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

Part III

Hellman tells another account of an unmarried woman who was carrying her sisterís child.

When young Fannie Schwimmer of Bilke stood in this line holding the infant child of her sister Leah, she was approached by a "Canada" member who knew by her "beautiful" black hair that she was unmarried. (Orthodox Jewish women covered their hair.) He whispered to her to give the child back to its mother. Unaware of the consequences, Fannie did so. She was sent to the right, while Leah, with the infant now in her arms, was sent to the left. (1981, 40)

This case may appear to be ambiguous. It is evident that the sister holding the infant would be selected for the gas, and so in this instance no additional life seems to have been protected. This is not so, however. If a woman holding her niece or nephew were sent to the left, the mother in all probability would plead to stay with her child. Permission to rejoin the child would be granted, and all three would then be sent to the left. The "Canadian" understood the mathematics of survival.

In another account, Hersh tells of two women from the Maramarosh region of Hungary; Ilana with one child and Lenke with three. Lenke was advised to separate from her children and passed the advice on to Ilana, explaining that her children would be in a kindergarten where they would see them later. Although Ilana did not know the significance of allowing the children to walk ahead, she followed Lenke's advice. Ilana believed that Lenke did know the significance, however. "A prisoner had told her what to do. She said I should be grateful to her. She had saved my life" (217). Whether Lenke was able to understand the truth about Auschwitz so quickly seems doubtful. The kindergarten lie came more likely from the "Canadian." Saving these women involved trickery. However, it is clear from Hersh's account that Ilana may have preferred dying than outliving her child.

The case of twins was a special one. Those old enough to survive a selection for labor would be better off not identifying themselves as twins, thereby avoiding medical experimentation. But children, although unsuitable for labor, might still have a chance of surviving if they were twins. Hedvah and Leah Stem, Jewish twins born in Hungary, were thirteen-and-a-half when they arrived at Auschwitz. As they stood by the cattle car, a "Canadian" approached their mother:

"Tell them you have twins. There is a Dr. Mengele who wants twins. Only twins are being kept alive." But our mother didn't want to be separated from us. She said, "No, you are coming with me," and continued walking toward the crematorium.... At Auschwitz, mother ... hid us under her skirt.... But at the last minute, she told us, "Go to Dr. Mengele. He is asking for twins. Go and we will meet by the gate. (qtd. in Lagnado and Dekel 1992, 36-37, 52)

It is unclear from this account whether or not these members of the "Canada" commando understood the nature of Mengele's work with twins. Their information may not have gone that far. But they did understand that being a twin meant possible survival for the young or at least a way to avoid immediate death.

After a prisoner's physical condition, perhaps the most crucial factor dividing those deemed fit for work and those fit for cremation was age. The "Canada" commando could be particularly helpful in adjusting the ages of those who could pass as being a bit older or younger. In general, it was safe to be no younger than sixteen and no older than forty.6 Elie Wiesel, author of the classic account of survival, Night ( 1960] 1982), was assigned a different age by a prisoner.

"Here, kid, how old are you?" It was one of the prisoners who asked me this. I could not see his face, but his voice was tense and weary.
"I'm not quite fifteen yet."
"No. Eighteen."
"But I'm not," I said. "Fifteen."
"Fool. Listen to what I say."
Then he questioned my father who replied: "Fifty."
The other grew more furious than ever.
"No, not fifty. Forty. Do you understand? Eighteen and forty." He disappeared into the night shadows. (28)

Despite giving their new ages, both Wiesel and his father were sent to the left initially. It may be that neither was close enough to his newly assigned age to pass. The fact that this "Canada" prisoner gave eighteen rather than sixteen as the demarcation age may indicate that the efforts of the commando were not closely coordinated, each worker providing whatever information he had.

The work that these men did was a selection within a selection, working within the Nazi rules to increase the number of survivors. It seems they focused on those who could most readily be saved, namely those a little younger or older than the age limits set by the Nazis. Those too old or young were beyond their help. Although some "Canadians" could and did use their brief time of contact with the new arrivals to speak spitefully of the fiery death which awaited them,7 others used the opportunity to save.

I have found reference to the "Canada" commando's hasty triage in only one work, Anna Pawelczynska's Values and Violence in Auschwitz: A Sociological Analysis. Paweiczynska herself was a Polish political prisoner interned in Auschwitz from 1942 until the end of the war. She makes the following observations:

The inequity of chances [of survival] was also affected by whether, on arrival in camp, one happened to be met by people who offered help of some kind. The first forms of external aid came from old prisoners who tried, to the extent they were able, to reach a new transport as quickly as possible in order to transmit the most important things to know about what was happening in the camp and how to save one's life. Even then. Not all new arrivals could believe this information, and not heeding it they forfeited their chances of survival. (1973 1979, 6 1)

© Copyright Judy Cohen, 2001.
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