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From "Defy the Darkness: A Tale of Courage in
the Shadow of Mengele"
by Joe Rosenblum with David Kohn, Praeger
Even without radios, we knew about
the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising in April
1943. The Jews there had launched an
armed rebellion against the
Germans--a revolt which ultimately
would be crushed in three weeks. A
few Jews were acting as Gentiles,
traveling between our city and
wherever they were living now. They
spread the news.
heard about it from the Stein
cousins, who had been in school with
me. They had a lot of luck going for
them: Their family was wealthy and
they had blond hair and blue eyes.
They were living away from the
ghetto. Their parents had probably
paid for phony passports as well.
When the Germans started taking
Jewish kids in 1942, the Steins also
knew many Jewish policemen who made
sure the cousins were left alone.
were two of perhaps one hundred
people who passed as Gentiles in our
city, most of whom were women. I
didn't dislike the Steins. They were
nice fellows and intelligent. It was
no crime to have money. My cousin,
Hymie Kronhartz, also heard from
Warsaw from his travels documenting
the supposed glories of Nazis
crushing their opponents.
Warsaw news made us shiver all the
more. We had good reason to be
afraid. Soon afterward, in the same
month, the Nazis completely
enveloped our ghetto with soldiers
one night. We had heard this might
happen. My family slipped into the
bunker beneath the house. All night
and all day we heard the Germans
knocking on the ceilings, walls, and
floors. We heard their sharp raps
didn't care whether they damaged our
house or us. We could hear them
scraping away at the floor above our
heads. When Jacob had built the
bunker, he'd intelligently built a
false floor underneath the first
false floor, then lifted it, all
they saw was dirt. We heard them
cursing and screaming and yelling in
we were all frightened to the point
of paralysis. My cousins had three
little girls, ages two, three and
five. The women put their hands over
each child's mouth. The children
were frightened, and their contorted
faces showed they were ready to cry.
If they had, we would have been
one of us was still. Even our
breathing almost stopped. All we
heard was the splitting, cracking,
and chopping of boards above our
heads. We knew what would happen if
they found us.
had a little food to share; a few
loaves of bread and two buckets of
water. We didn't need much to eat or
drink because we were so still. The
Nazis stopped looking for us when
darkness fell, so we would use our
toilet at night when they weren't
around. We knew they would be back
when the edge of daylight appeared.
the bunker, after the Germans had
left, my father and I had another
long talk. We decided we couldn't
flee because Yudel was too old, and
his daughters and their three young
children didn't have the stamina.
a miracle will happen," I said, in a
it will, God willing," my father
5:00 a.m. the next day, May 1, 1943,
we heard a noise. We could tell it
was the Germans, and they were
cursing and screaming again. This
time they didn't bother digging.
They called for us to come out. When
we didn't, they started firing into
could feel the sound of each
bullet's firing magnified many times
in our little space. It hurt my ears
to the point of bursting. After
several shots, Yudel was hit badly
in his right arm. We heard him cry
out. We could see the blood gushing.
"If you don't come out, we're going
to throw a hand grenade into your
bunker and burn your house to the
ground," the Nazis yelled in German.
"Raus, raus, raus, Juden,"
could tell they knew we were there.
We all looked at each other in
despair. I said what we all were
thinking: "We have no way out. If we
don't leave the bunker, they'll kill
us with fire or hand grenades.
They'll kill us here or they'll kill
us in Treblinka. This is the end of
that Yudel's face was becoming more
and more white. We took the
handkerchiefs and wrapped them
around his wounded arm. He was badly
in need of medical attention. Yudel
kept waving to us not to surrender,
but we felt we had no choice.
"Kids," Yudel groaned to all of us.
"This is the end of that."
popped up the ceiling of our bunker,
and the Germans reached in and
grabbed us any way they could. They
pulled us all up into what had been
my parent's bedroom. As we were
being pulled out of our hiding
place, we could see Nachem, one of
our neighbors, standing nearby,
shaking, surrounded by Germans, with
his head hanging in shame.
didn't really belong there. Nachem
had lived outside the ghetto, but
when his aunt and uncle were taken
to Treblinka, he moved in. He was a
Jew, but he did small favors for the
Germans in exchange for an extra
loaf of bread or sack of sugar. He
knew about our hiding place because
he and his girlfriend had moved into
our four-plex. They had heard us
shoveling and seen us carrying dirt,
so they knew we had a bunker.
heard the Nazis talking to him in
German, and they were saying they
might let him live if he found some
more bunkers. He told the Germans he
would show them where quite a few
Meanwhile we were marched down to
the marketplace. There were already
about seven hundred people just
sitting there on the ground. Shortly
after we got there, they forced us
to lie on our bellies and put our
hands on top of our heads. German
guards were pointing rifles and
pistols at all of us. We were almost
the last people to arrive. During
the next hour and a half, the
Germans collected another ten to
fifteen of us. The latecomers
whispered to our family that the
Germans had killed Nachem anyway,
despite his betrayals.
the Germans started marching us
toward the train ramp my family and
hundreds of others were forced to
build. It was a little less than
three miles away, but some of us
never got that far.
eight of the traditional Orthodox
Jews, all wearing black yarmulkes
on their heads, refused to march
and stepped out of line. They knew
they were going to die, and they
wanted to lie with their own kind in
the family graveyard. I had no idea
who they thought would give them a
proper burial, but the Germans
obliged. All eight were shot and
left on the road. The rest of us
were forced to march.
that time, the forty-five to fifty
guards, many of them teenagers, were
visibly nervous. Their trigger
fingers twitched and they kept
shouting orders in high-pitched,
harsh voices. The Warsaw Uprising
was still going on, and many Germans
had been killed there. These Germans
were in charge of liquidating
ghettos, and they had been in Warsaw
days before. They were afraid we
were going to jump them. Their eyes
never stopped moving. They had a row
of guards on each side of us.
not as though we needed a lot of
guarding. We were mostly women,
children, and old men. The young men
of working age had already been
taken. We were just remnants. After
about an hour, we reached the train
station. The soldiers leaped up on
the ramp and threw open the doors to
grimy cattle cars. We climbed in,
slowly, but they kept pushing and
packing us: the young, the old, the
sick, the healthy--it didn't matter.
Inside, there was not a piece of
food, not a toilet.
cars were filled with dust stirred
up by so many bodies. There was a
rank smell composed of cow dung and
urination, sweat, dirt, and straw.
We were not very different from the
cows. We sat down like animals, we
were sixty-five people packed so
closely there was no place to lie
down. People were crying, "Help us.
Who's going to help us? Where is
He's on vacation, I thought,
shocked by my own blasphemy. There
was no water, and the hot summer air
plus the smell of fear made the
stink in our car even more sour. We
wanted to die.
could hear soldiers climbing up on
the roof, and the clicking of safety
catches on their submachine guns. My
armpits started to gush. When the
train started up, the guards started
firing into the cattle cars, and we
all tried to hide behind each other.
Two people near me were killed. I
cringed, along with the rest of my
family, and wondered whether I would
live to see out the day.
a while, the firing stopped. By now
it was nighttime. My father kicked
out a metal window, as he had done
before, the noises hidden by the
clackety-clack of the train.
heard him whisper to me, "Joe,
you'll follow me and we'll meet in
front of the village."
he flung himself off the moving
train. A lot of people had been
jumping off the cars and the guards
kept firing. Just as I edged my way
to the window and was getting ready
to jump, I could hear the train's
brakes squealing. The Germans were
stopping the train and shooting.
There was no way for me to jump off.
My father had departed when the
guards had still been unprepared.
Now they'd recovered. The shooting
stopped, and the train lurched
could hear the popping of gunfire as
the guards on the roof--Germans,
Ukrainians, and Lithuanians--again
started firing mercilessly into the
cars. Two of my neighbors were
wounded. The screaming and
shrieking filled my ears. People
huddled up against each other as
protection, crouching as low as they
could. Still the blood welling up
around my feet as though it were
going to wash over my shoes.
smell of people dying and letting go
of their bladders and bowels, the
sound of screaming and wailing, were
almost like being in hell itself.
Six or seven or us were killed, and
twice that many were wounded. I felt
numb, but I was never touched. I
crouched down, lying between the
dead and wounded, waiting for the
Germans to shoot again.
did, and the screaming and the
flowing blood went on. I was lying
on the floor by this time, and there
were people on top of other people.
The man lying on my legs screamed,
then slumped, dead. The guy lying on
my shoulder was shot, too.
This is the end, I thought.
the shooting stopped, and the train
lunged on into the darkness until
daylight. We all thought we were
being taken to Treblinka. The train
paused in the middle of our trip,
stopping ten minutes for no apparent
reason. Later, I learned the Nazis
were killing so many people in
Treblinka the trains were backed up
for miles. We had been diverted to
was another piece of luck. Had we
been sent to Treblinka, I would have
been executed before the day was
out. Instead, at Majdanek, I had a
chance to live. When the train
stopped there, those of us who were
still alive, and weren't injured
were ordered to carry out the dead
and the wounded.
injured and even some of those who
were still intact were yelling at
the Germans, "Bandits, gangsters,
murderers." It didn't matter whether
they were silent or not. The Germans
were going to kill us just the same.
A couple of people who had been shot
in the leg pleaded with us to shoot
them. Instead, they were loaded on a
wagon and taken to a crematorium.
Germans marched those of us who
could still walk a couple of miles
to the camp. We had never heard of
Majdanek. We never knew it existed.
Learning this bit of knowledge was
going to cost many of us our lives.
were all lined up in rows, five
abreast. Our family was all in one
line. I spotted someone I knew from
my city. I was astonished. He had
disappeared three years earlier, and
we all thought he was dead. I tried
to speak to him out of the corner of
my mouth. He did the same.
goes on here?" I asked.
"They're gassing people every day,
bringing in people from all over. If
you go right, you live. If you go
left, you die. But even if you live,
you may not survive. I came here
with fifty of my landsmen.
Now I'm the only one left."
several wagons with wounded people
outside the gas chamber. We had
heard about gas chambers from
Treblinka escapees. I knew what was
happening to them. The wounded were
crying, screaming, pleading to be
shot. The crematorium chimney shot
flames, like hell's fire, and its
smoke smelled like frying bacon--but
I knew it was human flesh.
said, "This is the end." He was
almost speechless. We were all
trembling in fear.
man at the head of the line motioned
for Jacob Wilder and me to go to the
right. I knew what that meant. I
could see the women, the children,
and the old and sick were being sent
to the left. They were headed toward
and Rachel's children were crying.
As young as they were, they could
see what was coming. They could see
the ashen looks on their mothers'
faces, and they were afraid.
looked at Jacob and said, soulfully,
"We have to stay together. Now it's
just you and me."
gas chamber and the crematorium were
in the middle of the camp. There
were two lines. One led straight to
the gas chamber. I saw my uncle and
his family start to shuffle into it.
"Uncle, I don't know what to say and
what will be for all of us. This is
the end of the road," I yelled.
was speechless, the women were
speechless, the cousins knew this
was it. Yudel, Rachel, Sara, all
were walking with their heads down.
They knew. Then they entered the
taken to a delousing station, which
also was in the middle of the camp.
They gave us a bit of water in dirty
buckets to drink. All the people
here were men and boys from fourteen
or fifteen up to about forty-five.
The guards told us to take off all
our clothes except our shoes.
we went into the building and our
hair was cut off with hand clippers.
We saw a lot of lumber lying around.
The old-timers said it was from
Jewish single-family homes.
chased out the Jews, and now they're
tearing down the houses to build
barracks. Hitler is getting ready to
put a lot of people here," one of
them said. "Every once in a while,
you'll find some Jewish books in
had yet to receive any order. We
were waiting there so long in the
heat I was ready to pass out. An
hour after I saw Yudel and his
family enter another building, the
crematorium spewed black smoke. I
knew where my family had gone, and I
"Almost the last of my relatives are
disappearing. There's very few of us
left--I don't even know whether my
family is alive or not. My brothers
are dead. Now, I may be the last
male, the last in line, " I told
gave us striped shirts with crosses
on the back, which made us an easier
target if we ran. Our pants had a
big red stripe up the side, making
us visible if we fled. They gave
each of us a patch with a number on
it to sew on, and some needles and
patch had a symbol in the middle and
a number to the right of it. A
triangle pointing downward was the
basic symbol. A red triangle meant a
prisoner was there for his politics,
such as being a Communist or
Socialist. Jews had a six-pointed
star, representing the Jewish Star
of David. Those labeled who were
antisocial had a black triangle.
Some Gentile murderers had a green
triangle. I very shortly would find
out about murderers.
darkness came, we were marched into
the olive green barracks. We had to
grab whatever bunk we could.
4:00 a.m. we had to get up. The
guards turned on the light, then
yelled. "Up, up, up." We were herded
quickly to the toilets and showers
and back. Breakfast was a small
amount of gray material in a bowl
and imitation coffee, which was
mostly water. The coffee was in a
big barrel. A few prisoners dunked
cups into the coffee, then handed
the liquid to us. We had to eat on
actually wasn't bad. It generally
was a fairly thick green soup made
from a grass or plant and served in
a small bowl. It was somewhat
was perhaps a third of a piece of
bread, sometimes with a small piece
of salami on top. Each time, the
people serving us never spoke a
word. We had to grab our food and
eat it, fast. For camp food, the
meals were pretty good.
the first breakfast, though, I found
out some of the prisoners were not
like the rest of us. They were
murderers. They taunted the Jews.
They yelled, "Jews, now you're going
to die," and they pointed and
laughed at us.
were hundreds of them there, maybe
thousands. They had raped, stolen,
even murdered, and had been put in
prison for it. A background that
would have labeled people as
gangsters and trash almost anywhere
else was a first-class pedigree to
the Nazis. The murderers considered
us material to be killed, not human
beings. In a sense, we had already
been dehumanized. They addressed us
only by our numbers, and we used the
German designated numbers to address
any prisoner we didn't know by
name--a system I was to find in all
the camps where I lived.
murderers were different from us. I
could tell they were mostly
Ukrainians, but there were Germans
and Poles, too. Often, they were
either foremen of Kapos. A
Kapo was in charge of a work
group of 50 to 150 prisoners.
Several foremen under a Kapo
watched to make sure the men were
working and hoped for opportunities
to beat them. Murderers were both
Kapos and foremen.
Kapos and foremen slept in front
of the barracks entrance. Their
privileges included getting enough
food, getting better clothing, and
not being beaten. There were
twenty-five to thirty people
packing, sorting, and disinfecting
clothing in the camp. The Kapos
and foremen also got their pick of
clothing from that packing station.
In theory, the rest was shipped to
Although Kapos and foremen
had only those four privileges
guaranteed, those privileges were
the ones that counted, the ones that
let people stay alive.
Kapos got prisoners to work,
took orders regarding who was to be
selected, submitted their reports to
the SS on who died and who committed
suicide. They were also in charge of
making sure prisoners marched past
the guardhouse gate in the morning.
foreman was the Kapo's second
in command. Kapos in charge
of fewer than one hundred men had
only one foreman; those in charge of
more than one hundred had two.
Strangely, perhaps 10 percent of the
Kapos, foremen, and others in
charge of prisoners were Jews. Half
of those were real bastards and were
even more cruel than the Germans,
just to prove how loyal they were to
the Nazis. Those Jews would hit us
with a stake or a whip harder and
more frequently than the Gentiles.
person who was in charge of other
prisoners usually was someone who
had worked his way up through
murder, beatings, and sadism.
Kapos and foremen had the same
job: to drive Jews into the ground
and kill them.
breakfast, some of us were sent to
work. They were lucky. The rest of
us were taken to a no-man's-land
between two barbed wire fences. The
strip was about a mile long and
seven feet wide, with an electrified
barbed wire fence around it. Then
the murderers, of whom there were
about thirty, formed a gauntlet more
than half a mile long. Each person
in the gauntlet was about one
hundred feet from the next one, and
each one had a closet pole with
nails sticking out of it or a
were grouped in bunches of twenty to
fifty people, between the two rows
of the gauntlet. The murderers
started cursing us, yelling, "You
fucking Jews, you goddamned Hebrews,
we'll kill you," and other such
things. Then, they shouted, "Run."
We had to speed through the
gauntlet. Sometimes we fell over one
another or got our feet tangled with
somebody else's and fell down.
Whoever was on top got beaten very
badly. We each had to untangle
ourselves, then keep running. A lot
of us just passed out. When,
exhausted, we reached the end of the
gauntlet the first time, we had a
surprise. "Run back, you fucking
Jews," we were told. And we did.
Running the gauntlet took about
twenty-five minutes, if we survived.
big guys got it worse than the short
guys. I was so short I could hide
behind most of the other people most
of the time and not get hit. But
even I got whacked. I could feel the
biting hurt of a nail piercing my
skin. There was a kind of hot
buzzing, like fire touching my body,
when the nail first impaled itself
in my flesh. Then the buzzing
started again when the nail was
pulled out. Blood was pouring from
all of us, especially the tall guys,
leaving the grass in the gauntlet
looking like a splotchy red carpet.
hours passed. Most of the guys
fainted, and they were tough. Some
were Warsaw Uprising veterans. Blood
was gushing from their eyes, their
mouths. The bastards kept aiming for
their heads. This went on almost
every day, several hours a day, for
God, how long do we have to suffer
like this? How long do we have to
run the gauntlet, zigzagging back
and forth, being beaten to death? I
see blood gushing from their mouth,
their eyes, their ears, their arms
and legs. God, how can you do this?
I screamed inside my head.
was no answer to my beseechings.
Occasionally, however, some of us
got a break. Every day a few of us
were shepherded off to build
barracks for the army.
There were some Jewish buildings
there, single- and double-family
homes--some only two or three years
old--which Jews had owned until
quite recently. There were groups of
thirty-five to forty-five prisoners
ripping apart the Jewish buildings
to use the lumber for barracks. We
would either straighten the lumber
into piles or move it. There was no
particular way to know whom the
Germans would pick for this job.
They would just choose twenty-five
or thirty of us, then march us to
the work site.
wasn't much of a break from the
gauntlet. The murderers and the
guards usually beat us ferociously
while we worked, and we would return
with bloody noses, chopped-up ears,
bruises and gashes in the head.
day they were beating us, but not
severely. Then three SS and some
murderers decided to try a different
game. A group of twenty of us were
called to a part of the camp where
barracks were to be built. One of
the murderers had a steel plumbing
pipe, about four inches in diameter
and fourteen feet long. They told
everybody to straighten some lumber
piles, and I could tell something
was going to happen. We were spread
out among fifty piles, one prisoner
to a pile.
SS were there, too. Suddenly, one of
the murderers leaped for a prisoner
and threw him to the ground. Then he
and another murderer took the piece
of pipe and forced it under the
screaming prisoner's chin and onto
his throat. Then the murderers stood
on each side of pipe, rocking it
back and forth while pressing it
down harder and harder.
boy screamed and yelled, but that
sound turned into gurgling as the
pipe slowly crushed his windpipe.
The screaming deafened me. Then they
grabbed the prisoner in front of the
next pile and did the same thing.
The SS sometimes would take a turn
at standing on the pipe. If they
weren't participating, they were
applauding, laughing, and having a
good time. They acted as though this
was a carnival game.
saw what was happening, I kept
moving farther and farther away. I
had been standing in front of the
fourth pile, but when hey started
murdering people, I was one or two
piles away. Every time they grabbed
one prisoner I would duck around the
back of the piles and move three or
four piles from them.
kept coming toward me, but always
there were other prisoners and
lumber piles between us. Suddenly I
looked up and saw there were only
three other prisoners left besides
as I heard the voices heading toward
me, the shriek of the lunch siren
sounded. I was amazed. The murderers
and SS simply stopped what they were
doing, dropped the pipe, and walked
together in clusters toward the mess
hall. They didn't say a thing. all I
heard was delighted laughter at
their morning's entertainment.
was sure they had all walked away, I
dropped to my knees and prayed.
"God, God, God, please don't let
them come back. Please don't let
them find me."
prayers were answered. They didn't
return. I and the other prisoners
who survived all found each other in
a manner of minutes. We didn't say
anything. We just looked at each
other and knew this was not the end
of our misery. We surveyed the field
in front of us, the broken bodies,
black faces, tongues sticking out,
bulging eyes, bruised and broken
arms and legs. We knew nobody would
get out alive.
didn't huddle around each other or
talk. We were in shock from seeing
people murdered so brutally. We
waited, all in a little group but
each one sitting apart from the
others, until the 4:00 p.m. quitting
I was waiting, I looked over at a
fenced-in area and saw what seemed
to be familiar figures moving
around. I squinted: They were
bristle makers from my city. They
were friends and neighbors.
astonished. Later, after dinner, I
went to get water in a latrine and
bumped into Morris, Yudel's son. I
had thought he was dead. I told him
what had happened to Yudel and the
rest of his family, and he told me
that he and the others had been
there since the Germans had snatched
him from our home town. He and our
former neighbors had been making
bristles for German brushes, combs,
and other uses. Later, I found a
shortcut to their area.
finally got there, everything was in
disarray. The gate to the camp was
open with no guards, so I could run
into there and hide for a few hours
during the day. The Germans had
taken in so many people they had
trouble keeping track of them all.
So much for German efficiency.
nights later, guards told us some of
us would be transported elsewhere
for a special job.
Jews, report to the infirmary
tomorrow morning," one guard said,
with a sneer.
wanted to get out of there fast, and
I was willing to do almost anything.
The camp was near a highway. Several
times I tried to edge close enough
to it to run. However, the camp was
ringed with German shepherds that
the Nazis purposely underfed. Those
dogs followed me when I started to
get too close to the camp's borders.
If I'd tried to escape, they would
have ripped me apart.
next day, there was a marked change
in the camp. That day and the
following few days people were being
poured in from Warsaw and all over
Poland and elsewhere. The camp had
held perhaps 20,000 when I got
there. Now it held about 100,000
people. We were told all these
people were here because Treblinka
wasn't so sure. Still, the changes
were amazing. Now, if we didn't have
a job, we still had to run the
gauntlet, but only two to three
hours a day. If we had a job, they
would still beat us, though not
nearly as often.
guards and murderers had lightened
their abuse for a couple of reasons.
First, the camp's population had
expanded so the guards and the
murderers were no longer plentiful
enough to torture us personally.
Second, we were undergoing physical
examinations. We were told to form
lines. Then doctors in white coats,
with stethoscopes hanging around
their necks, checked us. We were
naked, except for our shoes. The
doctors felt our muscles, then
examined our skin to make sure it
was clear. They also put a finger up
our rectum, then looked in our mouth
and eyes with a flashlight.
doctors inspected us every couple of
days, showing each time about the
same interest as if they were
inspecting cattle, sheep, or pigs.
But the decision on who was still in
the running to go on the special
assignment were up to the SS and
Gestapo. We knew that because those
who were still prospects were
gathered in a group by the SS and
told to come back the next day. The
SS told each reject individually,
"You don't have to come back."
group to be examined for a special
assignment was pared down to 50,000.
Then 40,000. Then down to 25,000.
Then 10,000. Then 5,000. Then 1,000.
As the group grew smaller, the
physical examinations grew more
thorough. The doctors looked over
our legs, ears, fingertips.
each round of examinations, the
rejected prisoners disappeared,
probably shipped to different camps.
We never saw them again. Those of us
who still might be chosen were
treated to another round of running
the gauntlet for two to three hours.
God, thank God," I said to myself,
every time I knew I was still in the
group they were considering. We
talked among ourselves, and we
figured they might send us to fight
in Stalingrad. Or perhaps to a
supersecret weapons factory.
could be the moon where they want to
send us. I don't give a damn," I
told one of my fellow sufferers
during our endless speculation over
where and what the assignment might
be. We figured whatever it was, it
couldn't possibly be worse than
where we were. That small ember of
hope by itself helped those of us
who remained to look forward to
going wherever our destination was.
and I were still together. We talked
about getting out of there and other
fantasies. Meanwhile, I found out my
father was dead. One day, the niece
of my sister Fay's husband walked up
to me. She was toiling in the
Majdanek vegetable gardens.
Sometimes men were taken through the
area. When I was walking past, she
recognized me. Watching out for the
guards, she whispered:
Joe, I have some terrible news for
you. Your father is dead," she said,
heart ached, my head hurt, I felt
dizzy. I always felt I could rely on
my father, that having him as the
head of the family was comforting. I
had felt the weight of being the
oldest male once, and a miracle had
taken that weight off my back. Now,
I could feel it again.
talked to me quickly.
your father limping back to your
house after all of you were
captured. He said he'd jumped off
that train and the Germans captured
him a second time. Then he jumped
off the train again. Then they
caught him a third time. When he
jumped off the last time, the
Germans shot him in the leg. When
the Germans came on another raid a
few days later, the one where they
got me, your father was so badly
wounded, he couldn't escape them and
their dogs. He obviously couldn't
work, so they probably shot him,
Joe, they probably shot him," she
head started pounding. I could feel
my whole body throb. My shoulders
felt as though they had a ton of
rocks on them. My eyes started to
the only one left in this world. I'm
the last man of the family. Thank
God Sara has escaped to Russia, but
I don't know whether she's alive or
dead," I told the girl.
nodded, then quickly ducked back to
went to bed, I could feel my tears
flowing down my cheeks and across my
nose. My thin blanket bobbed up and
down as I sobbed, wailing inside at
the loss of my family, the loss of
my innocence, and the likely loss of
my own life. Nobody comforted me.
Although those of us in our barracks
were theoretically living together,
in fact, each of us were quite
alone. Every day was a rainy day in
our lives. We each had to live that
day by ourselves.
Finally, at the end of June 1943,
the doctors made the final
inspection. The examination was not
really as thorough as many we had
endured already. They checked our
hands, pinched our muscles, shone
flashlights in our ears and eyes,
and that was it.
so many examinations, I could tell
the Germans were looking for young
men in top physical condition. The
people in the group now numbered
465: I counted them. I have always
been a curious person, and there
wasn't much in the way of mental
exercise to pass the time. We were
mostly men and about twenty women in
our late teens or early twenties.
Most had been fighters in the Warsaw
We're going to be special, really
special. I wonder what they're going
to do with us, I mused.
the final inspection, nobody was cut
from the group. I guessed the
Germans didn't want to admit they
might have been mistaken. They gave
us the most superficial inspection,
just to confirm they were right in
choosing us. They wrote our names
and numbers down on a clipboard. A
doctor called us together and said,
"You'll have to wait another day to
find out what's next."
looked at each other in wonder. We
couldn't imagine what would happen.
A day later, one prisoner in each
barracks called out the names of
people assigned to the elite group.
A couple of hundred were chosen from
my barracks. Then members from the
other parts of the camp were marched
over to my barracks, because we had
so many prisoners in that group.
will be marched out of here tomorrow
afternoon," we were told. "Be
wryly wondered whether he was
worried that we might take too much
luggage with us. After all, none of
us had anything more than the
clothes on his back, a fact that I
joked about with Jacob Wilder. I
went to sleep with a smile on my
the next day, we were marched into a
shower, and we were allowed to soap
up and wash ourselves for a full ten
minutes, about three times as long
we were lathering up, we asked the
guards where we were going. "We
don't know," they replied, "We only
know you're going on the train."
However, we naturally had no towels,
so we had to put on our clothes
while we were still wet and soapy.
Then we were forced to lie in our
barracks in our wet clothing.
following day at 1:00 a.m., the
guards lined us up. Ten guards were
waiting for us. One of the guards
started to chat with me and the guy
next to me.
are we going?" I asked, out of the
side of my mouth.
is supposed to be a secret," he
said, his voice dropping to a
whisper, a crooked smile playing
across his face. "You're going to
could feel my blood freeze. We had
heard about Auschwitz. The
Germans--or rather, their slave
labor--had already built part of
Birkenau, the death camp there. I
knew Birkenau was where they sent
the intelligentsia, doctors,
time they took away our shoes. To
replace them, they gave us wooden
clogs, the kind the Dutch wear. We
put them on, but they were tight and
heavy. Then we had to run more than
ten miles to reach the train
Germans rode bicycles and were
carrying submachine guns, which they
used to club us if we didn't run
faster than the bikes. Some of the
Germans were drunk. Their bicycles
were spaced every fifty feet or so,
making it completely impossible to
escape a beating.
ran us out of the camp and right
through the local city, Lublin, to
the train station. People looked out
from the windows in their apartments
and their houses to see what was
going on. It was dark, but I could
see illumination in some of the
houses. The wooden shoes clomping on
the highway had awakened the
didn't know who we were, nor did
they seem to care. They just gawked
at the spectacle of us running in
Dutch shoes from Germans on bicycles
armed with submachine guns. There
were lots of camps in the area, so
they probably had seen such sights
shoes pinched our feet so much, and
the insides were so rough that the
blood in our feet started flowing
like water. We ran ten miles,
awkwardly lurching forward and from
side to side as we tried to stay
upright. Every so often one of us
would stumble and fall, and the
others would pick him up by the
elbows while still in motion. I
helped three or four people this
way. We tried to help each other as
much as we could. Fortunately, I
time we got there, our shoes were
filled with blood. I looked down and
saw my own shoes streaked with dirt
and small clots sticking to my shoes
and toes. Now that I had stopped, I
could feel the streams of blood in
my shoes, and I could see some of it
flowing out the sides.
looked around to see what was
happening to the others. By the pain
on their faces, and the puddled
crimson around their shoes, I could
see they were experiencing the same
funny thing was that the Germans, so
proud of how they made things work,
apparently couldn't make the trains
run on time. We still had to wait
train, consisting of about fifteen
grimy cars, finally approached the
station. It arrived slowly, so
slowly it almost glided into the
station. Then it stopped. The engine
wheezed and shot out black smoke. It
was the standard cattle car parade.
the guards opened up the car doors.
"Raus, raus, raus," the guards
yelled, beating us with whips.
cars again had carried coal before
they got to us. Three inches of coal
dust sat on the floors, but we were
so exhausted we flopped down into it
anyway. The weight of our bodies
threw the dust into the air, almost
choking us. I was next to Jacob, and
that was a comfort. A little
daylight crept in about an hour
was no toilet. We didn't have much
to drink or eat. It was summer, and
our bloody feet and our sweaty
bodies made living inside that
cattle car very unpleasant. The only
agreeable part was the almost
soothing clickety-clack of the
wheels on the tracks.
could see in the developing gray
light that we were so coated with
coal powder, only our teeth were
white. I had hoped being part of
this elite group would improve my
the looks of this train, and the
fact we're almost suffocating, it
looks as if our lives are getting
worse, not better," I told Jacob
nobody tried to escape. Even though
guards were standing on the roof, I
talked to Jacob about fleeing.
break out of the window and jump," I
whispered to him.
can hear them on the roof. You don't
know how to jump. Even if you make
it off the train, you don't know the
terrain well enough to dodge them.
They have Nazis all over. You'll be
feeling giddy and stupid from fear
and fatigue. Summoning my courage, I
said, "I'll steal a horse from a
laughed a small laugh. "By the time
you get to a farmer, you'll be
shrugged. He was one of the most
levelheaded people I knew. I was so
dazed I couldn't think clearly. I
knew Jacob was right.
about eighteen hours, we got to
where we were going. Even though it
was still dark, we could see even
more clearly that each of us was
colored pitch black, except for our
teeth. We'd had no food, no water,
and we looked like grim shadows.
Soon the car doors were flung open,
and we could see the people on the
other side were wearing prisoner
uniforms, too. We started chattering
Yiddish to each other.
are you from?" They asked us.
from Majdanek," I said. "Where are
"You're in Auschwitz-Birkenau now,"
they said grimly.