Testimony of Mrs. Sidonia Mandel
From The Holocaust Affair.
Documents about the Suffering of
the Jews under the Nazi Rule
Published by the Relief Committee
of the Jewish Agency in Eretz Israel, printed by Reuven Mas, Jerusalem 1946.
Following the common initiative of Judy Cohen & Ada
I was brought to Auschwitz (Oświęcim) in March of 1943. I arrived there as a political prisoner from "Montelupich", the infamous jail of Krakow. I will not describe the reception they used to give every new prisoner when he came to the camp, such as a number tattoo; shaving of the head; exchanging clothes for the camp’s torn rags which were full of lice; also yelling and swearing to intensify the experience this was accompanied by beatings, sometimes by hand or sometimes with sticks. I will skip the story of the genesis, since this “routine” is known to all. On the other hand, I will tell you about my first experience in the Hell known as Auschwitz.
In Poland in general and in the underground organizations in particular, we knew well what was happening in all the concentration camps. Several times, I had the opportunity to see the faces of the inhabitants of these “institutions.” Every one of us clearly knew that ultimately he or she will be caught and eventually sent to Auschwitz or to some other camp. I had always said to myself that when my turn came, I would commit suicide and would not allow those degenerated worthless murderers to torture me to death. I always believed that this is what I would do; but reality proved otherwise. My first day in Auschwitz nullified all my previous intentions.
I arrived at the camp in the evening, and since it was too late to go through the regular routine, I, along with the group I came with, was sent to the first empty barrack. Incidentally, we were in the men’s camp. We arrived in time for the evening roll call ("Appell"), after which the first and last food portion for the day was distributed. It consisted of: one liter of watery soup and floating in it were two thin slices of potato and rotten turnip, a slice of moldy bread which should have weighed 150grams but never did because someone always stole some of it, and either an additional 2 grams of margarine or a thin slice of sausage.
This is how they “took care” of us. I saw them that evening standing in line to receive food, the weak and starving men, who were very thin. One of them – a skeleton – whose bones protruded through his skin fell to the ground. Yes, Auschwitz was no resort; such occurrence was only one of dozens that occurred each day. Just then, I heard the order to remove the clothes from the dead man’s body and to put him next to the wall. The order was executed immediately, in spite of the “dead” man’s pleas, who was still alive, trying to convince the people around him that he was healthy and strong and that this was only a temporary weakness. As proof, he started to make desperate attempts to get up, while scratching the wall, next to which he lay naked, with his fingernails, but as he did this, he died.
At that moment, I felt great desire to live, and to live at any cost! All my being rebelled against the possibility of lying down like that man, dying beside the wall. I would stick my fingernails into the wall and to try to prove to myself and to the others, that I was still well and still strong, that I would live and not die.
This strong desire to live, as I learned later, was the key to survival in the camp. Healthy strong individuals would collapse and fall after days or weeks, because their spirit was broken; while others who were physically weak, held on much longer, or even survived only because of their strong attachment to life and strong will to overcome all the atrocities.
It seems to me that few people realized how small a percentage of people remained alive. In the crematoriums of Auschwitz alone, millions of victims were cremated.(1) In 1944, a quarter of a million people were imprisoned in this camp, according to general estimates, the number of Auschwitz survivors is no greater than 60,000.
In order to illustrate these numbers more exactly, I would like to mention a few examples. The first women in Auschwitz were Jews from Slovakia. There were 12,000 of them. In 1943, there were no more than 500. Shortly before my arrival, in March of 1943, the first transport of 2,100 Greek Jews arrived. 180 women and 800 men were sent in; the rest went up to the “Himmel-Commando” (sky-commando) i.e. through the crematorium’s chimney. The transports from Greece continued to arrive for four months. In total, approximately 60,000 Jews from Thessaloniki came. Of them, 10,000 were went into the camp destined to live; and yet, exactly a year later, only 340 women and 500 men survived.
These figures speak for themselves and should not be seen as exceptions. Only 3-4% of every transport remained alive after one year. In January of 1942, a few transports with Poles from the region of Zamoysk arrived. They were villagers who were uprooted from their homes because the area in which they lived was needed to build new camps. When I arrived at the camp, only 15 people from one of these transports of 1250 were alive. There are hundreds of even thousands of examples like these.
In order to give the reader an accurate picture of the prisoners’ lives, I think it would be better if I described daily life in detail, with its many dark and few light spots – the life in a world like no other, a world extremely different from our own.
The crematorium was the dominant element in the camp; it determined the camp’s character. In Auschwitz there were five such crematoria and from their chimneys emerged smoke constantly, day and night; smoke that smelled of burnt flesh. The fire lit the camp at day and night, for the crematoriums were never satisfied and, just like the legendary Dragon, endlessly demanded and swallowed human sacrifices.
During the period when the large transports were arriving from Greece and Hungary, 8-10,000 people were cremated in a day in the furnaces that were close to our camp! It must be said that the furnaces in this camp were built according to very “advanced” methods. They were connected to the gas chambers; an inclined cement area led up to these chambers. It was in this area that they used to unload the people from the trucks, as if they were unloading cargo of sand or rocks. When the car arrived to that area, the crate would rise from its horizontal position to 90-degree position and all that was inside would be thrown out.
Until 1944, trains from all of Europe rushed to the train station of the town Oświęcim, trains full of people from all over Europe. Immediately upon their arrival, they would be divided into two groups, one destined to live and the other to die. The second group, which was always the bigger group, would be loaded onto trucks and sent to the crematoriums. The second group, the smaller one, would walk on foot to the camp, towards a “new life”.
In the summer of 1944 huge transports, with 15,000 – 20,000 people, mainly from Hungary, started to arrive three to four times a day. Over 90% of them were destined in advance to serve as “fuel”. The numbers were so great and the camp authority was not able to provide a sufficient number of cars to transfer all the people who were brought to the camp, so the train tracks were extended right up to the crematorium itself. The people would get off the train, approximately 200 meters from the location of their murder (which was close to the gate, through which we marched to work every morning), and they would walk five in a row, carrying their bundles, holding their children’s hands, carrying babies in their arms, and even pushing baby carriages. Quietly they advanced to their destination, not guessing what was waiting for them there. And if a few of them asked the SS guards who accompanied them, what the big flame was that they saw from several kilometers away, the answer that they received was that the flame was coming out of the big camp bakery- it was accepted and calmed their worries.
Our block was close to the barbed-wire fence, and every evening during roll call, "Appell", we could see the arrival of a new transport that came at that time – long rows of women, men and children, walking in rows of five to their own funeral. It happened that the women among us who were from Slovakia, many of whom had families in Hungary, would recognize among these condemned their parents, brother or sister, relatives or friends, and only with their eyes could they express their cruel suffering and the bitter desperation that filled their hearts.
Usually, on “normal” days, they would first kill the people in the gas chambers, and then they would burn the bodies. When the transports were too large and greater than the furnaces’ capacity, as well, if the gas had run out, they used more primitive means, but more efficient and less time consuming. They would dig pits and fill them half full with wood covered with tar and light a fire. They would then throw women and children onto it alive. They continued to kill the men in the chambers, however. There were people who tried to protect themselves when they saw pits full with burning humans, but one strong hit to the head would suffice to silence the rebels. And how can I describe those screams emanated constantly in the darkness of the night?
In the year 1942, only two crematoriums operated in Auschwitz. The other three were in the process of being built, by us. At that time, a transport of 90,000 Russian prisoners of war arrived. All of them, with no exception, were burnt alive in the pits, in the method described above. Their cremation took two weeks.
Besides the transports that were brought to the crematorium upon their arrival to the camp, they used to select people for the cremation from among the camp prisoners as well. The selection took place during special “selections” that started in the fall and ended in the spring. Once every two or three weeks, or more often, all the prisoners of the camp had to attend a general roll call. When this happened, even the people who worked outside the camp had to return early so that they could report to the roll call on time. Once everybody was gathered in the square, the camp entourage would appear: the commander, the doctor, and a group of SS men. The Germans would inspect the parade of prisoners that walked in front of them, one after the other, and those who made a bad impression, their number would be written down, which meant they were condemned to death. Their verdict would be executed within 48 hours. At the end of the roll call, the attendants would lead the people whose names where written down to the infamous block number 25 – the death block, and from there, sometimes they would be taken immediately to the furnace and sometimes only after a day or two, following disinfections from lice.
Block number 25 – the death block – became famous from the time the camp was established. From the first day until 1942, this block was officially called “extermination block”. And that it was. At that time, one would be sent to block 25 for the slightest of offence. Wearing a sweater under camp uniform, wrapping a towel around something, getting some drinking water (water was considered a luxury) – these were considered grave offences. A solid wall, surrounded by barbed wire, was built around block 25. This made the block completely isolated from the rest of the camp. When the block was full to capacity with the victims, trucks would come at night and transfer the "cargo" to the crematorium. When the place was empty, it was possible again to send new victims. In this horrific block, death reaped its harvest even before the time of cremation. The terrible overcrowding and the rotten food, which intentionally had too much salt and not enough water, killed many. There were days in which the number of dead was 125 a day. The dead were removed however, only when it was time for a general removal.
During that period, the roll call occurred all year round, once every 4 weeks on Sunday, and it was conducted more seriously and strictly than it was later on. At 4:00 am, everybody was ordered to be in a large square in front of the camp gate and remain in standing position until 6:00 pm. No food or drink were given and the roll call was conducted no matter what the weather. After 14 hours of standing they started to run all in one long line, one after the other, and their frozen feet in wooden clogs were trembling of pain and weakness. Whoever stumbled or fell could not escape the penalty of death. The Raportführer Tauber, nicknamed “the chimney cleaner” used to stand like the "angel of death", a bent stick in his hand, and he would single out, (the row of runners), those whom he did not like. That same night, the “chosen” ones were cremated.
During the later period, from 1944 – 1945, when the German’s military situation was getting worse and the Radio London was giving the world more and more accurate information about what was happening in Auschwitz, the Germans made some changes in their conduct. That does not mean they stopped the extermination process, but they did try to hide it, and it was no longer done publicly. Therefore, under the pretext of concern for the prisoners’ health, for example, they started making lists of all the sick, weak and wounded, and they announced that it was for the purpose of taking care of them. In fact, they drove them in trucks, at night, to the crematoria. Block number 25 became the “Punishment Commando”, and its prisoners were assigned to execute the most difficult tasks and their food portion was reduced by half of the regular portion. The new name of the block did not change its nature, nor did it change the fate of its prisoners. Tauber, mentioned above, officially announced that those who lived on the portions of food they were given, would not live longer than three months. Indeed, this was not an over statement. Apart from those who received packages or were able to steal food from kitchens or from the SS warehouses or other places, and apart from those who were sent to the crematorium or were beaten to death, went insane or committed suicide – no one lived longer than 3 months. They all died of hunger and exhaustion or from deadly diseases such as typhus, typhoid fever, pneumonia, cholera etc.
During spring and fall, the death rate in our camp of 20,000 people was 500 people per day. This number does not include the prisoners who were sent to the crematorium, and those who were desperate and threw themselves onto the electric barbed wire.
There were 11 camps in Auschwitz that spread out over an area of 35 km. It must be noted that before the extermination camp was built, that area was empty. In the nearby town of Oświęcim, for which the camp was named, there was not even a jail. Everything that was later built in it, was built by us; we paid for it with our lives and our health. We, the prisoners destroyed the houses whose tenants were forced out, we built the wooden barracks ands brick houses. We were beaten by the SS guards who guarded us, we were bitten by trained dogs, we dried up swamps while standing 12 hours a day in the water up to our chest. And who could count our victims? Hundreds drowned in a wild well when they could not bear the thirst any longer (we were not given any water) and rushed to it, despite the fact that the water was salty and contained iron! Hundreds drowned in pits that were used as latrines, for lack of any other sanitary facilities. We treaded in swamps for hours, three times a day, building roads. With our hands, we built the power station that supplied electricity to the wires of the fences that surrounded the camp and supplied light to our rooms. We built an agricultural farm; we arranged vegetable gardens and plantations for production of artificial rubber. With our hard work, two Krupp factories were built. Not only that, but with our own hands we built the crematoriums! The price we paid was very high – hundred of thousands of human lives and a sea of tears and suffering.
For a long time, we worked hard doing unnecessary work, typical of the Nazi concentration camps. We carried sand from one place in order to fill up a pit in another place, 2 km away, and the next day we would dig a pit in the same place and we would carry the sand back. Only in 1943, they started giving us work that was beneficial even for us. The Arbeitsführer Moll who was supposed to be the crematorium director, was the one who instituted this new directive. Instead of carrying heavy rocks back and forth, he recruited us to build roads in the swamps, in which we treaded up to our knees, to build a latrine, to install a sewer system and other basic sanitary facilities. Finally, we installed showers for ourselves, at first the showers were for cold water only, but by the end, we had hot water too. Of course, at the beginning, only the privileged prisoners used them in the camp. A regular prisoner earned a shower only once every few months, for disinfections from lice. In fact, the prisoner came out of the shower more infested with lice than he was before he went in.
As well, the difficulty in protecting one’s belongings that had to be handed over before the shower, added to a prisoners’ avoidance of a shower. One would have to perform a miracle so that the towel, the sweater, or the underwear would not disappear – these were the treasures of the camp and were not easily obtained. They were bought, with bread from prisoners who worked in arranging the belongings of the transports, and they risked their lives smuggling them through the gate, since rigorous searches were conducted. Therefore, nobody went to take a shower on his own volition. As well, there was more torture than pleasure in the washing itself. Large groups of prisoners were to be pushed in, and before everybody was able to get wet, they were already driven out, amidst shouting, into a large, unheated hallway, where they had to stand for a few hours, trembling (their teeth chattering) until their clothes were returned to them, more ripped and crumpled than they were before, but clean of lice.
Not only that, but one also had to sleep for 2-3 nights on wooden planks, without a mattress or even a blanket, because these were still being disinfected for lice. Later on, a few camp commandos were allowed to use the shower once a week and much later, the entire block had this privilege. While it is true that the washing ceremony was accompanied by shoving, hitting, yellin, and the loss of half of the belongings, but at least we were able to clean ourselves. A short time prior to that, when I first arrived at the camp, we washed ourselves using a little bit of dirty water that was given to us as tea (tasteless extract made of leaves) in the bowls we used to eat our soup.
Slowly, and alongside the change in Germany’s political situation, our conditions improved gradually. While in 1943, for example, we were still working when sick, even with very high temperature, just to avoid being sent to the "Revier" (a block of filthy barracks)2), in 1944, we were going to that "Revier" voluntarily. The difference was huge, like day and night. At the beginning, this "Revier" consisted of a few barracks, more filthy and lice-infected than the others. Five people had to lie side by side together on narrow beds, some unconscious, some with high fever, some with typhus or with other contagious disease. The sick were not treated at all, whatsoever. They did not clean them, feed them, or give them anything to drink. The three story shelves were made of thin wooden boards and would often break because of the heavy weight and crush the people on the lower levels. Rats used to come out during the day to gnaw on the living because the sick were so weak that they could not defend themselves or even scream in fear. This was the "Revier" to where the sick were brought and from where they never returned. If they did not die there within one week, they would be driven in a car to their final resting place, the crematorium.
Behold, with the change of the war situation in 1944, the "Revier" had a new look. The camp administration did nothing to improve it and still did not provide medications or syringes, but the prisoners were then able to obtain for themselves what they needed, thanks to personal connections and acquaintances. This time, prisoner-doctors were taking care of the sick, and they were allowed to lie down quietly. In short – it was better.
When I got sick in June of 1943, with typhus, I continued to work in the fields (men and women did the same hard work; in that area, there was total equality). At one time, I worked with a the temperature of 40 Celsius degrees until I fell and could not get up. When the group came back from work in the evening, my friends carried my limp, lifeless body. What was unusual in this case is that a sick prisoner was returned from work still alive. Usually, every evening when the working commandos returned to the camp, to the rhythm of excellent music, carrying bodies, bodies of the dead, only rarely were they sick because whoever was sick and couldn’t walk used to make a desperate effort to walk in order not to attract the attention of the SS guards.
I was brought to the "Revier" and laid there for three weeks unconscious. The only medication I received during all this time was two tablets of Aspirin. When my fever went down to 37 degrees, I left, walking unsteadily while dragging my feet just to save myself from the crematorium! After the 8 hour disinfections from lice I went back to my barrack with the help of my friends, who literally carried me in their arms. Of course, the following day I returned to work. Trying to avoid work meant being sent to the “Punishment Kommando”, as I described above. The person who did not work lost all rights to life. This was the holy law of the camp, as were the holy nightly roll calls3) that lasted for hours at a time. The jailed prisoners had to stand at attention while their knees buckled under them and their heads were spinning from hunger.
Obviously, I could not endure under these conditions for long even though I had always been healthy and strong. Within two weeks I had another crisis and was back in the "Revier". I lay there for 6 weeks and when I came out, I was not returned to my block, but rather to the “muselmann” block.
The “Muselmann”(4) was a word used to describe a prisoner who became very skinny, weak and a candidate to be sent to be gassed. I looked for a way out but to no avail. I was still “green”, with no connections or acquaintances, meaning, I was helpless and at the mercy of fate. According to the rules of the camp, and they were iron clad, no prisoner could survive without the help of another person. This way he could not get a job under a roof (even if it was the hardest job) if he didn’t have the experience or the "education" of at least one year of camp life. And the laws of the camp were stronger than the ones outside in the free world - where people are free to do as they please, live in their own apartments, sleep in their own beds, have no obligation to stand for roll call, do not have to work 12 hours outdoors in the rain, snow, cold, or extreme heat while hungry, beaten, pushed, bitten by dogs, and miserable; miserable and helpless.
This, I experienced first hand. I tried to find some kind of work, even if it is was very bad, even outside, as long as it was not too far from the camp, so I would not have to walk 15-20 km there and back daily. But this was to no avail. My luck came only a few months later. A few big transports arrived at the camp, and even though most of them were sent to be gassed, for the small percentage that were destined to remain alive, for a while, there was no room in the camp. New camps had to be built immediately, to add more houses of hardship and misery. Until this point, there had been only one Bauleitung (construction office) in Auschwitz, and to expand the camp, there was a need for professionals to work in this office. Since I had studied for two years at the Technological Institute of Lwow and had acquired experience in one of the largest construction companies in Poland as a technical draftsman, I applied for work there. There were not many applicants like me since educated people were exterminated more vigorously and more meticulously than others. I was accepted. My luck was better than I had hoped at the beginning. Not only was I now working under a roof and in a sense working in my profession but also my work conditions went from one extreme to the other. The managers of the Bauleitung were not dependent on the camp authorities but on the Centre of the building inspection in Katowice. Thanks to my new managers, I received a few privileges: permission to work an extra two hours and thus return to the camp after roll call; to work on Sundays and thus be exempt from the random selections for workers to carry bricks, dig ditches etc. etc.; and most important – I found again political connections and renewed my previous work, although it was under different conditions. But, be as it may, it was useful work
As I have already mentioned, there were 11 camps in Auschwitz I – for men. At Auschwitz II (Birkenau) – two men’s camps; one camp for women; a quarantine for men; a" gypsy" camp; a family camp, to which came transports from Terezin (Theresienstadt) which I will tell about later; area number 3, which was called “Mexico”, meaning a camp for Hungarian women (the biggest hell in all of Auschwitz); and work barracks of different working commandos such as glassmakers, carpenters etc.; here too was our office. Aside from these, there was also a punishment camp. in Budy.
In all the above camps, the men were isolated from the women and the only opportunity to see each other was when the work commando units of both men and women worked close to one another. However, if one was ever caught having a forbidden conversation, he or she paid very dearly.
In fact, everything was forbidden except for death, and of course, one would have to transgress these prohibitions in order to avoid the one thing we were allowed – death. Any person caught breaking the camp rules was punished, not for the transgression, but for being too slow to avoid being caught. While executing the punishment, they repeatedly told us: “next time do not get caught!!” Yes, the way we were disciplined was not so bad! For, even the SS guards admitted that a prisoner cannot survive without establishing a system for themselves which involved stealing and other such transgressions. On one hand, we had to be clean and well put together, on the other hand, we were not given a change of clothes or underwear, not even a towel or a pair of shoes!
The only case where men and women were together was
in the family camp (known as Theresienstädter Familienlager). This camp was
unlike any other, and this is how it came about. In the spring of 1944
arrived an extremely large transport from Terezin (Theresienstädt, the
Jewish ghetto in the Czech Republic), which was destined to be cremated in
its entirety. The people, like all the others, brought with them their
valuables, gold, stock bonds, jewelry etc. Most of it would have been robbed
by the Germans (it happened, though only rarely, that prisoners working in
the transport reception and in the Sonderkommando, obtained some of these
valuables). However, this time was different. For unknown reasons to me, the
camp authorities agreed to accept their valuables as a ransom of life, which
will expire after 6 months. And thus, overnight, the family camp was
established. Its population received the same food as we, however, they were
exempt from work and there were no “selections”. In our camp, the general
opinion was that the transport from Terezin, unlike us, would remain alive,
at least as long as Auschwitz existed. Reality proved otherwise. Exactly at
the end of the 6 month period, the entire camp without exception, all 3000
individuals, were ordered to the gas chambers in one day.
I already mentioned that having contact with men was very difficult and dangerous. The technical office in which I worked employed men as well, though they worked in separate rooms. I was already a veteran camper and thus the task of getting in touch with the men was easier for me. We were interested in establishing ties with the men because their organization was better than ours. They had a connection with the free outside world. They were able to obtain weapons and even received information about what was going on in the world. Of course, the news came to us only as rumors. However, the success rate of attempted escapes by the men compared to our failures added credibility to them; and as I later found out, they were not exaggerated.
After a while I did make the connection. Almost immediately afterwards I was given an order to copy the plans of the camps and the maps of Interessengebiet Auschwitz (the Interests Area of Auschwitz) and to bring this material back to the women’s camp. There, I was supposed to hand it to a specific woman. The mission of this woman was to give the material to a Polish civilian who worked in the women’s camp under forced labor. He would take the material out of the camp and thus would be risking his life no less than our's.
It must be noted that copying these sketches was not a difficult task for a veteran prisoner whose nerves were used to handling the pressure. All the necessary maps and sketches were in a fire proof “bunker”. The only entrance to the bunker was through the archives ("registratura"). Three women worked there, two Jewish women and one Polish, all, like me, were political prisoners. No man could accomplish the task because it was forbidden for him to enter a room in which there were women. Had I been caught by the SS, I could justify my presence there by saying that I needed some sketches from there to do some calculations. To my luck, it never came to this. I worked there almost a week. My friends watched out for me and not once was I caught in the “bunker”, rather in the registratura and was merely reprimanded for coming too often to chit chat.
My most difficult task was to bring the sketches into the camp, since almost every day, at the gate to the camp, strict searches were carried out. The goal of these searches was to try to catch us stealing food or clothing. Yet, we somehow found ways around these searches. Although these means of avoiding the searches involved great risks, I saw no alternative. From an ambulance, I took bandages and would carefully fold the sketches and place them under the bandage. I would wrap the bandage sometime on my arm and other times around my leg. At times, we would have to undress during the searches and there was a risk that an SS would rip off the bandage. But we were used to danger. We had faced death and no longer feared it as we had at the beginning.
While death was at times a terrible threat to us, other times it seemed like a saviour, ending our endless tortures. These nerve-wracking games cost me and my friends our health. Once I was very close to being caught. It happened during one of the inspections, at which the camp commander was present: Joseph Kramer, infamous for being the commander of the concentration camp Bergen-Belsen in Germany. This is what happened. When we entered the camp, it became clear to us immediately that the search was going to be more severe and stricter than usual. This was obvious to us because we saw many different objects scattered in the ditches along the way on both sides, objects that were most likely thrown away by our friends who had come this way before us. There was a large variety of forbidden objects: potatoes, cabbage heads, sweaters, etc. etc. At the gate, the group attendant gave us a sign of dangers ahead. It was no secret that our Kommando would normally smuggle into the camp cigarettes and letters from relatives in the men’s camp, books, and other illegal items. But there was no turning back, for me there was no way to get rid of the sketches hidden under my bandage. The situation was quite tragic, for if we were caught, the whole group would pay with their lives. Our saving grace came thanks to the orientation talents that we possessed as veteran prisoners. From our facial expression, the attendants at the gate understood that I had the most to hide. They started yelling and ordering us to undress quickly. While my group of five hurriedly undressed I slipped in with the group of attendants. The four remaining girls in my group huddled together to try and disguise my absence and began to undress quickly. Within seconds the attendants pushed the first girls ahead before they finished undressing. I started unbuttoning my shirt to make it look like I was going in to get searched, but as the first group came out of the search I joined them quickly and ran into the camp and to our barrack.
And thus it came to be. Day after day I would smuggle in the necessary documents: the plans of every camp, of small “bunkers” that had been built around every camp, 2 meters apart, armed with machine guns aimed at us, and other such documents.
The SS knew we were armed and organized. They never stopped searching us for arms, to no avail. A few times, we were made to stand outside for the entire night while Commander Kramer turned our barracks inside out. Yet, we were able to outsmart them. All over the camp, we had underground bunkers where we hid our weapons; in three bunkers we had three radios through which we received news from London; two bunkers were used for escapes and had provisions and food supplies for a few weeks, shelves to sleep on, civilian clothing, and the necessary maps. One of these bunkers was accidentally discovered during a dig. Three prison uniforms were found, marked with the numbers of the prisoners who had escaped. One of these prisoners had worked at Bauleitung. We had kept in contact with our people who lived outside the camps in freedom. We would send them gold and foreign money that we had stolen to give to the partisans and, in return, they would help us escape.
Yes, we had great strength, yet we were weak. We had the ability to free all the prisoners, but we knew that it would prove futile to free a quarter of a million individuals from different age groups and nationalities of which 40% did not know the language. Thus, the land or the terrain could easily and successfully be hunted down. We were waiting for the right time when the Germans would be unable to hunt for escapees but the time never came. Out of fear of our growing organization and activism, the Germans suddenly began transporting Polish prisoners into the heart of Germany. The indirect impetus for this sudden transportation came from the first Russian attack on German forces. The time was not ripe for us to act. The enemy was still strong, and the help we were hoping for was still hundreds of kilometers away.
The German move came just in time because in December 1944, at the time of my escape, there were only 20 Poles in the camp and therefore, they were able to evacuate the camp, literally before the Russian’s eyes, while the tanks of the Red Army were a mere 15 km from the camp. They would not have been able to do this had the Poles remained in the camp.
I would like to describe now some unsuccessful escapes. I will not go into their details, for that we would need entire volumes, but I will make do with describing only a few main episodes,
The most shocking escape was that of Mala (5), who worked as a messenger in the secretariat, veteran prisoner, number 19373, a Jewish woman from Belgium. One Saturday evening our nightly roll call went on to no end. The inspectors ran around frantically unable to complete the roll call until it was undoubtedly clear that a prisoner was missing. Who was the missing prisoner? The sirens were blaring to signal an escape; two sirens: one from our camp, one from the men’s camp in Auschwitz I. Was it an organized escape? Was this possible? Indeed, there was no doubt about it. For five hours we stood on our aching feet until it became clear: Mala had escaped, a beautiful young women, together with Edek (6), prisoner number 635, a Polish electrician. He had worked that day in our camp. Did she leave with him dressed in an electrician uniform? They escaped and were gone. May they be successful, we prayed in our hearts. But they were not. Five months later they were caught. Rumors spread; some said they were in Katowice, which was 45km from the camp, when they were caught. Others said they were already in Austria when they were caught. They took the truth with them to their grave. One thing was clear: they did not escape in order to join the partisans where they would not be caught. At the beginning, we refused to believe the rumors that they were both in Auschwitz 1 in a special bunker. Later, the truth became known that in fact they had been there for two months. Because all matters of escapes were first handled in Berlin, it took a while for the decision to come from the capital; after it came, they transferred Mala back to our camp in order to be beaten in public, 100 whippings, and then be executed by hanging (we were not told of this in advance). All the prisoners of the camp had to be present. However, the show ended with the public humiliation of the executioners. When the Arbeitsdienstführer approached with a truncheon in his hand, Mala took out a razor blade and began cutting her wrists. The German grabbed hold of her hand and forcefully twisted her arm until he broke it. She quickly slapped him on his cheek with her bloody hand. This aroused a general confusion. We held our breath. The face of the SS man expressed mute bewilderment. For this, he was unprepared. The general inspector was the first to recover from the shock and ordered the removal of the girl from the field. They sat her down in a wagon and transferred her to a first aid station. Later, they drove her around all the camps as an example for the other prisoners to see and to fear and never dare to escape. A merciful Lagerführer was found who shot her in her temple and shortened her misery. At the same time this was going on, Edek was hung in public.
Not all escape attempts came to such a bitter and tragic end. For example, two or three weeks after Mala and Edek’s escape attempt, six prisoners, veterans of the camp of which there were less than 100 at this time, managed to escape. Three of them I knew personally. I even participated in their secret work; therefore, I knew well the details of their escape, an escape that truly disconcerted the camp authorities. The commander himself scurried around feverishly until midnight, but it was all in vein. The six had disappeared like a stone in a well. After two days of searches, that proved futile, the commander called all us prisoners together and asked us to end the escape attempts. He said he could not comprehend what was compelling us to escape and we had to understand in our stupid brains that there is a need to isolate us because we posed a threat to the Third Reich, but in isolation, no harm would come to us.
Indeed, the escape was extremely well organized. I knew they were going to go ahead with it on Wednesday, and when I saw one of them earlier that day from my office window I knew we would never see each other again in the camp. That evening I anticipated the sound of the siren with a trembling heart. And yet, everything was as usual. The roll call went smoothly. The next day I found out that they saw a stranger on their way and returned to the camp on time. Nine days of worrying about them, until one day we heard the siren, and this time it was even before roll call. They noticed two people were missing. During the roll call, six in fact were found to be missing. On our way home from work that evening, we saw SS guards going into the sewer. The six were sitting in the bunker and awaited the end of the initial searches. Two weeks later, the six of them left; in fact, they traveled in the car that transported the civilian workers back from the camp. None of them were caught.
A different group of three veteran prisoners also escaped successfully from the camp in a transport truck that transferred boards from disassembled barracks. Three others were caught in an unexpected and dumb fashion. They had already arrived at Katowice and during an air raid, as they displayed elation for the Allied Forces and walked on the streets joyfully, they raised suspicion and attention.
The following escape can be used to demonstrate how much composure, patience, and good judgment was needed. Six men escaped, three from Auschwitz 1 and three of them from Birkenau. At the end of one week as all of them were sitting in the bunker, the first three decided it was time to go out and just walk by the guards. The other three thought it would be best to wait for a dark night, since that night the stars were bright. The prisoners from Auschwitz 1 left. They successfully passed two groups of guards, but the third and last group noticed them. The Jews were armed and refused to surrender, but they could not overpower the large group of guards (every 5 meters there was a group of guards). The next morning, at the entrance of the camp, one could see three bodies shot full of bullet holes and spears. The three escapees from Birkenau sat in the bunker three more weeks; they came out alive and emerged on the other side, to live.
I would like to describe one more case that was not a regular escape. In each of the five crematoriums of Auschwitz I and Birkenau, prisoners were employed in the act of extermination. Ninety percent of them, I’m ashamed to admit, were Jews from Germany and Poland. The groups that were involved in the removing of the gassed bodies from the gas-chambers and getting them to the crematoriums, were called Sonderkommando7). The first group of Sonderkommando consisted of Jews from Slovakia. Initially they did not grasp the true nature of their work, but when they did understand, they all revolted and refused categorically to be used as their brothers’ murderers, even if it cost them their lives. They were all killed. After that, only Jews from Poland and Germany worked at the gas chambers and crematoriums. Of course, none of them worked there voluntarily; however, they could refuse even if they wanted to pay with their lives sooner. Because eventually, the workers of the Sonderkommando, except for a few surviving workers, were also killed in the gas chambers so that no witnesses to that horrible murder would remain. Greek Jews, for example, refused to work at the crematoriums, and so there was not even one Greek Jew in the Sonderkommando.
Those who worked there cannot be called human beings. They were murderers, the lowest of lowest, who would throw women and children alive into the fire. They did not hesitate to burn their own wives or children. They also helped the SS guards to suppress the gypsy revolt, and so on and on.
As I already said, every Sonderkommando was executed after a certain period. Mysteriously, the workers of gas chamber and crematorium no. IV found out that on a certain date they were going to be liquidated. They managed to gather some explosives, and the day before the scheduled date, they blew up gas chamber and crematorium no. IV.
All of them, approximately 300 individuals, ran away into the forest. This escape, as anyone can guess, an escape in broad daylight and en masse, would end in failure. It is possible that a few of them survived even though I don’t believe it. SS guards immediately surrounded the forests. The searches and the battles inside the forests lasted for two weeks. They repaired that damaged crematorium and it began operating as usual. However, that was not the end of that affair. One of the captured Sonderkommando revealed, probably under torture, the source of their explosives. It became clear that four girls, workers in the factory of Krupp8) in the camp, were the ones who supplied the explosives8). The girls originated in the Warsaw Ghetto. The eldest of the four was 21 years old and the youngest was 16. The Germans hung the girls publicly. The hanging was prepared in a meticulous German way. Two were hung during roll call, and two in the presence of work commandos that returned to camp after the roll call. I too was present for the hanging. The hangman was German, the head of one of the blocks in the men’s camp. He executed the hanging in a serious and ceremonious manner. The girls showed great courage and went to their deaths calmly and proudly. Something those German dogs would certainly never be able to do.
In December 1944, I too escaped. Our organizations decided that when groups of prisoners escaped, the women would be last. There were two reasons for this, (1) to establish communication between the camp and the outside world, (2) because the partisans viewed the women as a certain burden, even though we were experienced and had suffered through extreme hunger and misery and could easily adapt to the underground fighting. We were told to wait until the last minute. Obviously, under the conditions of the camp, there was no sense in making plans for the distant future, especially since the moment we were all waiting for was covered in a fog and was very far away and nobody knew when it was to arrive, days, weeks, months, or maybe years.
By the end of November 1944, the communication with our friends outside ended. We had lost our invaluable trump card. The possibilities to resume contact with them were slim. We needed to act very carefully and be ever ready for anything. Our situation was bad but it was not tragic. We had in our hands precise maps of the camp. We knew of the existence of an escape route that the Germans did not know of, a route, which according to all the assumptions, one could escape without encountering even one German. We could not use the bunker because in order to get out of it we needed help from within or from the outside world. We lacked both.
When it became clear to us, like the sun in the midday sky, that the Germans were going to murder us and that we had nothing to lose, we decided to escape. We were 15 young women. We agreed to go out one at a time or in pairs without one knowing what the other did. Each one had to rely on her own abilities. If everything went according to plan we would meet in Paszcyna on the route known as Dziedzice - Paszcyna and there we would decide what to do next. I left with a young Jewish girl from Slovakia around 5:00 in the afternoon. We walked along a path that we knew only through descriptions. Our hearts were pounding from excitement. In our hearts, we made firm resolution never to return to the camp. Death or freedom.
In the meantime, it got dark. It started to snow, and a cold wind was blowing in our faces. Today, I cannot understand how I was able to withstand all that. We walked without stopping at all, all through the night and all through the next day. Around 7:00 in the evening we stopped, lacking the strength to continue. It seemed that we were close to Paszcyna. We wanted to know what happened to the other girls. We were scared however, to go into the small town. By 2:00 am we were already 13 girls. We decided to plan our future routes and in the meantime to await the other two girls. I had some addresses of friends in Bielsk and Katowice, but for a number of reasons it was agreed that it was better not to go there. First, I did not know if the addresses were still valid and if I would even find my friends at these addresses; if not, then going into a large foreign city, where there was a German guard at every corner meant suicide; second, we dreaded that the Germans had discovered my friends on the outside, and that was why we had lost our communication; and if so, going to see them would be illogical and we would be going straight into the lion’s den, thereby causing the failure of the others. Also, we could not continue on our way as one group since we lacked money, documents, clothes, and coats. Everybody agreed with me. It was sadly decided to separate and to continue alone or in pairs, just as we had left the camp. For security reasons, each girl kept it to herself in which direction she was going. The light of dawn was almost upon us and the two girls were still nowhere to be found. We could no longer stay together in that place. If they survived they would do as we had done, and if they did not – how would we be able to help them? We then separated and I saw them for the last time. To this day, I received news from only four of them. The rest have shown no sign of life. It is possible they never will.
The rest of this tale could be one of the stories in “Tales of 1001 Arabian Nights”. I will tell you only briefly that I walked days and nights through Polish Silesia, German Silesia, Sudetenland, to Czechoslovakia. From Czechoslovakia I wanted to go to Slovakia to join the partisans, but I was not successful. Then I tried to go to Austria, in order to get from there to Switzerland, but this plan also failed. Therefore, I stayed in Czechoslovakia until the end of the war.
On the day of the victory, I was in Brodnica, which is on the banks of the river Úhlava. From there, I snuck into Pilsen (Plzeň) and from Pilsen, with a French transport, I went to Paris. Less than four months into my stay in Paris, I was already on my way to Eretz Israel.
This was, generally, the story of my last years. I did not write it down in order to provide horrific, shocking literature. I wrote it in the hope that as many people as possible would be able to learn what really happened behind the electric wires of the concentration camps. I did not write it for Jews only. They already know this and have experienced it firsthand, but for those thousands who were so close to the war and yet so far from it, to the point that they refused to believe that this is what happened. They cannot conceive in their healthy human minds that this was reality. It is necessary that the entire world should know what the Germans were capable of doing.
1) Estimated number of victims: 1.6 to 2.5 million. This estimated number of death is considered by historians as a strict minimum. The real number of death is unknown but probably much higher, may be 4 millions reflect the horrible reality. The number of 4 million victims was determined in the trial of the forty of Auschwitz criminals in Krakow, Poland on 22 December 1947. Source: Israel Gutman, Men and Ashes, the Story of Auschwitz-Birkenau, Merhavia 1957.
2) "Revier" – the infirmary in Auschwitz. It was always a very dangerous place because the SS often sent the ill inmates directly to the gas chamber…
3) "Appell" – roll call held in the concentration camps aimed mainly to torture and humiliate the prisoners.
4) "Muselmann" – German term widely used among Concentration Camps inmates to refer to prisoners who were near death due to exhaustion, starvation, or hopelessness. The word literally means "muslim", may be because of the similarity between the near-death prone state of the Muselmann and the Muslim prostrating himself on the ground in prayer. Many victims, totally lacking the wherewithal to adapt, reached this state soon after arrival in the camp. Other prisoners succumbed to sickness, physical abuse, hunger and overwork. One could identify Muselmaenner by their physical and psychological decline; they were lethargic, indifferent to their surroundings, and could not stand up for more than a short period of time. During selections, these victims were the first to be sentenced to death. A person at the Muselmann stage had no chance for survival; he or she would not live for more than a few days or weeks. Source: Dr. Robert Rozett and Dr. Shmuel Spector "Encylopedia of the Holocaust", Jerusalem 2000
5) Mala Zimetbaum (1922-1944), originally from Poland and grew up in Belgium. She was an interpreter in Auschwitz. On June 1944 she escaped from Auschwitz with Edek Galiński. She was the first escapee woman from Auschwitz. Already on the Slovak border they were caught and brought back to the camp for a public execution. On the way to the gallows she committed a suicide. Source: same as comment no. 4.
6) Edek: Edward Galiński, a Polish prisoner of Auschwitz, escaped with Mala Zimetbaum and executed after being caught.
7) Sonderkommando – means "Special Commando". An excellent document about the Sonderkommando is the book: Gideon Greif, We Wept Without Tears, Yad Vashem 1999 (Hebrew). In this book the last very few survivors from the Sonderkommando are being interviewed and the fact they were forced, under death penalty, to perform the horrible work, is stressed out. Being part of the extermination process, they were sentenced to death after some months and new victims were chosen to continue the gruesome work in the gas chambers and the crematoria.
8) The four young women worked in a Union Munitions Plant called: Weichsel-Union-Metalwerke.
9) The dominant personality was Rosa Robota (1921-1945), born in Ciechanow, member of Hashomer Hatzair, activist in the Auschwitz underground movement. She and her three comrades smuggled explosives from the ammunition factory where they worked and delivered it to the underground in Auschwitz I. The Sonderkommando used these explosives in the revolt that took place on October 7, 1944. Rosa Robota did not deliver any information about the underground to her torturers, in spite of the awful tortures she endured. She and her three comrades: Ela Gertner, Estera (Tusia) Wajcblum and Regina Safirstein were publicly executed on January 6th, 1945, only three weeks before the liberation of Auschwitz by the Soviet Red Army.
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