THE SHOOTING GALLERY
Escaping from the train proved impossible. Besides the usual SS guards "riding shotgun" on top of each freight car, all prisoners were still dressed in their striped suits. Even if I could escape, I had no hope of finding help or shelter among the German civilian population.
The train steamed through the night and at daybreak pulled over to a side line and stopped. Each of us listened to the sounds from outside, trying to guess where we were and what our fate might be. Voices shouted in German but did not sound as if they were coming from a concentration camp. After a while the train moved, then came to stop again. This went on all day while we sat in darkness, wanting desperately to know the reasons for these manoeuvres. Finally someone succeeded in pulling a large nail from the wall and with the help of others, made a hole big enough to look through. The reason for the constant delays now became obvious.
Long trains full of military equipment and troops laboured past on neighbouring lines, all heading east. As we waited, we tried to guess, without much success, whether this was a good sign or a bad one. Was a new offensive being prepared in Russia or were these reinforcements to bolster a dwindling German army? Whatever it was, those trains had priority and the prison train was required to give way.
Stan's coffee and meat were real treasures. I divided my provisions with the others, also veteran prisoners prepared for the unexpected, and they in turn contributed generously to the common pool.
In the morning the train, after standing on some side rails all night, started up again. It pushed and jerked forwards and backwards, moved slowly for a while, then came to a full stop. We had achieved the final destination. Apparently the train was on a side line in Weimar just outside Buchenwald, letting more military transports through. But this time the doors opened to reveal a row of armed SS guards with dogs and a clutch of kapos running around and bellowing, making lots of noise and commotion. The shouts were very familiar
"Everybody out! Fast! Fast! Everybody out!"
The kapos were carrying clubs as usual, but with one big difference: they all wore the red triangles of political prisoners and I noticed they seldom used their clubs. The SS men, however, were doing their best to make up for it, generously applying the butts of their rifles, kicking the prisoners at every opportunity and letting the dogs bite those who did not move fast enough. But opportunities for the SS men to abuse us were few because we were all old hands, experienced prisoners. Quickly we fell into columns five abreast and advanced towards the camp along an uphill, winding road for about five kilometres.
It was an exhausting march. Kapos leading the column of about 400 prisoners had set the speed, forcing older and weaker men to fall back where the SS men and their dogs provided proper encouragement. We immediately recognized that a somewhat different system was in place for prisoners of Buchenwald. Here, kapos simply supplied the appropriate standard and the SS guards carried out the actual punishment.
Finally we reached the gate to the camp. The SS men stayed outside and the kapos, still shouting but hardly touching anyone, led us into the showers.
After showering I received a new uniform and a new number, 10688, but retained my shoes and belt. We were assigned to an empty barracks where the blockelder was German, yet bore a red triangle. He was very strict and obviously hostile to all prisoners, but still, he did not rush to beat us.
It was Sunday, our day of rest from work. After the swamps of Auschwitz, the high location made Buchenwald seem more like a health spa. We were on top of a high hill above Weimar, embraced by the beautiful Thuringian woods. On a clear day one could see a stunning panorama of pleasantly undulating countryside. Goethe had found inspiration here in peaceful, tranquil surroundings.
I walked around the camp with Kazik, whom I had known for two years in Auschwitz, and we tried to assess our new situation. "Did you notice the kapos and blockelder didn't beat any-body?"
"Yes indeed, it makes a nice change from Auschwitz. If we can find some Polish prisoners, perhaps they can tell us more about the place. Let's go along the main road, Kazik. There must be Poles around here."
We continued wandering around the camp until we came to two barracks which were separated from the rest of the camp by a barbed wire fence. The gate was open and nobody seemed to be about. Stopping in front of the gate, we hesitated and considered our options. Previous camp experience had taught us not to enter a place that stood separately, particularly one surrounded by barbed wire.
We were just about to turn around and leave when a kapo ran out of one of the barracks, shouting at the top of his voice: "Get out of here! Don't you know that prisoners are not allowed here? Get out of here fast, you bloody idiots!"
No further encouragement was needed. We ran as fast as we could in the opposite direction, soon finding ourselves amongst a small group of prisoners who had been watching the whole incident with interest.
"You must be part of a new transport from Auschwitz," said one of them. "Lucky you weren't spotted by an SS man. You'd go into those barracks and never come out."
The man was talking in Polish, obviously one of the older prisoners in Buchenwald.
"How did you know we're from Auschwitz?" I inquired.
"I heard a transport had arrived from there and that they'd all received low numbers belonging to prisoners who had died here. Your number, 10688, for example, is obviously not a consecutive one. Hundreds of thousands of people have passed through this place. A transport of Russians that arrived yesterday got numbers from 200,000 on up. I also heard you guys were working in 'Canada' and brought a lot of gold and American dollars with you."
"Yes," said Kazik, "I brought a gold watch in my asshole and it's still ticking. Do you want to hear it?"
'Very funny. I don't care what you have or where you keep it, but I do know that for some of those treasures you could buy yourself a good job. I'm not trying to pry, I'm just an honest businessman. For example, I can offer you 100 marks for your shoes and a decent pair in return."
I took an immediate dislike to the man and tried to get rid of him.
"Thanks for your generous offer, but for your information we have survived three years in Auschwitz and know what is what in a concentration camp. We're quite capable of taking care of our-selves."
The man appeared to be apologetic. "Hey, I'm sorry. Listen, my name is Joe, from Barrack 11. So I mistook you for a pair of suckers. No harm in trying, is there? Just keep me in mind when you need to make a deal or two."
Kazik seemed more tolerant of the fellow and his proposition. "It's okay, we're not offended. Only tell us what kind of precious shit the Germans keep in those barracks and how come the kapos here are so polite."
Joe's eyes darted around momentarily. "Well, maybe I could give you some pointers. But first let's get away from here."
We followed Joe down the road between another stretch of barracks where there was almost no traffic.
"You don't look like communists to me," he said, pointing to the surrounding barracks, "so for guys like you this place is off limits. These are hospital and convalescent barracks, for communists only. Others die there.
"This camp was at first ruled by criminals like in Auschwitz. About a year ago the German political prisoners, all communists, managed to convince the camp authorities that the kapos were stealing from SS magazines and corrupting the guards. The commandant believed them and replaced them all with political prisoners. When the communists took over they killed almost all the green triangles in the hospital, in the convalescent wards, or simply poisoned them in their own barracks. The remaining few were framed for trying to escape or for conspiring with the SS guards. They and the framed guards were finished off in the gas chambers. I also heard your transport consists of Polish fascists and you may all end up like the green triangles."
"Shit!" exclaimed Kazik. "How do we deal with these animals?"
"Oh, it's quite simple. First, you don't call them animals. There will be many spies in your barracks who already have some information about your activities in Auschwitz. Now they'll want to fish out the fascist leaders among you. Just tell anyone who has ears that you're communists. Then you might be okay."
Such political intrigue seemed almost too bizarre and I silently questioned its validity.
"By the way," I remarked aloud, "you still didn't say what is in those barracks we were chased away from."
"That's a different story," he continued. "They say American and English pilots shot down over Germany on spying missions are kept there. There is even supposed to be a Polish spy who was parachuted to the Polish border. Prisoners who saw him say he was dropped by an English plane. If you get too close to those barracks, the Gestapo may accuse you of trying to communicate with spies."
Kazik was visibly upset by this rash of troubling news and wanted to put an end to the unpleasant conversation. "You're a real fairy godmother, you know that? Nothing but cheerfulness itself. May Allah dig crooked holes in the path of your life."
With these words Kazik bowed low, hands pressed together in the style of an eastern salute. We returned to our barracks in silence, contemplating the new situation and the best way to deal with it.
After roll call the next morning our entire transport was assigned to the heaviest work in Buchenwald, at the stone quarry. The brilliant sunshine and fresh air of Sunday had been replaced with a cold morning fog. On grey days the Buchenwald hill was all in cloud and on clear days the wind was often so strong and bitter that, with our thin clothing, it seemed to blow right through our bodies. Evidently, unpleasant weather was not exclusive to Auschwitz.
We were divided into smaller working groups, each with a kapo and SS man in charge. My group worked at widening a road leading into the quarry. We were given shovels, picks and wheel-barrows, and again, as in the first days at Auschwitz, experienced the rigours; of hard labour. By keeping a sharp look-out, we soon learned where danger might come from.
On one occasion a shot reverberated through the quarry and a prisoner fell to the ground, dead. In Auschwitz, this was an uncommon occurrence - killing was generally done by the kapos, while the SS guards would shoot only escaping, or seemingly escaping, prisoners. Here, however, a man was shot for no obvious reason. At least, it appeared so to us at the time.
Later we learned that role-playing, or story-making, pre-ceded such an execution. The story was made up by the kapo; he might send a prisoner to the other side of the quarry to bring back a pick, ordering him to do it on the run. A running prisoner could very easily be considered an escaping prisoner by an SS man in the mood for target practice. As a consequence, neither our group nor others fared well. At the end of the day we brought back to camp three dead colleagues.
The blockelder greeted us with a satisfied smile. "You didn't think fascists could be shot in a fascist camp, did you?" he commented snidely.
To most of the men this remark made no sense, but Kazik and I were reminded of Joe's words and alerted to their significance.
Some men who had received minor injuries while working in the quarry - superficial cuts from flying pieces of cut rock or a toe squashed under a stone - were attended to immediately by the blockelder. After the roll call he collected all the injured and took them personally to the hospital. We remembered Joe's warning about the hospital and anxiously awaited the return of our colleagues. Two were admitted for some kind of surgery, and two came back.
I asked them how the hospital was.
"There's no comparison to Auschwitz!" exclaimed one of the men. "They're all very kind here and no criminals among the personnel - all red triangles! They're concerned about how we're doing and asked a lot of questions about Auschwitz and about an of us."
I asked them how the hospital was.
"Oh, nothing special. About my home, for example, my wife and children, and what I did before I was arrested. I just told them I was a family man, that I had been working as a bricklayer and was arrested for nothing, that the Gestapo just picked up hundreds of us off the street."
The other man, who had returned with his wrist neatly bandaged, had more to say: "They asked me similar questions but also wanted to know if there was a large number of Polish officers among our group. I said I was too young to know and nobody would tell me whether he or she is officers or not. I'd swear they know more about Auschwitz than I do. They also said we had a lot of courage to have a military organization in the camp. Is it true there was such an organization?"
Nobody answered his question, but it was now obvious to us that Joe's knowledge of Buchenwald was better than we had first believed.
Our transport had been separated from the other prisoners and the German communists knew somehow that our transfer from Auschwitz was an attempt to break down the Polish under-ground. This merely aroused their suspicions towards our group, leaving some of us with little hope of getting a better job or even of finding work at which we could be sheltered from the rain and cold.
Kazik decided he would volunteer to join the stonemasons in the quarry, shaping rocks with a hammer and chisel into rectangular blocks for building material. Although a muscular fellow, Kazik was not used to physical exertion. He had been an "eternal student" at Krakow University, forever studying law. According to his own account, he paid his way through college by playing poker and bridge. Now he was mad at the rocks, at Buchenwald and at the whole world.
"This bloody hammer I got for my new job must have a mind of its own. Every time I want to hit the chisel, the damn thing comes down on my thumb!"
I looked at his hands. The blue of his thumb contrasted starkly with his raw and bloody knuckles.
"Why don't you comeback to our general group?" I suggested. "We're not working that hard and as long as you apply the Auschwitz-type lookout, you can snatch a lot of rest during the day.
"No, Kon, I'm not about to let some kapo send me across the quarry to pick bullets out of the air. I've never played ball, I'm no good at catching!"
His persistence actually paid off. Sometime later he was transferred to the "advanced stonemasons" who had a separate barracks in the quarry where he could work under a roof while sitting on a stool. He became in time a genuinely skilled tradesman, one of a privileged group within the camp, and was the first among us to break away from the hard labour to which we had all been condemned.
Every day after work I hunted desperately for an opportunity to be assigned to an easier job. One evening I ran into Joe again. He listened patiently to my complaints, then took me aside.
"I know some of you guys have money. Perhaps not you yourself, but maybe one of your friends. I need some American dollars or other valuables with which I can bribe some Germans to get a better job for you. Bring it over to me tomorrow and I'll see what I can do."
As an afterthought, he added: "Tell me the number you had in Auschwitz, it may also help."
I replied cautiously to his claim I could track down money or valuables and was even more reluctant to surrender my number, but did so in the hope it might be of use.
"Good," said Joe. "You had a low number - you know how to behave in a camp. Come and see me tomorrow. I'm sure I can find a kapo who can do something for you."
I still had the money Stan had given me in Auschwitz for exactly this kind of emergency and decided to put it, or a portion of it, to use. The next day I went to see Joe as planned.
"I found a friend more clever than I who managed to smuggle in some American cash. He said if I could also get him out of the quarry in the near future, he'd give me 50 dollars."
"Good work," said Joe, obviously pleased. "Let's go to the German barracks. I know a kapo who'd like to meet you."
I walked with Joe across almost the entire camp. Finally, outside the barracks, I was introduced to a friendly young German named Horst.
"Joe has told me all about you," he said smiling. "Come for a walk with me. I'm sure Joe will excuse us."
Joe immediately turned and departed. Horst and I walked on in silence. I did not know what to expect nor what to say.
Horst opened the conversation: "A few days ago I met one of your colleagues from Auschwitz. He told me that you were active in the underground army there."
I was startled by his directness, but having been briefed on the attitude of German communists to our organization, replied without hesitation.
"I don't know who told you that but I can say it's not true. I was never connected in any way with the Polish military."
"But you are quite healthy," Horst persisted. "How could you escape being called for military service? It was compulsory in Poland, wasn't it?"
"I did not serve because I was at the university studying engineering. We were exempt from service until graduation and the war interrupted my studies."
"That may be so," he assented, "but your colleague told me you had frequent conferences with Dubois in Auschwitz."
The extent of Horst's knowledge of Auschwitz surprised me - even such details as who was talking to whom. But I also knew this particular contact would not be incriminating in the eyes of a communist.
"Yes, that's true," I replied confidently. "I wonder who the man was who told you that? I did know Dubois in Auschwitz. He is much older than I, but I have great respect for him. He is a very wise man."
Horst merely smiled. Instead of answering my question, he kept asking more of his own. "What did you talk about with Dubois? I know that he belonged to the underground organization."
"I didn't know about his activities in any organization in Auschwitz, I answered quite truthfully. "He was my mentor on socialism. I think he must have been an important person before the war in the Polish Socialist Party. You see, as a student, I did not know much about political matters or ideas."
"In that case, I'm glad you're one of us. I was arrested by the Gestapo because I belonged to the German Communist Party. After the war all socialists and communists will build a new world."
This was not exactly what I had meant but I did not try to correct Horst. In as much as I had admired the socialist ideas of Dubois, communism to me represented the Russian system, which I knew quite well. I had been under Russian occupation for several months in late 1939 and had seen with my own eyes how the Polish population had been terrorized. My parents had been arrested by the Russians and sent to Siberia solely because they belonged to the Polish intelligentsia.
While in Auschwitz I heard that the Russians had executed about 4,000 Polish army officers in the woods of Katyn [Referring to documents received from Moscow by Polish Government, the total number of Polish officers murdered by Soviets in Katyn, Starobielsk, Charków, Miednoje, Ostatszków is 21,857 – “...i ujrzałem doły śmierci” Ksiądz Zdzisław J. Peszkowski, Wydawnictwo Scriptorium, Śrem 1993], just because they were officers. During the last stages of the Polish campaign, when we were retreating east from the German assault, I was taken prisoner of war by the Russians and could have ended up in Katyn with the rest of my colleagues.
Thus I was very sceptical about Horst's equation of socialism and communism and could not restrain myself from expressing it to him.
"Do you know anything about Russian communism? It does not seem that it has anything in common with socialist systems or with your ideas of communism."
"That may be so to you, but communism is still in the process of evolution and continues to have many opponents, particularly among the remnants of the Russian intelligentsia who are quite obviously enemies of the proletariat. The party must endure great hardship and fight many battles before a true communist system can really be enjoyed."
Not satisfied, I pressed on: "Have you heard about Katyn? All those Polish officers shipped to Russia as prisoners of war and all of them shot in the back of the head. The Germans exterminate Russian prisoners of war in concentration camps, but the Russians were first to perpetrate the crime. I know some people claim that the Katyn massacre was carried out by German SS troops, but how is that possible? The Germans claim they discovered the mass grave and are now using it as their main anti-Russian propaganda. So who do you think is responsible for this crime?"
"You should not call it a crime before you know all the facts!" exclaimed Horst, visibly angry at my question. "Polish officers are all enemies of the proletariat! They've all been indoctrinated to fight communism and socialism! None of them can be re-educated to work for the good of their country! They're clearly an anti-revolutionary and anti-socialist element that must be destroyed!"
At that moment I was glad Horst did not know I was also one of those "evil elements." I adopted again the role of the naive student, anxious to hear Horst admit that the Katyn atrocity was the work of the Russians.
"Then, in order to avoid any future problems those officers might cause, the Russians had no choice but to eliminate them as a kind of preventative medicine?"
"That's it, exactly - preventative medicine. I see you finally understand. The Russians are committed to liberating your country from fascists and to establish in their place a true and just proletariat society."
My conversation with Horst brought even more to light the attitude of the German kapos towards our transport and that they intended to apply their own brand of preventative medicine to us. Knowing some Polish officers and intelligentsia were among us, but not knowing who they were, posed a problem to which there could be only one simple solution - eliminate our whole group.
This was my first exposure to the powerful manoeuvrings of political parties. I would never have believed different political views were sufficient to cause people to kill others. Yet, now I found myself belonging to a group which, because we were not communists, was considered by some in the camp to be as much the enemy as the SS guards.
My feigning may momentarily have won Horst's approval, but it seemed the impression did not last. I never got a better job and Joe never came to claim his 50 dollars.
After my talk with Horst I decided to stay away from him, and from Joe. It was too dangerous. Sooner or later the truth would come out that I was an officer and a member of the underground army in Auschwitz, and hence an enemy of the proletariat. I did not ask whether any better jobs were available in the camp and decided .to blend into anonymity with the other prisoners. I knew how to survive in a crowd, which presented considerably less risk than high visibility.
Buchenwald differed from Auschwitz not only in respect to its kapos. It had a bigger canteen with a larger variety of goods available to prisoners. On certain days one could even buy food. The problem was, we had no German currency to purchase any-thing.
One morning when Kazik was very depressed and the both of us were feeling quite hungry, I decided to do something about our situation.
"We need money," I told him. "Maybe its possible to exchange some of my American dollars for German marks."
"But we don't know anyone we can trust," said Kazik. "I'd forget about Joe, particularly as he introduced you to Horst. How much do you have? Maybe I can ask around to find out if such a transaction is possible here."
"Let's see what we can get for 50 American dollars."
Kazik was a far more outgoing person than I and could talk to just about anybody, about anything, making friends almost instantly.
The next day he reported his findings. "I've been talking to a guy I played bridge with a couple of days ago. He's also a poker player and has loads of money. He said he can give us 75 marks for the 50 dollars."
"So you've found some gamblers here already," I said, pulling a $50 American bill out of my belt and handing it to Kazik. "The amount he's offering isn't much, but we have no choice."
Kazik took the money and left immediately, disappearing for the entire evening. just before curfew he returned, very excited, and climbed onto the top bunk with me.
"There you are," he said, handing me a wad of bills, "150 German marks."
"How did you do it? Why did he give you more?"
"He didn't. We played poker and, of course, I won. I tell you, this place is full of suckers. I'll double this money again tomorrow." Though elated by the return on our investment, I was not in the mood to take further risks, especially if none were necessary.
"We need food, Kazik. What if you run out of luck? I'll visit the canteen tomorrow and get us something to eat. If you want to continue playing, why not take just your winnings?"
"Kon, you do not understand. Winning does not depend on luck. When I win, I win big. When I lose, I lose very little. This is ability, not luck. just you wait - we'll be living like kings!"
Kazik was as good as his word. He would play cards anywhere at any time with anyone. And he was winning. After about a month, I no longer knew how much money we had and we were no longer hungry.
Through his card-playing friend, Kazik managed to get transferred from the stonemasons to the stone sculpturing group. Although he had no artistic ability, he made friends quickly and secured himself a good position.
I was still, unfortunately, with the general working group swinging a pick or pushing a wheelbarrow. The kapo was more tolerant towards me, probably because he had seen me talking to Horst. When my group got larger I was given the responsibility of keeping count of the loads delivered to the stonemasons and the number of prisoners working among us.
Our morale soared when we watched the sky to see squadrons of American or English planes flying overhead. More and more such flights took place near the end of 1944 and barely a day would pass by in which the air raid alarm did not sound. One day the whole quarry stopped to watch the raid on Jena, only 10 or 20 kilometres away. There must have been thousands of airplanes flying, wave after wave, covering the whole city with bombs. After about an hour we could see only flames and dust. The city no longer existed.
My own experience during the Polish campaign of 1939, when the German Luftwaffe had dominated the skies, had convinced me of the decisive power of air supremacy. I realized now that the Germans had lost their superiority in the air and therefore were very soon going to lose the war. In spite of Germany's many successes, we had been living continuously with the hope that sooner or later the Nazis would be defeated. Now it was a certainty, and I could justify my own hopes of coming out of this war alive.
The next raid boosted our morale sky-high. It was on Buchenwald itself.
I was inside the camp that day. I had been assigned, with a small group of other prisoners, to repair the roads in the main portion of the camp. First we saw a small airplane circling above the camp at quite a low altitude. The sirens did not even announce its presence. The plane made a large circle of smoke directly above us, dropped a smoke flare through its centre and left. We were not sure whether it was a German plane or one of ours.
Not long after the alarm was sounded. We still did not think Buchenwald would be bombed, believing the location of the concentration camps to be well known in England. But what came that day surpassed our wildest dreams.
The first wave of planes came in at a very high altitude. Then we heard the whistle of falling bombs and the whole area where the German SS troops were stationed exploded at once. Though the barbed wire fence of the camp was next to the German barracks, not a single bomb fell inside it. Then came the second wave and it blanketed the southern part surrounding the camp where the SS supply barracks were located. Prisoners stood in the middle of the camp not even trying to take cover, so sure were they that the allies would keep them from harm.
The German guards all left their towers and ran to the bomb shelters. Even the kapos took cover, evidently not trusting the American pilots. A third wave came and its bombs crashed down on the eastern side of the camp, into the woods where many SS men had run for cover.
Then it stopped. We looked around, but no guards were in sight. Moments later the unbelievable happened. Through the open main gate came wounded SS men supported by their prisoners. I saw two men, one in uniform and one in stripes, both wounded, stumble into the camp together arm in arm, propping each other up. Exterminators and their victims were now suddenly united in the face of common danger.
The camp management was not pleased. By the next day the commandant had put an end to the fraternization and everything had returned to normal.
Within a few weeks the entire incident seemed to have been forgotten. The political friction between the prisoners did not change; Buchenwald communists still tried to exterminate our transport and the SS guards were back at their regular duties, shooting prisoners at every opportunity.
I was still working in the quarry and for the first time since my arrest I developed a cold. It persisted for two weeks and I could not shake it off. By the third week I had started to cough, lost strength and felt feverish, especially in the evenings. After having been through typhoid fever, a cold seemed nothing to worry about. But when I began to cough blood and felt pains in my chest, I came to the conclusion that somehow my cold had evolved into pneumonia.
There was still a risk in being admitted to the hospital and I found myself in exactly the same position as when I combated typhoid in Auschwitz. I had no choice but to go to work, although the quarry was not the best place to convalesce. The aspirins Kazik bought me from the black market provided some relief, but I knew that winning the battle depended primarily on my own resources. Fortunately a crisis or absolute necessity always generated in me unusual inner strength and fighting pneumonia proved no exception.
I meditated again, trying to direct all my energy against the disease, and at every opportunity exercised deep breathing in order to absorb as much energy from outside as I could. The weather did not cooperate; it either rained or the whole camp was in clouds. But my condition started to improve. Using a 50 dollar bill from my belt, I asked Kazik to get me anything nutritious he could find in the canteen or buy on the black market. Again I chewed my food very thoroughly to derive from it every last bit of nutrition.
In time my inner strength won out, as it had once before.
Meanwhile the second transport of prisoners from Auschwitz arrived at Buchenwald. As soon as they had emerged from the admitting rituals, I went with Kazik to see whether any friends were among them. Several men, all from the penal company, had been separated from the rest of the group for transport to some satellite camp to do extra hard labour. In this group I recognized Jan, who had arranged my first job with the surveyors. He had also been a member of our organization, which made me all the more anxious to talk to him.
We took Jan back to our barracks, treated him to some food from the canteen and a cigarette, and began pumping him for the latest news from Auschwitz. Naturally, my first question concerned Thomas and the organization.
"Shortly after your transport left for Buchenwald, Thomas escaped," Jan said, savouring the cigarette. "He must have known it was too dangerous to stay any longer. Too many slip-ups, the Gestapo knew too many names. After his escape they arrested 30 people, all belonging to the organization and occupying leading positions."
"Stan Kazuba and Henry Bartosiewicz," I said, anxious about my friends in the tannery, "were they arrested too?"
"Strange you should ask," Jan replied. "For some reason Stan was not arrested and Henry was the only man released from the bunker. All others were eventually shot. Henry said he was released because someone paid off the Gestapo with gold collected from Jewish belongings. There were ugly rumours circulating about these two guys."
Knowing both men well, my immediate reaction was defensive. "Stan would never cooperate with the Gestapo. He's much too honest and kept too low a profile for anyone to associate him with our group. That could be the reason why he was missed. As for Bartosiewicz, I'm not sure. Although he'd talk to almost anyone who would listen about his work in the underground, the story of buying his way out of the bunker isn't very believable."
"But I heard it from many people," said Jan. "I was also told the tannery had tons of gold, even more than 'Canada.' Surely he had lots of opportunity to organize some there."
"You're mistaken. I worked in the tannery and know that every bit and piece of leather had previously been searched by the more experienced fellows in 'Canada.' They could find anything, even stuff hidden in the most unlikely places, whereas we found precious little.
"Also, Henry was too concerned with impressing people to make many friends. I can't imagine anyone risking his life to bargain with the Gestapo for Henry's release, even if that were possible - which I highly doubt. The Gestapo had all the trump cards. They would have taken the money, then killed both Henry and the one who delivered the ransom. Remember Fred Stoessel? If anyone was in a position to raise money or gold, it was him. As you know, he died while in custody."
Although upset about the news of my friends in Auschwitz, I found some compensation in my no longer being there. Unlike Thomas, I could not have escaped without endangering my wife and may very well have ended up before the firing squad.
Next day, following evening roll call, I went with Kazik to visit again the new arrivals and to renew my talks with Jan. We found him in the company of three other prisoners engaged in a very animated discussion. As we approached, a tall, strongly-built fellow who had seen us with Jan the day before turned to us directly, displaying a mixture of fear and anger.
"Maybe you guys can tell me what's going on here. You see, I was sent here with my friend Adam - both of us served together on a merchant ship for ten years and know each other like brothers. Anyway, when we're going through the showers, we seen this SS officer standing there with a young woman. Here we are, all bare naked, while this broad looks us over without blinking an eye. She's not bad looking either, so naturally Adam winks at her. She smiles and winks back, then says something to this SS officer. So he takes Adam aside, says something to him and out they go through some side door."
The man paused, noticing that the others were listening, and shook his head. "That was three days ago and I ain't seen Adam since. Just what kind of monkey business is this?"
Everybody laughed and one man remarked: "I heard there's a whorehouse here, but I didn't know they were selecting their clients. Maybe the Germans now have special units for SS whores!"
Kazik could not resist adding his own quip to the general speculation. "It seems your friend must possess some special features that led her to select him over you."
The man maintained his grave expression. "I don't give her the wink, that's all. I just hope Adam ain't got himself into trouble on account of this whore."
We left the sailors conjecturing on the details of Adam's encounter and spent the rest of the evening with Jan, engaged in our own debate over recent news from the eastern and western fronts.
The following day, a Sunday, I decided to accompany Kazik on his regular trip to the poker table, curious about how the big game was played and what kind of people were playing it. Among those in attendance were two Dutchmen, a Frenchman and several Germans, one of whom held the floor by telling amusing stories with the flair of a professional comedian. It turned out he was a professional actor arrested for impersonating a famous Austrian fighter pilot, the most decorating man in the whole Germany.
"I procured for myself an air force colonel's uniform with all the proper accoutrements," he informed us, "then sent a telegram to the mayor of Vienna, notifying him that I would be arriving there on holiday. The mayor had arranged a glorious reception at the railway station. A band was playing, children presented me with flowers, several officials made speeches praising my bravery, and the most beautiful girls of Vienna competed for my kisses.
"The mayor offered me a suite in the best hotel in Vienna for the duration of my stay, which I accepted on only one condition - that I receive the same rooms Hitler had occupied when he visited the city. All my wishes were granted, which left me with a very busy week. I attended several banquets in my honour, accompanied the mayor and other city officials to an opera, and also visited a hospital where wounded soldiers from the eastern front were treated.
"One day, however, I myself was visited by the Gestapo and that brought down the curtain on my performance. They evidently failed to appreciate my thespian abilities and sent me to a concentration camp. No sense of humour whatsoever!"
Inspired by his story, other men in the group began, in turn, to tell their own amusing incidents. Among them was Kazik, who found this an ideal opportunity to relate the episode of Adam and the woman who winked at him in the showers. After he finished his story, however, nobody laughed.
"What the hell's the matter with you?" he asked, looking about him at the blank faces. "Do you need a professional comedian to entertain you? Am I not good enough?"
An awkward silence followed, eventually broken by the actor who now spoke in a very serious tone.
"My guess is that you are a newcomer. Otherwise you would know that the woman inspecting the naked prisoners is the wife of the camp's deputy commandant. She thinks of her-self as a great artist. As a matter of fact, she possesses in her home quite a collection of lampshades made of human skin. They say she selects men with tattoos that appeal to her taste and calls her work creative art.
"I am sorry about your friend'" he concluded, "but I expect that by now he is a part of her creations."
The story was so macabre that when we related it to the sailor, neither he nor we could accept it as plausible. It was inconceivable to us that the wife of an officer - or any woman, for that matter -could perform such an atrocity. Unfortunately, the story proved true and Adam's tattoo is still on display today in the museum at Buchenwald.
On Monday I returned to my work in the quarry. There was more bad news. Our kapo had been transferred somewhere else, replaced by a German communist who had no qualms about beating prisoners. I retained my duties as recording clerk for our working group, which gave me more opportunity than the others to talk to the kapo. The new man firmly believed all of us were fascists and thus due for extermination.
One day we found him in an exceptionally bad mood. "You bloody fascists!" he shouted. "You may have been bosses in Auschwitz but here in Buchenwald your time is over! I'll see that you all end up in the crematorium!"
Thinking that he was perhaps genuinely misinformed, I attempted to appeal to his logic.
"Mister Kapo," I said, addressing him as he desired, "we were never bosses in Auschwitz. The green triangles were in power there just as they were some time ago in Buchenwald."
"All political prisoners were united against the fascist SS," he retorted. "I know all about you guys. You're part of the Polish intelligentsia and therefore enemies of the proletariat. This is clearly spelled out in the Gestapo files. I know about you especially - given the chance to become a good socialist but instead attacked the Soviet Union and its policies. I'll deal with you later!"
There was no point in arguing further. To continue would only increase his anger and endanger us all. Instead, I devoted my efforts to keeping a scrupulous count of the men and to recording the work they produced. The others were also careful to avoid giving him an excuse to attack us. However, our attempts to placate him proved futile.
On Saturday, just before work finished, the kapo turned to me and announced that I was to check every working group in the quarry to see how much they had produced.
"I want to know how their efforts compare with our own," he said.
We all knew this was a dangerous assignment. To walk around the quarry was like parading in front of a shooting gallery. But I pretended not to suspect any foul play.
"It's almost the end of the day," I said, "and we should have one more load of rocks ready. Allow me to help them complete this task, then I'll check on the other groups before we leave for camp." The kapo looked at me with a sly smile. "You're afraid to do what I asked for fear of being shot. Well, this time you're wrong. The SS guards on duty today are not the kind who shoot prisoners. Nevertheless, every day from now on you will inspect these working groups, never knowing when a trigger-happy guard is looking for a day off in Weimar! And you will start Monday."
I returned to camp very depressed. Kazik shared my concern.
"Somehow we have to find you another job. This kapo is no doubt a killer and should be taken seriously. Tomorrow is Sunday and we will spend the entire day, if need be, to get you out of this working group."
Sunday morning brought yet more bad news. Someone had stolen my belt with the $1,000 in it. Prompt investigation traced the theft to four men who were working as carpenters and also engaged in a side business, making wooden sandals with leather straps, which they exchanged with other prisoners for food. We pressed them hard, but no threats and no amount of persuasion would induce them to return the stolen belt.
Then Kazik applied bribery. "Accepting that none of you stole it, I'll offer 50 marks to the man who finds my friend's belt," he told them.
It worked. By evening one of the men collected the reward and handed over the belt. But upon examining it, my worst expectations were confirmed. The lining had been cut open and the money was gone.
Kazik's efforts to find me another job were also unsuccessful. We had done everything possible, but on Monday morning I was faced with marching back to the quarry with my group.
We were working at our usual place when, just before noon, an SS guard and another man visited us. The man, a German prisoner, asked us to stop what were doing and assembled us together.
"I am the foreman of the factory at Weimar," he said. "It is a metal manufacturing plant and we need more skilled men there -toolmakers and machine tool operators who have at least 15 years' experience in the trade. Is there anyone in this group who meets these qualifications?"
Without thinking twice I raised my hand. The foreman looked at the rest of the men, but nobody. else volunteered.
"Where did you work previously and what were you doing?" he asked.
I was completely unprepared for this question. The only machine tools I had ever seen were in pictures, and one year of studies in mechanical engineering was no qualification at all. Still, I could at least talk with some degree of sense about engineering problems, perhaps enough to get out of the quarry and away from the threats of my kapo.
"I am too young to have 15 years of experience but I worked as a machine operator in a Warsaw tractor factory for the last eight years and am quite skilled."
The foreman seemed pleased and I suspected he had found few qualified men.
"I am glad you are honest," he said. "If you can do the work, you'll have a very good job. But if you lied to me, you'll wish you had never been born."