment. Every man, woman and child who saw the shadowy columns march by, nearer death than life, accepted it as a normal occurrence.
In the concentration camp violence was a way of life. It was not so much an expression of hatred as the need to satisfy the desire for power, greed for better things in life and the creation of optimum conditions for self-preservation. When such basic trends of human nature were reinforced by effective propaganda and government policy, even the great nation that produced such giants as Kant, Schopenhauer, Goethe, Schiller, Beethoven, Wagner and Bach was reduced to the same level as the criminal elements running the camps.
The successes of the German army on the Russian front became more apparent when a large part of Auschwitz, consisting of nine blocks altogether, was evacuated and separated from the rest of the camp by barbed wire. To make room for the Russians, prisoners had to be transferred to three newly created satellite camps, the largest of which was located next to the building site of Buna Werke. The remaining prisoners had to double up in their three-tiered bunk beds. When all was ready, a transport of 12,000 Russian prisoners of war arrived and was assigned to the evacuated part of the camp.
This time the Germans dropped any pretence at treating them as prisoners of war. Each and every man was required to work at the Birkenau construction site and the usual cruel treatment was applied to them as it had been to us. The Gestapo searched continually for political leaders among the prisoners; such men were either shot immediately or sent to the penal block for a slow and painful death.
The first Russian prisoners of war did not hesitate to denounce their political leaders. The Politruks were the hated members of Stalin's regime, representing the imposed system of terror and occupying privileged positions simply because of their blind obedience to the Communist party. More recent prisoners were reluctant to comply with the Nazis, finding no clemency either from the enemy or their own government. Stalin had declared that all men taken prisoner by the Germans were, upon their return home, to be court marshalled for treason and put to death.
I am not sure which had the greater effect on the Russian army: German cruelty towards the Russian people and prisoners of war, or Stalin's declaration. In any event, after 1942 the Russians regained their fighting spirit and became as eager to exterminate the Germans as the Germans had been to exterminate them.
My job as a potato peeler in the SS kitchen was uneventful until early 1942.
In the meantime Auschwitz kept growing bigger and bigger, requiring more and more guards. In a small way, this showed in the kitchen. Mamma was shorthanded and came to the potato peelers to get help. I again was the lucky one to be selected. After proper scrubbing and washing, I donned the long, white cook's apron and was admitted to the kitchen.
One should understand the significance of this great moment: a hungry, half-starved prisoner suddenly enters a place where is kept an abundance of food. He imagines food will be everywhere and is prepared to be completely surrounded by all sorts of meats, fruits and vegetables. It was with great disappointment that I discovered only wet concrete floors, huge kettles, each over a metre in diameter with a separate electric heater, and men on step ladders holding something like canoe paddles in their hands, stirring or mixing the kettles' contents.
One fellow mashing potatoes called me to relieve him for a few minutes. I could hardly extract the masher from the white mass, so I leaned on it with all my weight in an attempt to squash more potatoes. Engulfed in steam, I did not think much of the job, though I took the opportunity to stuff fistfuls of potatoes into my mouth when no one was watching. At the end of the day Mamma gave me a large bowl of barley soup with pieces of meat in it. Eating it was an excruciating experience. For two years I had been deprived of such luxury; now the opportunity had come and I was full of potatoes. Though my stomach almost burst, I steadily and surely polished off the whole bowl, not knowing when or from where my next meal would come.
On another occasion I was called to help make meatballs. Four of us stood around a table supporting a large mound of minced meat. We rolled little balls from it and piled them up on one side of the table. The other three men, permanently employed kitchen cooks, were by comparison well fed and would not even think of eating raw meat. But for me it was an opportunity I could not pass by, even in the presence of SS cooks supervising the general activity in the kitchen. I applied a simple trick I had learned some time ago, "palming" ping-pong balls. Meatballs were the perfect substitute.
In this trick one pretends to transfer a ball from one hand to the other, though it actually remains hidden in the palm. Then, by distracting the viewer's attention to the hand in which the ball is supposed to be, one has time to dispose of the ball from the palm of the other.
I palmed a meatball and with my empty hand pretended to put it on the pile. In the meantime, I lifted the other hand to my face and swallowed the meatball without even chewing it. I did this for about an hour and nobody noticed.
Near the end of the day one of the prisoner cooks nudged me and said: "You should sample one or two of these meatballs, they're not too bad raw."
I smiled and said: "Thank you, but I have been eating them continuously for the last hour."
"But that's not possible," he said. "I saw you put every meatball you made on the pile."
I gave him a quick demonstration.
"Do it again," he said, "and let's see if Mamma can catch you. If you don't mind, I know he'd get a great kick out of it."
The SS guards had left the room, so I agreed. The cook went to fetch Mamma while I practiced my technique. A short time later Mamma stood beside me moulding the meatballs with us.
I had eaten two more meatballs when he said: "So, let's see you steal meatballs without me catching you."
I then told him I had consumed two while he was watching me. This was a professional insult to Mamma who enjoyed boasting he was the best thief in all of Germany.
"Do it again and we shall see," he huffed.
I put the first meatball properly on the pile but palmed the second and while Mamma was watching my empty hand, popped it into my mouth. Then I slowly opened the empty hand. Mamma immediately grabbed the other hand to find only my greasy, outstretched palm. As an encore, I opened my mouth wide, showing Mamma where the meatball had disappeared.
Mamma was delighted. He slapped me on the back so hard the meatball went flying out of my mouth. Everybody roared with laughter and Mamma especially could not contain himself.
The noise attracted the SS men who came back into the room to see what was going on. Mamma was still laughing so hard, all he could do was point to me while gasping for breath. I knew the SS men would not likely appreciate a demonstration of how to steal from their food supplies, so I simply told them that Mamma had seen some of my magic tricks.
"Okay, let's see you perform," they demanded.
I asked for a coin and made the coin disappear, then took it out of the chief SS cook's ear. I also showed them how two solid matchsticks can penetrate through each other. I did not show how a meatball could disappear into my mouth.
From that time on, whenever some extra help was needed in the SS kitchen, Mamma always called on me. ,
Sometime in February, Thomas came to me, secretive and mysterious as ever. He wanted to talk to me alone, without Stan Kazuba or Henry Bartosiewicz, another of our organization's founding members.
As we left Henry called after us, "When you two get all the steaks from the secret steakhouse, don't forget about your friends!"
We went outside so as not to be overheard and walked between the barracks. It was a bright and frosty night. Not a soul was in sight. Our clothes were not the best for walking in the snow at about -20°C. Thomas was silent, probably thinking how to tell me whatever it was he wanted. I was getting impatient.
"Thomas!" I said at last. "If you want an inconspicuous meeting with me, this is not the best place. Who would be stupid enough to walk in this cold for pleasure? Let's go inside!"
Thomas was deep in his thoughts and seemed startled by my remarks. He looked quickly around. "You're right, we cannot walk here. Let's pretend I am sick and you are taking me to the hospital."
We turned the other way, Thomas leaning on me like an invalid, and set out towards the hospital.
"When we reach the hospital," he whispered, "we can turn around and it will look like we've just come from there. There are too many people in the barracks and someone may hear us."
"Thomas, you're stalling," I said. "What is it you want from me?"
"All right," said Thomas after a pause. "I have to ask you to make a big sacrifice for the organization. I want you to quit your job at the SS kitchen and join me for a week or two in the cartography offices."
I did not fully trust Thomas' judgement. Sometimes he would go to ridiculous lengths to preserve the secrecy of our group and at other times would rashly recruit new members knowing very little about them. I had never forgotten that he had once recruited a German spy.
"Why is it so important for me to work for the cartographers?" I asked, barely disguising my impatience. "I have a very good job and if I lose it now, I could be back in the industrial park, Buna Werke, or building Birkenau with the Russians."
Thomas spoke slowly. "You're the only one I can trust and you also can draw maps. I'm not as good a draughtsman, but both of us would have to pass for professional cartographers for at least a week. In the building where we work is stored electronic equipment for radio communication.
"I think we should have our own broadcasting station in Auschwitz and instant communication with outside underground units. In case of an emergency or the need for a sudden uprising, or even to help those about to escape, such a device would be invaluable. I know a man in the cartography offices and he'll prepare all the parts we'd need to assemble it in camp. Our job will simply involve getting it here."
I did not answer right away, still thinking of how it could be accomplished - how large was the building, where did we have to go to get the parts, and how reliable was Thomas's contact?
As I opened my mouth to discuss these concerns, Thomas continued: "I knew you'd agree, so I talked to Dr. Dering and asked him to appeal to Mamma to let you go for a week. He told Mamma he needed Bristol board and draughting instruments at the hospital to make important signs for the operating room, and that you and I were the two guys who could steal it from the cartographers. Mamma agreed. In fact, Mamma gave you an excellent reference -he told Dering you're an expert, almost better than Mamma him-self.
"And all this time I thought you were a professional officer and mathematical genius, not a nimble-fingered thief!"
"Never mind the jokes," I said. "It appears I have no choice. You've already arranged everything.
"At least let me talk to the contact who's supplying the parts. I'd like to know how he's going to arrange for our safety. And how are we going to bring the radio into camp? Are the parts small or large? Could we carry them in our pockets?"
"Kon," said Thomas seriously, "not only do I not want you to meet this man, I don't even want you to know his name. You're aware of how the Gestapo works - the less you know, the better. We'll find out the size of the parts when we see them. It all depends what assemblies our man can steal without arousing suspicion."
There was nothing more to discuss. We hurried towards our barracks and as we were turning into the entrance, ran squarely into Mamma.
"Ah, there you are, you rascal! And that must be another robber," he said pointing to Thomas. "You're making unfair competition for honest thieves around here!
"So tell me, how are you going to steal large sheets of Bristol board? It's not like taking meatballs, you know. Perhaps you should consider having the rollwagon bring it into camp. You might pick up some paper and instruments for Lui, too. What an artist that guy is! He used to make beautiful 100 mark notes! And don't worry about your job. You can come back to the kitchen any time. Besides, I'd like to do this little favour for Dr. Dering. So when do you want to start?"
"Tomorrow morning, if it's all right with you," said Thomas, since I did not even know for what day the arrangements had been made.
"No!" said Mamma. "I cannot spare this crook for a weekend. We have too much work preparing for Sunday dinner."
"It's no problem," replied Thomas. "I can start tomorrow and work there Friday and Saturday, and he can come on Monday morning."
"Well, good luck to you! Remember, when you need truly professional advice - come to Mamma!"
We both thanked him for his understanding and went into our barracks.
Next Monday morning I reported to the kapo of the cartographers and walked the one kilometre or so to the building outside the camp. Thomas and I were considered a welcome addition to the original group of six because of the urgent need for maps of Buna Werke and building plans for Birkenau. Thomas was not a draughts man and relied on my skills to get by. He spent most of his time doing lettering with stencils and visiting the washroom where he would meet with our man from the electronic stores. On Wednesday, Thomas returned from the washroom very excited and announced to me that the whole unit, including the batteries, was fully assembled.
"How large is this unit?" I inquired.
"That may be a problem. It's rather big - the size of a large suitcase -but I've accepted it and it's sitting on top of the water tank in the washroom."
He said this in one breath, obviously without any thought as to how we were going to get it into the camp. We looked at each other, worrying about what to do with it now that we had it.
"Let me look at it," I offered. "Perhaps I can think of something",
I trotted off to the washroom. There on the top of the old-fashioned water tank, in plain view, was a huge wooden box. The conspicuousness of our radio was especially dangerous since the washroom was frequently used by SS guards watching over some working groups outside. The radio had obviously been placed there in a hurry because it was resting on the toilet handle, causing the water to run continuously.
It had to be hidden immediately. Looking frantically around I noticed a large cupboard with double doors standing in the corridor leading to the washroom. I tried one door but it was locked; when I pulled harder the bolt came out of the slot and the door flew open. The cupboard was full of cartography supplies: rolls of paper, bottles of India ink, pencils and boxes containing articles I did not have time to examine. Quickly removing the supplies from the highest shelf, I placed them on the top of the cupboard, pushing them as close to the wall as possible. I then shut the door and returned to the washroom for our radio. Fortunately it was a portable unit with a handle and leather strap. I peeked through the door to make sure no one was in the corridor, picked up the box and began walking towards the cupboard. Suddenly the door at the other end of the corridor opened wide and two men in striped prison uniforms walked towards me. Because I was new to the building and the corridor was dark, I attempted to assume authority, hoping neither man would recognize me.
"Where do you think you're going?" I shouted at them in German. They paused and started to mumble something, no doubt thinking I must be a German kapo. That bolstered my courage and I shouted angrily: "Out you go, you swine dogs."
They turned tail and ran. Hastily I opened the cupboard, put the box on the top shelf, camouflaged it with some loose maps and, closing both doors at the same time, managed to shove the bolt back into its slot.
But that was not the end of my test of nerves. Walking back to the cartographers' room I met up with the kapo.
"What took you so long? I thought you'd flushed yourself down the toilet! Since you're here, come and help me get more supplies."
With these words he went to the cupboard, took out a key and opened the doors.
"Who made such a mess in here?" he grumbled. "It must have been that stupid Fred. You can't depend on anyone unless you do it yourself!"
Muttering away to himself, he removed several rolls of drawing paper and piled them in my arms. He then turned to the cupboard and snatched a few pencils.
"That's all for now," he said, briskly closing and locking the cupboard doors. "I want your job completed by Friday or we'll all get hell from the SS."
"There's simply too much work and not enough time to do it," I said. "Perhaps we should make arrangements to come back here evenings - not that we'd enjoy it much - but otherwise we can't hope to finish by Friday."
"You're all lazy bastards," he snarled, eyeing me slyly, "but just maybe you're right. I want you to work day and night until the end of the week."
When I accompanied the kapo into the draughting room carrying supplies, I glanced furtively at Thomas' anxious face and knew what must have been going through his mind. I deposited my load on the table near the kapo's workplace and returned to my drawing board next to Thomas.
I had barely sat down when the kapo approached me and asked: "What was all that shouting about in the corridor?"
"Oh, it was nothing," I answered nonchalantly. "A couple of dirty Musselmen wanted to hide in our washroom and I just chased them back to work."
The kapo was satisfied and everyone returned to their work again.
"What did you really do there?" whispered Thomas.
"I've hidden the box in the supply cupboard and will tell you all about it when we're back in camp," I answered, also very quietly.
Later that day we reviewed our strategy, discussing and arguing about how to get the radio into the camp. We came to the conclusion that we could not do it alone. Neither of us knew enough about electronics. To take it apart at the cartography office was dangerous and furthermore, we were not sure we could put it together again.
The only solution was to bring the whole thing in by any rollwagon that would not likely be inspected by the guards.
Grabner, head of Auschwitz
Gestapo and expert on phisical torture
(courtesy of Auschwitz-Birkenau Museum)
Almost simultaneously we decided that it should be done by Albert and Alex who took corpses out through the main gate to the crematorium almost every night. The guards did not like to inspect corpses, especially if they knew the men had died of some contagious disease. Thomas left immediately for the hospital to make the arrangements. He returned just before curfew.
"All is ready," he announced. "The transmitter will be picked up and delivered into the camp. We simply have to take it to the central garbage collection, about 200 yards from our building."
"But Thomas, we can't do it during the day unless we involve the garbage rollwagon, which isn't really a good idea. We might have a better chance at night if they make our group work the late shift."
Giving me a worried look, Thomas confessed he had no ready solutions. We decided to sleep on it and hope that some chance would arise for us to deliver the radio to its final destination.
The next morning and afternoon passed by uneventfully, providing no opportunity for action; our only hope was that perhaps somehow, during the night, things would change. Late in the day an SS guard strode in and announced we could not leave the room until our job was finished. At 6:00 p.m. a kitchen rollwagon brought us our evening soup. We ate and returned to our work. Everything seemed hopeless. Barely able to concentrate on my lines and figures, all I could think of was the radio transmitter, sitting in the cupboard like a time bomb. Sooner or later someone was bound to find it and when he did, Thomas and I would become intimately acquainted with Grabner and Boger of the Auschwitz Gestapo and their torture room in Block 11.
Thomas leaned close and whispered: "I will test the SS guard to see how thorough he is."
"Good idea," I said softly, "but don't be too hasty. We still have one day left and it may be safer to wait until then."
Thomas nodded, then asked the guard if he could go to the washroom.
"Go," came the reply, "but don't try anything stupid or I'll fill you full of holes."
The guard opened the door to the corridor and stood at the doorway. From there he could observe everything but the inside of the washroom.
Thomas came back shortly.
"I think we have to do it tonight. If the Gestapo knows it's there, we'll all be sent to the bunker.
"The washroom has a window that opens to the rear of the building and the dump is only about 200 metres away, in complete darkness. Somehow one of us has to get there."
"Thomas, you're nuts. How can you take that huge radio from the cupboard in full view of the SS guard?"
"I'll pretend that I have diarrhoea and will go to the toilet every 15 to 20 minutes. During one of these trips you will start performing your magic tricks for everybody. Get the guard sufficiently involved to keep him away from the door.
"When you think there's enough time for me to get the radio out, say loudly: 'Now, watch very carefully!' That's my signal.
"I grab it, take it to the washroom, place it outside the open window, then return here. All you have to do is jump from the window, run like hell to the garbage, dump the radio there and run back."
The plan sounded simple enough, but there was no time to think of how much could go wrong. When one is young, danger is a challenge: better to act first and think about it later.
I smiled. "Let's do it!"
Thomas began to groan, pretending that he had a stomach-ache, and I tried to get my neighbour on the other side interested in a disappearing coin. However, someone else went into the washroom and the kapo spotted my performance. "No funny business there!" he shouted. "Get back to work!" It was Thomas's turn to go to the washroom, but the kapo was watching me and I could do nothing. Thomas had been gone for perhaps only three minutes when the SS guard got suspicious and went to see what he was doing. Fortunately he found Thomas in the proper position, shouted at him to hurry up, and returned to the doorway. Thomas returned shortly after; we could not make our move. A few minutes later the rollwagon from the kitchen arrived bringing us coffee, which normally accompanies dinner. This time, for some reason, it was late.
When the large kettle was brought in by two prisoners and another SS guard, Thomas remarked: "One of those men is with the underground. They will be taking the empty kettles back to the camp. I will talk to him immediately."
He went for more coffee and I watched him explain the problem to one of the prisoners. Moments later he was at my side sipping from his cup.
"It will be much easier this way," he said with contained excitement. "The rollwagon with the empty kettles is just around the corner from the window. We'll do the same thing as before, but you must put the transmitter into the kettle instead of carrying it to the garbage."
Since we were now on a coffee break I started to show my tricks quite openly, quickly getting everybody's attention. Thomas, favouring his stomach, left for the washroom and I had a captive audience. The new SS guard then pulled a deck of cards out of his pocket, challenging me to show what I could do with them.
While the eyes of both SS guards were on my hands, I picked some cards from the deck and said dramatically: "Now, watch very carefully!" I then transformed one card into another.
I performed the trick over and over again but they still could not tell how it was done. They demanded that I explain it to them. Taking my time, I made my explanation so complicated they were none the wiser. To reassure them, I insisted it took a lot of practice before one could be proficient. By this time Thomas was back and I asked to go to the washroom. To my dismay one of the guards announced I had to wait, saying he wanted to go first.
I looked at Thomas, trying to read in his face whether the SS guard would find the radio. But Thomas's face was always the same, expressing only an innocent look of happy boredom.
The SS guard came back. Obviously he had not found anything because he merely ordered his men to pick up the empty kettle and head back to the camp.
That was the end of Plan B. We were back to our drawing boards, both aware that we now had to follow through with the original plan.
I leaned over to Thomas. "Do whatever you can to keep the SS guard from the washroom, I'm going out for fresh air. Wish me luck - let's hope I don't run into an SS man there!"
When I asked to go to the washroom the SS guard was surprisingly friendly.
"Okay, but hurry up because I'm taking you guys back to camp. It's enough work for tonight."
He then ordered the kapo to "start packing."
In an instant I was in the washroom.
I opened the window; there on the ledge stood the transmitter covered with a rug. I jumped out of the window, picked up the transmitter and looked around, listening for any suspicious noise. The night was quiet and so dark I could barely see where the garbage dump was. But there was no time to lose. I began a fast sprint in the most likely direction.
Suddenly I tripped and fell right into the middle of the garbage heap. Empty cans clanked noisily against each other, some rolling along the ground like renegade hubcaps, making a clamour so prolonged I thought it would never stop. I jumped up almost as quickly as I had fallen, colliding with yet more trash cans. I was still holding onto the transmitter. Thomas and I had both been warned that the tubes in the radio were very sensitive and the slightest impact might destroy them. Hoping for the best, I quickly set the transmitter down on the garbage pile in which I was standing, covered it up with the rug and raced back.
Someone came out of the next barracks and shouted in German: "Who goes there? Stop or I'll shoot!"
I glanced over my shoulder. A flashlight scanned the garbage. More SS men came out to see what the commotion was about.
With an Olympian leap, I cleared the window only to meet the frightened face of Thomas peering through the half-opened washroom door and shouting at the top of his lungs: "Get out of there! Don't you see that I'm going to do it in my pants? How can you just sit there and let me suffer?"
I understood instantly what this charade was for and shouted back: "You've camped here already for half the night! You'll get your turn soon enough!"
I switched off the lights in the washroom and ran to the window to check whether the SS men had discovered the transmitter. I was just in time to see them walking back, laughing and saying something about a cat.
I let Thomas in, gave him the thumbs up sign and returned to the draughting room.
Everybody was ready to leave, complaining about how cruel I had been to make Thomas wait, and what would have happened if he had not been able to hold himself any longer.
Later on, Thomas told me how desperate this improvisation was. At the sound of the noise outside, he rushed to the toilet and began shouting before the SS guard had time to become suspicious.
When we were back at camp, Thomas went to the hospital "to get something for diarrhoea" and notified Alfred to collect the transmitter on his rollwagon. It was delivered the same night and installed by Fred Stoessel in the basement of the hospital block.
Unfortunately our radio was only in operation for about six months. The Germans eventually picked up our signals and began a frantic search for the source, taking in several men for questioning. They did not have, at that time, the equipment to locate the direction from which the signal was transmitted, but they redoubled their efforts to uncover the activity of the underground. To the Gestapo, this signal was proof-positive of an organization in the camp and that it must be destroyed. Afraid our security was inadequate, the decision was made, in the summer of 1942, to dismantle the transmitter.