Part Four: Dachau
(Posted to this site on 12/22/2006)
The Journey to Dachau
In January 1945, while the Russians were approaching from the East, the Nazis had been marching many prisoners out of the large camps at Auschwitz-Birkenau.
In early January, the Nazis closed a section of my camp at Birkenau and transferred me to the main Auschwitz-Birkenau camp where I went back to work in the main warehouse.
One day I had an opportunity to steal a case of margarine. At that time, hijacking a case of margarine was equal to hijacking Fort Knox, but I did it and got away with it.
After I divided it among my friends, a German criminal prisoner came up to me.
“I saw what you did, Samuel,” he said. “What about me?”
I told him that he did not see anything, and he was not going to get anything. One thing you learned quickly was that you never backed down if threatened by another prisoner.
He looked hard at me, pointed his finger and said, “I’m going to get you, remember that.”
I knew what he meant. He intended to kill me.
I was a little guy, weighing only 110 pounds. I had a lot of mouth, but I knew that physically I would not be a match for that guy.
One evening a few days later, as I was handing out bread to a group of prisoners who were being marched out of Birkenau, I thought about his threat and realized that he was serious about killing me.
I made a quick decision to leave. As it got darker, I grabbed a loaf of bread, shoved it under my arm, pushed a guy aside and jumped into the line of prisoners who were marching out the gate.
I had no idea where we were going, but I knew if I stayed in Birkenau, the German prisoner would probably find an opportunity to kill me.
Just over a stick of margarine.
After marching away from Birkenau, our group met up with a group of prisoners moving out of the main camp at Auschwitz. There were now several hundred prisoners being marched away from the Auschwitz-Birkenau complex by the Nazis. We trudged through snow all night without stopping. We were freezing cold and thoroughly miserable. Adding to our misery was the fact we had no idea where we were going.
Not that it mattered to me. All I cared about was getting away from the German prisoner who intended to kill me.
That march was so severe that the SS guards shot some prisoners and even shot a few of their own guards who could not keep up the pace.
After we marched for awhile, one of the SS guards told me to carry a rucksack for him. When I threw the rucksack over my shoulders, I heard the sound of bottles clinking. As the night went on and we continued to march without taking a break, I became very, very thirsty. I thought there might be something to drink in the bottles in that rucksack, so I grabbed one of the bottles, opened it and shared it with the prisoner walking next to me. It tasted great.
Later we shared the other bottle. When I was sure that no one was watching, I tossed the rucksack and the empty bottles into the forest to get rid of the evidence. If the guard had seen us, he would have shot us on the spot. I knew he had no idea which prisoner he gave the rucksack to earlier that evening. It was not until after my liberation that I realized we had been drinking German champagne that night, compliments of that SS guard who had probably pilfered the bottles from a Nazi supply house.
Very early the next morning, we stopped at a small railroad station. I am not sure what town it was in, but I believe it was probably the town of Gliwitz. The guards permitted us to sit outside in the snow, and I fell asleep immediately. Later, I felt someone shaking me awake. I got up and boarded a train with the other prisoners. We still had no idea where we were going. Several hours later we arrived at a small concentration camp called Grosse Rosen. We stayed there for a few days, and then the Nazis jammed us into cattle cars on another train.
Again they were moving us, but we still had no idea where we were going.
One of the prisoners on that train with me was a German Air Force pilot who appeared to be in his late twenties. I asked him why he was a prisoner. He told me that the Gestapo had researched his family background and found out one of his ancestors, three or four generations back, had married a Jewish person. Because of that, the Nazis considered him a Jew under their bizarre racial purity theories.
The absolute insanity of the Nazi’s “final solution” was clear. It simply did not matter that the Nazis needed all the qualified pilots they could muster at that time. The fact that this pilot probably had a miniscule amount of Jewish blood in his body was enough to have him classified as a Jew and sent to the death camps.
We spent four miserable days and nights crowded in this cattle car with no food or water. Although the train stopped many times during this journey, the Nazis never allowed us to get off. Instead, we remained crammed in together without even enough space to sit or to lie down. It was difficult even to take a deep breath.
I witnessed many atrocities on this train, partly because some of the prisoners appeared to be going mad.
The stench of urine and feces permeated everything. Some prisoners were so thirsty they drank their own urine. Many died of thirst, hunger and exhaustion. A few of us standing on the outside of the crowd were able to stick our fingers out through the cracks in the train, scrape a little snow off the side of the train, and put it into our mouths. Although the snow was moist, it really did nothing to alleviate the terrible thirst. In fact, it seemed to make me thirstier than ever. I could deal with the hunger, but the thirst was almost unbearable.
After what seemed like an interminable journey into hell itself we finally arrived at the infamous concentration camp known as Dachau.
Upon my arrival at Dachau, a prisoner whom the Nazis assigned to be our supervisor, met our group. We quickly learned that this person had a reputation for being very brutal in his treatment of fellow prisoners.
We spent approximately two weeks in a quarantine camp inside the Dachau complex. The Nazis then assigned us to live in a “bunker lager,” which consisted of a trench cut into the ground covered by a canvas top. We slept on straw sacks that the Nazis placed in the trenches. I assume that the reason we lived in “bunker lagers” was that the main camp at Dachau was overcrowded.
When I arrived at Dachau, I quickly found out that hunger was going to be a much bigger problem than it was at Auschwitz-Birkenau, where my job gave me access to extra food.
At Dachau, all prisoners were on starvation rations. There was absolutely no way possible for me to get extra food, and hunger became my absolute obsession every single day and night.
Shortly after our arrival, I became part of a large group of prisoners assigned to a work detail unloading heavy machinery and equipment that I believe was owned by Krupp, the German industrial giant. The Germans had moved the equipment from the industrial heartland to keep the Russian Army from capturing or destroying it. The Germans intended to store the equipment on a large estate occupied by a Catholic convent.
To prevent us from trying to escape, the Germans posted SS security guards armed with rifles to watch us. There were anywhere from 200 to 400 prisoners on that work detail. It did not matter how many prisoners it took to do the job because there were always many prisoners available.
The prisoner they assigned me to work with was the same friend I shared the champagne with on our march from Auschwitz. He was a little younger than me and was very clever in finding places from which we could probably steal food. After he discovered a source, I then figured out the best way to steal it without the Nazis catching us.
They assigned my friend and me to a work site close to the convent building. Next to the building was a doghouse with a very large German shepherd chained up next to it. One day, after the nuns had finished their lunch, we noticed a nun bringing a large bowl filled with food out to their dog. The dog seemed very friendly and looked well fed. We stood there in our emaciated condition and watched jealously as that dog ate until he was full. We were so ravenously hungry it was maddening.
I told my friend that we could not let this go on. We had to find a way to steal that food away from that dog.
We found a long stick and put a nail on the end to use as a hook. We decided to hide the stick until we had an opportunity to use it some other day to steal the dog’s food. We agreed to tell no one what we had planned to do.
The next day we saw the nun again bring a huge bowl of food out to the dog. When she went back inside the convent, the other prisoner and I made sure that a guard was not watching, then we sneaked up behind some bushes close to the doghouse and used the long stick to pull the bowl away from the dog.
The dog just stood and watched us. Luckily, he never barked or made any sound.
We quickly devoured the food, which tasted like a gourmet meal.
If a guard had spotted us, he would have executed us immediately with no questions asked. But we were never caught.
Somehow, we always managed to be working near the doghouse around noontime. We did not steal the dog’s meal every day, although we desperately wanted to. We simply did not want to press our luck and have the guard or nuns catch us. We knew that we had a good thing going, so we limited our thefts to maybe once every two or three days.
After a few weeks, we noticed that the dog was losing weight. We were grateful that he allowed us to share his meals because his food enabled us to have enough strength to continue to exist and accomplish our work details.
One day, we saw several nuns come out and look at the dog. Although we could not hear what they were saying, it was obvious from their expressions that they were probably concerned about their dog getting so thin. They knew they had been feeding him plenty of food, or so they thought.
Once we knew that the nuns were concerned about the dog’s loss of weight, we decided that it would not be wise to continue to steal his food.
Now that we no longer had access to the dog’s food, we needed to find another source. We never told any other prisoners about our sources of food because we did not want to take the chance of someone informing on us.
My friend and I were working near the convent building another day, and making sure no one was watching, we looked into a basement window and discovered a large quantity of apples being stored there.
We watched that building for a couple of days while we tried to figure out a way to get by the SS guards. I told my friend that we should find some toolboxes and walk right past the guard just as if they had assigned us to work there. We practiced walking past the guard for a few days, heading straight for the basement with the toolboxes on our shoulders. Finally, we decided that the time had come to break into the basement and steal the apples.
An old-fashioned latch secured the basement door. We used our tools to pry the latch open, making sure that it showed no signs of tampering.
Our coats had pockets, but the pockets had huge holes at the bottom. This allowed us to stuff apples into the linings of our coats. We filled the bottoms of our toolboxes, arranging the tools carefully on top, hoisted them onto our shoulders and walked right past the guard. He didn’t notice anything.
After we feasted on apples for several days, the guards lined up the entire work detail early one afternoon. It was earlier than usual for our work detail to finish so we became very suspicious that something had to be wrong.
Anytime the usual routine was changed, either in the camps or on the work details, it set off alarms in our heads that something bad was going to happen.
The Nazis lined us up so frequently in the camps and on work details that we developed our own early warning system. Fortunately, my friend and I were in the back row of the formation. One of the prisoners in front heard that the guards were looking for apples, and the word got back to us in seconds.
Communication was critical to our survival, and we learned in the camps to relay words in whispers faster than a telegraph. We were standing there with apples in the linings of our coats. We knew for sure that if the guards found us in possession of those apples, they would immediately kill us.
Within minutes, we passed the apples out to the other prisoners and told them to eat every part. By the time the guards got to us, they did not find a core, seed or stem. It was as if the apples had never been there. The guards dismissed us and allowed us to return to our regular work details. We were simply lucky that the guards who searched us were not the same guards who had observed us going into that basement on a regular basis.
We found out later that the nuns had gone into the basement earlier that day, noticed that some apples were missing, and reported the loss to the SS commander of the work detail.
At that time, it did not bother me because we knew that the Nazis considered their prisoners to be less than insects, not human. However, after liberation I thought back to that incident and sadly remembered that wewere turned in by nuns, people who supposedly believed in charity and kindness to the less fortunate of the world.
They knew for certain that we were physically emaciated, that we were forced into slave labor and that we were systematically beaten and tortured, yet they weren’t willing to share a few of their apples with us. I have sadly wondered about that ever since.
Each day, when we marched through the town of Dachau to our work site, we passed a huge bakery. The smell of the bread and cakes being baked had a devastating psychological effect on us and seemed to make our hunger that much worse. I often thought how nice it would be if someone would be kind enough to leave a few loaves on the corner for us. It never happened.
For someone who has never experienced real hunger, it is hard to imagine how anyone could eat out of a dog’s bowl. However, for us it was simply a matter of survival. We were so hungry that nothing short of death would stop us from stealing that food. We knew that stealing was always a risk, that the Nazis could have shot us for stealing the apples or stealing the dog food. However, we had one goal: survival. It was a known fact of camp life that if you were not willing to take risks, you simply would not survive.
I was willing to risk my life daily because I had no fear. I had no realistic expectation that I was going to survive no matter what I did, so what was there left to fear?