From "Defy the Darkness: A Tale of Courage in
the Shadow of Mengele"
by Joe Rosenblum with David Kohn, Praeger
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
"We're going to die," someone would say,
"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
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
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
It could have been worse. I could have been a
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
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
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
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.
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
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
"Come on," I whispered. "I will take you to see
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
"Definitely," I said. "But why? Why are you
"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
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
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:
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
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
"We're going to have our revenge," Blackie
whispered to me. "We're going to get them
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
"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,
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,
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
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
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
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
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