THE "CANADA" COMMANDO AS A FORCE FOR RESISTANCE IN AUSCHWITZ: REDEFINING HEROISM
Part I | Part II | Part III | Part IV | Notes | Works Cited

Part II

Not all of these questions can be answered definitively. It is impossible now to guess at the numbers of Jewish prisoners who attempted to save lives by providing vital information. Nor can the degree to which their efforts were coordinated be judged easily. However, it is certain that the prisoners of the "Canada7" commando were the only Jews in a position to help new arrivals. It is equally clear that an unknown number of the Jewish slave laborers assigned to "Canada" did actively seek to assist and save new arrivals whom they believed could squeak through the initial selection process.

While the acts of these men are absent from treatments of Jewish resistance or defiance in even the best Holocaust histories, they are found in the testimonies of survivors. I have collected as many examples of saving acts of the "Canada" commando as possible and, thus far, have located six in addition to the story of my family.3 Interestingly, all these accounts are from Hungarian or Rumanian survivors deported to Auschwitz about the same time, after May 1944.4

The workers in "Canada" were in a unique position. They had access to goods although technically they were not allowed to keep anything for their own use; they had access to information about the fate of the Jews, having often folded the clothing of the murdered members of their own families; and, most importantly, unlike other prisoners in the camp they had access to new arrivals. Generally when trains arrived, prisoners were commanded to stay within their barracks so that the sight of skeletal prisoners would not startle those freshly arrived from civilization. Men of the "Canada" commando, however, were assigned to assist people at the trains and to "help" with the baggage. Therefore, they had the opportunity to exchange words with the new arrivals. Needless to say, passing on information concerning the fate that awaited the Jews was forbidden. Peter Hellman, author of the text that accompanies The Auschwitz Album, notes that "those [new arrivals] who asked for information about the flames and smoke often seen belching from the chimneys in the background were told [by 'Canadians'] that this was a bakery or factory"(1981.14). Hellman notes, as well, the punishment of one worker who informed a new arrival about his fate: "The slave was allowed to finish the work shift and then, for his indiscretion, was beaten to death" (1 4). Whatever information the workers of "Canada" could impart had to be done with stealth.5

The accounts of other Hungarian Jewish survivors-usually in their teens when arriving at the death camp-make clear that an unspecified number of the workers of "Canada" took care to dispense life-saving information when possible. Although my collection of survivor accounts is suggestive rather than exhaustive, it reveals that others received the same kinds of information as did my family: hints concerning physical appearance, instructions on the holding of children, advice for twins, and most of all, the assignment of a new age that fell within the range of those considered fit for labor.

Comments on physical appearance could also help tip the balance in favor of selection for work. Lydia Brown, a Rumanian survivor, reports the advice given to her forty-six year old mother:

When we looked out of the (train] window we saw people in prison clothes and I remember my father saying that they must be murderers or lawbreakers of some kind. We didnít realize that they were all Jews like us. After a time the doors opened and young men in striped uniforms came in. They spoke Yiddish. 'They told us to leave our belongings on the train and get out. They asked the young women with babies to give the infants to their mothers. My mother was forty six years old. She was a beautiful woman but she looked very broken-down after the hard journey. Being Orthodox. she had no hair, only a wig. The man who came on the train said, "Pick yourself up, make yourself pretty," but she didnít realize what he meant. (qtd. in Rothchild 1981, 279-280)

The "Canada" workers knew that physical appearance looking young enough, old enough, spry enough, attractive enough could influence the outcome of a selection. Commands to hand a young child to its mother or grandmother were common during the selection process and often came from the SS itself. In this case, the object may have been simply to ensure that somebody still fit for labor would indeed be reserved for use in that capacity; however, Gizelle Hersh, a Hungarian Jewish survivor from Bixad, reports a darker motivation for keeping mothers and children together "The children cried when they were separated from their mothers. The mothers cried too. Dr. Mengele did not like such annoyances. Simpler to send the mother with her children to the gas chamber" (Hersh and Mann 1980, 217).

Although the "Canadians," too, were concerned with keeping mothers and children together, their interest stemmed from a desire to save lives. In Brown's account above, young women assisting with infants were told to hand them back so that only one adult along with her infants would be automatically condemned to death. Helpful sisters, aunts, cousins, and friends would be spared. That they intended to save lives and not merely obey orders is clear from another incident reported by Hersh. When she arrived at Auschwitz, she was conscripted by Mengele to serve as an interpreter since she spoke both Hungarian and German. She stood at the head of the line with Mengele during selections and, while there, watched a woman hand her infant to her sister-in-law, a mother of several children who stood behind her in line. Later, Hersh was able to ask this woman why she had parted with her child. She replied: "I don't know why.... One of those men in the striped suit and without hair, he told me to do it. 'Give your child to someone who already has children. I can't tell you why. But one day you will know, and you will thank me"' (1980,124).

© Copyright Judy Cohen, 2001.
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