Part Three: Auschwitz-Birkenau
(Posted to this site on 12/22/2006)
Transport to Auschwitz-Birkenau
As the occupation progressed, the Nazis continued to appropriate houses and apartments, confining the Jewish community into a smaller and smaller section of the city. By this time we had four families crowded into our tiny three-room apartment.
We slept on the floor. We had no coal for the furnace, so we tore down wooden fences and burned them for heat. Everyone struggled and shared. The occupation had been going on for three years, and nothing shocked us anymore.
During the latter part of October 1942, the Nazis notified some of the Jewish leaders in our community that they intended to relocate the entire Jewish population of Ciechanow.
The way the Nazis communicated with us was to give our leaders information to relay. It was easy for the leaders to reach all of us by then, because everyone was crowded into such a small area.
The Jewish leaders spoke very carefully. They could not publicly encourage or organize any opposition to the Nazis because there were informers and collaborators hidden everywhere who might overhear and report this information to the Nazis. Anyone who attracted the attention of a soldier or informer risked beating or death for himself and his family.
We were told to report to the train station on a certain day. We were to wear our best clothing and take our two most precious belongings with us.
When I found out that we were going to be resettled in a new area where we could live and work, I was relieved. Our day-to-day existence in Ciechanow was unbearable. I had become a man during the occupation. At age eighteen, I believed I knew a bit about the world, and while I certainly didn’t trust the Nazis, I hoped that a move to a new area would offer a chance at a new beginning for all of us.
One of our family’s friends, the city blacksmith, had relatives in the United States. The Nazis had allowed him to keep his shop open so they could force him to work for them.
A day or two before we were to leave, I stopped by the blacksmith shop to see how he and his family was doing and to learn how he felt about the relocation.
When I walked into the shop, however, I couldn’t believe my eyes. He was standing before the blazing furnace, and one by one, he was tossing American hundred dollar bills into the billowing fire.
“They might get me,” he said in answer to my astonished questioning, “but they’ll never get my money.”
Those words left me reeling.
I was devastated.
In that instant I finally faced what I had not wanted to believe. I suddenly realized what the future held in store for us. My hopes of a new beginning were shattered.
I never saw the blacksmith again.
On the appointed morning, my father and mother gathered the family and made sure we were dressed in our best clothes. My mother had decided which of our possessions to take, and we dutifully held tight to our “treasures” and walked as a family down the street.
My father was fifty years old, and my mother was forty-eight. My brother Yussel was twenty-seven, Srulek was twenty-five, Simon was twenty-three, my sister Chaia was fourteen and Feigel was eleven. I was eighteen years old. Leibel, who had been taken away by the Nazis more than a year earlier, would have been twenty.
As we walked towards the train station, aunts, uncles, cousins, friends and neighbors joined us.
The entire remaining Jewish community of Ciechanow, dressed in our best clothing and carrying our most prized possessions, walked slowly and solemnly to the trains, which were about to carry us into hell on earth.
As I walked with them and watched them, I was overcome by feelings of sadness, fear, anger and loathing.
Primary was the heartbreak of leaving our homes and all we had known and loved about our once-fair city of Ciechanow. But there also was the fear of what lay ahead and the unbelievable anger and loathing I felt towards those absolutely evil persons who were causing this to happen.
To our surprise, the Nazis conducted the roundup in a quiet, orderly manner. No force was used. There were no beatings, no shouts or rage or derision.
We were treated so uncharacteristically well while moving onto the train that many grew to feel a false sense of optimism. I now suspect the Nazis treated us well as a way to keep us off guard and prevent any defiance or resistance on that crucial day. They didn’t want any scenes, and it was no problem for them to camouflage things. They were in complete control.
Even those among us who doubted that we were going to a better life would not endanger their families by resisting.
The train that transported us was a relatively comfortable passenger train, unlike the cattle-car trains on which most of the Jews were transported to the death camps.
We were on that train for several days, during which time it moved sporadically through the countryside. Often it stopped for hours and we just watched and waited.
We were grateful for the few bites of roll and bits of cheese my mother had packed to stave off the hunger, since she rightly guessed that no one would bother to feed us. Of course, after three years of the occupation, we were not accustomed to eating much.
Although we were concerned about what our final destination was to be, we were not overly worried about it. We realized there was nothing we could do to change our lot. Our fate was in the hands of the Nazis, and while we knew they were brutal and malicious, we still had some vague, unrealistic hope that they really intended to resettle us and allow us to resume our way of life.
Then, very late on the night of Saturday, November 7, 1942, our train started to slow down.
Looking out the windows, we saw a huge area surrounded by bright lights. It appeared to be deserted. Nothing moved.
The lights were so bright there, you could have comfortably read a book by them, although it was in the middle of a moonless night.
As the train came to a complete stop, there was absolute silence. No one spoke. No one moved.
We just stared out the windows.
Suddenly, the train door was yanked open from outside and there, silhouetted against the light, were SS soldiers with vicious guard dogs that lunged against their leashes, snarling and snapping at the stunned people inside.
We did not know it then, but we were inside the Birkenau section of the infamous Auschwitz concentration camp complex.
We had entered the gates of hell.
No one spoke a word.
The guards ordered us off the train, pushed us roughly and shoved us into long lines on the platform. They marched us towards an SS officer who glanced at each person then gestured with his thumb sending the men and older boys in one direction, and the younger women in another.
The elderly and women with young children were sent straight ahead. We later found out that this was “selection,” the process by which the Nazis separated those who could work from those who could not.
At first we didn’t know what was happening. By the time we realized that they were dividing us up, it was too late for good-byes.
I watched the Nazis march my mother, my sisters, Chaia and Feigel, my aunts, and other female cousins and friends away. Everything was quiet. It was impossible for my mother to speak or even wave goodbye to me or me to her.
My eyes filled with tears, and I watched them move slowly into the distance until they disappeared from my sight into the dark of the night.
I never saw them again.
The Nazis marched my group of men and older boys into a building where they handed each of us a piece of paper with a number on it. They pushed us over to a table where I gave the paper to a prisoner who immediately tattooed number 73538 on my left forearm. It remains there to this day.
The tattoo hurt a little, but I don’t remember it in particular, possibly because everything else hurt. The guards shaved our heads with clippers. When they wanted me to lower my head, they hit it with the clipper. They clipped it fast and roughly, gouging out chunks of skin along with the hair. They stripped us of our clothing and gave us striped prison uniforms. Later they ran out of uniforms.
I also got a pair of dried-up old shoes. Those old shoes cut into my feet so badly that I still have the scars today.
Thinking about it today, I can still see those bright lights, those vicious guards and those snarling dogs in my mind’s eye. No one had heard anything about the concentration camps, not in Ciechanow. In the bigger cities they heard more, knew more.
But hearing and seeing it with your own eyes were two very different things. No one even imagined the horror we would face. They were worse than anyone’s worse nightmares.
What puzzles me is why they let any of us live to tell the story of the evil they perpetrated against us. They didn’t need the workers; they had forced laborers from all over Europe. It was purely an extermination, with the forced labor thrown in as just a means to keep us busy until they could see us die.
Our group was marched to Barrack No. 9 in the main camp of Birkenau. I was stunned to numbness; my mind was a blank. I don’t remember anything at all of the march to the barrack.
When we got there, we were greeted by the “barrack oldest,” the prisoner who had been assigned there for the longest time. He was a veteran of the Nazi concentration camp system and knew what we had to do to survive.
I looked at my new “home” with terror and despair. More than 500 men were crammed into Barrack No. 9, a converted wooden building that had once been a horse stable. Three tiers of “bunks” — nothing more than wooden shelves — filled the long structure, with each bunk containing a thin sack of straw that served as a poor excuse for a mattress.
The “barrack oldest” assigned me to a bunk pallet with four other prisoners. My place was on the top row, the third layer from the bottom. Even lying shoulder to shoulder, five of us would not fit on the bunk. The space was less than six feet wide. None of us could even lie flat.
They issued each of us a thin dark gray blanket that did not begin to keep out the bitter cold. We had no underwear and no socks, just the cotton uniforms.
The “barrack oldest” told us we must remain on our bunks unless we were going on a work detail or some other authorized activity. The Nazis forbade us to walk around the barracks or talk with the other prisoners.
There was not much sleep in Barrack No. 9 that night. Early the next morning, which was Sunday, someone woke us by banging on the bunks. He told us to form up outside the barrack to be counted.
Of course, we had slept in our clothes since we had nothing other than the uniforms. There were no facilities for washing, so we assembled outside in a formation composed of rows of five men each. The SS guards made sure they accounted for all prisoners. Later we discovered that if there were any discrepancies in the headcount the SS guards would force us to stand there until the numbers came out right, even if it took all day.
After the SS guards counted us in the morning, they gave us a single enamel bowl containing a small amount of artificial tea, which the five prisoners in my group had to share. There was no food or anything else to drink during the rest of the day.
In the evening, we each received a small piece of bread and a tiny bowl of thin soup, mostly water with only very small pieces of potato and cabbage thrown in.
On Sunday we did not have to go to work, so we went straight back into the barrack after being counted. The only place we were allowed to go was back to our bunks. I still did not know where they sent my father or brothers, and did not know where my mother and sisters were.
I didn’t go to my bunk right away. I stood in the doorway looking out at the rows and rows of barracks before me. After awhile, I noticed an older prisoner nearby. He was wearing a white jacket, and since the number on it was approximately forty thousand lower than mine, I knew he had been there quite some time.
I walked over and spoke to him. He told me he was a physician.
“Can you tell me what might have happened to my mother, my two little sisters and the rest of the people they took away last night?” I asked, searching his face for some glimmer of hope.
Without saying a word, he pointed away to the left.
In the distance, flames and smoke poured from massive trenches that I had not even noticed before. In that instant, I not only noticed them, I became transfixed by them. The flames seemed to pour from the bowels of the earth, the very pit of hell itself. And the smell from the billowing smoke was suddenly overwhelmingly nauseating. You can describe the smoke and flames, but you can never adequately describe that sickening smell.
With great sadness in his eyes he said, “That’s what happened to them.”
His words pierced my heart, shocking me to my core. I felt as if I had been struck on the head with a stone or injected with some kind of powerful drug. I was not myself. My brain churned in a chaotic storm of terror, rage, hatred, loss and guilt.
This cannot be real I thought, finally realizing the fate of my mother, sisters and the others whom the Nazis marched into the darkness just the night before.
In utter desperation, I silently asked, “Where is God?”
That was the only time I ever spoke God’s name during the entire time I was a prisoner.
Without another word the older prisoner turned and walked away, leaving me alone with the truth I had been too naive to see or imagine. The old prisoner’s words, “That’s what happened to them,” stripped my soul bare of any hope of seeing my family again.
Those words convinced me from that point on, that life for me was meaningless.
It’s amazing that we managed to live.
Working took tremendous effort, and our starvation diet was slowly killing us.
The Nazis were in a hurry to enlarge the capacity of the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp because they had plans to fill it quickly with thousands of Jews and other prisoners as they implemented their “final solution” to the “Jewish problem.”
They designed each barrack to hold five hundred to six hundred prisoners. The barracks, originally designed and prefabricated for use as horse stables, consisted of wooden walls, a roof and a dirt floor. The only windows were very small ones near the roof, which allowed a small amount of light to come in.
They were simple to assemble, which was our job most of the time. But some days they merely worked us to keep us occupied and exhausted. Sometimes they made us move dirt or stones, all by hand with no shovels, wheelbarrows or anything. Sometimes, the next day, they’d make us move it all back.
We were allowed no breaks and were given no water or food. From around eight in the morning until just before dark, they drove us to the point of collapse and beyond.
Every day we worked, even though we were starving, wet, cold, exhausted and often sick. The whole month of November was rainy. With no clothes to change into, we never got to wear anything dry. Of course we never got to bathe.
There was no room on our bunk to stretch or move and absolutely no privacy. If one prisoner coughed or moved, the other four felt it. We were so worn out that even though we were wet and hungry, it wasn’t difficult to fall asleep.
The Nazis were not concerned about making life more comfortable for us. Our only purpose in life was to serve our Nazi masters as slave laborers to build barracks as fast as humanly possible. They used us until we dropped from exhaustion or until we simply refused to move further. When one of us could no longer work he was shot, whipped, beaten to death, or taken to the gas chambers. He was then immediately replaced with someone new.
At that time, there were thousands upon thousands of prisoners available for work. When the replacements were murdered, still more replacements were added to the force.
It was an existence completely devoid of hope. Simple instinct led us to try to make it through one more day, or one more hour, or even one more minute.
At some point I learned that my father was still alive in the camp. I occasionally saw him on work details. One day I saw him leaning against the wall of Barrack No. 7 and noticed that he appeared to be injured.
Barrack No. 7 was a holding area for prisoners who could no longer work and were scheduled to be executed in the gas chambers. I had already developed the fighting resistance within me. I went over to speak to him.
My father told me that he had fallen off a scaffold and broken his leg. We both knew that he would not be alive much longer.
“Samuel,” he said to me, “I have lived most of my life, but you are still so young. Do everything you can do to stay alive.”
It was a plea but not an emotional one, even though we both knew it was the end for him. I knew that I would follow my father … the next day, next week, next month … but surely would die. Knowing it removed all fear from my life.
Neither he nor I shed any tears. We no longer had tears to shed.
That was the last time I saw my father.
He was taken to the gas chamber that same day.
Survival Against All Odds
It may seem hard to understand, but after being exposed to so much brutality our emotions totally shut down. It was only after liberation that I was able to return to being a human being with normal human feelings and values.
As I think about my father today, I feel more emotion now than I felt on the day I said “goodbye” to him.
The agony was just too much to handle. You couldn’t change the circumstances but you could change how you reacted to the circumstances.
For some, the only reaction left was to give in and give up. Many who reached their physical and emotional limits just committed suicide. They ran into the electrified fence that separated the compounds. They acted in ways forbidden by the Nazis so they would be shot.
This was an easily accomplished suicide. The SS guards appeared to take great pleasure in shooting those who could not keep up. Each day, they would whip, beat and kill prisoners who could not maintain the hectic pace of barracks construction.
SS guards, regardless of their rank, held absolute power of life or death over us. If they decided to shoot or beat a prisoner, their superiors never questioned it. The most important thing for the Nazis was that the number of dead prisoners when added to the number of live prisoners matched the overall number assigned to the camp. We were nothing more than inventory, and the only thing that mattered was the accuracy of their headcount.
Our days consisted of a never ending routine: being counted again and again, being forced to work and being systematically starved, beaten and humiliated. Physical beatings killed more prisoners than bullets. During the occupation, we had become accustomed to being screamed and shouted at, but in the camps if they wanted your attention they just hit you. It was total degradation in its vilest form.
Sometimes, after a brutally long day on work detail, some of the more sadistic SS guards would order us to line up outside the barrack and force us to do punishment exercises for hours until we literally collapsed from exhaustion. You could tell by their eyes that the punishment exercises served as a form of entertainment. When a prisoner finally collapsed, the SS guards subjected him to a terrible beating, or in many cases, simply shot him.
One night during the early months of my imprisonment, after a particularly brutal day of exhausting labor, I can remember lying on my pallet thinking that if only I could get a loaf of bread and eat it, I would be happy to fall asleep and never wake up.
Although I never actually contemplated suicide during the years I spent as a prisoner of the Nazis, I sometimes found myself thinking that it would not be a bad thing if I just passed away in my sleep.
I somehow managed, however, to exist one day at a time, never looking ahead and never looking back.
Death became a constant presence in our day-to-day existence. Each morning when we awoke, our first chore was to remove the bodies of our fellow prisoners who had died during the night. We carried their bodies outside, leaving them in rows next to the barrack. Then, we stood in our required formation. While some of the guards walked row to row, counting us as we stood, others added up the bodies of those who had died. It was most important to them that the numbers always be accurate.
Death also accompanied us on our daily slave labor work details. Each day, many prisoners were beaten or shot to death simply because they were no longer capable of working or had become sick or injured. Sometimes they were shot just because some SS guard took a personal dislike to them. Each time we lined up in our groups of five, the faces were different. So many people died from one day to the next that the order of our formations changed continually.
The Nazis’ systematic program of death had taken first my brother and uncle, then my mother, sisters, aunts and several cousins. Death from slave labor had claimed my father and my brothers, Yussel and Srulek. On the increasingly rare occasions when I had the energy to think about it, I wondered when death would get around to claiming me, my brother Simon, my cousin Irving and my friends from Ciechanow.
Every day at Auschwitz, I saw trucks filled with innocent men, women and children from Jewish communities throughout Europe, all dressed in their best clothes, heading from “selection” at the train station directly to the gas chambers. I saw terrified families being torn apart. I saw brutal SS guards with dogs and whips herding thousands of elderly people and young mothers with infants and toddlers toward the gas chambers. I saw the Nazis marching physically fit men and women into different compounds assigned to slave labor details.
By then I knew that Auschwitz-Birkenau was designed to kill human beings. However, I didn’t realize at that time just how efficient the Nazis had become. Recently, while reading “Auschwitz Chronicle 1939-1945,” by Danuta Czech, I discovered an entry on page 265 that described the arrival of my family and our friends and neighbors from Ciechanow at Auschwitz-Birkenau on November 7, 1942:
“2,000 Jewish men, women and children arrive with an RSHA transport from the Zichenau ghetto in the so-called Administrative District of Zichenau (Ciechanow). After the selection, 465 men and 229 women are admitted to the camp and receive Nos. 73531-73995 and 23734-23962. The remaining 1,306 people are killed in the gas chambers.”
My mother, sisters, aunts and cousins were among those 1,306 people the Nazis murdered during the night of November 7, 1942 before they could become “officially registered inmates” at the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp. As I continued to read “Auschwitz Chronical 1939-1945,” I discovered that of the 10,500 Jews transported from Ciechanow to Auschwitz during November 1942, the Nazis immediately killed 7,052 people without even officially counting them as inmates. While reading “Auschwitz 1270 to Present,” by Deborah Dwork and Robert Jan van Pelt, I discovered the following information on page 253, which describes the horrible efficiency of the Nazi killing machine:
“In the twenty-three days between 12 November 1942 and 5 December, 1942, 2,000 prisoners were gassed, 461 sick inmates were killed with phenol injections, 25 were executed, 2 were shot ‘in flight,’ 1 was hanged and 1 was tortured to death. Another 837 people died as a result of ‘natural causes’ — starvation, exhaustion or a combination of both. This totaled 3,327 murdered human beings. The true situation was even more ghastly; these official statistics applied only to officially registered inmates. During the same twenty three days 13,000 people were sent immediately to the gas chambers of Bunkers 1 and 2 in Birkenau.”
Birkenau Main Camp
A few weeks before Christmas 1942, I was constructing barracks when a friendly older Russian prisoner asked if I would work with him at night doing carpentry at the camp’s main food warehouse.
“I’d like to come and get you tomorrow night,” he said. “You’ll like what you see.”
I would have access to extra food if I helped him out, he promised. I had been on starvation rations for about a month, and I was so excited about the prospect of food that I could hardly sleep that night.
After roll call the next evening, the Russian came into the barracks.
“I’m taking 73538 with me to work at the food warehouse,” he told the “barrack oldest.” Since he did not object, we left.
I couldn’t believe my eyes. I saw kettles filled with boiled potatoes, kettles filled with soup, hundreds of loaves of bread and hundreds of sacks of potatoes, just sitting there. Of course, I managed to help myself to some. I felt lucky to have that job, even if it was only going to be for a day or two.
I helped the Russian in the warehouse for a few evenings and continued to work my regular slave labor day job constructing barracks. It wasn’t long until some other warehouse workers asked if I would help them in the evenings after my construction work was finished. They said I could clean and sweep the warehouse and run errands for them.
Knowing I would be able to get more food, I eagerly agreed. Every evening after returning from my work building barracks, I worked for several hours in the warehouse building shelves and doing other carpentry work. This extra job was very difficult to do after working all day on the barrack construction project, but it actually saved my life because it kept me from starving.
It also gave me an opportunity to provide extra food to my brother and my friends by leaving a bucket of potatoes, or some bread for them in a hiding place outside the warehouse from time to time. I was risking my life by stealing food for them, and they were risking their lives by taking it. To protect me, no matter how hungry they were, they never went near the place where I hid food if they thought anyone might see me.
At first I just worked the extra duty in the warehouse two or three nights a week. Eventually, they wanted me there every day. The guards didn’t care where you worked as long as you worked.
Christmas Day, 1942
Christmas Day, 1942, was bitterly cold. The sun was shining brightly, but ice and snow covered the camp and the temperature was in the teens.
We did not have to go out to work that day, and there was a rumor that the guards would give us an extra piece of bread in our daily ration. This rumor raised our hopes that maybe the SS guards would be celebrating Christmas and would allow us to have a full day of rest.
The commander of our camp was not present that day. He left in charge his second in command, a sadist of the worst kind who always walked around with a vicious German Shepherd dog on the end of a leash. He took pleasure in ordering the dog to attack prisoners.
We soon found out that instead of giving us a day of rest, he and his sadistic guards had found yet another brutal way to torture us.
After we assembled outside the barrack for roll call that morning, the SS guards rounded up 200 or 300 of us and marched us out of the camp towards a huge pile of sand. At the pile the SS guards divided us into two groups. Those of us in one group were ordered to hold up the ends of our coats to make buckets while the others were ordered to drop shovels-full of sand onto our coats.
Then the SS forced us to run back into the camp and spread the sand on patches of ice and snow.
Very quickly, the SS turned this chore into a blood sport.
The SS guards and some prisoner kapos, most of whom were carrying shovel handles and pick handles, lined both sides of the main road through our camp.
Screaming, “faster, faster,” they beat us while we ran through the gauntlet. When they hit a prisoner on the head and knocked him down, an SS guard placed the shovel handle across his neck, stepped on it, and strangled him to death.
They forced other prisoners to pick up the bodies and place them under the camp Christmas tree.
This was the one of the most macabre scenes I ever witnessed during my entire time in the concentration camps.
I guess the SS killed between fifteen and twenty prisoners carrying sand that day.
While I was lucky enough to avoid blows to my head, I took plenty of them across my shoulders, back and arms. After I had run that gauntlet for several hours, a senior prisoner who knew me pulled me out of the line and took me to another area to work. It was probably because of that prisoner’s kindness that I survived the day.
About fifteen years ago, the German Embassy requested that I come to Washington, D.C., to identify the SS guards who had participated in this brutality.
Evidently, the embassy was investigating that atrocity and had potentially identified some of the SS personnel. I went to the embassy and looked at the pictures. I can still visualize nearly every detail of that horrible day, but the faces of individuals are lost to me. I looked at the names of the SS personnel but I was unable to make a positive identification.
Main Camp Warehouse
A few weeks after Christmas 1942, the Nazis moved me into a barrack that contained hundreds of Russian prisoners of war. Those prisoners did not wear the standard prisoner stripes; rather they continued to wear their Russian uniforms from which all rank insignia had been removed. The Russians did that so the Nazis would never know who the senior officers and non-commissioned officers were.
These Russian POWs were an extremely tough group of men assigned by the Nazis to a work detail stripping salvageable materials off crashed planes stored near Birkenau. While doing their jobs, some drank the plane fuel and marched back to camp in a drunken stupor.
I became friendly with many of those Russian prisoners and they taught me to speak Russian fluently. Whenever the Nazis assigned new groups of Russian prisoners to the camp, I was able to converse with them in several different dialects.
The reason I was moved to the Russian barrack was because I now had a regular job at the main camp warehouse, where I had been working at night. One of my duties was to run from barrack to barrack announcing that the daily soup was ready for pickup.
I worked hard all day long, making sure that my areas of responsibility were always clean and ready for inspection. At that time, I was the only Jewish prisoner working in the main camp warehouse.
Early in 1943, the SS supervisor in charge of the camp warehouses came in to inspect. He was a large, mean redhead who always had a cigar stuck in his mouth. He was the type of SS man that everyone tried to avoid.
When he saw the Star of David on my chest, he shouted in German, “Throw the Jew out!”
The head man in the warehouse, a non-Jewish prisoner, called me over and said: “Samuel, I don’t have any choice, you really should leave, but I’ll take a chance on you. Just make sure you hide behind a column whenever that bastard comes in again.”
I continued work there, making sure I stayed away from the office. Several times I saw that SS officer come into the warehouse. I tried very hard to keep out of his sight, but in spite of my efforts, he did see me a few times.
For some reason he didn’t say anything to me or to the warehouse supervisor who had given me a second chance.
One day, a truck arrived at the warehouse loaded with heavy sacks of flour. That SS officer spotted me and called me into his office. I ran to him, removed my hat and stood at rigid attention. Pretending to show respect was just part of the routine for survival.
He ordered me to help another prisoner who was unloading the truck. Each sack of flour weighed 100 kilograms or 221 pounds. At that time I weighed 110 pounds. When I put the first sack on flour on my shoulders, my knees began to buckle. But I was determined to carry that sack into the warehouse. When finally I succeeded, I dropped the flour sack to the floor, straightened my shaking spine and went back for a second sack. On the way back into the warehouse, my knees buckled more with each step. I knew I would not be able to carry many more sacks without collapsing on the floor.
And I knew that if I fell, the redheaded SS man would shoot me.
As I headed back to the truck for my third sack, he shouted at me to come back into the office. Again, I stood before him at rigid attention with my hat in my hand.
“How old are you?” he asked.
“Twenty seven years old, sir,” I answered. Of course, I was only eighteen, but I wasn’t about to tell him that. I wanted him to think that I was mature enough for warehouse work.
“From now on, you are going to work at the quarantine camp warehouse,” he said.
I think I must have impressed him with my determination. I’m sure he didn’t like assigning the job to a Jew, but it must have been more important to him to get the warehouse work done properly.
Throughout a lifetime, a few special people remain in our memories forever.
Late in 1942, I met a man whose nickname was “Malinka,” from the city of Krakow.
When I asked him why he was in Birkenau, he said that he had been in jail in Krakow for stealing a cow, and the Germans brought him here.
Malinka was a tough guy who wasn’t afraid of anyone or anything. While in Birkenau, he worked with my brother, Simon, and some other friends repairing barracks roofs. While the others actually worked, Malinka looked for ways to wheel and deal.
He and my brother spent many days “repairing” the roof of the bread warehouse while I was working there. While one kept watch, the other lowered an empty bucket through a skylight. I filled the bucket with bread and sent it back up to them.
Throughout the camp, there was a certain amount of black market activity going on.
Prisoners assigned to the crematorium detail had found money on the bodies removed from the gas chambers, and it circulated among the prisoners.
A guard who worked in the kitchen occasionally smuggled sausage to Malinka, and he, in turn, sold it to prisoners.
One day, that guard approached me.
“Samuel,” he said, “tell Malinka that he owes me money for the sausage.”
When I told Malinka, he just shrugged. “Tell him not to worry about it.”
That was so typical of Malinka’s attitude. He simply didn’t worry about anything, even though he knew that the guard held the power of life or death over him.
Not long afterward, a prisoner in the adjoining camp asked Malinka if he had any sausage to sell. Malinka showed him a sausage and arranged a sale. While the prisoner was getting his money, Malinka found a three-legged milking stool, broke off one of the legs and wrapped it so it looked like a sausage.
At the appointed time, Malinka took the wrapped piece of wood to the prisoner, who was standing on the other side of a fence.
As soon as he had collected his money, Malinka said “Watch out, the guards are coming,” and walked away. He now had enough money to pay the guard.
On another occasion, Malinka stole my brother’s boots one night and sold them to another prisoner. When my brother woke up the next morning, his boots were gone. Later, Malinka finally admitted to my brother what he had done.
In late 1944, Malinka was transfered to the Theresianstadt concentration camp in Czechoslovakia. After liberation, I caught up with him in Munich and we remained close friends until his death in New York in the 1980s.
Quarantine Camp Warehouse
The quarantine camp was the place where new prisoners were held for two to three weeks until they could be reassigned to the main camp or shipped out. By this time, however, there was no more room in the main camp — it was full. Birkenou proper now held from 50,000 to 70,000 prisoners, 15,000 of whom were women.
The quarantine camp was the smallest of all the camps. It had only one row of barracks where 2,000 to 3,000 prisoners were housed.
As the prisoner in charge of the quarantine camp bread storage warehouse, I was responsible for ensuring that the bread and potato inventory was accurate.
The warehouse had a concrete floor, and the food was stacked on wooden pallets. A blackboard hung on one wall and I kept the inventory by writing the counts on it with chalk.
Of course, the inventory was never accurate. Fairly regularly, I managed to sneak extra portions of food to my brother, Simon, my cousin, Irving, and a few friends I could trust.
On the chalkboard, I wrote down what the inventory was supposed to be, not what it actually was. At one time, I know it was at least 150 loaves short.
At first, nothing was locked, and while I had to be careful, I slept on a straw sack in a room near the entrance and could get food out pretty easily. Then they put everything under lock and key, and the task became harder and harder.
They never counted the bread themselves, and I stacked the pallets in such a way that they never knew.
But inside the perfect mountains of bread, there were numerous holes. If the SS guards ever discovered the shortages during a surprise inventory, the Nazis would have shot me instantly. I was positive I would never survive.
The Nazis allocated one quarter of a loaf of bread daily to each prisoner. The term “loaf” is very misleading. These loaves were not the size we buy in today’s supermarket. They were approximately the size of the small loaves placed on the tables in restaurants. One can simply imagine how impossible it was for prisoners to survive on the daily ration of one quarter of a very small loaf.
One day, the senior SS warehouse supervisor ordered me to prepare the bread to be delivered to each barrack. He told me that Barrack No. 8 was to receive 135 loaves and I called back to him the same number to confirm it.
This meant that there were 540 prisoners assigned to that barrack and that each of them was to receive one quarter of a loaf.
I started loading the bread containers two loaves at a time. Wanting to sneak some extra bread to the barrack, I looked up to see what the SS supervisor was doing. I noticed that while he was not looking directly at me, he was listening intently. Instead of watching me, he was keeping track of the count by listening to the sound of the bread going into the containers.
The opportunity thrilled me. I liked nothing better than outsmarting the Nazis every chance I got, so I decided to take the challenge. Eight times, instead of grabbing two loaves, I grabbed three at a time. This meant that Barrack No. 8 was going to get some much-needed extra bread that day.
Of the eight extra loaves, four had to be given as a bribe to the “barrack oldest,” and my brother and his friends could divide the remaining four. Of course, the risk was that the SS supervisor could have ordered me to empty the container and count the loaves in front of him. Lucky for me, this never happened, and I continued to steal extra food whenever it was possible.
Stealing provided us with the means to survive the starvation and torture imposed by the Nazis. The theft of a small piece of bread, or an extra piece of potato, or an extra spoonful of soup gave us the incentive and strength to get through that particular day and night.
Many of us became expert at stealing everything that wasn’t under the direct observation of the Nazis.
It was a challenge to do anything you could do to “break the law.” Our survival depended on our willingness to take the risks associated with thievery.
We had to be clever, and we had to be willing to act in an instant. The attraction of stealing was not only a matter of getting the necessary food; it was also a way we could feel the self-respect that came from outwitting our oppressors. We became addicted to stealing, and, in fact, after liberation many of us found it difficult to curtail the desire to steal, even though it was no longer a necessity.
Each camp had a number of highly skilled craftsmen in confinement. There were shoemakers, tailors, cabinetmakers and so forth.
The Nazis used these craftsmen to make special uniforms, boots and furniture. I became friendly with a talented shoemaker and occasionally gave him an extra piece of bread or potato. In return, he created a wonderful pair of leather boots for me out of pieces of good leather that the Nazis collected in the camp. It was wonderful to get rid of those dried-up old shoes that cut my feet so badly they bled.
The main bakery was in Auschwitz, and every day, a truck would come loaded with our ration of bread. One day, the SS guard who made the delivery noticed my new boots.
While we unloaded and counted that day’s bread, he called me over. I stood at attention before him, cap in hand.
He pointed at my feet and asked if I could have a pair made for him. I told him I could and sent for the shoemaker. When the shoemaker arrived, he took the SS guard’s foot measurements and left without a word spoken between them. A few days later, the shoemaker delivered a brand new pair of leather boots to me. I hid them until the SS guard arrived with the bread. When I presented the boots to him, he said nothing but it was obvious that he was very pleased.
The incident of the boots must have convinced the guard that I could get things done in the camp. Shortly afterward, he asked if I could have a uniform made for him. I sent for the tailor who silently took his measurements and left. The guard brought in some old uniforms, which the tailor then remade into a very fine uniform.
When the guard made his next bread delivery there was a brand new tailored uniform waiting for him. Again, he did not express any appreciation but it was obvious that he was pleased. That guard thought he was the best-dressed man in the camp.
A few days later, the SS guard made another bread delivery. As usual he dropped the bread off and left without saying anything to me. To my surprise, when I counted the loaves to add them to the inventory I discovered fifty extra.
This was like a miracle. It came just in time to help me replenish the inventory shortage I had created by giving extra rations to my brother, cousin and friends. Every so often, that guard would continue to add fifty extra loaves to his delivery. I believe that those extra rations of bread enabled some of us to survive the Nazis’ systematic program of starvation.
I wouldn’t say the guard was nice, but he at least had some honor. The vicious redhead SS guard in charge of the warehouses, however, went out of his way to make life more miserable for the prisoners. One day he came into the warehouse and found dust on the rafters. I had told the other prisoners who worked in the warehouse to make sure everything was always ready for inspection. In addition, I told them that if they ever punished me because the guard found dust or any other discrepancies, I did not want to see any of them there when I got back.
On that particular day, the red-headed guard told me to report to him at the main camp kitchen. When I got there, he made me do punishment exercises for an hour. While I was doing the exercises the SS guard who was in charge of the main camp kitchen tried to help me out. He could not do much because the redhead was watching. The kitchen guard was a decent guy, not a brutal bastard like the redhead.
When I finished the exercises I walked back to the quarantine camp warehouse and told the other prisoners what had happened. After that experience, I made sure the other prisoners assigned to my warehouse kept the place ready for inspection at all times.
One of the prisoners who worked in the warehouse with me was a Polish political prisoner named Stashek who came from the city of Katowitz. Although he was several years older, we became good friends.
One day, we found out that Stashek was scheduled for transport out of Birkenau. In our experience, any change from the routine turned out to be a change for the worse. It was unlikely that this transport was good news. So I went to another prisoner friend, who worked in the camp office, and asked him if there was any way he could remove Stashek’s name from the transport list. My office friend must have found a way because Stashek remained in Birkenau.
A year or so after my liberation from Dachau, I wrote a letter to Stashek’s father in Katowitz to find out if he had gotten out of the camps alive. His father wrote back that the Americans had liberated Stashek. He thanked me for helping save his son’s life.
However, after telling me how grateful he was, he went on to say that my kindness “was such a rare thing for a Jew to do.”
I wrote back and asked him how many Jewish people he ever had contact with that made him feel like that. He never replied. His comment was indicative of the ingrained prejudice against Jews that was prevalent throughout Eastern Europe at that time and is still prevalent among many people today.
By Christmas 1943, I was in charge of the warehouse where they distributed the bread and the kitchen where they made the soup.
Guards were there all the time, twelve hours a day.
The day before Christmas, three or four prisoners were working with me in the kitchen, the SS Guards were there and also the SS Sergeant in charge of the camp.
Since it was the holiday season, and the SS Guards were feeling in a festive mood, they smuggled a few bottles of whiskey into the quarantine camp kitchen. The prisoner in charge of the kitchen passed the bottle around to all the prisoners, and by the end of the afternoon, we were all feeling quite drunk. You can just imagine what raw whiskey does to an empty stomach. Besides, I had never drunk whiskey in my life.
One of the guards came in, saw what was going on, and decided to join in the fun. He called me over to him and offered me a drink. I stood at attention with my hat in my hand and told him that I didn’t drink. He could tell just by looking at me that I had been drinking earlier but I learned early in camp life that you never admitted to anything. Never. I continued to refuse to drink with him and he eventually went away without punishing me.
After he left, the Polish prisoner in charge made us sing Christmas carols for hours. We knew nothing about these songs, but we repeated those carols over and over so many times that I remembered all the verses.
It must have been quite a sight to see that emaciated group of drunken Jewish and Polish prisoners singing carols at the top of their lungs.
The good thing about that incident was that the whiskey helped us to momentarily forget our problems, and no one was punished for it.
A Visit to the Women’s Camp
Several rows of electrified fences separated my camp from the women’s camp at Birkenau. There were guards in watchtowers, and guards patrolled the perimeters with dogs. The security inside and outside the compounds was extremely tight in order to prevent escapes.
One day, while my friend and I were talking, he suggested that we try to get into the Women’s Camp to see some of our friends from home.
Shortly after we had arrived at Auschwitz, my construction barrack was ordered to do some work in the women’s camp. My first sight of the women’s camp during those early months was one of the few things that penetrated my shock and numbness. By then we men were accustomed to the inhumanity around us. You dragged the dead out of your barrack in the morning. You preoccupied yourself with getting food, or something with which to make a pair of socks.
But even so, we were not prepared to see that the women were living under the same conditions. Their heads were shaved, they wore prison uniforms, they slogged through the mud, froze, starved and did all the work that the men did. You grew up to respect and care for women. The effect of seeing them in that condition was devastating to most of us.
Later, when my friend proposed the visit, we had become accustomed even to the women’s degradation. We were simply doing our best to figure out a way to survive.
I told my friend that I would think about the visit and try to come up with a plan. I also told him not to say one word to anyone else that we were thinking about it. The situation in the camp was no different from the occupation. You simply could not take a chance of having the wrong person find out that you had planned to “break the law.” I fully understood that we would be taking a very serious risk in just attempting to get into that camp.
After thinking about it for awhile, I told my friend that we would try it that night. A few weeks earlier I had found a voltage tester that I used to find out which wires were hot. After dark, we crept to the fence and used a two-by-four piece of wood to hook onto the lowest strand of barbed wire and keep it separated from the electrically charged wire. While holding the wire up with the wood, we then scooped out some dirt until we made a depression large enough to allow us to crawl under the wires. Being as thin as we were, we did not need a very large hole to get under the fence.
We repeated the process several times because there was more than one fence separating the two compounds. After crawling under the last wire, we spent a few minutes visiting with our friends and telling stories of what we had been going through. Then it was time to backtrack under the fences and try to remove all traces that someone had been there.
The next day we saw the guards inspecting the fence line all around the women’s camp. We learned they were searching for a woman who was missing from roll call.
Of course, they found the fresh dirt in the places we had crawled through and they assumed that the missing woman was being hidden in the men’s camp. The SS immediately ordered all the prisoners in camp to line up outside the barracks while they conducted a full-scale search of both the women’s camp and ours. We stood for a couple of hours while the guards frantically searched for the missing woman. During that time, other SS guards walked among us demanding that we come forward and tell them where we were hiding the woman. Of course, no one moved forward and neither my friend nor I dared to look at each other. We knew that the SS were getting angrier by the minute.
Eventually, they found the missing woman sleeping in another part of the women’s camp and they called off the search. My friend and I were extremely lucky that the Nazis did not catch us that night. After that incident, we made no further visits to the women’s camp.
In late November 1944, the Nazis transported a group of Czech Jews to Auschwitz.
By that time, we noticed that the transports were not arriving as frequently as they had been in the past. Of course, we did not know the reason for the slowdown. We speculated it might be because there were not that many Jews remaining in Europe. Of course, we did not have access to news of the war. We just sensed that things might not be going well for the Nazis.
Unlike previous transports, this group, which consisted of families with small infants and children, as well as elderly men and women, was not immediately “selected” for either work or death. Rather, they were all kept together in the compound next to my compound.
I was very impressed by this group; they reminded me of my family and friends during the occupation. I stole small quantities of milk and bread and smuggled it across the fence to try to help them provide food for their babies. After I did this for a few days and they began to trust me, I learned that they were from Prague. When I asked them how they had avoided capture for so long, they told me that people hid them in different locations throughout Prague. However, a Jewish informant had told the Nazis where their hiding places were. They told me they did not know why, but they speculated that his motivation was self-preservation. When I asked what happened to the informant, they said the Nazis transported him with their group and he was in the camp with them now.
I asked for his name and they told me. It was another case of the Nazi’s making use of an informant to get information they wanted and then turning around and double-crossing the informant.
After a few days, the Nazis put that group of Czech Jews through the “selection” process. The Nazis sent men and women capable of working to separate men and women’s camps, while the elderly, the sick, the infants and children were marched directly into the gas chambers. When I found out that the Nazis sent the informant to the men’s camp, I was able to get word to that camp about what he had done to his fellow Jews. Of course, I did not witness anything, but I am sure he did not survive the night. An informant simply did not survive in the concentration camps.
If that despicable person had not informed on them, they might have survived the rest of war hiding in Prague.
In all my years in the camps, I had never broken down and cried, even when I found out the fate of my family. However, on the day those Czech Jews were “selected,” I watched the Nazis march those beautiful people off to the gas chambers, and I wept.
An Unusual SS Officer
Late one night, during the latter part of 1944, one of the SS camp officers came to the room near the warehouse entrance where I slept. As usual, there was no knock, he just walked in. As I heard his footsteps I jumped up and stood at attention.
“Relax,” he said to me in German. “Is there anyone else here? I need to talk to you.”
I let him know we were alone, and he continued.
“I want to know if there is any way that I can alleviate the pressure on some of the prisoners here? Find out what you can and let me know. Just remember, when you see me during the day, you are a prisoner and I am the commander. I’ll be back.”
His visit and his offer to help us absolutely shocked me. I had no idea what he was up to or what his motives were, and I really did not know what to do. At first, I thought he might be trying to set us up somehow. I later decided to find out if his offer to help was genuine.
I became aware of one barrack that was crowded with more than 500 prisoners, many of whom were abused mercilessly by the prisoner in charge, the “barrack oldest.” This person was a German political prisoner sentenced to the camp. He wasn’t a Jew. I do not know why he was confined, but that did not matter because he was still a prisoner.
Several prisoners from that barrack came to me and told me what was going on. Their “barrack oldest” reduced their bread rations by cutting them in half. I do not know what he did with the extra bread. He could have sold it or traded it for some kind of personal gain.
He also beat the prisoners for no reason at all and forced them to perform punishment exercises. When I found out what he was doing, I confronted him and asked why he was mistreating the others.
“Samuel, you’re my friend,” he looked at me and said. “Why do you care what I do?”
Disgusted, I just walked away. I then decided to report the man to the SS officer if he ever again visited me in the warehouse.
Several nights after his first visit, the SS officer came back to the warehouse. Once again he asked me if there was anything he could do to help us. I told him about the situation in that other barrack, and he asked me to see if the other prisoners would give me their smaller portions of bread for use as evidence.
So I went to the other prisoners and asked them to give me their bread the next time the “barrack oldest” shorted them. I did not tell them what I was going to do with the bread, and they did not ask.
Later, they gave me some pieces of the reduced bread rations and I gave them to the SS officer.
I still didn’t know if he was serious about helping.
A few days later, we found out that the senior SS commander of the entire camp had arrested that “barrack oldest” and transferred him into the “punishment kommando.” This was a group of prisoners isolated into a separate barrack, where the prisoners were required to perform the most severe hard labor in the concentration camp system.
This was the only time I knew any SS officer to in anyway help or try to make life easier for the prisoners. To this day, I still do not know what motivated him. Perhaps it was because he sensed that the war was coming to an end, or perhaps he had a guilty conscience.
After the war, the French military captured that SS officer. He told the French authorities there was a prisoner named Samuel who had worked in the Birkenau warehouse who knew what he had done to help some prisoners there. He told the French military to try to contact me.
The French military tribunal found out through some of my contemporaries that I was living in Munich and sent a subpoena for me to come to the French sector of occupied Germany to testify. On the appointed day, they brought that SS officer, bound in chains, before the French military tribunal. They called me forward, and I told them the story of how the “barrack oldest” cheated the prisoners out of their bread ration. I also said the SS officer had volunteered to help us by having that “barrack oldest” transferred to the punishment kommando.
As they led the SS officer from the courtroom, he turned his head towards me and said “Thank you, Samuel.”
That was the last time I saw or heard anything about him, and I have no idea of the results of his trial. Some of my contemporaries were critical of my testimony and told me that I should not have said anything in his favor. However, the fact of the matter was that he was the only SS officer who ever tried to help us, and I felt obligated to tell the truth about him.
It is a misperception that most of the Jewish prisoners of the Nazis went meekly to their deaths without offering any resistance. When one considers that our Nazi keepers had absolute control over every single aspect of our existence, one understands that there were very few opportunities for any form of successful resistance. However, many of the Jewish prisoners, acting individually or in groups, did everything humanly possible to create problems for the Nazis, knowing full well that getting caught meant instant torture and death.
In Auschwitz-Birkenau, there was an organized resistance movement that operated in a highly secret manner. My connection to that movement was through a prisoner who worked as a clerk in the warehouse office. He kept track of the prisoners assigned to the Quarantine Camp.
One day, that prisoner asked me to walk outside with him. He told me that the Russians had plans to drop paratroopers into the camp. When that happened, I was to open the doors to the barracks, lead the prisoners to try to cut through the fence and attempt to disarm the guards in the guardhouse.
Of course, we realized that many of us would probably be shot down, but we felt that at least some of us would survive a mass escape attempt.
The general feeling was that we really didn’t have anything to lose but our lives, and most of us believed that sooner or later we would die from starvation anyhow. Three weeks later, he told me that they scrapped the plan because there were too many sick prisoners that would have to be left behind. I have no idea where he got his information or how many other prisoners had knowledge of it. It was the only time I was approached by anyone to participate in such a plan.
A more active resistance movement was led by prisoners assigned to the Sonderkommando. These were the special squads whose job was to operate the crematoriums.
I remember the first occasion when I saw the sonderkommando chosen. I had just arrived at the camp, and we were all lined up for work assignment. We were told that this particular group sorted clothing and were given extra food. I hoped to be chosen and was sorry they said I was too small for the job.
We had no idea what the Sonderkommando did.
Later, one of the Sonderkommando brought me extra food. It turned out that they worked for six months, then were executed and replaced.
My first cousin, Shimon Altus, also from Ciechanow, was assigned to that unit and participated in the active resistance there.
The following is quoted from an entry dated October 7, 1944, on pages 725-726 in “Auschwitz Chronicle 1939-1945,” by Danuta Czech:
“On Saturday morning, the camp resistance movement informs the leader of the Auschwitz Combat Group, who is in the Special Squad, that news has been obtained about the camp management’s plans to liquidate as quickly as possible the surviving members of the Special Squad.
“This news probably confirms the information that the operation, announced a few days ago by the SS, to reduce the size of the Special Squads of Crematoriums IV and V by 300 named prisoners allegedly slated for a transport, is to be carried out.
“The named prisoners decide to mount a resistance. At the midday break, during a conference in Crematorium IV, the staff of the Special Squad Combat Group is surprised by a German BV prisoner, who threatens to report them to the SS.
“The informer is killed on the spot.
“At 1:25 p.m., the threatened group attacks the approaching SS guard unit with hammers, axes, and stones. They set Crematorium IV on fire and throw several self-made grenades.
“Afterward, some of the prisoners from Squad 59B reach the small wooded area nearby. At the same time, the prisoners of Squad 57B, who work in Crematorium II, become active.
“When they see the flames and hear the shooting, they believe this is the signal for the general uprising of the prisoners in the camp. They overpowered the Head Kapo, a Reich German, and push him and an SS man whom they have disarmed, into the burning crematorium oven. They beat to death a second SS man, tear up the fence that surrounds the crematorium area, and flee.
“The prisoners of Squads 58B and 60B in Crematoriums III and IV undertake nothing because some of them are not informed about the plans, and also because the SS men there bring the situation quickly under control. The immediate intervention by the SS guards, the surrounding of the crematorium compound, and the heavy machine-gun and artillery fire in the direction of the small woods near Crematorium IV, where the prisoners mount a resistance, quickly squelches the uprising.
“In Rajsko, pursuing SS men block the way of the fleeing prisoners of Squad 57B. The prisoners barricade themselves in a barn and prepare to resist. The SS men set the barn on fire and murder the prisoners. Two hundred and fifty prisoners die in this battle, among them the organizers of the uprising.
“A fire-fighting squad is sent from Auschwitz I to put out the fire in Crematorium IV. These prisoners, who put out the fire under the supervision of the SS, are witnesses to the suppression of the uprising by the SS and the shooting to death of the members of Squad 59B.
“The fire-fighting squad is then brought to Rajsko, to put out the fire in the barn. An air-raid alarm prevents the SS men from further pursuit.
“In the evening, all the prisoners who were killed are brought to the grounds of Crematorium IV and the remaining members of the Special Squad are driven together. Another 200 prisoners from the squads that took part in the uprising are shot to death.
“A representative of the Commandant delivers a threatening speech in which he announces that if there is a repetition of such incidents, all prisoners in the camp will be shot to death. Afterward, work is resumed in Crematoriums II, III and V. During the uprising three SS men are killed by the prisoners.”
Immediately after the uprising, the SS launched a massive investigation to determine how the prisoners were able to get their hands on sufficient quantities of explosives to make the hand grenades.
Their investigation focused on the female prisoners who worked at a factory that made ammunition for the Nazi war effort. I quote the following information from an entry dated October 10, 1944, on pages 738-729 of “Auschwitz Chronicle 1939-1945,” by Danuta Czech:
“Three female Jewish prisoners employed in the Weichsel-Union-Metallwerke, Ella Gartner, Ester Wajsblum and Ragina Safin, are arrested in the women’s camp of Auschwitz I. They are charged with stealing explosives from the depot of the plant and of giving them to the prisoners of the Special Squad. With the explosive, the prisoners fashioned primitive grenades that they used during the uprising of October 7.
“Two more female prisoners are arrested in the women’s camp of Auschwitz II (Birkenau) on the charge of having contact with the Special Squad and transporting explosives there. One of those arrested, the female Polish Jew Roza Robota, works in the personal effects camp, which borders on the compound of Crematorium IV. Roza Robota accepted from one of her fellow prisoners, explosive material stolen by Ella Gartner in the Weichsel-Union plant and passed it on to (prisoner) Wrobel of the Special Squad.”
Roza Robota, who was a few years older than me, grew up in Ciechanow, and was a very close friend. The marriage of my uncle David Altus to Roza’s aunt connected our families.
According to additional information on page 729 of “Auschwitz Chronicle 1939-1945,” Roza refused to provide information concerning prisoner Wrobel until she was certain that the Nazis had already killed him.
After withstanding three months of brutal interrogations, the Nazis hanged her. The following is quoted from page 775, “Auschwitz Chronicle 1939-1945”:
“In the evening, four female Jewish prisoners, Ella Gartner, Roza Robota, Regina Safir, and Estera Wajsblum, are hanged in the women’s camp of Auschwitz. They were condemned to death because they assisted in the uprising that broke out on October 7, 1944, among the members of the Special Squad in the crematoriums in Birkenau. They provided the Special Squad with explosives and munitions from the depots of the Weichsel-Union-Metallwerke, where three of the women worked.
“The execution takes place in two stages. Two female prisoners are hanged during the evening roll call in the presence of the male and female prisoners who work the night shift at Weichsel-Union. The other two female prisoners are hanged after the return of the squad that works the day shift. The reason for the sentence is read by First Protective Custody Commander Hossler in Auschwitz; he screams that all traitors will be destroyed in this manner.”
Although the above actions constituted a major form of resistance, there were countless lesser acts of heroism by thousands of prisoners working alone or in small groups to disrupt the Nazis’ command and control functions in the camps.
One of those heroic acts involved an American Jewish woman who had been “selected” to go to the gas chambers. When she and the other women were ordered to undress, she removed her blouse, but refused to remove her bra. An SS guard pulled his pistol out and attempted to remove her bra. She knocked the pistol out of his hand, picked it up and shot him to death. Of course, she was immediately killed and sent to the crematorium.
Other acts of resistance, such as slowing down barrack construction, sabotaging facilities, and so forth, were carried out anonymously on a regular basis by prisoners who were willing to risk their lives just to make life more difficult for the Nazis. Those prisoners, acting alone or in small groups, were very clever and secretive in guarding their resistance plans from the extensive informant network the Nazis had in place throughout the camps.