SMUGGLING AS AN ART FORM
On my last day with the cartographers, I went to see Mamma to make sure I still had a job with the potato peelers.
Like a sheep to the lion's den, I approached Mamma's barracks. The chances of encountering a murderous kapo there were very good. If he felt like showing his strength or giving vent to his frustrations, or even for no reason at all, he would readily strike the first prisoner in his path. If the unfortunate victim were to show any tendency to defend himself, it would be equivalent to a swift death sentence: other kapos would join the fray, execute him on the spot and enjoy every moment of it. During working hours the kapo's authority was unfailingly reinforced by the SS guards who were always ready to shoot a man for insubordination.
Thus, my trip to the kapos block was not for pleasure. No ordinary prisoner in his right mind would dare to go there, but I was counting on my clean uniform and confident appearance to convince the kapos that I occupied some important position in the camp and should be left alone.
I found Mamma in a back room playing poker with Leo and some other kapos. On the table lay a generous pile of German marks. Stakes were high, faces tense and tempers short. I had come in at the wrong time.
Leo took one look at me and barked: "Get out of here!"
I was out like a shot.
The next day, after morning roll call, I ran to where the SS kitchen group stood, looking for Mamma. He was late for some reason, but the cooks told me Mamma had found a replacement and that there was little hope he would take an extra man. I felt lost and uncertain, not knowing where to go. Some groups were already marching out of the camp; if I stayed in, I would have to report to Leo who was still the campelder. While I was pondering over what decision to make, Mamma was leading his group out of the camp.
"What are you doing here?" he inquired in a surprised voice.
"Don't you remember? I was to report here after I finished my job with the cartographers. Dr. Dering got what he wanted and now I'm back."
I pretended not to know I had been replaced. Mamma looked genuinely perplexed.
"The potato peelers' group is complete. I can't take more men than I'm allowed, so I don't know what to do for you. But I suppose you can come with us just for today."
That was encouraging. On Sunday, the following day, most men did not go to work, which would give me time to find another job. When we got to the kitchen sun-porch, all the potato peelers took their places; there was not even room for me to sit down. For an hour I stood while Mamma busied himself in the kitchen, uncertain as to what to do with myself.
Finally Mamma walked in and announced that the chef had no need for another potato peeler. He then paused, waiting for my response. I said nothing.
"He also mentioned that we could use one more man in the kitchen if I can find a really good cook."
Mamma stepped closer. "Are you a good cook? Tell me the truth! I want to know what your real profession is!"
I certainly did not want him to know I was a regular officer on a scholarship to the university, nor did I want to lie to him. I was tempted to tell him a partial truth - that I was a university student in mechanical engineering - but decided instead to make up a story that might appeal to him.
"No, I am not a very good cook," I confessed, "but I was once employed as a cook's helper in a travelling circus. Actually, I do not have any profession; I had to quit school because we did not have money for my education. I have worked at many jobs and always managed to be good at them."
Mamma seemed pleased. "I believe you. You're a very smart guy. I heard you're a good draughtsman, too. It's a pity you couldn't finish your schooling, you'd have made an excellent professional. Let's go into the kitchen to see just how good a cook you can be.
In the kitchen I received a new uniform and clean underwear. Another prisoner then led me to the crematorium for a special shower and disinfecting procedure. When we returned, Mamma endowed me with a long white apron and a white cook's hat, the official emblems of my new post.
The day passed uneventfully until shortly before six. The SS suppers had been prepared and Mamma and his prisoner cooks were sitting behind the kettles, tucking into their own dinners. I was about to join them when Mamma stopped me.
"You've not had your cook's examination yet. This goulash would taste much better with just a little something more. What do you think it needs?"
I tasted it and feeling deeply embarrassed about my cooking knowledge, looked up at Mamma and shrugged.
"Well, let me help you," he offered. "What would you think if we cut pieces of salami into that goulash? Would that improve it?"
I agreed with Mamma, as was expected.
Mamma continued: "The SS kitchen received a big shipment of salamis today. They're all kept in the room where the SS cooks are working. Go and get us one."
After a pause he added: "By the way, if they catch you they may kill you, and if they don't do a good job of it, I'll have to finish you off myself."
This was not the nicest cooking examination I could imagine.
I tried to worm my way out of it. "Shouldn't you let me work here for a couple of days before trying this stunt? I'm new here and everybody's watching me."
"Hurry up," said Mamma. "The goulash is getting cold."
I walked briskly to the doorway of an adjoining room and peered in. On a side table was a small mountain of salamis. Three SS cooks who were having dinner turned and stared at me.
"What do you want?" one demanded.
Thinking fast, I replied, "It's my job as a new cook to wash dishes, and I thought I might collect some. Is that all right?"
It was all I could think of to say, though I knew it was a pretty flimsy excuse for getting into the room. I stood there, my heart pounding, feeling my confidence drain away.
"A good idea! So Mamma Fritz is finally thinking about his bosses' comfort. You can clean up the room too while you're at it."
I could not believe my good fortune. I collected their dishes, took them to the sink and washed them. At the other end of the room I noticed a cupboard full of cups and plates and walked over, placing my wet dishes on the table beside it. As I dried them, I puzzled about how to sneak a salami. Though the cooks were moving around the room, one always kept an eye on me. This was probably no more than simple curiosity about the new man in the kitchen, but for my purposes it constituted a considerable nuisance. I felt I had to direct their attention away from me.
I finished the cleaning and washing-up and started to walk out of the room past the table full of salamis. The cooks watched my every move.
I stopped by the table as if suddenly remembering something, turned around and said: "I'm sorry, but I didn't ask you where the clean dishes should go. I probably piled them in the wrong place."
I pointed to the cupboard and everybody immediately looked there. Quickly, I snatched a salami with the other hand and slipped it under my apron.
"No," said the chef, "that's where we keep them."
I smiled with relief and returned to our part of the kitchen. Mamma, sitting behind one of the kettles, was finishing his dinner.
Proudly, I handed him the salami. "I'm sorry it took me so long, but I'm new here and they were watching me all the time."
Mamma grinned broadly.
"You've done well," he exclaimed. "I was really upset about having to kill such a nice guy. Now you are a member of Mamma's family."
He patted the seat beside him and I took it gratefully.
"Now let me explain why I asked you to do this. You see, in my family we're all prepared to take risks for each other. I wanted to see whether you would do it for me. But I will never again expose you to unnecessary risk. And you can be sure no kapo in Auschwitz will dare to touch you. They know what I can do to them."
This lengthy explanation seemed quite logical and thus made little impression on me. The fact that I had just risked my life to satisfy the whim of some criminal did not even occur to me. Stealing was a real achievement - I had exposed myself to danger and enjoyed it.
Life in the kitchen under Mamma's protective wing proved indeed a heaven in hell.
My position in the SS kitchen provided natural opportunities for exploitation. The kitchen had better cold meats for the officers' mess and greedy SS men in the lower ranks often exchanged favours for goodies.
Prisoners returning to the main camp from work were frequently searched for food received from outside, for letters, or for any other matter the camp administration considered dangerous. SS kitchen personnel were, of course, prime suspects and searched more often than any other working group. However, the system was so corrupt, Mamma could usually pass cold meats to the guards at the camp's main gate to find out when a search was planned. These methods of exchange were not foolproof; sometimes officers would order, on a spur of the moment, an inspection of returning work groups. But with regular camp life so full of dangers, we felt the risk was worth it. I carried ham sausages, salami and back bacon into the camp on a regular basis. Others were more cautious, or perhaps did not have so many friends in need of such delicacies.
One day, as I marched back to camp with the rest of the SS kitchen personnel, two salamis nestled under my belt, several SS men ran out of the guardhouse and ordered the entire group to stop at the gate - a surprise inspection. Divided into rows, the potato peelers were searched first by two of the guards. One was particularly thorough, checking pockets, running his hands along the body front and back, then feeling each arm and leg. The two thick salamis burned against my stomach. No matter how much I pulled it in" I could not make them disappear.
Suddenly there was a commotion and shouting up front. An SS man had found a very small piece of sausage hidden in the sleeve of a potato peeler. Triumphantly, he showed it to everybody; then, joined by other men from the guardhouse, he began to beat the prisoner. The poor potato peeler was kicked, slugged with rifle butts and hit with clubs until he collapsed, almost unconscious. He was then dragged between the two rows of electric fences surrounding the camp, placed upon his feet and left standing there. But that was not enough.
An SS man picked up a heavy club, approached the swaying figure and said: "I should kill you for what you did, but I'll give you another chance. If you run fast enough between these fences that I can't catch you, I'll let you live. If not, I'll kill you with my club. Now go!"
He pretended to chase the man who stumbled along as fast as he could, dragging his left foot while one arm, probably broken, swung limply at his side.
The SS men, laughing outrageously, watched him labour on. "Look at the dummkopf run!" they shouted.
' The unfortunate prisoner had forgotten that, being between the fences, he was a shooting target for the guards in the towers. Indeed, no sooner had he approached one tower than three shots rang out. The SS guard had to fire that many times, at about 50 metres, to kill him.
The guards returned to their body search of our group. What would happen to me when they found my two huge salamis, I wondered, praying for a miracle. Inside the camp gate was a small gathering of prisoners observing the search. I saw Stan and Thomas anxiously watching me, not knowing for certain whether or not I was carrying food.
During the inspection, I noticed that the SS men had slightly different techniques. The one in my row was checking the torso very thoroughly, almost neglecting arms and legs. The other guard paid more attention to arms and legs, likely encouraged by finding the bit of sausage in the man's sleeve. On approaching our guard, each of us was required to spread his legs, raise his arms and submit to the search. I watched the man who was to frisk me, then decided, when my time came, to shift the salamis to my hips in the hope that he would concentrate on my front and back as he had with the other prisoners. Deep in thought about how to outwit this fellow, I failed to notice that the other guard had finished his row.
A shout jerked me back to reality: "You there! Come to me!"
It was the sausage man. With no time to think, I reacted instinctively. I walked straight to him, spread my legs and raised my arms, and leaned with my salamis against his stomach. If he stepped back to check my front I was finished, so I made sure there was no room for his hands to touch my belly.
The guard ran his hands over my sides and my back, checked each arm and leg, and let me go.
When I walked through the gate, Stan and Thomas greeted me with relief.
"We were afraid you might be carrying some food tonight," they said. "Thank God you weren't."
A little later, as we got further from the gate, I pulled out the two salamis. My two friends just stood there, staring at the meat. "I don't know how I got through," I said simply. "It was a real miracle. If they'd found these huge sausages, I'd be minced meat myself by now."
Thomas smiled his enigmatic smile. "Perhaps Mamma was right - you may be a better thief than officer."
This close brush with death did nothing to stop me from my practice of smuggling sausages into the camp. In a young man's mind, the hunger for adventure is often more powerful than simple logic. Thomas and Stan tried to discourage me, insisting there was no need for me to take such a risk. But I knew that this was not true - my friends were always hungry and a bribe often came in handy when dealing with those in authority. Besides, somewhere deep down I enjoyed the thrill of deceiving the enemy.
Future information about the likelihood of an inspection at the gate proved highly reliable. In time, I was able to bring quite a load of meat into the camp.
There was however, another near miss. It was late in summer and I was again carrying two beautiful, thick sausages under my belt. Once more we were stopped at the gate and two SS men conducted a body search. This time they ordered us to take off our jackets and submit them for inspection, then each man was searched in the usual manner.
Removing my jacket would immediately expose my sausages. Quickly, I put one sausage into each sleeve of my jacket and held it at the end of the sleeves, by two fingers, pretending it was feather light. I waved the jacket back and forth in front of the SS man, twisting and turning it, then grabbed both sleeves in one hand spread my legs and raised my arms. The body search revealed nothing more.
Through my work in the SS kitchen and my ability to bring good food back to the camp, I became one of the influential, privileged class in Auschwitz. Thanks to Mamma, no kapo would touch me and the difficult kitchen work, along with the extra food, made me very strong. I always wore a nice-fitting, clean uniform and had a good pair of shoes. Also, my number, 4618, signified that I was one of the old prisoners and had survived, suggesting that I had good connections with the camp authorities. Since a mere two per cent of the first transports were still alive, even the SS treated us better.
Dr. Dering's attitude to-wards me changed. He treated me like an old friend, apparently forgetting that he once fired me from a very good job and exposed me to conditions in which survival was far more problematic.
At 26, I was too young to have any firm political views. Three years of the military academy and a year at university had not given me much time to form opinions about political parties. Dering was a right wing conservative, highly intolerant of all minorities such as Russians, Ukrainians or Jews. It was probably his attitude that pushed me towards socialism.
In Auschwitz at that time was a man well known before the war as a socialist. His name was Stan Dubois. He was much older than me and because I found him very wise, he became the first person to educate me politically. I had been raised as part of the privileged class and consequently knew nothing of social discrimination and injustice. My concepts were very simplistic: there was an intelligent class and an unintelligent class. The intelligent class was rich and the unintelligent class was poor. It did not occur to me then that education, not intelligence, was the exclusive domain of the rich. No doubt most of my conservative colleagues, including regular officers, never understood that difference.
Political activities became as significant in Auschwitz as our military organization. But I could see no purpose for them there, in spite of my sympathy to Dubois. Political people tended to classify others according to their pre-war political preferences, thereby judging how trustworthy they were. Nothing did more to prevent cooperation and trust between people than one's political affiliations. This was demonstrated to the extreme in Buchenwald where Communists were the blockelders and kapos. Their behaviour was not much better than that of the professional criminals in Auschwitz.
In the spring of 1942, when orders from Berlin for mass executions came into effect, Auschwitz did not yet have an elaborate system of gas chambers. We heard that the first attempt was carried out on about 1,000 Jews from Slovakia. Although they could easily have been shot, they were instead "hand murdered," beaten to death in Birkenau by a group of SS men over a period of about three days. Death was delivered person to person, in a most primitive and brutal way, serving as a training ground and test of endurance for future executioners. For those who could do it, dropping a canister of gas into a room with hundreds or thousands of men, women and children became as easy as swatting a fly.
Meanwhile, in the main camp, an epidemic of typhus broke out. With rampant malnutrition and insufficient health care, prisoners dropped faster than the kapos could kill them. Attempts to keep the typhus under control were almost impossible. As long as there were lice, typhus spread like fire; as long as the camp was unsanitary, lice multiplied. Those who worked in the SS offices, stores or kitchen were moved to a separate block. Yet the disease still struck the SS. Soon, drastic methods were adopted and block after block put through the delousing process. People sick with typhus in the hospital were brought naked to the showers and often had to wait their turn outside. Men and clothing were disinfected, the former with special soaps and the latter with hot steam, but nothing helped. In fact, the combination of heat and damp may have contributed to the proliferation of the lice, thus spreading the disease even further. The underground decided to use the typhus outbreak to its advantage, keeping a special breeding place for infected lice in the hospital. Selected "sharpshooters" received their own little box of lice and they in turn would select pieces of straw into which a louse would fit snugly; then, like Amazonian Indians with their poison-arrow blowguns, they would shoot the lice into the necks of the most hated SS men.
The hunt was quite successful. Several SS men infected with typhus died in spite of the fact that they had received much better medical attention than prisoners. Among them was the one who had wanted to make a shooting target out of me when I worked with the surveyors. Somehow the SS guards realized that the most cruel of them were the very ones who were dying. The trick of shooting infected lice was never discovered, but the SS men began to talk about some "curse" connected with the Auschwitz concentration camp. Whether all of them believed it or not, there was nonetheless a general improvement in the treatment of prisoners by the SS guards. Besides the curse, the SS men became afraid to touch prisoners for fear of infection.
One favourite target for lice-shooting was Palitsch, though in spite of perfect scores, he never got sick. However, he must have taken the infected lice home because shortly after he had received several hits, his wife developed typhus and died.
Indirectly, this affected Palitsch himself. About a year later when more Jewish prisoners inhabited Birkenau, Palitsch started to visit a Jewish girl in one of the barracks there. Sexual relations between German and Jew were strictly forbidden. Palitsch's activities were discovered, but instead of being sentenced to imprisonment in the concentration camp he was sent to the Russian front. Six months later the news reached Auschwitz that Palitsch had died fighting for the Fatherland.
The multiple deaths of the SS guards strengthened the determination of the Auschwitz authorities to stamp out typhus. One day SS doctors walked into the prisoners' hospital and segregated all people sick with typhus for "delousing." Over 1,000 men were undressed and loaded into trucks. Another truck collected all their clothes, bedding and mattresses for disinfecting, leaving just the bare walls. The men were all gassed in the crematorium. From then on typhus-stricken prisoners were afraid to go to the hospital and simply died wherever they happened to be. Some who had connections were able to stay in hospital by simulating other illnesses.
But even that was not a safe alternative. The hospital was over crowded and the Germans disliked keeping people off work for too long. As a consequence, a German doctor was sent around every few days to select the weakest patients for the gas chamber.
It was at this time that Thomas came down with typhus. Fortunately, he was safe in hospital; enough people there knew of his work in the camp and were prepared to protect him from the gas chamber selections. We were all deeply concerned about his illness and one of us checked his condition daily. Typhus lasts normally about two weeks, during which time the patient's temperature rises to around 42'C, or higher. At the end of the two weeks the patient is extremely weak, constituting the moment of crisis. The temperature then falls within a very short time to about 35'C or lower, usually resulting in death. Thomas, however, survived. Even
before he was released from hospital it was arranged for him to work in the tannery with Stan Kazuba.
In the meantime, the Russian prisoners had built enough barracks in Birkenau to house themselves and the rest - those who were still alive - transferred out of the main camp. The penal block too was sent to Birkenau, but Block 11 remained a place of executions or of imprisonment in the bunkers, still under the control of the local Gestapo.
Shortly after the departure of the Russians the fence dividing the main camp was erected again, separating Blocks 1 to 10 from the rest of the camp.
Exciting rumours started to circulate that a transport of women would soon be arriving. We had been in the camp over two years without so much as seeing a woman, and sometime in March 1942, the rumour proved true. The first 100 women arrived and a series of pathetic love affairs began across the barbed wire. The desire to be with and talk to the opposite sex was very strong on both sides. Men and women sat face to face and just looked at each other through the fence. Talking was forbidden; besides, the distance was too great for intimate conversation and one had to shout at the top of one's lungs to be heard. Communications were with sign language. Having been away from women for so long, we had nurtured an idealized picture of them as kind, sensitive and caring beings, quite incapable of cruelty. That women could beat each other as cruelly as men seemed unimaginable. Yet the female kapos we saw were remarkably rough, shouting and brandishing their clubs, most frequently upon the weakest. Afterwards, I heard that life in the women's camp was much more complicated than in the men's, full of internal intrigues and entanglements which made the art of survival far more difficult.
The expansion of Birkenau progressed very rapidly when the working force of Russians was augmented by selected Jews and some of the new transports from Poland. With such large numbers, new crematoriums were required. The existing crematorium could not handle the job even operating 24 hours a day, burning two corpses at a time in one oven. It had become necessary to burn the dead just outside the building in a large ditch. The smoke from charred bodies was exhausted not through a chimney but in the marshlands of Auschwitz. It had a sickening, sweetish smell and spread over the ground for kilometres. Over forty years have passed and I still recall vividly that sinister odour.
Priority was given in Birkenau for the building of four new crematoriums and new gas chambers. The chambers were built in the form of large shower rooms and were used almost exclusively for the mass extermination of Jewish families who arrived from all parts of Europe. Thousands of Gypsies were also gassed. The first Jewish transport sent directly to Birkenau arrived in May 1942 and consisted of about 1,500 men, women and children. The new arrivals were ordered to undress, then herded into the alleged shower rooms where the gas, in the form of pellets, was dropped in through the ventilators. The procedure was perfected to such a degree of efficiency that after about ten minutes everybody was dead. The rear doors would then open, the gas would be exhausted, and the dead bodies would be wheeled into the crematoriums. The remaining people in the transport would await their turn, completely unaware of what was going on inside. In the meantime, the shower rooms would be hosed down with water to look as though the previous group had really had a shower.
The whole charade had no humanitarian aspect whatsoever. It was simply an efficient and convenient way to control large crowds with only a few SS men on duty. In subsequent transports a selection was made before the victims reached the "showers." Young, healthy men and women were sent to work in Birkenau and the old, infirm and children went to the gas chambers.
A new working group of prisoners was created to assist the Germans in this macabre operation. Called a "Sonderkomando," it consisted exclusively of Jewish volunteers. They were given special privileges and lived in conditions superior to those of the SS: bedrooms with comfortable beds and clean sheets, changed every day; a spacious dining room with good china and cutlery and a living room with a library, checkers and chess; and the best food Europe could provide at that time.* [* See Dr. Miklos Nyszli. Auschwitz (Greenwich, Conn.: Fawcet, 1960)].
All these luxuries were taken from the Jewish transports who had just been put through the gas chambers. The Sonderkomandos received clean clothes and good quality underwear; they even were allowed to wear watches and did not have to have their heads shaved like the rest of us.
Their duties were to lure the new arrivals into the gas chambers, take their bodies to the crematorium and transport their belongings to a special barracks where a thorough search was made for valuables. The barracks were called "Canada" - meaning the place of affluence. Indeed, people displaced from their homes all over Europe took as many of their valuables as they could with them. The prisoners who worked in "Canada" had to search through these belongings, especially for food, money and jewellery. Some of the warm clothing was sent to Germany if it was in nearly new condition; useful things like leather belts, shoes, brief-cases or leather suitcases were recycled for use by the German army. Many valuables found their way into the camp and were used as purchasing power for food or better clothing; the rest was piled up in separate barracks for possible future use. After the war, millions of useless eyeglasses, toothbrushes and prostheses were found, all of them neatly segregated into enormous heaps.
At one time, when a large supply of American dollars was circulating, the price of a loaf of bread on the camp's black market was $100. The Sonderkomandos had first choice in food or clothing. Valuables such as gold and jewellery did not interest them; they knew they were soon to be gassed and willingly traded those several weeks of relative luxury for certain death later.
Probably their work represented an immediate escape from the horrible conditions in the camp. But the price - helping Germans in the gassing of their own people - was high indeed. Perhaps each had a spark of hope that before his turn came, something would happen to save his life. Two Sonderkomandos attempted to flee the camp just before they were due for extermination. Once they even received guns from the outside underground army, killing a couple of SS men in the process. None made a successful escape, however, until just before the end of the war.
American dollars, gold and diamonds became very valuable for our organization. We had discovered several SS men could be corrupted by amounts of money they could never dream of seeing in their regular pay. Food was always the most desirable commodity among prisoners, kapos and even among the SS whose menu was good but terribly unimaginative.
When, in 1943 and 1944, the Germans no longer punished other prisoners for one man's disappearance - a change of regulations believed to have come from Berlin - the underground began to assume an active role in arranging escapes from Auschwitz. The families of escapees, however, were still threatened with either public execution in the camp or "life" in the penal company. A major responsibility of our organization, when preparing escapes, was to notify the families ahead of time, allowing them to move to an address unknown to the local Gestapo.
Thomas was very anxious to send an envoy who could personally describe the situation in the camp in detail to the underground headquarters in Warsaw. The first candidates were Bielecki and Gawron. Both men had been arrested for belonging to the underground army and for possession of arms; their chance of survival was nil. Sooner or later they would be executed by Palitsch in Block 11.
We decided to use our influence with the kapos to have them transferred to the group working with livestock outside the camp. A single barbed wire fence, not electrified, surrounded the area. Prisoners working there were few and the guards known to be inattentive.
Through our contacts, partisan units outside were notified to help them cross the border to the unannexed part of Poland and finally to Warsaw. Indeed, a week later the two men cut the wire fence and disappeared into the foggy night. They reached Warsaw soon after, delivering the first oral report from Auschwitz.
Out of sheer desperation, many others attempted to escape unassisted. A very small percentage were successful. For the most part, the escaping prisoners were Musselmen, indifferent as to whether they lived or died. Those caught would be brought back into the camp in great triumph. The SS would hang a big sign around their necks reading: "Hurrah, Hurrah, Ich bin wieder da!" (I am back again!). The man would be given a drum to beat, paraded before the entire camp at roll call, then thrown into the bunker.
Genuine escapees tried to hide from the large outer ring of guards, hoping that when working groups returned to the camp no one would notice they were missing. Then, when the sentries were taken off for the night, the country would be open for a free walk home. However, it was not that simple. The Germans were very thorough when counting prisoners; in all my five years in the concentration camp, I cannot recall a single miscount. Even if a prisoner did walk away unnoticed, the surrounding countryside was either deserted or had been resettled and occupied by the German army, the SS and civilians. Without knowing where to go, an escapee was bound to stumble across some German patrol or, simply exhausted, would die in the fields. If caught, he too was paraded in front of the prisoners, then publicly hanged. Nothing, however, could discourage men from attempting escape.
One of the most spectacular escapes occurred when an officer, acting as a courier for our organization, fled with three colleagues. Each had worked in the industrial park where they were able to steal machine guns and SS uniforms. In broad daylight, fully disguised and guarded by the SS, they drove down the main road and out of the camp in a convertible car belonging to the commandant of the industrial park.
Needless to say, the boldness of this escape left the Auschwitz authorities furious. Aumeier, the deputy commandant of the camp, warned that all escaping prisoners would sooner or later be tracked down by the Gestapo since the whole of Europe was under German control. Executions would be swift and families hanged. This proved to be no idle threat. One day we found bodies, supposedly of a family, swinging from the gallows in front of the camp kitchen.
The most desperate attempts were made by the Russians in Birkenau, who were treated even more cruelly than their counter-parts. They did not trust our underground; after all, only a year before, Russia had sided with Germany in its war against Poland. In time, our organization made contact with representatives of the Russian prisoners. Nevertheless, they continued to act independently.
Preparations began for a mass escape. First, the Russians snatched the corpse of a prisoner who had died during working hours and hid it within the outer ring of sentries. At evening roll call the alarm was sounded and the SS men, kapos and blockelders went out for the search. The rest of the camp in Birkenau, closely guarded, remained standing at attention in the roll call square. The body had been hidden well; after several hours the kapos and SS men came back empty-handed. Then, just loud enough for one of the kapos to hear, a Russian remarked: "If they let us look for him, we'll find him for sure! We know all the places where a prisoner might hide."
With nothing to lose, the SS men decided to let a group of Russians continue the search. Of course, they found the dead body and everybody was happy. They thus became the "experts" in finding escapees. They repeated this charade a couple of times over several weeks until the moment finally arrived for real action.
Once more the Russians hid a corpse, but when asked to search for the escapee, simply walked around aimlessly and made little attempt to locate the body. The Germans were furious. During the search, the whole camp of Birkenau had been standing at roll call for four hours while the sentries kept watch from the towers. In a last-ditch attempt to solve the problem, the commanding officer announced that all Russian prisoners would participate in the search. If unsuccessful, each one would be punished with 50 strokes to the bare buttocks. They went, but as they walked through the fields and between the buildings they collected stones, bricks and anything else which might serve as a weapon.
All at once the Russians attacked the guards and even succeeded in disarming one of the tower sentries. Then they ran towards the river where they believed freedom lay. The other towers opened fire and the alarm brought more reinforcements. SS men jumped into cars and drove to the other side of the river where frequent shots indicated they had found their targets. Most of the Russians were killed but several individuals escaped. The rest were brought back to the camp and hanged.
The building of new gas chambers at Auschwitz for the mass extermination of European Jews made it necessary to smuggle Jewish eye-witnesses out of the camp. ["Escapes from Auschwitz" (in Polish) by T. Sobarski (Warsaw: Polish Ministry of Defence, 1974)]
Late in 1943, two Slovaks named Wetzler and Rosenberg planned an escape. They decided to build an underground hideout in the industrial park and wait there for three days, until the posts were taken off the towers. When a prisoner went missing during working hours within the outer ring of sentries and no way was found by which he could have escaped, the guards remained at their posts for the next three days and nights.
It took Wetzler and Rosenberg about two months to prepare; in a place where an old building had been demolished and where old lumber and broken boards were still lying around, they had dug a hole big enough in which to lie down. On the appointed day, their friends covered them with boards camouflaged with loose soil. They then sprinkled pepper generously around to prevent tracking dogs from sniffing them out.
When the evening roll call revealed two prisoners missing, the usual search was initiated. But the escapees were not found. Three days later, under the cover of night and when the posts were off the towers, Wetzler and Rosenberg walked away to freedom.
Through the intervention of the Polish and Slovak undergrounds, they were eventually granted audience with the Vatican envoy to whom they made full eyewitness reports and asked for the intervention of the Pope on humanitarian grounds.
Though great danger was involved in escaping from Auschwitz, it was a way to fight back. Nonetheless, the great majority had no desire to escape, unwilling as they were to put themselves voluntarily in a position of immediate danger. The instinct for self-preservation told them to postpone action in favour of prolonging their lives at least a little. This may also explain why the Germans could lead thousands of people into the gas chambers, in most cases without any resistance.
In May 1942, the local Gestapo gave an order to shoot about 170 prisoners - officers or proven members of the Polish underground, some of whom had been in the camp for a year or more. All of them marched to their deaths singing the Polish national anthem, their only sign of defiance. At the time, we thought them very brave. In actual fact, they knew that if they tried to attack the SS guards, they would be shot on the spot. By marching and singing they postponed their deaths for perhaps an hour or two.
Shortly after this execution, 400 more Polish prisoners were summoned and transferred to the penal company in Birkenau. In addition to their red triangle, men in the penal company had to wear a black dot on their uniforms with a red circle just above it. This distinguished them from ordinary prisoners and signified that they were extremely dangerous.
A week after their transfer the first ten red circles were called up and shot. A week later another ten men were executed. When, the week following, ten more red circles were shot, they began to suspect the reason for their transfer. They had been condemned to die, but the Germans, afraid of a rebellion, had decided to execute them in small groups.
This was confirmed by Thomas through his contacts, prisoners working in the Gestapo offices. He immediately gave thought as to how he might save his colleagues who were sentenced to death.
The red circles decided to make a break for freedom, en masse, while they worked on the construction of the Konigsgraben Canal near the River Vistula. In addition to the 370 red circles, the regular penal company prisoners were also prepared to flee. The methods used to effect escapes could seldom be repeated because the Germans were invariably alerted as to what suspicious signs to watch for. Thus, almost every escape from Auschwitz had to employ a different technique.
Their plan was to disarm the immediate guards, run in groups towards the river, swim across and scale the embankment. "Much would depend on individual courage, enterprise and luck. Naturally heavy losses were to be expected - perhaps over 200 prisoners would fall to bullets or be caught and murdered, perhaps more would die and only 50 be saved - but how much better that would be than to wait passively for certain death." [The events are described by an eyewitness, Zenon Rozanski, in "Fighting Auschwitz" by Joseph Garlinski (London: Julian Friedmann Publishers Ltd., 1975), pp. 104-105]
In order that the mass slaughter which had happened to the Russians not be repeated, partisan units had damaged the bridge over the river and were waiting on the other side. Dispatched troops of SS men would have to take the long drive around, giving the prisoners more time to escape.
It was decided that the attempt to escape would take place on June 10th, when the whistle to cease work sounded. It was a beautiful, sunny day, with no suggestion of a change of weather. Suddenly, at about four o'clock, clouds appeared in the sky and rain began to fall; some minutes later this turned into a downpour. In the torrents of rain it was almost impossible to see. Those in the know were not upset by this as it could only facilitate their plans, for work would go on to the end of the day; it never stopped for bad weather. But this time they were mistaken. Unexpectedly, the SS sergeant came out of his hut, looked around and with one long, shrill whistle gave the signal to knock off work. It was only halfpast four.
Complete confusion resulted. Prisoners ran wildly from all sides, some towards the embankment and some not at all. When the crisis was over only fifty prisoners with red circles had disarmed the nearest SS men and tried to get away. Thirteen fell to the hail of bullets, a number turned back and only nine reached the Vistula and freedom.
Despite the general order from Berlin, the camp authorities took bloody retaliation for the attempt at a mass escape. The following day, Aumeier arrived and demanded of the 320 prisoners that they bring forth the leaders of the revolt. They silently refused, and immediately the deputy commandant shot 17 men, leaving three for his colleague Hossler. The remaining column of prisoners was led to the bunkers and gassed. On July 8, two members of the penal company who had been recaptured after the escape were publicly hanged.
As the war progressed, conditions in the camp tended to be in inverse proportion to the successes of the German troops in Russia: the less successful the German campaign, the more cruelly prisoners were treated. Jewish families arrived at Auschwitz in larger and larger numbers and the gas chambers were now used to exterminate all Musselmen, all hospital patients, Russians, Gypsies and Poles considered dangerous by the Gestapo. These extreme circumstances demanded that word be sent to the Warsaw headquarters. The bearer of the message had to be a long-time member of our organization, one who could persuade the Polish underground army that an uprising in Auschwitz was absolutely necessary.
I volunteered and my offer was accepted.
The SS kitchen where I was still serving very often worked overtime, after the outer ring was released from duty. Only one SS man guarded us in the kitchen and he could easily be distracted by good food. Before I could actually escape, however, there were several problems to be solved. I knew that if I escaped alone my colleagues would be held responsible and, as a reprisal, possibly hanged. I had to find out whether they were also willing to go. As it turned out, they had been talking about it for some time. When it was decided all six of us would escape, our next step was to notify our families to move to a new address. To assist them, we sent through outside contacts an American $1,000 bill for each family. During the war, U.S. currency was very valuable and a family could easily live on that amount for more than a year.
It was a tremendously exciting time. Replies from families started to come back, one by one, saying they had received the money and had moved into a new place. We were now just waiting for confirmation from my wife. When no word came, two weeks after everyone else's letters had arrived, I began to worry; perhaps something had happened to her. I asked Thomas to make contact once again through our men in the underground army. Several days later he informed me that she had been spoken to personally in Warsaw but refused to move out of her apartment. It was greatly unexpected and a terrible blow. The escape was all set up; we had smuggled civilian clothes to the kitchen and arrangements had been completed with a partisan unit outside to meet us and help us reach Warsaw.
I was frustrated, angry and very unsure what to do. Stan said I should go; my wife had not actually said I should not escape, she had only refused to move out. Perhaps she knew something. Perhaps she had established good relations with the Warsaw Gestapo and they would not arrest her, even if I did escape.
But I had seen the families of other fugitives hanged in front of the kitchen and could not bear to think of my wife being brought to Auschwitz. Two years in the camp had made me believe I could survive almost anything short of execution. But I had always thought of my wife as so helpless that even if she were not executed, she would not survive long in the conditions of Auschwitz.
I told Thomas that I could not go this time, not until I was sure that my wife would be out of danger. Thomas understood, but knew we could not hold back the rest of the men. When I returned to work in the kitchen next day, I told my colleagues of my decision and wished them good luck. My civilian clothes, hidden in the kitchen, had to be brought back into camp; if they were found after the escape I would be suspect. After work I dressed up in the civilian jacket and pants and put my striped uniform on top. For good measure I also took two ham sausages. What would the food matter if I were caught wearing civilian clothes? I got into the camp with no misadventures.
In the meantime, our organization faced the challenge of arranging my transfer from the SS kitchen to some other working group without my being implicated in the impending escape. To achieve this, they devised a fictitious punishment by the camp authorities. The following day I joined the kitchen group as usual but before Mamma had a chance to lead us out, my number was called by the SS man in charge of the working squads. Mamma was disturbed and insisted on going with me to help out if I was in some sort of trouble. According to the guard an order had come, probably from the Gestapo, that kitchen work was much too good for me and I was being transferred back to the general workforce. I fell in with new arrivals who had not yet been assigned to a squad.
Mamma, helpless to do anything, just turned to me and said: "I don't know what you were arrested for out there, but it must have been pretty bad if the Gestapo's still watching you here in Auschwitz. Anyway, if you ever feel hungry you can always come to me."
I was very grateful and thought perhaps we had made a mistake by not including him in our plans. But then I remembered the behaviour of the kapos in the penal company and reminded myself Mamma was also a criminal prisoner whose loyalty was more to Germany than Poland. I also knew that on the day of our escape Mamma and the SS guard would get a sleeping powder with their coffee and so would not be blamed.
My thoughts were interrupted by the kapo in charge of the workforce: "Number 4618! How many times do I have to call you! Join this group!"
I ran to the end of the column which was ready to march out to work, noticing with great joy the familiar faces of Thomas Serafinski, Stan Kazuba and Henry Bartosiewicz.
I had been assigned to the tannery group.
The escape from the SS kitchen had been scheduled for 8 o'clock in the evening on Wednesday of the following week. By then I had been safely transferred to another block where my tannery friends lived. On Wednesday night, as I lay on top of the triple bunk bed, my thoughts were with my colleagues in the SS kitchen. I knew that by now the night shift would be finished and the SS cooks would return to their barracks. Only Mamma and the SS guard would be there having dinner and the rest of the fellows would be cleaning the kitchen. Now was the time they would spike the coffee with sleeping powder. So many things could go wrong! Sometimes more SS men would come for a second dinner prepared by Mamma as part of a general bribe. Sometimes the SS guard would ask for tea, not coffee. Did they have extra powder for that possibility? If everything went according to plan, Mamma and the guard should now be sleeping and everybody running for the storeroom. Now they would change quickly into civilian clothes, open the window at the back of the kitchen and climb out. The window faced fields; there was not a single building or road where they could accidently run into SS men. If they did everything as planned, they should now be running like crazy, full of the joy of being free!
Being free was more than just escaping from Auschwitz. It was like stepping back through the looking glass to find oneself in a different world. Auschwitz functioned according to its own set of rules. Old prisoners knew these rules and lived according to them. We stole food from the Germans and engaged in the power struggle with the kapos by mutual intimidation and bribery. We considered newcomers abnormal - they could not understand, even when told, how to behave in the camp. They knew what it was to be free, something we only faintly remembered.
At the far end of the fields was a small wooded area where they would be met by the underground men. I wondered what they would do if there were no one to meet them. Were they lost now? I had forgotten to describe the terrain to them, which I had memorised from the map. Did they know which way to go?
This part of Poland had been annexed to Germany and there were already large numbers of Germans working on the railroads, in the post offices and elsewhere, going about their daily business. I hoped my friends knew enough to get as far away from Auschwitz as possible. Sooner or later the escape would be discovered, the SS patrollers would give chase and all military and police units would be notified to keep a lookout for the escapees. If they were caught, the Gestapo would interrogate and torture them to try to find out who had helped arrange the escape. There was no way of knowing how much pain they would be able to take.
Suddenly, all the sirens around the camp started to howl. The escape had been discovered and the chase begun. There was no guessing the outcome; I had to wait until tomorrow. I felt as if I were with them, that life in the camp would no longer be the same.
The morning roll call was no different from any other day. Everything appeared to be routine, but at the end of the roll call my number was called. Nobody else's, only mine. This is it, I thought. It's about the escape. When I marched out to the front and reported to the roll call commandant, an SS man was already waiting for me.
"Come with me!" he said and marched me to the main gate.
My mind was working overtime. If my colleagues have been caught they must be dead by now or in the bunkers of Block 11. Or the escape was successful and I was about to be interrogated by the Gestapo.
There was nothing cheerful about either possibility. Interrogated prisoners were generally put in the bunkers for softening and as a rule, seldom came out alive.
The SS man led me to the Gestapo offices. I was shown to a room with bare walls and no furniture. I was told to wait and the door was locked behind me. I must have waited for more than two hours, becoming more nervous, more tense with every passing minute. I completely forgot what I was supposed to say when the door opened and I saw two SS men and a man in civilian clothes talking to Mamma. He had obviously been interrogated before me. When Mamma was dismissed, all three walked into the room.
"Why did you not escape with your friends?" the man in civilian clothes asked.
"I did not know they were planning to escape. Besides, I was fired from my job."
Now one of the SS men said: "They must have been good friends to get you a job in the SS kitchen."
"They had nothing to do with hiring me. Kapo Fritz hired me. In fact, I think that they're the ones who arranged to get me fired!"
"That is true," said the civilian, "Fritz told us he hired you. He also said you should not be wearing a red triangle but a green one. You two have a lot in common."
I did not know what else Mamma had told them but they seemed more amused than angry. That was the end of the interrogation. Mamma had saved my life. The SS guard led me back to the main gate and let me into the camp.
My colleagues from the SS kitchen reached Warsaw safely.
* * * * *
Work in the tannery among friends seemed like an anti-climax after the adventures of my previous life. The tannery was about three kilometres from the main camp and consisted of three buildings arranged in a horseshoe pattern, with a large yard in the centre. The buildings and yard were fenced with barbed wire, with towers located at four corners of the premises. Two one-storey buildings were occupied by the tannery, one for the wet work where skins were tanned and one, where I was assigned, for finishing the dry leather. The third building was used by shoemakers and tailors working for the SS troops. Most labour in the tannery was on steer skins, producing leather for shoe soles, but we also dressed fine pelts to make chamois. Occasionally some SS officer would bring in the skin of a deer, a wild boar or a whole fox for private tanning.
When a whole animal arrived, the SS men demanded the meat for their dogs; but, of course, the best portions were cut out by Stan Kazuba for our consumption. Cooking food was not permitted here, but Stan designed an ingenious arrangement.
He had removed several bricks from the top of the large, brick stove in the drying room, leaving sufficient space for a big pot. Since, in spite of ventilation, the aroma of cooked meat could easily be detected, cooking was left for night time. In the morning when we arrived for work, the oven was still quite warm and the drying room smelled more like a kitchen than a tannery. Our first job was to open the windows and spill some of the foul smelling tanning solution on the stove to kill the aroma of cooked meat. Our pot was then removed to a safe place and we would all go about our work. On lean days, Stan used to cook up the cows' ears and udder parts - not a gourmet's delight, but for us a valuable supplement to the regular camp diet. On better days he would cook muskrats, cats, dogs, and when especially lucky, a whole horse. The inconsistent food supply was balanced out by salting meat and storing it under the floor boards in tanning barrels. Though my diet there was not as good as it had been in the SS kitchen, I was never so hungry as in the early days of Auschwitz.
I quickly learned how to use the machines for slicing and polishing skins and even became skilful at dressing skins by hand for chamois. The work in general was not particularly difficult and we could easily produce the required quotas. There was also very little SS supervision; they considered us craftsmen and did not interfere as long as the work was done.
Once or twice a day an SS man would walk through the tannery and then everybody worked busily. Otherwise, direction came from our foreman, Karl, who was half-German and half-Polish but could speak neither language well. Though Stan had been in the tannery the longest and had become very knowledgeable about all processes, Karl was the only real tanner among us. He did not know, or perhaps preferred not to know, that he was in the middle of a clandestine organization. Whenever the conversation turned to underground army escapes, Karl would immediately find some urgent job at the other end of the tannery.
One day, to help four of our men escape, we had to transport a complete SS uniform and holster with a wooden gun into camp. I had just put it on and was ready to disguise it with my own uniform when Karl walked into the drying room.
He snapped to attention and reported: "Twelve men working group at the tannery - Sir!" Without answering I began to walk slowly around him, pretending to inspect him. He continued to stand stiffly and would not have recognized me had it not been for the others suddenly bursting into great roars of laughter. Karl looked around in complete and utter confusion. Wide-eyed, he looked back at me and I started to laugh as well. Only then did he realize what was going on.
"You ... you ... you ain't an SS man!"
Slowly I reached for my wooden gun.
"You ... you gotta gun! So you think I don't know you ... I don't wanna know you! This is too much! You can't do this to me, I could be shot with all of you!"
Karl regained his composure slightly. "Now you listen here, I never seen you in that get-up, you understand? I wasn't here!" And, almost running out of the room, he repeated continually: "It ain't fair! I don't know nothin' about nothin'!'
After the fun was over, Henry started to worry. "Do you think this nitwit will report us? He was so scared he might just do it!"
Stan, who had refused to participate in the joke, said seriously: "I didn't want Karl to know anything because I wasn't sure about his loyalty. But what happened is maybe better for everybody. Karl is very cowardly but he's eating meat stolen from the SS. I also know he found some American dollars and a diamond ring in old shoes sent here for burning. He hid them behind the tumbling barrel. Leave him to me, I know how to keep him quiet."
Indeed, from then on Karl was very friendly with all of us. Instead of giving the usual orders he became obsequiously polite and when we had special work to do, did not interfere. As long as the regular chores were done, he was happy.
The only time he was extremely nervous - as were all of us - was the day of our practical joke when he had to lead us back to camp knowing that I wore the SS uniform under my prison garb. At the main gate, where he was supposed to report the number of prisoners returning from work, he almost lost his voice. Fortunately, Henry Bartosiewicz, who was close behind, saved the situation by reporting the number himself, explaining to the guard that the foreman had a bad case of laryngitis.
In the meantime, our organization decided it was in a sufficiently strong position to control the excessive violence in the camp. To a certain extent this was already working. Prisoners who spied for Germans were dying under mysterious circumstances and the kapos, knowing it was not their handiwork, made an effort to be more careful.
When Siegrud and two other infamous kapos were gassed because the SS men had found stashed in their beds gold and U.S. dollars, their colleagues suspected the men had been framed by some secret Polish group in the camp. We simply reinforced their suspicions and compromised them, offering the kapos gold or American cash. It worked, because the behaviour of all kapos in the main camp became almost civilized by the end of 1942.
A different situation, however, prevailed in Birkenau where the most cruel of the kapos found their way. At that time our influence there was almost nil.
Two men were there whose terror tactics exceeded even German demands. One of them was Bednarek, a Pole from Silesia who spoke fluent German and Polish. He could kill a person with one swing of his heavy club and would do so without provocation - perhaps because he did not like a man's face or simply because he was in the mood for killing. He was illiterate and could not even count properly the number of prisoners under his command. He could neither organize work nor supervise a working party, but at the mere sight of him men leapt frantically into action. In Birkenau, where extermination was still more important than work, he was one of the SS's most popular men.
The other was a Jewish blockelder who supervised Jewish prisoners newly arrived from selection at the gas chamber door. In his block they received their first exposure to the cruel conditions of Birkenau.
No special time was assigned to the once routine sports. Here, the sport drills were incorporated into daily life from morning to night. The blockelder would start his day with breakfast, which he ate outside the barracks standing on the throats of two prisoners pinned to the ground by his helpers. SS men would come specially to see the new "breakfast routine." He also liked to think of the most cruel ways to kill. If someone, while soup was being distributed, looked hungry, he would call the man and ask whether he wanted more. If he said "yes," the blockelder would push his head in the kettle of soup until he drowned.
We decided both these men had to be stopped.
Anonymous messages were sent through other kapos, warning them they would die if they did not alter their behaviour. Of course, this produced no results.
To dispose of a Jewish blockelder was easy because, almost every day, dozens of Jews too weak to work were sent to the gas chambers. One day the badly beaten blockelder himself was among this group.
It was much more difficult to get rid of Bednarek. The authorities considered him a good "German" and consequently he was better protected than other privileged prisoners. More clan-destine methods would have to be used.
The lice sharpshooters were called. Several typhus-infected lice were brought in from the main camp and a trusted Jewish prisoner from Bednarek's block took lessons in shooting technique. Several weeks later Bednarek died of typhus fever. Even in Birkenau, this served as an effective warning to other kapos and blockelders. The message got across, however, that a secret Polish organization was in operation, dangerous to all German kapos and SS men. Though this produced more bearable conditions for the average prisoner, the message also reached the local Gestapo. The Germans were outraged and sent more spies into Birkenau, offering bigger bribes to the informers. Word filtered back that any prisoner who informed on a Polish underground in camp and on its members was to be set free. The secret war had been declared and we realized we could only come out of it as losers.
The first major defeat involved the arrest of Fred Stoessel in October of 1942. He had been one of the first men enrolled by Thomas and knew perhaps more names within our organization than anybody else, with the exception, of course, of Thomas himself.
The Gestapo also realized they had caught a big fish. Fred was guarded round the clock in the bunker of Block 11 by one SS man. He was taken almost daily to the political department (camp Gestapo offices) for interrogations until the end of February.
We knew all about the elaborate torture systems and inventiveness of the Gestapo. Any day the entire organization could end up in the bunker with Fred. A contingency plan went into effect in which new men whom Fred did not know were enrolled and our functions distributed to those who would stay on in the event we could not. Every time Fred was taken for interrogation someone would carefully observe him in an attempt to guess whether or not he had broken down.
One day, I was standing in the doorway of the hospital, opposite Block 11, when Fred was brought back from interrogation. He was always closely guarded by two Gestapo men who watched to see if he would try to communicate with someone. He saw me standing there and probably guessed how anxious all of us were because he smiled at me. Then, when he was handed over to the SS guard from Block 11, he managed with his handcuffed hand to give me the thumbs-up sign.
We also received reassuring messages from Fred through some prisoners who worked in Block 11. He would not betray anyone.
He knew eventually he would be killed and to shorten his tortures asked for a cyanide pill to be smuggled in. Unfortunately he was so well guarded even his food was tasted first by another prisoner. The Germans were determined to keep him alive hoping that sooner or later he would crumble under pressure. We had to get him out of the bunker and into the hospital, and typhus provided our only means. Several infected lice were sent to Fred and in spite of the fact that he had organized for himself an inoculation when he worked in the hospital, he came down with the disease. He was immediately transferred to the hospital, SS guard in tow. The doctors were told to save his life at any price.
No matter how impossible it appeared, we decided to spring Fred from the hospital to arrange his final escape. About that time, the Germans had begun the practice of tattooing the forearms of newly arrived prisoners with their identification number. Old prisoners, however, were difficult to round up and a great many of us still went without one. We planned to put someone else's corpse in Fred's bed with his number tattooed on the forearm.
But the Germans were one step ahead of us; they ordered Fred tattooed for the very next morning. We had to do something before then.
The number was painted on Fred's forearm with tattoo ink simulating precisely the standard print for a real tattoo punched with needles. Next morning, when the Gestapo men went to call the prisoner who usually did the tattooing, they were shown it had already been done and left satisfied.
In the meantime Fred's illness worsened. It was the second week; he was delirious all the time, had lost a lot of weight and was difficult to recognize, even by his closest co-workers. We expected the disease to reach its crisis at any time and, still hoping we could put our plan into action, selected every day one fresh corpse to be substituted for him. Unfortunately, or fortunately, when the crisis came Fred died.
In January and February arrived several transports of Jews arrested in Holland, many of whom were diamond cutters or diamond dealers. They were sent directly to the gas chambers and their belongings searched very thoroughly, of course, in "Canada" by the Germans. Nonetheless, some of this wealth still found its way into the camp.
With such a great number of German marks and American dollars in circulation, food prices on the camp's black market sky-rocketed. The cost of a loaf of bread was, at one time, $1,000 U.S.
The tannery also received its share. Odd pieces of leather goods arrived: broken down suitcases, torn belts, unmatched shoes. To salvage some of the leather, we tore out the linings only to find diamond rings, U.S. dollars, or U.K. pounds sterling, usually in large denominations. To remain in the tannery now became more important than ever. With Germany starting to feel the impact of food and clothing shortages, we had fewer skins to tan and had to invent work to keep our jobs.
The steer skins were tanned in large, cemented, rectangular holes in the floor. They were about four metres wide, six metres long, and two and a half metres deep. The skins were nailed to and hung from logs seven metres long which were placed across this tank, submerging the skins completely in tanning solution. Because of the shortage of skins we arranged fake tanks - empty but for the covering logs from which hung short strips of skin, to give the impression the tanks were full. Under the log facade was some-thing akin to a small room, unlikely to be discovered. Out of some unspoken sense of defiance, we started to use this place to play bridge.
Someone in the hall kept watch for the SS guards, but we were once almost caught in the act through our own carelessness. Three of my bridge partners were heavy smokers and our little room was always filled with a grey-blue cloud. One day, in the middle of a game, we received a signal that the guard was approaching. We sat very quietly, listening to the steps of Karl and the SS man coming our way. No sooner had the steps stopped directly above us than we heard the SS man say to Karl: "Look, there's smoke coming out of this tank! Something must be burning! Remove those skins!"
Karl knew we were there. He also knew that, as foreman, he ought not to have tolerated it. Somehow he had to save the situation.
"That ain't smoke from burning, sir ... that's acid solution, it smokes when the skins are tanned. Make sure you don't breathe it."
Walking some distance away, he continued: "You see this tank here? There's no skins in it, you can even see the solution."
But the SS man was not convinced. He bent over our tank and we could see him from between the logs.
"Funny, but it smells just like cigarette smoke. If I didn't know this hole is full of liquid, I'd think someone were sitting down there smoking.
Bending lower and taking another whiff, he remarked: "And very good tobacco, too. Much better than we can get in the SS canteen."
"Actually, I do have cigarettes," said Karl, finally catching the hint, "from an old suitcase ... we were gonna burn them. You would like one?"
The SS man accepted the cigarette. We heard the steps getting farther away and this time a more friendly tone of conversation drifted back.
One day, while finishing skins, I felt as if I were catching a cold. The routine work tired me and I sensed I had a small fever. It seemed a mere trifle, so I kept it to myself. We all knew very well we simply could not allow ourselves to be sick. I believe this frame of mind kept me healthy even when I was shivering in sub-zero temperatures, covered with wet snow and dressed only in my striped pyjamas, or fighting off hunger, skin disease and intestinal problems brought on by eating foul food.
But now, something was different. By the time we got back to camp I was burning with fever. It looked like typhus and Stan decided to take me to the hospital for help.
We saw Dr. Dering almost immediately. He took one look at me and said: "It's typhus all right. I must warn you, however, that if I admit you, you may end up in the gas chamber. The Germans are determined to stamp out typhus and are collecting patients every day."
"Surely," replied Stan, "you could admit him with some other disease, as you did with Thomas. After all, as the head doctor it's your diagnosis that counts. I understand the German doctors believe you explicitly."
Dering was not convinced. "I would like to do it for our organization, but Thomas was almost discovered and sent to the gas chambers. I had to stick my neck out to save him."
Then turning to me, he said: "If the Germans should discover that I'm covering for you, we'll both be gassed. I can admit you to the hospital with typhus, but I cannot take responsibility for your safety here."
I had never seen Stan excited about anything, but this time he completely lost his temper.
"You should not call yourself an officer! We are at war! You're in action and you behave like a coward! I know very well you can hide him and save a fellow officer's life! Whose side are you really on?"
At that moment German blockelder Bock walked in and demanded to know what the shouting was about. He was a kind man and probably would have done more for me than Dering. But somehow I felt that if I were admitted to the hospital, I would never come out alive.
"Just a friendly disagreement," I answered quickly. "In fact, we were just about to go. Good night to you both!"
I pulled Stan by the sleeve and we left the hospital.
"You don't know what you're doing," Stan said protectively after we had walked a short distance. "Bock would have helped and our members working there could have made sure you weren't shipped to the gas chamber."
He was now very concerned and kept explaining the situation to me: "You cannot stay in the block because it'll soon be discovered you have typhus. You cannot go to work, it's almost four kilometres one way. You need a place where you can he down until you get over the crisis. Hospital is the only answer."
It was all perfectly logical, but somehow I had read more into Dering's words than was openly said. I felt strongly that going to the hospital meant certain death.
To convince Stan, I said: "Perhaps you are right, but I would like to reduce my time in hospital as much as possible. The shorter my stay, the less likely I am to visit the gas chamber. Let me see how long I can go to work before my strength gives way. Only the walk to work is going to be difficult. In the tannery I can either stay in the bridge room or climb on top of some sheepskins. You guys can cover for me."
Finally Stan agreed.
We had returned to our block and I climbed straight away into the top bunk. I tried to think how I might survive the typhus without medical aid or even a place to stay until the sickness passed. I could count on Stan's help, marching to and from work, and in the tannery I could find a place to rest. But simply overcoming the disease was a challenge I would have to face alone.
It helped to know exactly what to expect. I knew that men had died from sheer loss of strength, that first they ran a high temperature and then, at the crisis point, it would plummet to far below normal. If I could just keep my strength up, I might stand a chance.
From this day on I applied everything I knew. I drank as many liquids as I could. Stan looked after me like a mother. He always set aside an extra bowl of coffee for me, both at work and in the block. When we had no coffee at work, Stan boiled up some water. Though I had no appetite, I ate what I could in very small mouthfuls, chewing for so long the food almost dissolved in my mouth. I consciously tried to derive as much energy from every grain of food as was there. Finally, I applied the deep breathing techniques I had learned in yoga and sucked into my lungs as much oxygen as I could manage.
In spite of my high temperature I did not want to rest too much, feeling the urgency to move around. I even did my regular chore of finishing skins in the tannery. The distance to work posed perhaps the greatest problem. Every day of high fever weakened me further and I had to make a much greater effort to stay on my feet.
Near the end of the second week I somehow became accustomed to fever and it did not bother me as much, even while marching between the camp and the tannery. I also knew the end of my fever was very near. I discussed it with Stan and decided that if the crisis happened at work, I would fake a physical injury. In the meantime I took my illness so well I started to wonder if it might not be typhus after all. Stan borrowed a thermometer from the hospital and measured my temperature one evening. It was an unbelievable 42°C.
After work I was standing at the evening roll call when suddenly I felt very weak. I was covered in cold sweat, my head swam and my knees were so weak they began to buckle. I whispered to Stan, who was standing beside me: "I think this is it, the crisis. I can still stand but in case I faint, please look after me."
Stan whispered back: "You'd better lay down on the ground instead of struggling. You will feel better and when the blockelder and SS man come by, I'll say you fainted."
What a welcome suggestion! I let myself collapse to the ground, not caring much what anybody might think. After a while, I felt much better.
I saw the blockelder and the SS man walking down the line. They counted me on the ground. As long as the number was correct, it was immaterial to them whether I were dead or alive. When the roll call was over everybody ran to the barracks for the evening meal, stepping over my body and not paying the slightest attention to my prostrate figure. Some prisoners following work were regularly in a horizontal position when the roll was taken. This was a new situation for me. Suddenly I felt frightfully cold and started to shiver uncontrollably. Fortunately Stan was still at my side; he helped me to MY feet and we went into the barracks. I was still alive.
I recovered incredibly fast. Arrangements had been made with the blockelder for me to stay in the barracks for one day so I could sleep. I did, for hours. Next day I felt ready to walk to the tannery with my friends, though that first walk tired me much more than all other marches made while I was sick. I was extremely weak but Stan's kitchen of boiled cows' ears and stewed muskrats helped me regain strength rapidly.
The early months of 1943 brought on our clandestine radio the first good news of the war. The contradictory reports of the BBC and the German radio - both sides claimed victories in the war in Northern Africa - seemed finally to be clarifying themselves. All German news from Africa suddenly ceased and the British broadcasts claimed the enemy had been defeated. It was far away, but it still raised our spirits.
More directly affecting our future was news of the battle of Stalingrad. The German advance into the Soviet Union was finally stopped. The Russians had rallied and with great success. The victorious German army was defeated, at least in two places. We all sensed this was the turning point in the war. To the Germans, it was the point of no return. They had committed so many atrocities on the eastern front it was too late to change their policy. They had forced the Russians to fight and now the Russians fought back with a vengeance.
On our little front in Auschwitz, the local Gestapo was making every effort to wipe out our organization. In February 1943, twenty men, all belonging to the underground army, were arrested and kept in the bunkers of Block 11 for questioning. Fortunately, the arrested men were far removed from our command and thanks to Thomas's method, none of those interrogated knew more than five other men in the organization.
After a couple of weeks in the bunkers, two men were released and the rest executed. Naturally, we wanted to find out what questions had been asked and why these two released men had cooperated with the Gestapo. But in my view insufficient caution had been exercised in the handling of our affairs. I believed that very soon all of us would end up in a bunker.
Thomas was also displeased with the way his underground unit was functioning: it had grown too large to be manageable. Too many people had false ambitions to lead cloak-and-dagger conspiracies and, in the midst of this, political parties began to meddle, not for the good of the prisoners but for the dominance of one party over another.
After the battle of Stalingrad, the Socialist Party, with J. Cyrankiewicz emerging as leader, became more domineering, proclaiming itself to be friends of the Soviet Union and hostile to the capitalistic systems of Great Britain and the United States.
I also heard explanations as to why the Russians and Germans had invaded Poland at the same time. The reason, according to the Russians, was that Poland had been a fascist state and therefore presented the same threat as Germany.
"Why then," I used to ask, "would one fascist state fight another? Shouldn't we have been friends like Italy and not bitter enemies as we are now?"
No such logic would appeal to them. Voices branded all Polish officers as the worst kind of fascists, and since our organization was founded by officers, mutual distrust started to grow and cooperation between the military and political factions became increasingly difficult. We all felt in our bones the time was coming when we would each be found out, bringing to an end what until now had been very useful work.
Thomas decided to escape.
By this time the Gestapo realized we were not just a small group but many people, in all the camps, working together under the leadership of, for the most part, veteran prisoners. They decided to solve the problem in a new and different way.
We received news through our men working in the SS offices that several large transports to other camps were being prepared. These would consist mostly of "the low numbers." After the first list was prepared, the Germans realized the whole system of working squads would collapse since they had come to rely on the
expertise of the long-time prisoners in groups such as surveyors, building trades, mechanics, carpenters, doctors and administrative staff. If these men were suddenly removed, total chaos would result. Thus, word got around that key people would be allowed to stay in Auschwitz to train new prisoners; all others would go.
On March 7,1943, about 1,000 men were summoned at the morning roll call. I found myself again standing next to Thomas, both of us part of a group to be shipped to Buchenwald. We wondered how we could get out of this predicament. After further thought, however, I realized the transport presented no problem. I could not escape from Auschwitz as long as my wife would not leave our apartment; besides, life in Buchenwald might be easier and the journey there might offer an opportunity to escape.
Thomas, however, had already planned his escape from Auschwitz and thus sought to be rejected from the transport. All were to undergo a medical examination, so Thomas arranged for a hernia belt from outside. As soon as the examining doctor saw him he was immediately sent back to the camp. I was passed as fit.
The transport was to leave the next morning. In the meantime, we were locked in a separate barracks guarded by a couple of kapos. I felt utterly alone. All my friends were still in the camp and I was heading into the unknown. Although the transport, according to our information, was destined for Buchenwald, we could just as easily arrive at the Buchenwald gas chambers. The fact that the unfit were left behind made this probability unlikely. But then, the Germans were masters of deceit and many people before us had been lured to their deaths without suspecting a thing.
The evening roll call was over and the prisoners started back to their barracks. I sat at the window hoping that perhaps someone would come to say goodbye. I was almost resigned to the possibility of no visitors when I saw Stan trotting towards the barracks.
"Here, Stan!" I shouted. "In the window!"
He spotted me, came closer to the window and said: "I know a kapo who is at the door. I'll try to get in and talk to you. I also have something for your journey."
I was overjoyed to see him and wondered if he would manage to get through the door. But there he was, all smiles. He opened his jacket to reveal a large package.
"This is the last piece of a horse we've been eating for two months now. I guess you'll need it more than we will in the tannery."
„And here," he added, pulling a large thermos out of his pants, "is a litre of hot coffee. Buchenwald is a long way away and they probably won't open the doors of your wagon until you get there.”
"The Germans are hot on the trail and the tannery is not safe anymore."
"You're right," he said. "I might consider it in the case of immediate danger. I hope you will manage in Buchenwald. By the way, I have something else for you which may come in handy if you decide to escape from there."
With these words he unbuckled his belt and handed it to me.
“Give me yours," he said. "In this belt I've sewn a thousand dollar bill and a couple of fifties. They should be useful if ever you have to bribe someone."
We exchanged belts and I thanked him once again. The capo suddenly appeared.
"Stan, you have to run!" he hissed. "Some SS men are coming this way!"
We shook hands and he was off. Next morning we were loaded into a freight train and its wheels started to roll deep into Germany.