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Chapter 8 | Chapter 9 | Chapter 10 | Chapter 11 | Chapter 12 | Chapter 13 | Chapter 14

My Mother's Journey
Through the Fire


There is so much to tell of my experiences in the Second World War. Where do I start? I recently had a telephone conversation with a friend from concentration camp. Her name is Shindala. During the war her last name was Lacher. Today it is Springer. She called me and said, "Mala, I was just thinking about the time you saved my life." I laughed and said, "You know I was recently thinking about the time you saved mine." I didn't remember doing anything that could have saved Shindala's life so I asked her to tell me about it.

She reminded me of the time we were working at the 103rd kommando in Birkenau, in Auschwitz. The 103rd kommando was called an Ausser Kommando, which meant an outside command. She needed a couple of cigarettes to bribe a certain Kapo. Kapo meant overseer, a prisoner in authority. This Kapo was in charge of the laundry, and for a couple of cigarettes the Kapo would give her a job in the laundry.

In the laundry the work was easier. It was warm and they got a little more soup than we did on the 103rd kommando. At the time I was dealing on the camp's black market and my dealings were going very well. She asked me to lend her some cigarettes. I told her I would lend her all that I could.

The cigarettes I lent her, I remember, were German cigarettes called Yosma. With them she bribed the Kapo and got a job in the laundry. Later she paid me back the cigarettes. She felt that getting that job actually saved her life.

Then she asked me to tell her how it was that she saved my life.

So I reminded her of an incident that happened during the march from Auschwitz. In January 1945, when the Russians were nearing Auschwitz, the Germans evacuated us with the rest of the camp. For days we were force to march through deep snow. At times the snow was up to our knees. On my shoulders I carried a blanket and some bread. I got very tired and was feeling sick. Both sides of the road were lined with dead people the Germans had shot when they could not walk any more.

I got very angry thinking about those poor people. They had suffered and survived so much. For them to die, now, when the war is ending, seemed so unfair and tragic to me. I was so tired I just wanted to lie down and let the Germans shoot me too.

Shindala saw that I was about to give up. She took me under one arm and Reginka Storch, a friend from Warsaw, took hold of my other arm. Shindala said to me, "Mala listen. Hear the guns? In the distance you can see the fires from the front. Those are Russian guns. In any minute the Germans will run away and leave us here. Come get yourself together."

She took the bundle from my shoulders and threw it away. "We have suffered so much," she said and started pointing to the people who had been shot and were now lying by the side of the road, "And now you want to give up and end up like these others?"

Shindala and Reginka started to drag me along. After about 10 minutes I started to cry and started walking, and about 2 hours later the Germans led us into a barn and let us rest.

The next day they loaded us into wagons for the rest of the journey. If it hadn't been for Shindala I would have been shot and left to die by the side of the road.

I mentioned dealing on the black market in Auschwitz. It's very interesting how it worked and how I got involved in it.

Dealing, trading, or in Yiddish, "handling", was a way of life for my family. It was the way my husband earned his living. It was the way many Jews, especially in eastern Europe, lived. Many professions and guilds were closed to Jews. So they became dealers and traders.

In the camps, and even in the Warsaw ghetto, I knew that I would have to deal to survive. The amount of food we received was just enough to let us starve slowly to death. Without extra food I would have died. All the people who lived through the concentration camps had to deal in some way to survive. We called it, "black marketing", and since it was against the law it was a way to fight the Germans. For most of us it was the only way.

Dealing in the traditional sense meant trading at a profit. In Auschwitz it meant that and more. It meant trading goods or services to improve your situation and your chances of survival.

Many years after the war I met a lady who had also survived Auschwitz. She was there as a political prisoner. The Germans did not know that she was Jewish. The conditions in the camp for her were horrible, but she knew that for the other Jews they were even worse.

Non-Jews did not have to go through the selections. Selections were inspections that were periodically conducted to see if one was still fit to work and to continue living. Violations of the rules brought non-Jews severe punishment. For Jews those same violations brought death. Non-Jews were allowed to receive packages from home, and many also received Red Cross packages. Those packages were the main source of supplementary food in the camp. Jews were not allowed to receive any Red Cross packages, and of course by the time I was in Auschwitz we did not have anyone at home to send us anything.

When she heard how long I had survived in Auschwitz, she asked, "How did you survive? How did you live through that hell? For a Jew to survive Auschwitz was a miracle."

I told her, "Handling, that's how I survived."

Even in relatively good times Jews looked to deal to improve their lot. I remember a story my father told me. When he was a young man, living in Wielun, he was called up to serve in the Russian army. This was in 1903 and at that time Poland was not an independent country. The Wielun region, like the rest of Poland was part of Russia. Poles and the Jews of Poland felt no loyalty towards Russia. Russia was seen as a foreign occupier. But five years of military service was mandatory for all young men with severe punishment dealt out to anyone caught trying to avoid their military service.

The post my father was stationed to was in central Siberia. When he got there he was asked if he had any skills. He said he was a tailor because he was learning that trade before he was called up. At the post there were five tailors. The head tailor's five years of service were almost up, and one of the other tailors was to be assigned his position. Since the post was soon to be short a tailor my father was assigned to that group.

During my father's training he learned that the head tailor was selling cloth in the nearby villages. The head tailor would order enough material to make a certain number of uniforms. He would order enough to make them all a large size. When they were actually made they were all of different sizes. Since the head tailor also kept the records, the difference did not show up. The material was of heavy wool and of very good quality. In Siberia that cloth was valuable. In fact the head tailor was getting rich from that extra cloth.

My father realized that the position of head tailor would not become vacant again for a long time. He decided that, if he wanted to become the head tailor, now was the time to go after it. My father knew that he would have to do something in order to get appointed to that position since he was really the least experienced of all the tailors there. He decided that the only way to do it was to befriend the camp commandant. The commandant would be the one appointing the new head tailor.

On my father's next day off he went into town and bought the most expensive set of wine goblets he could find. He had them engraved with the commandant's name. When he returned to the post he went and stood outside the commandant's house.

That evening the commandant and his wife returned home and saw my father standing outside holding a package under his arm. The commandant asked him what he wanted. My father told him that he had written home and told his family how good a commanding officer he had. His family sent this package as a gift to the commandant. He told him that the gift was from Warsaw. Items from Warsaw were considered of high quality all over Russia. When the commandant's wife heard that the gift was from Warsaw she ask to see it.

My father was shown into the house. He unwrapped the goblets and set them on the table. The wife's eyes widened when she saw the goblets. The commandant said to my father, "They are beautiful, but I cannot accept them. It is against the law for me to accept a gift from a man under my command."

The commandant's wife took her husband aside and whispered in his ear. When he returned he asked my father how much he wanted for the goblets. My father said he did not want anything for them. He said that his family was rich, which wasn't true, and that the gift was from them. It wasn't his to sell. Since the commandant's name was inscribed on the goblets there was nothing else he could do with them. He begged the commandant to take the goblets. When he begged he made sure the commandant's wife heard him.

Finally the commandant relented and accepted the goblets. He told my father to thank his family and asked him not to tell anyone about this since he did not want to encourage that sort of thing. As my father was leaving the commandant told him if he needed anything to feel free to ask him.

A month went by. It was getting near the time for the head tailor to leave. My father went to the commandant and told him that he would like the appointment as head tailor. The commandant told him he was concerned that my father did not have enough experience. My father assured him that he could do the job. The commandant told him he would see what he could do, but made him no promises.

The day the head tailor left the other tailors were lined up to be addressed by the commandant. As he addressed them he announced that my father was to be the new head tailor. Everyone except my father was surprised.

The rest of his time in the army my father had a thriving business in pieces of cloth. His position as head tailor also allowed him to remain at the post during the Russian Japanese war. The war started in 1904, less then a year after his appointment. All the other tailors were transferred to the infantry and sent east to the war. My father's best friend in the army was another Orthodox Jew. His name was Aaron. After the army the two of them returned to Wielun and Aaron married my father's oldest sister. My father had enough money saved to buy a couple of sewing machines and to go into business. The lesson my father said was, "Anyone can be bribed, even a king. All you have to know is his price and how to approach him."

In every camp I came into I checked on how I could get into dealing. I came to Auschwitz in July 1943 from Majdanek.

When I came to Auschwitz I had nothing of value with me. The way to start dealing was to save a piece of bread from one's food. The whole summer I tried to save one piece of bread. But I could not save any. Each day we had to get up at 3:00 A.M. It was still the middle of the night. We were chased out of our barracks. By 4:00 we were lined up for the "Zehl-Appel", which meant, roll call or head count, but we called the space in front of our barracks where the head count was held the Appel. We were given some tea and marched to work. At noon we got some watered down soup. In the evening we marched back to the camp. We were lined up and kept waiting on the Appel till the SS counted us. This roll call took up to two hours. Then we got a piece of foul bread. Once a week we got a half inch thick slice of sausage. I was so hungry by then that I could not give up that piece of bread or that sausage.

I needed that piece of bread so I could start dealing. I knew that only by dealing would I survive. But I was afraid that if I didn't eat that piece of bread I would not live to the next day. The whole summer of 1943 in Auschwitz, I tried to figure out a way to get an extra piece of bread.

A piece of bread could be traded in the camp for an onion or an apple. In the hospital, called the Rewier, an onion or an apple could be traded among the sick for 2 or 3 pieces of bread. That's how I hoped to get started dealing. But I could not get that one piece of bread.

In September, between the High Holy days of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, a great piece of luck happened to me. One of the greatest pieces of luck in the whole world. While I was dreaming of just one piece of bread I got 46 loaves of bread.

Tradition says that each person is judged in heaven, between the High Holy days, whether to live or die in the coming year. This must have been my judgment in heaven.

This is what happened: That whole summer the work group I was in was dressed in uniforms taken from Russian prisoners of war. There were 500 women in that group. In September we were ordered to exchange the uniforms for women's clothing. We were brought a pile of clothes to change into.

I was handed a blouse and skirt. They were both navy blue in color. As I was seeing if it fit I felt something fat in the lining of the skirt. I pulled apart the seam and pulled out 20 American dollars.

Standing next to me was one of my friends. Her maiden name was Salla Butter. Today her name is Salla Hyman and she lives in Brooklyn. She grabbed me and started kissing me and said, "Mala, that $20 is worth 20 loaves of bread."

In the skirt there was even more money. I pulled out another $26. It created a lot of excitement among us. We took $10, Salla knew where we could go and start dealing.

The 103rd kommando's job was to build the roads in and around the camp.

We were 500 women in that kommando. We were split into groups of 50. One group split rocks. One group cleared the stones from the field. One group loaded lorries and pushed them along tracks. One group set the paving stones. This way we worked as a team in the fields. 2000 men worked there too. They built the buildings that were used as barracks and a hospital for the SS.

Among the 2000 men that were working on the barracks were Volksdeutsch. Volksdeutsch were Poles of German descent. They were the machine operators. They told us to smuggle out of the camp dollars or gold. Sometimes they would ask for other things. Once they asked for silk kerchiefs. They paid us mostly with cigarettes, and sometimes with food, like eggs and butter, but those were hard to smuggle back into the camp. The easiest things to bring back into camp were cigarettes. Cigarettes in the camp were the most expensive things. They were just like money.

Four cigarettes were equal to a dollar or a small bread. The non-Jewish women received packages from home. Those that smoked would trade things from those packages for cigarettes. So when we came back into the camp with cigarettes we were able to buy almost anything we wanted. That's how my handling worked in Auschwitz.

For most of the time I was in Auschwitz I was in the 103rd kommando. We helped build a whole city for the SS on the fields of Birkenau. When we finished the buildings in the summer of 1944, the Germans brought their wounded from the eastern front. It cost us a lot of blood to build that city. Every day 30 to 35 of the women among us died or got sick. And every day the SS replaced them with new ones so there would still be 500 in the kommando. Still when we were finished I was glad to see the Allied airplanes come and destroy the buildings.

In 1944 we heard that the war was going badly for Germany. But it was only rumors, we didn't know what was really happening. But when I saw the planes bomb the buildings I had a feeling I just might survive the war after all.

Once when a group of us were watching the planes bomb outside the camp a German matron saw me jump up and laugh. In my excitement I wasn't careful to look if anyone was watching us. She came over and hit me hard across the head. As she pointed to the crematorium she said, "You dummy, the chimney is the only way you'll leave this camp. You won't live to see the end of the war." But even she could not stop my happiness, for I felt in my heart that I would survive.



© Copyright Judy Cohen, 2001.
All rights reserved.