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Concentration Camp Auschwitz
On the Ramp: Awaiting Selection

Below you can see photographs of some of those awaiting "selection" at the ramp at Auschwitz, i.e. where the railroad transport trains stopped, and where those who were transported there descended to await selection for either labor or the gas chambers.

You can also read a chapter of a book written by an Auschwitz inmate who once worked the ramp. next >>

Photographs courtesy of the USHMM.


Auschwitz is also known as Oświęcim, Aushvits, Oshpetzin, Oshpitsin,
Oshvitsin, Oshvitzin, Oshvyentsim and Ospinzi.


Jewish men from Subcarpathian Russia await selection on the ramp at Auschwitz-Birkenau.

Jewish men from Subcarpathian Rus await
selection on the ramp at Auschwitz-Birkenau.

Auschwitz is a town
in Galicia Gubernia
in present-day Poland.

A Jewish man from Mukachevo awaits selection.









A Jewish man from
Mukachevo awaits selection
in Auschwitz-Birkenau.

Entrance to the Auschwitz Concentration Camp.

View of the entrance to the main camp of Auschwitz (Auschwitz I).

An elderly Jewish man from Subcarpathian Russia awaits selection on the ramp at Auschwitz-Birkenau.

An elderly Jewish man
from Subcarpathian Rus awaits selection on the
ramp at Auschwitz-Birkenau.


Auschwitz is approx.
 37 miles W of Krakow.

 50 degrees, 02 minutes
 19 degrees, 07 minutes

Jews from Subcarpathian Russia undergo a selection on the ramp at Auschwitz-Birkenau.

Jews from Subcarpathian Rus undergo
a selection on the ramp at Auschwitz-Birkenau.

Auschwitz was the largest
of the German
concentration camps.
 It consisted of Auschwitz I (main camp);
Auschwitz II-Birkenau (extermination camp); Auschwitz III-Monowitz, also known as Buna,
a labor camp;
and forty-five
satellite camps.


"On the Ramp"

From "Defy the Darkness: A Tale of Courage in the Shadow of Mengele"
by Joe Rosenblum with David Kohn, Praeger Publishers, 2001.

I had slipped away from death once again. I was assigned to clean up at the ramp, and that was one of the best jobs around, especially since the hospital closed. But being on the ramp also forced me to witness more death, desperation, and fear than any human being should have to see. What I saw there made me sick to my soul.

I worked the night shift, from 6:00 P.M. to 6:00 A.M. There were about 140 of us on each shift. The Nazi cause looked worse than ever. Rommel had been defeated in North Africa, and the Germans were determined to exterminate as many Jews as possible.

The sounds, sights, and smells at the ramp were so grotesque the Germans had four six-hour shifts working there. They  were not concerned about us, so prisoners had only two twelve-hour shifts.

My new job required me to wear a special uniform of dark green pants, shirt, jacket, and a small round cap, all with white stripes. We wore this outfit so guards would know we were prisoners who were not supposed to be sent to gas chambers or work camps.

Before we went to the ramp for our shift, each of us had to shave and wash. The Germans worshiped cleanliness, especially in this despicable situation. They wanted us to be presentable and neat, as if we were preparing for a day at the office.

The Germans also wanted us to be both fast and efficient. We had to work quickly, because there was almost always another train waiting with its own load of human cargo. Behind that train was another, and then another, in an endless parade of death. The prisoners were almost always Jewish, packed into each car like herrings.

A few minutes after each empty train left, a full one arrived. The whole process, from emptying the train and dispatching the prisoners to their fate, to unloading corpses and baggage, took thirty minutes. Of course there were other matters such as one train's leaving, another's arriving, as well as testing car couplings, all of which expanded the cycle for each train's stay to an hour or more.

Almost every train stretched for half a mile. On our shift, we would go through as many as ten trains a night. That meant Mengele disposed of perhaps ten thousand to fifteen thousand men, women, and children in a single shift, nearly the equivalent of the entire population of my hometown.

The more night's darkness cloaked the ramp, the more frightening the place became. When each train rolled in billowing black smoke and squealing brakes, my job was to jump forward and slide back the cattle car doors. When pulled together, those doors formed a single hinge along their common seam. The hinge had a pin in it. I pulled the pin, which was attached to one of the doors by a small metal chain, out of the hinge, then flung the doors open and jumped back.

We were forbidden to talk to or touch anyone. The Germans didn't want us panicking the people on the train by telling them where they were and what was going to happen. They might revolt, and then the guards would have to massacre them with gunfire. That method, although emotionally satisfying for them, wouldn't be nearly as neat and orderly as herding them off to the gas chambers. Order is what mattered most to the Germans.

The prisoners were processed so quickly they weren't given much time to panic and create a mass uprising against eighty guards. Even with the German­made rifles the guards held and the Lugers the Gestapo and Mengele carried in holsters, the Germans were badly outnumbered.

Still, it wouldn't have mattered. It was like flies on an elephant: the Germans would have gunned down everybody in a second. That's why I never saw anyone try to escape. There would have been no point. The prisoners were always surrounded by electric wires, armed guards, and dogs.

Guards constantly watched me and the other ramp workers from a distance of about ten feet to make sure we didn't talk to anyone. Even so, when the guards turned their backs to patrol another cattle car, the people would always ask me, pleadingly, in Yiddish, "Where are we?" I had learned to talk out of the side of my mouth so the guards couldn't see. With my lips barely moving, I would whisper, "Auschwitz."

Their next reaction was as predictable as it was painful to watch. Their faces would turn gray and bulbous tears would begin to well up. They'd put their hands to their heads and start shrieking and sobbing--especially the old women and men. They knew what a short road lay before them. The word was quickly passed along to everyone else.

Despite such terror, fear made the whole process astonishingly quiet. Fear has many stings. People were afraid of dying, afraid of being beaten before they died, and afraid that if they cried, something even worse than death would happen to them.

The SS all had large wooden poles. If somebody asked them a question, they would hit the person who asked it. If people made noise or started shrieking, the guards would scream and hit them in the head, beating people until they crumpled onto the ground.

Also, the guards always had ten to fifteen leashed and snarling German shepherds. Oddly, I never saw the dogs attack a single person. Their real function was to sniff out anyone who was hiding under the train cars after the selections had been finished.

Just the dogs' snapping and snarling probably would have deterred people from making noise. However, the guards' constant beatings also were sufficient. It only took a few assaults before everyone on the ramp grasped that silence was required.

The result was a strange and passive quiet, punctuated by shrieks and wails which were quickly muffled. There was a constant undertone of people sobbing into handkerchiefs. They would cry whenever they could. Almost all of them cried when they saw the crematoriums spouting flames, but they were too terrified to be very noisy about their emotions.

They had other reactions which could not be suppressed, however. Many times, when people discovered where they were, they would start vomiting or lose control over their bowels and bladder. The results stained the ramp with various-colored messy piles. The smell they imparted mingled with the smell of sweat and fear to create a stench that was as disgusting as it was frightening.

The children reacted both to that smell and to the fear they sensed from the adults. However, the guards with their sticks and dogs so frightened the children that even they were subdued. The kids still knew what was coming and they did cry, though much more quietly than anybody would expect. Young and old knew they were excess baggage to the Third Reich.

As for the baggage and other belongings they had, that's why my crew and I were there. The people almost always were carrying small, battered suitcases or food in wrinkled bags. Large suitcases and trunks weren't allowed. The Germans had told these people they were being relocated. They also told the Jews that they should leave large valises behind, that they would be delivered. Indeed they would be, but not where the people expected.

When the people from the trains heard they were in Auschwitz, they immediately dropped or threw away their scraped and battered belongings and their food bags. Sometimes they would drop them in the railroad cars, sometimes on the ramp, sometimes elsewhere. Dealing with those sacks and suitcases was part of my job. After the people left the train, I and the ramp workers were assigned to run into the cars to clean out debris, whether it be sacks of food or corpses. I was amazed when I entered my first railroad car and saw graffiti penciled on the walls.

Those writings in the smoky and dingy cattle cars were proof that even though the Germans had said the Jews were being relocated, a lot of them didn't believe it. The people would scrawl on the walls who they were and where they were going. They tried to leave some mark, some way for people who cared about them to know what had happened to them. They were making a feeble attempt to find some way to exist beyond their final stop.

People had heard about three death camps. They knew Treblinka and Majdanek were to the east and Auschwitz-Birkenau was to the northwest. So they would write Treblinka, Majdanek, or Auschwitz-Birkenau on the walls of the cattle car, depending on where they thought they were heading.

They sometimes would write out their names and addresses and their occupation. The handwriting generally was shaky, as though it had been scrawled quickly or by a sickly hand. A typical message would say, "This train delivered people to Treblinka. This is the end of the road. Help yourself in any way you can."

Some people heeded the warning. Often, the train car's windows were broken.

Most of the cars held a small pane of glass perhaps three feet high and two and a half feet wide. The occupants would knock out the glass. Whoever was skinny had the best chance of snaking out the window and jumping to the ground when the train slowed down.

The railroad car messages touched me at first, but I quickly coated my feelings over with indifference. There were so many notes, and I saw so many atrocities every night, I became hardened.

It was pure self-defense. I became resigned to my being in a death camp and to the fact that I would die. I knew there was no way out, though my occasional fantasies about having a family and a business sometimes ballooned large enough to blot out my darkest thoughts.

Often, those of us who worked on the ramp would talk to each other about our desperate situation. I myself participated in many such conversations.
"We're going to die," someone would say, bitterly.

"What can you do about it? We can't fight seventy or eighty SS with guns," I'd reply.

"There are electric wires all around us. There's not one chance in 20 million we can escape."

"Why was I born Jewish? We would be better off to be born rats. Any animal has a better chance than we do."

"And we're supposed to be the Chosen People."

I would say these things almost every day. I always hoped to see the Germans run for their lives. In reality, I was just waiting for my own death to arrive.

Even people on the trains who hadn't known their final destination was a death camp realized the facts soon after they got there. Flames from the four chimneys were stabbing for the sky in the night, like giant candles burning brighter and uglier than the flames of hell. The crematorium fires gave off considerable, though wavering, orange and yellow light. The illumination wrapped the whole ramp in a radiance which flickered and danced across the terrified faces in the night. The ramp also was lit feebly by naked bulbs strung up on poles, adding a cool and eerie feeling to the hot, dancing chimney fires.

The smoke was so thick it made everyone's eyes feel they were burning into their skull; sometimes it made the light from the flames shimmer. In addition, the stench of burning flesh and bones was so nauseating that those of us who worked on the ramp had to wrap towels around our faces in order to breathe. We just left the towel loose, leaving our eyes exposed. The fastidious Germans clamped white handkerchiefs over their faces.

Occasionally, when the fire diminished a little and the smoke started to rise, ashes would fall upon us. These were soft, black, wavy flakes of what had been breathing, living human beings only minutes before. Such sights and sounds, happening as they did while the camp was wrapped in the black shroud of night, terrified everyone there to their marrow.

In the beginning of my time on the ramp I often said to myself, "This is the end of the world. It's tearing me apart. I can't stand another minute of it. But if I don't, I'll die, too."

No matter when each new train arrived, Mengele was always there, his boots no longer polished to a high shine by my hands. Even that bow to Mengele's personal fastidiousness had stopped after the hospital had closed. Even so, Mengele still arrived dressed in full uniform, his jacket buttoned to the neck. His three doctors were behind him and several SS captains with chests full of medals stood nearby. All in all, his entourage numbered about a dozen.

He was a very moody man, but when he was at the ramp he was all business. There, he hardly ever gave me his half-smile, though the three young doctors often acknowledged me. Sometimes I would even have small conversations with them.

Before a train arrived, Mengele stood lost in thought, with his arms crossed, watching the train and its cattle cars pull into the station. Once a train stopped, he snapped to attention. After the train had halted completely, the people inside the cars were forced to carry the dead and dying and put them in a pile. If there were too many dead, our group helped. By that time, the guards had taken their place by every cattle car door.

Mengele would stand ready at his usual spot, twenty feet from the train. Whatever he did, he did slowly, methodically, and in small steps. After the trains had been emptied, the people were lined up and marched toward him. He never said anything. He just pointed his finger at the person at the head of the line, then pointed again, designating in which line that person should go. The guards would push and shove, or sometimes carry, that person to the designated line. Then the next person would be presented for judgment.

Prisoners from the trains were assigned to one of three rows: one for able-bodied men, usually between the ages of sixteen and forty-five; another for able-bodied women about the same age but without children. Prisoners in these lines were forced to change into prison uniforms and were shipped out that night, or the next morning, to slave labor camps or factories in Germany or Poland. Germany needed the extra hands. The Allies already had taken back a lot of Poland, Estonia, Czechoslovakia, and Russia, cutting off large pools of slave labor.

The third column was for those who could not work: the old, the sick, the women with children, and the children themselves. People in that line were sent to the gas chambers.

I despised being on the ramp, but I still thanked God I was protected by the underground. They were watching out for me, even though I could no longer deliver secret reports to the outside.

It could have been worse. I could have been a Sonderkommando.
Through the underground had made sure I didn't become one, I kept in close touch with the Sonderkommando group. On the ramp, my thoughts often would drift off to them, because many of them were my landsmen. I slowly had gotten all of them jobs at the hospital after I paid for my own position. It hurt to think about the way they would end, especially Hymie and Nuftul.

Thoughts of my friends often were interrupted by reality. After Mengele had dispatched each trainload, we would continue cleaning up. After we had picked up the belongings, we had to wrap them into bundles to be sent back to Germany. We would put caps in one pile, blankets in another, pants in yet another. Then we'd tie the piles and hoist them onto trucks to be taken away.

l hated the lifting. It was tough work, and I was getting very little to eat. One big benefit of working on the ramp was that we could keep any food we found. The guards were constantly searching us, but if we found something to eat, that was fine with them. Much of the time we ate it right there. They enjoyed seeing us behave like animals, grabbing food from the mud and stuffing it into our faces.

Even with the extra fruits and bread I was finding, I wasn't eating much more than a subsistence diet. I didn't have any calories to spare. I knew that if I continued to do the heavy lifting the ramp work required, I would weaken and might even be injured, making me a candidate for gassing.

I also hated the smell of the people. When the trains carried them in, many prisoners had been in transport for weeks. The stink was terrible. The worst smell I encountered was at almost the beginning of my time on the ramp. A long train arrived from Tunisia and Morocco. We knew which countries Hitler had conquered by the nationalities of the people on the trains. This particular transport had been rolling for more than five weeks, and the people had been given no water, no food, nothing.

When we opened up the cars, almost everybody had died. In fact, some of the corpses had started to decay. Many were filled with maggots and other creatures we could see crawling inside the remains. Some of the corpses had decomposed so much the bodies were no longer whole, and we carried out individual arms and legs. The stench made us gag and vomit repeatedly, so we had to wrap our rags and towels around our faces very tightly.

Then some trucks rumbled over to the ramp and we picked up the intact corpses--men, women, children--by the legs and shoulders and lifted them, while trying to keep a grip on their decaying flesh. We tossed them into the trucks, which then drove to the crematorium.

Even the stink of the live people, who had been on trains for days, and the sweaty smell of fear, were making me feel sad and disgusted. The children's muffled sobbing, though, really stabbed at my heart and made my head feel it was exploding.
"These children are a half-hour away from being killed," I'd say to myself, trying to hold back my own weeping.

To save my strength and my sanity, I created my own job once more. I had cleaned up after Mengele before, and I decided to do it a second time. After my earlier experience creating my own job, I kept a shovel and a broom hidden in some bushes. It was time to get them out again. I knew the German love of cleanliness and order, and the ramp was generally messy. In addition, when the people on the trains saw what was about to happen to them, they would throw away lots of food, including packages of tomatoes, pears, and plums.

The guards and captives moved around a lot, squashing a lot of the fruits and vegetables under tattered shoes, dirty feet, and jackboots, turning the ramp and the area nearby bright with the colors of smeared fruits and vegetables. Germans hate such a mess.
The mess they hated worse was the result of prisoners' losing control of their bowels or vomiting. The small mounds on the ramp would pile up and begin to stink. I decided to take advantage of the German revulsion.

One night, I retrieved my shovel and broom from their hiding place. For about fifteen minutes, I carted corpses out of the cattle cars and loaded suitcases onto trucks. Then I started sweeping, and all those messy splotches on the ramp and on the grounds began to disappear. Mengele and his people loved it.

I used the routine I established the first night I tried this trick: spend ten to fifteen minutes unloading the train, then get my broom and shovel. Lots of times Mengele, the three doctors and the SS men would be standing near some of these piles. Mengele and his people would back away from the debris so I could clean up.

They look relieved I was doing it. They didn't want to step into any of those clumps. I was keeping all that stuff away from them, they thought, so they wouldn't mess up their boots. My cleaning up appealed to the German sense of order. That was why they thought my doing it had to be their idea.

Each evening, I continued to clean up the ramp; then I would move to the area next to it, and, finally, to the parking lot, where the gas chamber trucks stood. As more and more people finally realized what was happening, they, too, threw away their possessions and food. Even more of them lost control of their bodily functions. At that point, amid the trucks, smells, smoke, and chimneys belching fire, these people didn't have much doubt about their fate.

I had my priorities clearly in mind. I tried in every way to look out for my own good. I first combed the ramp for food among the dead's possessions. Then I looked for things I could barter for food. If I found anything, I always shared it with my friends. That's the way I've been all my life. This is my nature.

Children were my next priority. The best part of this job was that there were messes in many places throughout the camp, so I was allowed to go anywhere I wanted to go, a freedom nobody else had. I turned that fact toward saving the lives of many children.

After the first two months I was on the ramp, the policy on children changed.

The Germans needed more and more workers in factories and camps, because they were losing manpower and the war. Mengele now was sending women accompanied by children to work camps instead of gas chambers. However, he still executed the children.

When that new policy began, the children routinely were taken off the ramp and put into a line on the other side of the train. They weren't allowed to return to their mothers, who were being shipped off to detention camps that night. When the Germans had enough old and sick people to be gassed, the children were mixed in with that group and taken off to their death.

The children's ages ranged from infant to middle teenager. Most of them sensed something was wrong. After they'd been separated from their mothers, I heard them crying and yelling, or just making animal-like sounds. From the other side of the train, I could hear the wails of the mothers whose children had been taken from them. Hearing these people cry out made my heart and head hurt. Many nights, even now, I can hear their terrified screams and their hopeless cries.

I decided to do something. One night, I took my broom and shovel over to the side where children were lined up. When I arrived on their side, about fifty children were mixed in with the old and the sick. The old people were wailing "This is the end of us," and holding their heads and each other.

I saw the children's twisted faces, their tear-filled eyes, and my skin started itching. The kids could sense where they were going. Many were crying, "I want to see Mommy. I want Mommy."

"Come on," I whispered. "I will take you to see Mommy."

I grabbed three of them, all between the ages of five and seven. I put my hand over my mouth to show them they had to be quiet. Then I motioned them to follow me. Like little ducklings waddling after a mother duck, they followed me as I crawled under a railway car. We emerged on the other side, where the women were standing.
It was just the right time. The SS had left. Their main purpose was to be there when a train came in so they could force prisoners to go where the Germans wanted. After a train was gone, there was nothing for the SS to do. By that time the women would be taken off to work camps very shortly.

Each of the children found his or her mother. Most of the people from the same street in a town would be bunched together. When the children spotted someone they knew, they also knew their mother was nearby. I didn't stay around for gratitude. I had to get back to my broom and shovel so the Germans wouldn't suspect me.
Every night for three months, I repeated the same routine. I only did it once a night. If the SS had spotted me, they would have shot me. I took so many chances doing other things, I couldn't afford this risk more than once a shift.

I deliberately picked children ages five to seven. They were old enough to be mobile and to follow directions. When I told them to be quiet, they listened. They also were small enough that the mothers could hide them on trains until they reached work camps.
There, at least, the children would have a fighting chance. Prisoners were beaten and starved in those camps, but they weren't systematically executed, This was late in the war. I'd heard from Max Stein that Hitler set Theresienstadt, a model combination work camp and city in Germany, to show off to the Red Cross.

The Nazis wanted a few kids in these camps. If the children were sent along with their mothers, at least they would be left alone. I heard the same thing from prisoners being transferred from one work camp to another.

The risk was worth taking. If the children had stayed in the gassing line, they would have had no chance. I heard later some children I helped did survive, though I have no way of knowing.

l did it for another reason as well. Every night I thought to myself, These kids could be my own brothers and sisters. This was just something I had to do. I couldn't save them all. I feel bad I could save only a few.

Aside from food and a chance to save some children, there were other rewards for working on the ramp. I found valuables. One time I found a bag of onion rolls. I started eating, when my teeth hit metal. It was a gold coin. So I bit into another onion roll, then another. There were fifteen onion rolls; each had a gold coin inside.

What could I do? The guards were searching us every second day, so I had to put the coins somewhere. By this time, the Germans were losing the war badly, and the Swedish Red Cross was visiting occasionally.

The Germans now felt obliged to put on a good show. We had never had mattresses before. Now, the Germans had issued sacks of wood chips to sleep on. I wrapped my gold coins in toilet paper and stashed them in my mattress. The next day, they were gone. Some people working in the barracks were probably looking. They always seemed to know. I wasn't upset. It wasn't as though money was being stolen from my parents' house. Here, we all knew we would die soon.

Somehow, my continuing fantasy of having a family and a business still sustained me. But every waking moment, I also faced reality. I continued having complicated feelings for the rest of my time as a prisoner.

Another time I was cleaning up and spotted a diamond ring. Unfortunately an SS captain, a cripple on a cane, saw me grab it. He stepped right on my hand, and I had to let go.

"Give it to me," he growled. I had no choice. This wasn't the last time he would make me suffer.

Aside from Mengele, the biggest threat to my personal safety was Hans, the Kapo , a German Jew. Hans was in charge of the 140 ramp workers on the night shift. He was about five feet, six inches. Pockmarks pitted his face. He liked beating us with the standard-issue cane, about an inch in diameter and three feet long. Hans enjoyed making people suffer and wanted to prove his loyalty to the Third Reich. By this time, Germany was so obviously losing the war most other Kapos had stopped beating us. Not Hans. Sometimes, when we would return from work, Hans would make us run double-time. Usually we could keep ahead of him, because we had eaten some food we had found near the ramp and had extra energy. But if Hans caught anybody, he would pound him repeatedly with his cane. He didn't need any excuses to beat us. He also ran through groups, assaulting whoever was in his way.

What Hans and many of the other Kapos did to us was beneath human behavior, especially what they did to their own people. The Polish Kapos treated the Poles badly; the Czech Kapos treated the Czechs badly. They treated us all as if we were animals, they tried to turn us into animals, and they acted as if they were animals themselves.

Once we got inside the barracks, though, we were fairly safe. I had an afternoon work routine which, I am convinced, helped save my life. By 7:00 A.M., we had to go to our bunks. Nobody dared disobey, but we didn't have to be in the barracks all day. So, after I slept for a few hours, I walked to the latrine, about a quarter of a mile from our barracks. I searched for discarded razor blades and soap chips, and I'd always find some of each.

I'd use the soap to lather my face, then squeeze at least one last shave from an old razor. I'd also wash my clothes and my body and hair. It may have been cold water, but it was water. I'd rinse off my shoes and comb my hair. That way, I felt fresh and clean. Sometimes, I even had a friend cut my hair.

Many of the guys didn't bother to shave or shower or do much of anything for themselves. They were disgusted with their lives, and they looked and smelled dirty. Keeping myself clean is, I am convinced, one of the reasons I survived. The Germans didn't like a man who smelled.

I felt that as long as I kept myself clean and did my work I was reasonably safe--as long as nobody knew that I was a member of the underground or that my sweeping job was nobody's idea but my own. My broom and shovel now let me wander around the camp almost at will.

We still had Sundays off--unless there were selections--and all of us could move around wherever we wanted. It always seemed ironic to me that the Nazis rested on what many people consider to be a day for religious worship.

I could even talk relatively freely with the Sonderkommandos then, though such contact was technically forbidden at any time. I knew what went on in their part of the camp. They would take whatever valuables they could from the corpses, then use these valuables to bribe the guards to smuggle them liquor, food, that kind of thing. They also would pay the Germans to let them talk to other prisoners through the barbed wire surrounding their camp.

Because I knew most of this group, I talked to them frequently and lifted their spirits by telling them how badly the war was going for the Germans. The camp atmosphere had changed. By now, the German war effort was in such shambles that the guards were openly muttering about it among themselves, and of course we overheard them. The engineers, still surveying fields for the master race's expansion of Auschwitz, openly talked about it when they were in the camp. And prisoners from countries such as Holland, now arriving daily at the camp in transit for work camps, openly talked about how the Allies were winning. The crumbling of the once-mighty German war machine was an open secret.

The Sonderkommandos, sealed off as they were from most of humanity, were unaware. Even though I couldn't deliver and retrieve messages anymore for the underground, what I did know about the war's progress was more than enough. One time Nuftul again asked me, "Joe, how come you got sent to the ramp and Ne ended up being sent to work in the crematoriums?"

"Just my luck," I replied, with a straight face. Letting even him know my secret was too dangerous. I wouldn't even have told my own brother.

One day I got word that Hymie and Nuftul would meet me at the Sonderkommando fence in back of their camp at six o'clock in the morning. When I showed up, one of them embraced me and said, "Joe, come with us."

"Are you crazy? The guards won't let me into your barracks."

"Don't worry."

I never found out how much it cost them to get me past their guards or to bribe the ones in my barracks to ignore my absence. Once inside, we sat down between two bunks in the back of the barracks. My two friends started swigging vodka out of a bottle, then passed it to me. I took a long, long, swallow. There also were pieces of bacon, bread, and salami on small pieces of paper, a feast that could have fed all of Barracks 8.

Hymie looked at me, sadly, bitterly, with a face pinched by fear and the witnessing of too many deaths. Slowly, reluctantly, he said, "This time is the last time you will see us. In a week, two weeks, maybe three weeks, we will be dead. They will gas us."

I looked at them in shock. "What do you mean? You know damned well Sonderkommandos are allowed to live longer than that. What the hell are you talking about?"

They both looked at me with sorrow.

"It's the last time, Joe, because we're going to blow up a crematorium," they both said at once. Then they started a frenzied binge of laughing, crying, eating, and drinking. I was stunned. After what seemed like several minutes of silence, I asked, in a squeaky voice, "When?"

I was frantic. These two were my last close friends in this world. The thought of their being gone seared my stomach and head more than I can describe.

"Two weeks. We need your help. We have the dynamite and detonator. Can you get us wires for the detonator?"

"Definitely," I said. "But why? Why are you doing this?"

"We want the world to know what is happening here. And even if the world never knows, we want to slow up the killing. Our deaths have to mean something. There will be one less crematorium," Hymie said in a voice hissing like a snake ready to strike.

Then we drank and ate. We talked about people we knew from our hometown. We talked about the guards, about women. We talked about everything except the awful fate that awaited them, no matter how their daring plan turned out. We spent most of the day talking, drinking, crying, hugging, and kissing each other on the cheek. This, we knew, would be the way our lives would come to an end.

I'm next, I thought, feeling very lonely.

When the party was over many hours later, my legs were too wobbly to stand up. I wasn't used to eating food, let alone absorbing huge quantities of vodka. Hymie and Nuftul carried me over to an ambulance.
They called one of the SS to help. The three of them carried me inside the ambulance and swung me onto the table. Then all the vodka was pumped out of my stomach. When I became conscious, I saw the SS man leaning over me.

"Whew, that guy is really loaded," he laughed.

The SS and Gestapo had become a lot friendlier. The Germans knew the war's end loomed, and they didn't want anybody remembering their brutality--as though any of us could forget.

That night I went to work. The trains carried in people from all over the world, and sometimes their possessions were bound together by electrical wire. After the load of prisoners had been dispatched and the crew was bundling the belongings left behind, I'd find any electrical wire available, then untie and hide it. When nobody was looking, I pulled up my shirt and wrapped the wire around my belly.

I'd arranged with Hymie and Nuftul that whenever I had some wire to deliver, I would go to the back of their barracks, walk casually, then, at a spot we'd agreed on, quickly scoop up some dirt, drop the bundled wire from my palm, replace the dirt, and walk on. The movements required only seconds. After about six deliveries, Hymie sent word they had enough wire.

As the seemingly never-ending parade of black locomotives chugged to the ramp, I was surprised to see how many people from ghettos or even concentration camps the Germans were piling in. This change raised opportunities for revenge, a chance to pay back the Jews and others who had turned against their own kind to gain an extra slice of bread or a more comfortable bed. The most blatant example I saw occurred in September 1944 when the Jewish policemen from the Polish city of Lodz were brought in. Among them was Chaim Rumkowski, president of the whole ghetto, as Lazar had been in our town.

Rumkowski was getting the same reward as Lazar: death.

The Lodz Jewish Council, through the Jewish police there, had turned in about fifty Jews who had been underworld members in 1940. These guys had been thugs, thieves, and con men. Like Lazar, they'd have people steal for them, then ransom back the goods. The men had committed all kinds of crimes, except murder. Strangely, in Birkenau they were a closely knit lot, but kindly. A few had become powerful Senior Block Inmates, including Morris the Hasid, to whom I had paid the fifty dollars to get my job with the Czech.

There was also Blackie, who got his name because he was so dark-skinned. He had been a thief and a con man in Lodz, but here he was a man whose word was good and who took care of his people. It was Blackie I went to when I wanted a job for someone. I did it so often he once looked at me and asked, "Who else are you going to bring in here? Your uncle? Your cousin? Your nephew? No babies, Joe. I draw the line there. They're too young," he said, his dark skin framing a smile bright enough to light up the sky.
Even though they usually were good people, Morris, Blackie, and the others had vowed revenge on the Jewish policemen who had captured them. One night, the former thieves had their chance. They spotted the Jewish police contingent from Lodz emptying out of one of the cattle cars.

"We're going to have our revenge," Blackie whispered to me. "We're going to get them gassed."

The policemen didn't know which line was which. Mengele had put them into the group that was going to live and be shipped off to labor camps. Then a couple of the Lodz underground group, including Blackie, walked over to the Jewish police, looked them in the eye, then pointed over to the death line. The policemen, not knowing the difference, meekly obeyed and were marched to their death.
They joined Rumkowski, who was old and lame, and was being carried to the crematorium on a litter.

"Take a look," Blackie whispered to me. "Now he's in a litter. He sent a lot of us to the camps. Lots of us were gassed. It's his turn."

Rumkowski didn't know what was happening. He turned to me, of all people, and asked, "What goes on here?"

"Can't you smell? Can't you see the fire?" I replied, anger and revenge in my voice for what he had done to my friends.

"Where am I?"


"Oh, my God," he said, smacking his forehead with his palm. Then he started reciting a Jewish prayer as two guards picked up his litter to carry him away.

There he was, a man who had been rich and powerful, in charge of a city out of which had poured the products of enormous factories. He thought he would save himself by doing the Germans' bidding. As they had for Lazar, the Nazis ultimately had more use for him dead than alive. I felt no sympathy, no pain. Rumkowski was a traitor and deserved a traitor's death.

Later, I talked to Blackie about what they had done to the Lodz Jewish police. "You did what you did. I guess you had to do it," I told him.

"We were pushed out of the ghetto because we were in the underworld. I didn't know any better. I considered it my job, which I went to while people were sleeping in their beds. But we had a heart, and this guy didn't," Blackie said, looking grim.

In the late afternoon on a day in October 1944, about two weeks after I made my last drop, the entire camp shook and trembled. We saw a large smoke cloud hanging over the crematoriums. Then the Germans were everywhere, whistles and sirens blowing, machine gun clips clicking into place.

The Germans were in various states of dress, even in their underwear. Even so, they ran to the crematorium. I could see the guards and the SS surrounding the Sonderkommando barracks. Then I heard machine gun fire ripping through the afternoon. If anyone escaped, I never saw it. I am sure Hymie and Nuftul, my brave and beautiful friends, along with many others, were executed immediately, then taken to the ovens. A big puff of smoke and fire erupted from one of the crematoriums, even though no train had been there for an hour. The other ovens, though, seemed untouched.

Good-bye, Hymie. Good-bye, Nuftul, I grieved inside myself. At least you're fighting back. At least you made your death count for something. Thank God people are starting to do something about this mess, even if they are going to die. Let the Germans feel how close the end of the war is coming. That will be our victory, because by the time the war will be over, we will be dead, I thought.

I was always angry that the United States, England, and France had never launched an attack to destroy the crematoriums. They had the power to do it. At least Hymie and Nuftul died heroes.

Soon after the Sonderkommando uprising, I thought my own life was in deep jeopardy. The German war effort had been deteriorating for some time, and the Red Cross from Sweden and Switzerland was inspecting our camp periodically. The Germans apparently felt pressured to show Red Cross workers something which could be passed off as benign, even though it actually was part of their evil plan.

So, the Nazis used some slave labor to build a new gas chamber near existing ones in the rear of the camp. After the new structure was finished, one thousand of us were forced to line up outside it.

"We're going to give you a shower," said one of the guards, sounding almost gleeful.

We knew what that meant. We knew about the other gas chambers, and we knew the showerheads were dummies. We also had watched the building being built. We knew where the gas outlets were, and we knew where and how the gassing would be done. It was very similar to the others. The way they were going, if Hitler had more time, they would use this one, too. All of the others were being used at full capacity.

Then one of the soldiers ordered all of us to march through the doors of the structure. It looked like any other gas chamber. It was built of brick. It was one big room, about 150 feet wide, 200 feet deep, and 14 feet high. The floors were gray cement. The walls were whitewashed plaster, with eighty or more showerheads each. The lighting heightened our sense of danger. The building had only a dozen low-wattage bulbs whose weak illumination encased the room in a dim, dingy, and menacing aura.
No use wasting a lot of light on people who haven't much time to live, I thought.

We knew what they were going to do to us. Most of us had survived many months, if not years, in this place, and we were under no illusions.

"Go into the extra room, take off your clothes, and leave them there," one of the guards barked.

We shuffled into the room and left our clothing, then went back out. We lined up underneath the showerheads.

We were sure our time had come. Most of us had been together for years. We knew this time would be the last we'd see each other. We started shaking hands and crying.

"This is it," I told people. "Like all the rest of us, we're going to die. Cry all you want, but it won't change anything."
People who shouldn't have had any tears left started sobbing. We heard some prolonged hissing. Then the pipes in the building started to rumble and shake. We knew our time was at an end.




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