SLAVE LABOUR AND RELIGION
I returned to camp with the foreman and three other prisoners. "I don't care what you are - fascists, communists or common criminals," the foreman told us as we trudged out of the quarry. "All I'm interested in is your ability to stand at the machine tool and produce your norm as set by the engineers.
"From now on, you'll have a roof over your head and will receive extra food from the factory, provided the management decides you deserve it. In short, consider yourselves lucky. Working there is as near freedom as you'll likely get. The camp is only a place to sleep and nobody here has any authority over us. Tomorrow you will spend all day in Weimar."
Once in the camp we were shown to a separate barracks reserved for prisoners employed at the Gustloff Werke factory. For the first time I found myself isolated from my Polish compatriots. My new companions, two of them Dutch and one French, were from the penal company. The Frenchman introduced himself as André and although he spoke no German, he had no difficulty following my limited high school French. My understanding of him proved a different matter, particularly as he broke into a lengthy monologue about himself and his situation within the camp. From what I could discern, his story sounded surprisingly similar to mine.
"I thought I was done for. The SS guards were shooting us for sport and I knew that eventually we would all be killed because we had each belonged to resistance movements. One day we're condemned men and the next day they send us off to a factory to make bombs or whatever for their war effort. But they won't get much work out of me. I had barely finished my apprenticeship as a machine tool operator when I was arrested."
He was so happy to have escaped the penal company and so pleased to have someone to talk to, he did not mind that I under-stood only every other word. The two Dutchman spoke perfect German but were more private and talked only to each other.
At about noon the foreman called upon me and André to accompany him to the camp kitchen to organize some food. We waited outside while the foreman collected together the supplies -two small kettles, one containing soup and the other coffee, two loaves of bread, half a kilogram of margarine and some beet root marmalade. The food was enough for ten men and we marvelled at his ability to organize it. Back at the barracks, he declined his portion and passing the food to the four of us, watched us devour it in a matter of minutes.
The foreman then declared a rest period and announced that one of us would have to stand or sit outside the barracks to keep a look-out for any SS man who might happen that way. The two Dutchmen volunteered while the foreman, André and I went to our respective bunks. Even for a veteran prisoner like myself, this was a new situation: to be allowed to sleep in the middle of the day without fear of punishment. But I could not sleep, nor could who lay in the bunk beside me. Not having a common language in which we could express our thoughts and feelings, we lay silently next to each other, contemplating our own affairs.
For me, the bliss was only temporary. Tomorrow I would have to prove myself as a machine tool operator and then the truth would come out. I could see myself taking André's place in the penal company. On the other hand, the situation in the quarry had become very dangerous; I had had no choice but to assume the risk of volunteering for the factory work. The decision was made and worrying about it provided no advantage. Consoling myself with this thought, I was about to fall off to sleep when André, still wide awake, decided to attempt another conversation.
"What are you going to do after the war if we survive it?"
"I don't know. Perhaps finish my studies in mechanical engineering. After that, I suppose I'll get a job somewhere in Poland."
"What if the Russians occupy the whole of Poland? What would you do then?"
I pondered on the question for a moment, attempting to imagine that such a thing were possible. But my mind was geared towards more pleasant thoughts.
"I don't think the Russians can succeed. The Polish government is still intact, as is the Polish army now based in England. The Americans and English would never sell their best allies to the Soviets, particularly as the war started in defence of my country."
"You are very naive, Kon," André chided. "Politics is a dirty business, everybody looks after their own interests. They call it patriotism. We have seen a lot of it in France. Our Vichy government cooperated with the Nazis even though they occupied France and arrested and killed thousands of Frenchmen. Meanwhile De Gaulle sits comfortably in England thinking he will become the next Napoleon by doing nothing. Only a small fraction of the French people are in the Resistance for the love of France."
"Maybe so," I replied, dejectedly. "But if I can't go back to Poland, I don't know what I will do."
As if struck by a sudden idea, André sat up in bed and said excitedly: "I know what we can do, Kon. Nobody is likely to appreciate the service we have performed for our countries. So when the war ends, we should go to some German port and confiscate a yacht on behalf of the former prisoners of Buchenwald. I've always wanted to sail around the world. We'll take it to France, stock up on good wine and then set out on our travels. What do you say to that?"
Although I had never sailed in my life, the idea sounded pleasant enough. Perhaps too pleasant, considering our circumstances.
"I think we should first concern ourselves with contacting our families. My parents are somewhere in Siberia and my wife -God knows where she is now, or even if she's still alive."
His enthusiasm was undampened. "Well, all right, let's agree then that if we are separated, you will come to see me in France. I live in Creteil, near Paris. It's a small place and you should have no trouble finding me in the telephone directory. After the war all members of the Resistance should be well known throughout France. We will have our own private glory and as for me, I'm sure I will have a yacht."
I appreciated André's musings. They allowed me to renew my ability to daydream about the future, an activity that not only provided an escape from the dread of reality but helped considerably to preserve one's sanity.
The working day in Buchenwald spanned 12 hours - from six in the morning to six at night, when the first working groups began arriving back at camp. Prisoners employed at the Gustloff Werke in Weimar, transported by truck to and from the factory, usually returned to camp about an hour after everyone else, delaying the evening meal. I decided to visit Kazik during the interim to share with him the day's developments. He had expected to see me return with the group from the quarry and was naturally worried about what had happened. My story only made him more anxious.
"I'd be surprised if you could pull it off, Kon. I only hope they give you an easy job to start. And as for the penal company, it seems as rough here as it was in Auschwitz. You'll have to rely on your instincts now more than ever."
The next day the entire block to which I was assigned was awakened an hour before the rest of the camp. There was not, however, the usual rush, swearing or pushing by the blockelders or other camp authorities. New to me as well was the attitude of my co-workers who behaved in a very business-like manner. Perhaps because of the mixture of nationalities - most of the men were either Russian or German, but also among us were Italians, French, Dutch, Czechs, Poles and Yugoslavians - practically everyone occupied himself solely with preparing for work. Unlike the regular working crews, who looked upon their jobs in terms of survival, these factory men moved about with some sense of purpose and actually thought about the nature of their work.
As for me, I was dreading my first encounter with the machine tools and found the other men's confidence extremely disturbing. The fear and loneliness I experienced was much greater than any I had felt, even when faced with more imminent danger. Often, on those occasions, I had been one of many exposed to the same threats. Now I was both alone and vulnerable.
The road to Weimar was very picturesque, winding down the hills and through an old forest; however, its beauty that morning completely escaped me. Everyone sat quietly in the truck thinking his own thoughts and this apparently grim mood made a deep impression - I imagined they all knew the disaster that awaited me at the factory in the valley below.
Finally we drove through the barbed wire gate and into a part of the factory separated from the rest of the buildings by a high fence punctuated with the familiar towers for the SS guards. We emerged from the trucks without anybody shouting the usual "Out! Out! Go! Faster!" All but four of us disappeared into different buildings while we waited by the truck for further directions.
Moments later, the foreman who had recruited us appeared and led us into a large hall full of men and machinery. The place was so noisy it seemed inconceivable that its occupants could think, let alone carry on a conversation. The air was thick with smoke from burned oil mixed with steam. My eyes had barely adjusted to the dim and dingy surroundings when the foreman stopped and summoned us towards him.
"The first job is very simple!" he shouted at the top of his voice. "On a lathe! Who wants it?"
Taking his estimation of the work at face value, I quickly raised my hand.
"You come with me! The rest of you wait here!"
We walked between rows of machine tools, each operated by one prisoner who worked alone; no other foremen or kapos were anywhere in sight. Near the end of a row stood an unoccupied lathe. Here the foreman bent down, picked a shiny piece of steel from a box on the floor and held it in front of me.
"This is the part you're to make," he announced over the deafening crash and clatter of machinery. Then pointing to my left, "And these are the steel bars from which you machine it. More will be supplied when you run out."
He then pointed to several gauges lying on a table. "Check every part. If it does not fit, put it aside. Do not mix good parts with bad ones. It is considered sabotage. Too many rejects - that's also sabotage. I will be back to see how you're doing."
I held the part handed to me by the foreman, not even knowing which end of the machine it came out of. I stopped him just as he was about to leave.
"This is a somewhat different machine tool from what I've worked on. Could you maybe make one piece so I'll be able to see how different it is? I don't want to start turning out rejects."
He accepted my request, not only to save his own neck in the event I made mistakes, but as a chance to boast about his skills on each and every machine in the factory.
"That's why I'm a foreman. Unlike the kapos, who know nothing, I'm a skilled tradesman."
He then stepped up to the lathe, pressed the starting button and went through the motions of making the part from a round, two metre-long bar. My eyes were glued to the machine while he continued to advise me on the factory's chain of command.
"The civilian master who runs this place - he's the guy to watch out for. A very important person in the Nazi party. To him, any mistakes are sabotage, clear and simple."
As he talked, a metal piece dropped down on the tray below. He picked it up and showed it to me.
"Now you must check it so that this gauge goes through - like that, and this other gauge should - oops! It's too small!"
The foreman looked about him, then quickly pocketed the spoiled part.
"The bloody man on the night shift didn't have the machine set up properly. Can you set it up? Or maybe I should show you how."
I never in my life paid as much attention to anyone as I did then. Although the foreman's big body often got in the way, I did my best to memorize all the motions of his hands and the settings of the dials. The next part he produced was correct.
After confirming its dimensions, the foreman turned to me and said: "That is how it should be made. Now go ahead and do it."
I stepped up to the lathe, pressed the starting button and attempted to duplicate everything the foreman had done, setting the dials to the same numbers, turning cranks left and right, and pulling levers in their proper sequence. The lathe responded with strange screeching sounds as the cutting tools moved across the revolving steel bar. I watched it with my heart beating louder than all the noise around me, anticipating the inevitable disaster when the whole machine would explode into thousands of pieces. It appeared to me I had done something wrong, because it took at least twice as long for the part to drop with a sharp "clung" onto the tray. The foreman, who had watched me from behind, picked up the part and measured it with the gauges.
"As long as you make them like that, you'll be all right. Don't be so nervous about it - you've done a good job."
Without waiting for an answer, he turned around and walked away. I just stood there, my heart still trying to leap out of my throat. After a few moments I decided to examine carefully what it was I had done to produce this part. I repeated all the motions without actually machining the metal, simply to see what happened when the levers were moved and the dials turned. I was so engrossed in this examination that I did not notice a fellow operator, whose lathe was back-to-back with mine, watching me with great interest.
"I guess you don't have a clue as to what you're doing," he remarked, peeking out from behind his machine. He spoke half in Polish and half Ukrainian, presumably as a result of seeing the letter "I"' for Polish on my red triangle.
The man's face startled me, for his large mouth wore a smile from ear to ear that seemed to register more gaiety than malicious glee at my misfortune. The face was Asiatic, with high cheek bones and small brown eyes set wide apart. In the middle was something that might once have been a nose before it was broken.
"Keep going, you're doing just fine. The foreman will likely let you know how productive you are."
His carefree attitude took me completely by surprise. It must also have been infectious, for I suddenly felt less anxious about my hasty apprenticeship. Guessing the fellow to be a Russian prisoner, I introduced myself in the Russian my mother had taught me as a child, informing him that although my father was Polish, I had actually been born in Kiev.
"No joke!" he said, bursting out in loud laughter and clap-ping his hands on his knees. "I was also born in Kiev. Only I'm supposed to be a good communist while you grew up to be a good capitalist!"
His reference to politics immediately returned me to my predicament: that my life depended on my performance on the lathe. I turned back to the machine, continuing to trace the effect of my memorised operations. When at last I understood how the mechanics worked, I had forgotten the settings on the dials to make the part fit the supplied gauges. Cutting bit by bit off my steel bar to make it the proper shape, I was startled again by the Russian's voice.
"I'm sorry I laughed, but don't you think it's strange that we're from the same city? Don't worry about the lathe, I will show you how to become an expert at it. My name is Ivan. If you'll step to one side -"
He wriggled his small frame between myself and the machine and began making a part, occasionally turning his head from side to side to make sure the foreman was nowhere in sight. As he worked, he marked the settings on the dials with ink pencil. In the meantime I looked over at his own table where sat a variety of complex machine parts, tools and jigs, as well as blueprints that were little more than simple sketches.
His skill on the machine amazed me. In what seemed a matter of seconds he had produced a part that conformed perfectly to the foreman's specifications. He then explained to me, patiently and logically, how to repeat what he had done.
"Now if you'll excuse me, I should get back to my station before someone notices. If you have any questions, just give me a shout."
Ivan went away and I worked steadily on, making part after part with more and more confidence. I did not even notice the foreman and civilian master standing behind me watching my performance.
"At this speed you won't make your norm," said the master, interrupting me from my work. "Foreman! Check how many rejects he has!"
The foreman motioned me to one side and applied the gauges to each part I had set aside on the table.
"All good, sir."
The master appeared satisfied. "All right. But watch that he improves his speed or he'll be out of here."
With these words he walked away, followed by the foreman. I had passed my first test.
The morning went by so quickly I was surprised to hear the siren announcing the mid-day break. No sooner had it sounded than the hall was suddenly silent, as if the whole world had come to a stop. Only then did it occur to me that one could grow accustomed to the pandemonium that usually filled the place.
Ivan appeared from behind his row and called to me: "You are now a skilled machine tool operator. When you learn some more, you will find out how really difficult it is. Come, let's eat. I'd like to introduce you to some of my friends."
A short distance away a large group of Russian prisoners of war were talking to each other. Two men separated from the group and came to meet us.
"Where did you get this Pole from, Ivan?" inquired one of them. "Have you learned to speak Polish as well?"
Ivan's friend obviously resented me, though this was not surprising. The Russians generally did not mix with other nationalities and were even more reserved towards German communists, despite their political affinity. Most striking was their distrust of everyone, including their own colleagues.
Ivan disregarded the remark. "I would like you to meet Konstantin. Imagine, we were both born in Kiev and he is Polish and I'm Ukrainian! He still speaks Russian, not like Soviet Russian, but much better. I must tell you how he started work here - you won't believe it!"
"Later," remarked the other man, who was busily cleaning and trimming his fingernails. "You have not yet introduced us."
"Ah yes - my comrade Volodia, our resident aristocrat," said Ivan, flourishing his hand toward the tall, handsome-looking young man who had just spoken. His appearance was indeed aristocratic, enhanced by his fair skin, blue eyes and long, sensitive fingers. Both Ivan and Volodia. were graduates of a technical college with diplomas as technologists.
"And this is Misha," he continued." He looks like a pretty girl, but I can assure you he isn't or I'd have made love to him a long time ago.
Misha was a little taller than Ivan, had a dark complexion and large, black eyes shaded by enormously long eyelashes. With full-shaped lips and dimpled cheeks, he probably would have been troubled by the camp homosexuals were it not for his excellent athletic abilities, especially in boxing. He had been a circus performer in the Soviet Union but, thanks to Ivan and Volodia who had taught him technical skills, had managed to secure a job in the factory.
"I wouldn't talk, Ivan," answered Misha. "You're so ugly, even an ape would not make love to you."
The banter was obviously made in good humour, for the three of them seemed a closely knit group within the Russian pack. I liked them almost instantly and only hoped they would accept me as a friend.
By this time the food was ready and we all stood in line holding our bowls. The servers filled them with what looked like some multi-coloured stew.
"Snails again!" Volodia. remarked, disgustedly. "Anyone want my portion?"
The boiled snails, a French delicacy, had been shipped from occupied France and were therefore easily attainable. Their manner of preparation, however, was very haphazard: the cooks had simply boiled them in water without even bothering to wash the sand from them. Only a few men tried to eat them; in spite of the fact that we were hungry, the majority of us merely nibbled a bit and disposed of the rest down the drain.
I was naturally disappointed and asked Ivan if this was the extra food we had been promised.
Ivan was less choosy than his colleagues. He had just finished his bowl and had already started in on Volodia's portion.
"Just imagine that this is a good Ukrainian kolbasa, stewed by a German cook according to the best recipe of a French chef. We only get specialty dishes like this when the Germans bring their bounty from another country and find they don't like it themselves. The other day we had real Russian kasha. After that meal my belly was twice its size."
He stuck his stomach forward, patting it with loving tenderness.
The break was now almost over, so Ivan and I started back to our machines.
"You know, Kon, if you haven't any friends here, you're welcome to join our group. In fact, there's a vacant bunk in our corner of the barracks."
"I'd like it very much," I replied, touched by his offer. "But there's a French fellow with me who has no one to talk to and he's sort of stuck With me. My French is poor, but I seem to be the only one who speaks a word of it. We came here together from the stone quarry.
"I understand - your French friend wouldn't enjoy our company. Of course, there's the language barrier, but I think our behaviour may also be too confusing for him."
By the time we got back to our stations the siren sounded again to announce the end of the break. I continued to teach myself the techniques of lathing and even began to produce a sufficient number of pieces to meet my norm. It was then that disaster struck - the tip of one of my cutting tools broke off. I immediately turned to Ivan for help.
"This is what I meant when I said a simple job is not that simple," he advised. "But don't panic, there's a wrench on the table beside your lathe. Remove the tool and come with me to the grinding stone. I'll pretend that I also have to grind my tool, then show you how to sharpen yours. If no one's looking, I can also teach you how to set it back in the lathe and get the machine going again."
This was not the last time Ivan rescued me from serious trouble. Throughout the next several months he not only trained me on the lathe but on several other machine tools. His initial warning proved true: the more I learned, the more difficult the job became. Fortunately, his talents as a teacher were matched by my ability to learn. During my stay at the Gustloff Werke, with Ivan's help, I was to hone my skills into those of a genuinely competent machine tool operator.
Noticing that André was busily talking with a fellow worker, I decided to accompany my new Russian friends on our trip back to camp. We met up again in the supper line, but he had no thought of joining me with his meal.
"Imagine, Kon, I have run into a man from my home town! Must go - I still have to get caught up on the latest news."
Without waiting for a reply André rushed away, eating his soup while he walked. I was somewhat relieved for I was also in a hurry to report to Kazik on my latest activities. At that moment he appeared in our barracks, equally anxious to hear how I had fared at my first day on the job. When he saw me eating my dinner, however, he knew all had gone well.
"So, how did you con them this time? Someday they're going to catch up with you and your tricks and that'll be the end of the little magician. I predict you're going to finish your career high above the crowd - hanging from the gallows."
I then told him the whole story of Ivan and his friends.
"I wouldn't trust those Russians if I were you. You can see what the communists are doing to this camp. Remember what the Czeches used to say about them in Auschwitz - the only good communist is a dead communist."
"I neither know nor care what Ivan's political views are," I replied. "He saved me from the penal company and I've learned enough from him to convince the foreman that I'm a lathe operator."
"Please yourself. But keep your eyes open and don't tell them too much about yourself. The main thing is that you're now working indoors and safe from those gun-happy guards."
He then asked me to be his partner at the bridge table, an invitation I considered both a compliment and a chance to wind down from the day's tensions.
Kazik was quick to enlighten me. "This is no compliment, Kon. Face it, you're a lousy bridge player. But maybe there's some hope for you yet."
That evening there was no more talk about the dangers of the camp, kapos or SS men. We instead enjoyed each other's friendship while Kazik fed me with last minute instructions on the finer points of bridge.
Within a few weeks I had fully adapted myself to life at the factory. My mechanical aptitude helped me in learning to operate most of the machine tools - a task made easier by the fact that we were mass producing standard pieces. I had also moved to the Russian corner of the barracks where I was quickly accepted as a friend.
The Russians considered me a novelty and I was often the subject of their curious inquiries. Under Stalin's rule, the Russian people lived in complete isolation and were led to believe that the Soviet Union was a paradise compared to the rest of the world. They were told that outside of their country was hunger and starvation; only a few people lived well and the masses of workers were treated as slave labour. Though they suspected it could not all have been true, they wanted me to reassure them that much of it was propaganda.
Volodia was more curious than the others. "Is it true that in Polish stores before the war anyone could buy as much bacon as he wanted?"
"Of course," I told him, trying to satisfy his curiosity in the best possible way. "We always had plenty of bacon, not to mention ham, all kinds of sausage, lobsters, butter, sour cream, a large variety of cheese - all you needed was the money to buy it."
"Aha!" exclaimed Ivan. "So not everybody could afford to buy those things, is that right?"
"Some things, like lobsters or Swiss and Danish cheeses. But bacon, eggs and cottage cheese, for example, were affordable by everyone."
We then compared wages and what an average worker could get with them. It was a revelation to me that skilled men like Ivan and Volodia had to spend more than a months pay for a new suit, provided it was available in stores at the time they wanted to buy it. Misha, on the other hand, found it particularly difficult to believe that Polish stores carried such luxuries as wrist-watches and radios.
It was then my turn to ask questions. "Tell me, Ivan, what rank did you have in the army and how was it you were sent here?"
Ivan disregarded the question and rose from his stool as if he were dismounting a horse. "I just remembered, I'd promised to see my friend Pietrov in Barrack 14 and it's already quite late. Kon, would you like to join me? Pietrov's a nice guy, you'll enjoy meeting him.
I agreed and the two of us set out across the camp. Neither of us spoke a word for some time. Finally Ivan broke the silence.
"I didn't want to answer you in front of the others. There are many things you'll probably never understand about the Soviet system. One is that nobody trusts anybody - for good reason. The only way to better your standing with the Party is to report something bad about your closest friends. That serves as proof that you value the Party above all else. It's sad that, for this reason, I trust you more than I do my Russian friends with the exception perhaps of Volodia and Misha.
"The story of how we became prisoners is very shameful. If I told this story in the Soviet Union, I'd be writing myself a one-way ticket to Siberia. But we've had a lot of frank conversations with you and somehow I feel you should hear everything, not only about myself but also about life in Russia both before the war and when it started."
There was no urgency to see Pietrov. We sat on some stones in a far comer of the camp where we would not be disturbed.
"My father," Ivan began, rubbing his upper lip to expose the large gaps between his teeth, "was an ordinary, unskilled factory worker. I'm not even sure he could read or write. Anyway, during the Revolution he met Trotsky who, as you likely know, was the leading Bolshevik with Lenin. My father worshipped the man. When the Bolsheviks took over the country my father became a very important official in the Party.
"You must also know that Stalin and Trotsky did not get along with each other. At that time such disagreements were quickly solved by firing squads. Trotsky had to escape from the Soviet Union and when he did, the hunt started for all of his former supporters. No matter how dedicated a Communist you were during the Revolution, if you'd been a friend of Trotsky you were now an enemy of the proletariat. All of them, including my father, were shot. Executions were a daily routine in those years - many friends of our family were killed and even my mother lived in terror for her life.
"During Stalin's rule the terror continued. Every man in our country recognizes Stalin as a ruthless murderer. Did you know that he has declared any Soviet soldier taken prisoner by the Germans a traitor and doomed to execution when the war ends? You now see our position - none of us have much to live for. After the war we'd either have to stay in Germany, living subhuman lives as German slaves, or return to our country to be shot by our own people."
Ivan paused briefly to stretch his legs. The joviality by which I had come to know him had all but disappeared. In its place was a grave determination to present his story as accurately and convincingly as he knew how.
"Not long after our graduation, the war with Germany broke out and both Volodia and I were drafted into the army. There was no time for real military training. The Germans were advancing deep into Russia so fast that after only two weeks of drill, our unit was dispatched to the front lines.
"I must tell you that during those first months of war, there was no panic among the population. Nobody was afraid of the Germans. In fact, people were so sick of Stalin and in terror of the secret police that we actually looked forward to the German occupation. The whole Ukraine met the German army with flowers. The mood in our unit was the same though none of us could say anything about it. For every 50 men there was one Politruk assigned to spy on each of us, including the officers. Those who were not fully loyal to Stalin had to be executed on the spot."
To me, this was direct confirmation of the German news we had received when the invasion started. I found particularly surprising, however, the hostility Ivan spoke of toward Stalin, which somehow did not jibe with the later efforts by the Russians to stop Hitler's progress and push the German army back into Germany.
"How can your people be so solidly against Stalin and the Communist system, and at the same time fight so successfully against the Nazis?"
"Ah, well, the answer isn't al simple as you might expect," Ivan explained. "Let me finish my story and then you'll understand the whole situation much better.
"When our division, consisting of thousands of men, was captured by the Germans near Kiev, we tried to tell them we'd had enough of Stalin, that we didn't want to fight but simply wished to go home. Our interpreters explained to the German officers the situation in the Soviet Union and assured them we were not their enemies. Some of the officers believed us and preferred letting us go to having to guard and care for such a large group of men. But the authority rested with the SS officers, a breed no doubt similar to our Politruks. So we were instructed to wait until the next day when the SS men arrived and we were marched to a nearby canyon to camp overnight. The Germans posted guards all around us, though we told them this was unnecessary - we were full of hope and had no intention of escaping. They gave us no food or blankets, but left us to sleep on the bare ground with empty stomachs.
"The following morning a car arrived full of German officers wearing swastika bands on their arms and escorted by two armoured cars mounted with machine guns. One of the officers climbed on top of an armoured car and addressed us through a megaphone. He said we would soon be set free but before going home, we should surrender to them all Politruks and officers among us.
"The Politruks were immediately turned over to the SS while our officers gave themselves up later of their own accord. Evening came again, the guards stayed at their posts and still we had no food or water. Some of the more desperate among us tried to escape or steal food from the German soldiers. Sounds of machine gun fire echoed throughout the night from all sides of the camp. By morning almost 100 men had been shot dead or wounded. But the Germans still did nothing to feed or free us. That was when our small group, including Volodia and myself, decided to try our luck escaping.
"Needless to say, luck was with us. After getting clear of the canyon we hid in a village the Germans had burned almost to the ground. The decision to escape had been a good one. From our division, only a handful of half-dead men were marched out of the canyon to be shipped to concentration camps. The rest either died of hunger or were gunned down because they were too weak to walk.
"That canyon, Babi Yar, hadn't seen the last of the Germans' atrocities. Once our men had vacated it, the SS units found it a convenient place to execute Jews. We heard later that whole families, including women and children, were brought there and gunned down into ditches they had been forced to dig for themselves."
In the pause that followed I explained that much the same case applied to pre-war Poland: "After the Molotov and Ribbentrop agreement made Poland the common enemy of Russia and Germany, we were attacked from both sides. Polish Communist Party leaders became both feared and despised by many of my countrymen for pointing out the intelligentsia to the Soviet secret police. Thousands of Polish families were sent to Siberia. Among them were my parents."
Ivan listened with a puzzled look on his face. "But we were told that the Polish workers asked us to protect them from the invading German army. My God, Kon, we considered ourselves a liberating army!"
"That's also what the Polish population was told," I replied. "In actual fact, it was a proper war on both east and west borders."
Ivan lifted himself from his rock and stared into the distance, his small, crooked frame quivering with excitement. "That bastard Stalin is guilty of so many crimes," he suddenly blurted out. "I can tell you that if the Germans hadn't been so cruel, we'd have all gone home and stayed there. They could've marched through Russia without firing a shot. But they forced us to fight for our land and our families. That's why Volodia and I re-enlisted. The war did nothing to make us love Stalin, but it sure taught us to hate Hitler."
"These German communists in camp," I said, reflecting on my friend's story. "If they are truly as loyal to Stalin as they claim to be, why wouldn't the Politruks and officers among you reveal themselves to them? Surely they'd have a more comfortable stay here as a result."
Ivan glanced quickly at me and I noticed for a brief moment distrust in his eyes, so typical of all Russian prisoners. He then broke out laughing and plopped himself down beside me.
"German communists! They think their brand of communism will be different. But you wait - not all of them are so naive. Some have already picked up on the basic principles of our system: surrender with blind and uncritical obedience to the decisions of the Party and by terrorizing others, make sure they do the same. What they haven't yet learned is to understand us, the people who have really lived under this system. They think, for example, that all Russian prisoners of war are communists. They refuse to believe that Stalin considers us traitors because we surrendered to the Germans instead of fighting to the last man. So how likely are they to believe what our officers or Politruks tell them?"
The bitterness of Ivan's words moved me. When the war is over, I told him, he must come and live with me in Poland instead of returning to the Soviet Union and risking his life further.
Ivan smiled sadly and thanked me. "I believe, Kon, the Germans are about to lose this war. But let's hope it's not to Stalin, otherwise there will be no Poland for you to return to."
It was getting late. On the walk back to our barracks, we stopped to visit Ivan's friend, Pietrov, a man in his late 40's. Ivan did not call him by his first name, as was customary in the camp, but introduced him to me as "Mr. Pietrov." The man was well-built with broad shoulders, an intelligent face and a friendly, open smile.
I was impressed by our meeting and on the way out asked Ivan if he was one of the Politruks; or a senior officer in Ivan's unit.
Ivan did not look surprised at this and said: "I would not introduce you to a Politruk. I have not met one whom I could respect. Pietrov was my commanding officer and unlike most officers, not a Party member. The others rose in the ranks because of their politics, Pietrov because of his intelligence and integrity. I respect him for those qualities."
The next day at work Pietrov's name was not mentioned. Instead Ivan, Volodia and I entertained ourselves by challenging each other with mathematical and logical puzzles. We would give each other a puzzle in the morning, then see who would be the first to solve it during the day. With the monotony of our work on the machine tools, we found such mental gymnastics highly stimulating.
I was struck by the quality of their puzzles - especially the ones dealing with physical principles, at which I considered myself quite good. Twice Volodia managed to stump me with deceptively simple questions.
"Since clouds are little drops of water and heavier than air," he posed, "why don't they fall down?"
When the day passed and I could not produce a satisfactory answer, he explained that as the droplets evaporate, their weight decreases faster than their resistance to air.
"You see? Cube versus the square of the radius."
I was completely fascinated and begged Volodia to give me another one.
"All right, Kon. Tell me by tomorrow: Why is it cooler in the mountains and warmer in the valleys?"
Again a day passed and when again I failed to come up with an answer, Ivan came to the rescue.
"It seems to me that the warm air rising from the valleys cools and expands when it reaches the mountains. What do you think?"
The tedium of factory life was broken in the fall of 1944 by a major staffing upheaval. The Germans no longer had enough civilian workers on the two night shifts and decided instead to run the place with concentration camp prisoners only. The entire factory was surrounded with barbed wire and living quarters were built right on the grounds. All the prisoners from Buchenwald who had been working at the Gustloff Werke and the same number of additional skilled men from other camps were moved there permanently, a welcome change for all of us. Now we were totally removed from a system whose only purpose was extermination. Outside, barbed wire, towers and SS guards with machine guns still surrounded us, but inside the camp no kapos and no internal organization existed to threaten our lives.
The real danger came from our allies. Air raids occurred almost every night. When the siren sounded, the civilian foremen ran to the bomb shelter, the fights were put out and we were left to sit on the floor beside our machines, waiting for the bombs to drop. On these occasions, Volodia, Misha and I would go to the end of the hall, near the door, to be closer to a possible escape route should the bombs start falling on our heads.
Because we were at the factory at all times, we now had the opportunity to discover what was being manufactured there. One day as Ivan and I walked alongside the barbed wire to the end of the factory buildings, we spotted the final product of our labour. Several neat rows of anti-tank guns stretched across the yard.
"So this is what it's all about," I muttered to MY partner. "What can we do so that these guns won't fire?"
Ivan quickly took me up on my suggestion. "Let's look around our hall tomorrow and try to identify the parts we're making. Maybe we can improve on their design."
The part that proved easiest to recognize was made on my own machine. It was a vertical shaft, obviously the one around which the gun rotated. The dimensions of the shaft were precisely controlled with fixed gauges and checked by the civilian inspectors.
Many years later I appreciated the ingenuity and excellence of Ivan's knowledge of engineering when I remembered what he advised.
"We cannot change the dimensions, we can only change what isn't being checked by the inspectors. Do you see the radius you're making where you've decreased the diameter of the shaft? Instead of a radius, make a sharp notch there. The principle is much the same as when you use a scriber on glass to get it to break at a certain point. The moment the gun is fired, the shaft is subjected to a shock. Let's hope that when this gun starts shooting, its shaft will fracture and the barrel will fall off."
From then on, everybody who worked on my lathe received special instructions on how to machine this shaft "properly."
The other sabotage, almost impossible to discover, was my invention. André worked in the next hall where a small steel foundry was located. There he helped to manufacture a large steel casting, designed to support the gun during transportation. Mould design and metal casting were the only practical part of mechanical engineering that I had learned as a student and during my summer work in the foundry.
André was at that time a sort of prisoner-foreman and had access to all foundry operations. I met with him when we had time off and told him the gist of my plan.
André waxed enthusiastic. 'Just tell me, Kon, what we have to do and I and all the French guys working with me will gladly help out," he chattered away excitedly.
Unfortunately, my ability to communicate in French was so poor it complicated matters beyond André's power to understand me. He then suggested that I come to work in the foundry for one night to show him what to do.
The following week, when both of us were on the night shift, André made the proper arrangements and in time my foreman came to see me.
"I didn't know you were an expert in castings, but so much the better. I've been told they could use the help. The master has agreed to let you go, but only for one night. We're also short of machine tool operators."
I walked over to the foundry and was given a tour by André of the various castings his group produced. My attention was diverted by one casting in particular that was about to be removed from its sand mould.
"Look there, André," I exclaimed, pointing to the casting. "Notice the big raiser, the lump of steel that's later cut off. It's that big because, as the casting solidifies, it shrinks and could leave holes inside were it not for the hot molten steel that flows into those cavities from the raiser."
"I understand all this, Kon. After all, I am the foreman here. What is it you want me to do with it? Remove it from the mould completely or just plug it up?"
"Neither. That would be too easily discovered. But when the part is being cast, you might drop a few pieces of cold steel into the raiser. That should solidify the raiser before the rest of the casting, leaving a hollow part in the chassis that will fracture more easily than a solid one. Once the casting is made, your pieces of steel will be melted down with the rest of the casting and no one will notice a thing. Anyway, let's try it."
In a couple of hours several moulds were ready for pouring. André and I collected a few pieces of steel in our pockets and began our inspections, dropping the scrap steel into the raisers as we went from mould to mould. By mistake, André dropped a very large piece into one of the moulds. I decided it was too large and immediately tried to retrieve it, but as we were bending over the mould we heard a voice behind us speaking in German.
"What the hell are you poking there for? Move aside and let me see!"
It was a civilian inspector. We had been so absorbed in our work that neither of us had noticed him walking our way.
"Who dropped this piece of steel into the mould?" he barked. "You know that this is sabotage and both of you could hang for it! Pieruny!"
I recognized the Silesian slang immediately. Pieruny means "thunder," a common swear word among both Poles and Germans living in the Polish part of Silesia.
My German was better than André's so I took over our defence. "Sir, we did not drop it in, we were trying to get it out. It seems to be lodged in the sand mould."
"Well somebody did and you as a foreman are responsible for this sabotage!" the inspector shouted at André.
I decided to test the inspector's reactions in the hope that he would reveal his nationality. "It must have been one of those stupid pieruny working at the conveyor over there."
The inspector saw through my tactics and replied in Polish: "Do you think that because I can speak your mother tongue you can do what you like here? Get that steel out of there and watch it in the future!" In the meantime the other moulds, also with pieces of steel in the raisers, were being filled with liquid steel. The inspector looked at André and at me, at the moulds once more, then walked away. Before the end of the shift, however, he was back again and ordered us to take the still red-hot castings out of the moulds, a procedure normally done on the next shift when the raisings had cooled. Obviously he suspected us of being up to no good, for which he himself might be held responsible. He took out a hammer and started knocking on a casting around the raiser, checking it for soundness.
"You, pieruny," he said to me in Polish. "You seem to know a lot about castings. As long as you make them like that, it's okay with me." -
He left me feeling completely baffled. Had we really deceived his trained ear?
In the morning, before going to sleep, Ivan asked me: "How did it go in the foundry? Did you manage to better the German war industry?"
I told him the whole story and Ivan nodded. "I know who you're talking about. He's here as a German but I suspect he's really Polish. He understood what my friends were saying in Russian about this factory and the Nazis. Had he wanted to make use of it, all of them would have been severely punished, maybe shot.
"I doubt very much that he missed detecting the hollow area in the casting, but as long as it didn't show, his own neck would be safe. With protection, people like that don't mind if someone else does the dirty work."
A couple of weeks later another event occurred that this time altered my destiny. One of the men returning from the hospital in Buchenwald brought a message from Kazik, who wanted to see me urgently. Kazik suggested I fake an injury to get into the camp for treatment as an outpatient. I knew it must be something important and set about preparing for my return up the mountain.
The next day I complained to my foreman of a nagging toothache. It was affecting my work, I told him, and therefore had to be pulled. This seemed to him a good enough reason to seek approval for my release, and within 24 hours I was riding with three other prisoners and an escort of SS guards in a small truck bound for the main camp.
The truck stopped at the gate where our guards received orders to return us there by 7 p.m. I immediately set out for the barracks to rendezvous with Kazik. Upon entering the building I encountered several men and the regular staff, but there was no sign of my friend. The blockelder, however, had been expecting me.
"Kazik is at work but will be back before your departure," he said. "In the meantime, he wants me to introduce you to a special visitor."
The blockelder then summoned from a corner of the barracks a strongly-built man of about 40 years old. I was impressed by his red hair, worn longer than allowed in the camp, which distracted me momentarily from his heavily lined though handsome face.
"This is Zigi, the campelder of Camp Rose. Perhaps you know him. He is also a Polish prisoner from Auschwitz."
The man greeted me like a long-lost friend, though I had no recollection of ever seeing him before. His behaviour was both self-assured and full of confidence.
"Come outside, Kon. I would like to have a talk with you. Kazik has told me all about you."
I reluctantly followed him through the door and into the sunlight, where he took me by the arm and led me across the grounds.
"So, I meet up again with a fellow Auschwitz veteran," he began. "My number was 2020. 1 think we were there about the same time, though I went through a deeper level of hell than you did. My last years, you see, were spent in the penal company."
All this sounded very strange to me. A Polish prisoner from Auschwitz and a former member of the penal company - now a campelder in some other camp. Top positions in the camps generally went to German criminals or communists.
He quickly picked up on my suspicions. "Of course, you no doubt wonder how I got to where I am. Ingenuity! That's what it takes to overcome all obstacles. My mind has been trained for it. Did you know I was chief editor of a Warsaw newspaper and have written many books? Most are detective stories, which is why I've such a good imagination for intrigue."
I stopped and for the first time stared him directly in the eye. "I suppose there are no kapos, criminals or communists at this Camp _',
"Rose," he assisted me. "As a matter of fact, a German criminal was the campelder there when I arrived. It did not take me long to frame him for stealing SS food and planning to escape by killing several guards. Naturally, I made sure I received all the credit for uncovering the plot. When I promised the camp commandant there would be no more escapes and no more stealing, he made me the campelder and had the German campelder shot."
Zigi was so visibly pleased with himself and his story that he seemed to forget why he had wanted to see me. I decided to remind him.
"Ah yes," he said, taking in a deep breath. "Well, Kazik informed me you are an officer and that you occupied an important position in the Auschwitz underground. When I became campelder, I decided that I should save prominent Polish writers and artists in my camp."
"I am neither artist nor writer," I replied. "So what do you want from me?"
"You are a veteran prisoner from Auschwitz. Only those of us who survived the worst in that camp understand life and can soberly size up any situation. Speaking of sobriety - can you make moonshine?"
My patience with this fellow was rapidly diminishing. "Surely this meeting was not arranged so you could conscript me to build a distillery!"
"Good moonshine in this miserable world where people have shit and garbage for brains is the only noble escape," he said, smiling. "Quite simply, I want you to come to work for me in my camp."
"And what would I do in your camp?"
"I wouldn't sneer. It is my camp. I do what I want there. The commanding officer is a dangerous lunatic but I know his weaknesses and by pleasing him I bought his full trust. Do you know that I can go to town in civilian clothing to shop, without an SS escort? Anyway, I heard from Kazik that you worked in the SS kitchen in Auschwitz and are consequently a good organizer. I want you to be in charge of all food supplies to the camp, including special supplies for your campelder."
"In other words," I replied casually, "you want me to steal food for you from the SS. But wasn't the former campelder shot for doing just that?"
I continued before he had a chance to respond. "Listen carefully. I am now working in the factory at Weimar. There are no campelders or kapos. I am really out of the concentration camp system and the work I do is not too hard. One might even say it's interesting."
"So I've wasted my time trying to persuade you?"
"Let me think about it. When do you need an answer?"
"I was thinking of taking you and Kazik with me tomorrow," he said, running a hand through his hair. "But then I met here a great man whom I also want to take along. Do you know of a Frederick Jarossy?"
"The actor. Of course I've heard of him. Who in our country hasn't? He's Hungarian, isn't he?"
"Originally. But this guy's so talented he would stun you. And as charming off stage as he is on. What's more, he speaks Polish, German and French like a native. Do you know that he's studied literature at the Vienna university and philosophy at Heidelberg? Not only is he a brilliant actor, choreographer and stage manager, he's also extremely intelligent. I'm looking forward to having him in the camp to participate in our intellectual discussions."
"Who else participates in these discussions at your camp? I remarked, making no attempt to hide the sarcasm in my voice. But Zigi seemed unperturbed.
"I think Polish history will remember me for saving the lives of these people. Among them, there's the great modem writer and poet, Jankowski, who is not useful for anything else in camp but expressing his opinions. He would have been dead by now if it weren't for me. Then there's a highly educated Jesuit, Father Martin. I like to tease him, but he's smart so I made him a camp writer. He maintains all records, something he's good at.
"Also Jan Groski, the best of all Polish criminal lawyers as well as a very fine bridge player. When Kazik and Frederick come, we shall have an excellent foursome. Oh yes, and our guest of honour, young Prince Andrew. I've taken care of him from the day we left Auschwitz. A little sprinkle of Polish aristocracy in our otherwise dreadful lives."
"An impressive list of people, but "I, however, am the ultimate power there. None of these guys knows the first thing about life in concentration camps. That's why I need you and Kazik. You will take care of food supplies while Kazik looks after getting us clothing, shoes, building materials and furniture."
"Sounds interesting. But assuming we decide to go, how exactly do you plan to get us transferred?"
"I'll appoint Kazik responsible for the next transport to be sent to our camp, which I expect will be in two weeks. We're working on some sort of secret weapon - that's why we have top priority in the selection of prisoners."
He then turned and headed back toward the barracks where, while waiting for Kazik, I was forced to listen to yet more of his grand adventures and reminiscences of Auschwitz. Among his stories was a retelling of the mass escape of "red dots" from the penal company, only in his version it had been Zigi who had organized it and who had managed to survive because of his clever handling of the Gestapo.
When Kazik returned from work, I managed to find a little time with him alone before meeting the truck back to Weimar. Considering the impression Zigi had made on me, I was particularly curious why Kazik had elected to follow him to Camp Rose.
,'I wouldn't trust this megalomaniac any more than I would a German campelder."
"Well, Kon, there are several reasons why we both should go. First, the camp is only 30 kilometres from the French border, meaning we'll be closer to where the invasion of Germany will begin - which can't be far off. Second, I'll be in charge of clothing, so we can have good civilian suits ready for our escape. And finally, I heard that the camp is poorly guarded, by old men in SS uniforms. Zigi needs us both and believe me, when the time comes to escape, he'll be the first to go."
I pondered briefly on Kazik's argument, which seemed to me a good one. "Zigi told me he's planning to send you for the second supply of prisoners. He also said I could come with you at that time. By then you'll have a better idea of how things are there and either we both go or we don't go at all."
I was glad to see Kazik again. In spite of my good relationship with the Russians, I felt that here was a real friend. The trust between us was never questioned. I wished we could spend more time together, but the truck to take me back to Weimar was already at the gate. I said a hasty farewell and within an hour was crossing the factory grounds to my barracks.
Ivan, Volodia and Misha met me at the door, each anxious to know the real reason for my trip to Buchenwald. I avoided relating the whole story, unsure as I was about whether to leave my job at the factory. My friend Kazik, I told them, was to be shipped to a different camp and wanted to say goodbye - an excuse they seemed content with.
Life became routine again. Routine work and routine air raids. One night, however, we had a close call. My friends and I had been working the day shift and were bedded down for the evening. About midnight the alarm sounded. By then, they were so common we did not even wake up.
What startled us from our bunks was the sound of several deafening explosions. Grabbing anything within reach, we hastily dressed and ran outside. It was as bright as day. The first wave of bombers had just passed over, leaving the factory two blocks away a fiery inferno. The screams of wounded people bombarded our ears. Men escaping from the fire threw enormous shadows and to us looked like giants. Noticing the guard towers were unmanned, some of us ran for the barbed wire to escape the next raid. A burst of machine gun fire stopped us. The SS guards had built special concrete bunkers at each corner of the fence and were shooting through the wire at anyone who approached it. We had no choice but to return to our barracks to await further developments.
Then came a second wave of planes. Anti-aircraft guns opened fire from all sides and parts of exploded shells fell like rain from the sky. We decided to take shelter inside the barracks only to encounter large fragments of shells crashing through the roof, taking the lives of those unlucky souls caught beneath. Then the bombs fell. It seemed as if all reached the ground together, violently shaking the earth upon impact and clouding the air with dust and smoke. It was hard to judge what was being bombed, though we could see the fire from a neighbouring block licking the sky.
Disregarding the danger at the fence, several prisoners rushed towards it, some managing to open large holes through which masses of panicking people tried to squeeze out. Accustomed as we were to dangerous situations, Ivan and I opted to hold back and encouraged the men closest to us to await a better opportunity. No sooner had we done so than the sputter of machine guns reverberated through the night. The guards must have shot off hundreds of rounds, but surprisingly few prisoners took direct hits. It then occurred to me that this was intentional: as skilled labourers, we were a precious commodity to the Germans. Without us the factory would grind to a halt.
I stepped out of the barracks and shouted toward one of the bunkers: "Don't shoot! We're not trying to escape! We want to get out of a place where we could all be killed, including you!"
The guard stopped firing and obviously scared himself, shouted back: "These are my orders! What else can I do?"
I suggested that he allow us to walk in an orderly fashion and under his guard into a nearby field.
After what seemed an interminable silence I heard him order the other guards to cease fire and emerge from their bunkers. The next order he directed to us: "Come out one by one and walk near me to the hole in the fence! No running! Anyone who runs will be shot!"
We did as we were told and upon reaching the fence, climbed through one after another. Soon we were standing together in the field, guards and prisoners alike in dread of the next pass overhead and thinking foremost of survival.
One of the French prisoners knelt on the ground and started to pray aloud.
"What's he doing?" asked Volodia in a tone that suggested he had never before seen this kind of reaction.
"He's thanking God for saving him from the bombs," I answered.
"Why God? He should be thanking you. You persuaded the SS guards to let us out, not Him. The next wave of planes will probably wipe out our factory."
"Then he's thanking God for giving me the idea to ask the guards," I replied, "and for inspiring the guards to accept my request."
"Come now, you're an intelligent man, Kon. Do you really believe this nonsense? If God is up there, it's easier for him to ask the English pilots to stop dropping bombs on us than to go through this complicated round of business. Besides, our own pilots who've flown above the clouds have told me they've seen no sign of him."
His questions not only seemed inappropriate to me, considering our circumstances, but tested my patience beyond its limit.
"Don't be stupid, Volodia. Wait until the next squadron flies over us. If they miss their mark, we may all find out in a hurry whether there's a God or not."
But we were spared that trial. Moments later the sirens sounded the end of the raid and we returned with our guards to the factory grounds. This time, however, we walked together as a group sharing our relief that the danger had passed.
On the south side of the factory we found even more fraternization among prisoners, civilian Germans and SS guards working together to put out a fire that had spread from the neighbouring buildings to one of the Gustloff Werke mills. The events of that night had so disoriented us that when we finally entered our partially damaged barracks and climbed back into our bunks, none of us could sleep.
Volodia was among the first to take advantage of our restlessness.
"Tell me, Kon, why you said I was stupid about questioning God's existence."
"I shall answer in your own words. You're an intelligent man, so how can you think the world outside of the Soviet Union, where people believe in God, could be so stupid as to expect to see him sitting on a cloud? Is that all you know about world religions?"
"I must admit it sounds primitive," he said apologetically. "But where, then, do people believe God is?"
"He's like a ghost," piped in Misha. "They can walk through walls, appear, disappear and do all sorts of things. My grand-mother told me a lot about ghosts."
I was amazed by the naďveté of these people. Perhaps it was my recollection of the man fervently praying in the field that made me want to enlighten them. The story of Father Kolbe in Auschwitz seemed to me a good vehicle, but the point of his sacrifice escaped them. I then drew on a popular version of Einstein's theory of relativity, about which my father had lectured at the university, in an attempt to stress the limits of our intelligence in a multidimensional world. My lesson, however, merely prompted questions about my own beliefs.
"I am not a good example because I'm not a practicing Catholic. But I do feel that religion helps set standards for how people should behave, and in that respect is important to society. Without religion, what kind of values can you have?"
Ivan responded quickly. "In the Soviet Union, decent behaviour towards one's comrade is taught to children in kindergarten. Of course, the government abuses these standards from time to time - that is the nature of power. But look at the German people. Their brand of Christianity allows them to murder Jewish men, women and children by the millions without any sense of remorse. So much for their religious values."
As I faded off to sleep, I reflected on the recent news I had received of the Warsaw uprising. The Soviets had advanced to the eastern banks of the Vistula River, overlooking German-occupied Warsaw, and waited there. The Poles then used this as an opportunity to retake their capital and succeeded in holding it for a few brief weeks. In retaliation, the Germans redoubled their efforts and methodically destroyed the city, building by building. I wondered how many of my friends were among those captured or killed. Was my wife still alive?
There were several beautiful autumn days in 1944. When working the night shift, my companions and I spent as much time as possible outside enjoying the sunshine and Misha's entertaining acrobatics. Somewhere he had found a steel pipe for high bar gymnastics and his performances were so captivating, even the townspeople watched him from behind the barbed wire. He also taught Ivan, Volodia and me some circus aerobatics in which he performed the most difficult stunts, held high on a pyramid made up of his friends.
The performances were interrupted daily by air raids. English and American planes flew overhead day and night. Although they dropped no bombs nearby, the recent destruction of the neighbouring factory made all of us tense every time the sirens sounded.
In exactly two weeks time I received another message from Kazik to come to Buchenwald. I was still undecided about accompanying my companion to Camp Rose, but when the time came to visit him I knew I might not return to the factory. That evening, following a day of work, I decided to inform my Russian friends of Zigi's proposal.
My initial, brief announcement was followed by silence. They simply stared at me as if awaiting further explanations.
"There's a small satellite camp near the French border where some Polish prisoners have taken control from the German criminals. My friend has already been there for two weeks and most likely will want me to go with him to this camp. Of course, my decision depends a lot on what he has to tell me. We may find it preferable to stay in Buchenwald."
Misha was the first to react. "If there's a chance to escape from there to France, you should also arrange our transfer."
"I know very little about the camp," I replied, sensing again their innate distrust. "But if I do go and find I can get you there, naturally I'll make the arrangements."
After another period of silence, Ivan raised his hand from his lap and placed it on my shoulder. "In the event you do go, we wish you the best of luck. We will miss you."
The night wore on as each of us considered the possible outcome of my decision. Volodia was particularly supportive of abandoning the Gustloff Werke, arguing that eventually the factory would be wiped out with everyone in it. Again I assured them that I would do everything possible to obtain their transfer.
"But if for some reason I can't," I added, "when the war ends I'll come back to Weimar to join you and we will start a new life together - only not in the Soviet Union."
"I regret I won't be included," said Ivan, giving me a gap-toothed grin. "As long as my family and friends remain there, that's where I'll go."
It was now midnight. We exchanged a final round of farewells, then each departed to our bunks. In the morning I was to be on the truck to Buchenwald.