THE "CANADA" COMMANDO AS A FORCE FOR RESISTANCE IN AUSCHWITZ: REDEFINING HEROISM
In the spring of 1944, Lenka, Olga, and Esther Berkovic (my mother, aunt, and grandmother respectively) arrived, along with other Jews from Hungary, at the end of the train tracks in Auschwitz.1
As they stood on the hard-packed dirt by the trains, an event occurred which was an extraordinary act of courage by one Jewish prisoner. A man, in what my mother describes as striped pajamas, came up to them. He was fairly young, his hair hidden from view by the round prisoner's cap. Furtively, he began to whisper in Yiddish, "How old are you?" My mother was fifteen at the time and her sister Olga a year older. "Say you are sixteen," he told my mother. "If they ask you, say you are sixteen." He also adjusted Grandmother's age downward from forty-four to forty. Olga’s age was adjusted to keep the sisters a year apart.
At intervals, the man came back, always with bizarre instructions and scraps of information. "Are you twins?" he wanted to know. Although a year apart in age, the sisters looked similar; both had long blond hair and in fact were dressed identically that day. "If they ask you, say you are not twins." He told them to walk rather than take the truck marked with a red cross. And, returning yet again, he intervened when he saw the sisters helping their cousin with her five children. Lenka and Olga each had a child by the hand. The man approached them once more with fear in his eyes and told them to give the children back to their mother. Determined to help the young mother, the girls ignored this advice. He cameback again with the same command. Still they ignored him. A third time the man in striped pajamas returned, and this time he addressed his words to the toddlers' mother. Pointing to Olga and Lenka. he said, "Do you want those girls to be killed? Take your children back." Confused and upset, she snatched back her youngsters. When at length the family stood before Dr. Mengele during the selections on the ramp, the words of the man in striped pajamas haunted them.
"How old are you?" Mengele asked.
"Sixteen," said my mother. Remembering the fear in the man's eyes, they all lied, reciting the ages that they had been hastily taught while standing by the trains. Are you twins?"
"No." Again recalling the man's fear, mother restrained an impulse to jokingly declare that she was a twin. Mengele pointed all three to the right. They had survived the crucial first selection at Auschwitz.
Not until much later would they understand the meaning of these events: the man in striped pajamas was a Jewish prisoner, a member of the "Canada" commando, assigned to empty out the cattle cars and gather the baggage.2 He knew what he could not tell them directly: anyone younger than sixteen was killed; anyone older than forty was killed; anyone accompanying a child was killed; twins were the object of vicious medical experiments; innocent-looking trucks marked with a red cross went directly to the gas chamber. To the best of his ability, the man in striped pajamas, a Jewish inmate of Auschwitz, tried to offer life-saving information to three absolute strangers, all a little too young or a little too old to make it through the first selection safely without his help. His efforts resulted in three lives saved.
To what extent was this an isolated incident? Did this man attempt to save other people in a similar manner day by day as he worked at the train station in Auschwitz? Did he work alone, or was he part of an organized or loosely coordinated effort? Or could there have been a number of men each working individually but with the same goal of making it possible for a few more people to survive their first hour in Auschwitz? And. whether alone or in groups, why are their courageous efforts missing from historical accounts of Jewish resistance?