WALK IN MY SHOES
Collected Memories of the Holocaust
as told by Peter Kleinmann in his
“Juden raus?” was the callous order roared over and over again by the Kapos. The piercing scream of a mother who accidentally lost the grip of her child’s hand, the panic-stricken shrill of a woman separated from her husband, along with the ferocious barking and the snapping of dogs’ leads, created a bedlam of sound and terror.
That was the first time that I experienced terror. This horrible nightmare was something that I could not have imagined, and even now find impossible to believe it did and could have happened. My father held me tight by the hand. He held my mother’s hand. On the platform while we were forced forward, we were being separated by gender.
The Kapos quietly asked us in Yiddish if we had any jewellery or gold. Those who gave up their valuables were warned they would be better off if they separated from their children. Some parents wouldn’t give up their children. These people were separated from those who did. They told us to leave everything on the train but some people clung to the pecklach, containing their most treasured belongings—tefillin, jewels, and other family heirlooms.
I did not think that I would never see my mother again, in part because I presumed that it was natural that the men would be living separately from the women. My mother was wearing a black beret and a shetel and had a shawl on her shoulders. My sisters wore coats. My mother was further ahead and was looking around for us. I saw her twice as the lines passed one another but I couldn’t catch her eye. We were moving so fast that when my father and I finally got to the place where they were, she had already disappeared. I don’t know if she saw me.
This was the last time I saw my mother.
Is there an appropriate time in which to lose one’s family, one’s community, or one’s life?
The procedure of separation was accomplished rapidly. I was pushed forward and didn’t look back because we were only interested in where we were going. We moved constantly. After the women were gone, the men were separated. There was a tall, young SS man, who was inspecting us and sorting us to the right or to the left. The young, tall, and fit strong men were divided from the old, those limping with canes and or crutches, those of slight build, or those wearing glasses. If a father was carrying a child they didn’t divide them but kept them together on the side with the elderly and infirm. This second separation of men from men took much longer than that of women from men. I was still with my father and by that time dusk had set in.
I tried to understand why we were separated. The anatomy of murder had not revealed itself to me—this way to the gas and this way to slave labour. My father was above average height, very strong, unshaven, haggard, and his clothes were filthy and crumpled from the previous three days in the cattle car. I was tall and skinny, wearing long pants, tzitzit, a shirt, jacket, and cap. Words failed and expressions of comfort between my father and me were conveyed in the language of silence.
My father held on to me until I had to stand in front of the SS man. We were surrounded by Germans—some SS and some Wehrmacht. We knew the terms SS and Wehrmacht from the ghetto. The Wehrmacht wore different uniforms and carried rifles. They motioned silently for us to move forward. We walked from the platform to the barracks. There were barbed wires and double rows of concrete posts as far as I could see. There were hundreds of barracks in every direction I looked, barracks I thought were factories. Chimneys of different heights were everywhere I turned, with black smoke billowing from the higher stacks.
In the air was a most foul stench, one that I have never forgotten. I thought it came from the factories. I assumed that we would be working in them. I was in Auschwitz. If all that I know about Auschwitz now had been described to me then I still would not have understood what I was in or what I was to become a part of.
When we entered the barrack a Kapo, an SS, and a Wehrmacht man stood at the entrance and counted us as we filed past. Neither the Wehrmacht not the SS entered the barracks but stood directly outside. We did not speak—we still believed that we would be going to work. The screeches of the Kapos penetrated every corner of the barrack. In my barrack there were mainly Hungarian Jews. Everybody understood the Kapo’s instructions, which were given in Yiddish. Only one of the double doors at the entrance to the barrack was open, to control the speed of our movement, thus ensuring an accurate count. The barracks, reaching as far as my eyes could see were approximately 30 feet wide by 100 feet long and constructed of wood. The exterior of the building appeared to have been chemically treated, the interior was rough and unfinished. There were rows of wooden beds three tiers high in which seven to nine men slept per tier. I estimated there were between 600 and 700 men confined to each barrack. There were no windows and very few lights—just bare bulbs. The floors were compressed earth. It was cold and damp inside. A brick column about three feet high ran the length of the barrack. This column was connected to the stove and presumably was intended to heat the room although I never saw it used. The body odours and din of babble of hundreds of men confined within this small area were overwhelming.
The bunks were sturdy—they had to be to bear the weight of so many men. Immediately after being ordered into them I tried to assess which was the best location on the berth. The lower tier on the outside edge near the aisle was probably optimal in my exhausted condition. I would not have to climb either up the tiers or over people to get in or out. I woke up several times during the night. It was so crowded that the only way to turn over was if the entire row of men turned together. I remember feeling relief when I stretched out on the motionless surface. Three days on a train was not pleasant. I vaguely recall my father holding me.
There were two rooms facing each other at the entrance to the barrack: one for the Kapo and one for his assistant. In the Kapo’s room were two beds, a stove, and table with two chairs. One of the walls was half glass. From this location they watched us like hawks instilling fear, giving rise to a previously unknown anxiety. Kapos or inmates were always stationed at the door to watch us as we went to and from the latrine.
For the next year, I would never know the exact time. The rising and setting of the sun would be my only reference to days passing or means of measure. Without control over one’s activities time had no meaning. I seldom wondered what day or month it was.
We were awakened at dawn by Kapos running up and down the aisle between the bunks, beating their batons on the beds and screeching, “Schnell, Raus!”
Immediately we jumped to attention. It was impossible to ascertain what would unleash the wrath of the Nazis’ henchmen. Lining up in rows of five or six men abreast like animals in a pen, we were counted. The first time we were assembled to be counted it seemed to take hours. The Kapos made certain that the lines were straight. I would shortly learn that an order existed in this chaos but the rules of the like I had known had no application. This order was predicated on cruelty and barbarism. There were new expectations to confront. This was a world where silence prevailed, where life had value only if one was used for slave labour. We were counted before the SS came. A few roll calls after the first, I realized that if there was a discrepancy between the number of men listed and those present in the roll call, the Kapo’s life would be in danger.
A couple of hours later we were summoned outside again. We stood in line. Empty metal bowls were distributed by seasoned inmates. Our rations were poured from huge cauldrons containing a grayish liquid. To overcome eating without a utensil was the least difficult problem, compared to swallowing the grey unappetizing slop that was served as my first meal in Auschwitz. I could not bring myself to take even a mouthful. My father tried to convince me to eat; I emptied my soup into his bowl. In a matter of what seemed like minutes, other veterans of this camp came to collect the bowls.
The novice inmates were questioning and speculating: Where are we? What is to be? Not long after, we were ordered back into the barracks; we were ordered out again and a black warm liquid was distributed in the same bowls as the previous course. I later learned this was coffee. I drank it because I was dehydrated and cold. It was wet and warm.
I soon recognized that the Kapo had authority, I didn’t know if he was Jewish but he spoke Yiddish. I still hoped—I wanted to believe—that because he was a Jewish Kapo who had power, he could help me. I thought we would soon be working in the factories. There were no dogs here and everything was much calmer than on the platform. I didn’t know that the fences were electrified and the guard towers held SS men who eagerly awaited to shoot their next target as he ventured toward the fences. The Kapos asked us again if we had any gold and warned us that if we were found concealing valuables we would be punished. I didn’t know that we were in Poland. I assumed that we were in Germany because we had been told that we were being taken there to work. I thought that my mother and sisters were experiencing the same thing at this time.
On the second night, everybody tried to get in the same bunk as they had the first night—because it was familiar it felt safe. People resisted going to the higher bunks: climbing was labourious in our weakened condition. I lay again facing the outside and my father lay next to me facing my back. If you had to relieve yourself during the night it was necessary to get permission from a Kapo, who allowed only one person at a time into the latrines. The toilets, which could be used by about 30 or so men, were in a row and constructed from concrete. They were located in a room with pipes from which cold water ran constantly.
The third day we awoke to the same routine as the day before, with the Kapo turning on the lights and yelling. Even on the second day those of us near enough to see him identified the signals—a motion of the hand, a jolt or shove with his stick meant up and out, immediately. We were given a piece of stale bread and tasteless coffee. They counted us again and ordered us to remove our clothes. Nobody did. The Kapo threateningly held his club, screaming and shouting even louder for us to remove our clothes. The first individuals who complied gave rise to the wave of undressing that spread over the sea of men. We were told to keep our shoes on and forced to remove everything else: shirts, my father’s cap. Why would they ask us to remove our head covering? The only time I had seen my father naked was in the mikvah. Under those circumstances it was natural to be unclothed. In Auschwitz, surrounded by naked men, I was embarrassed, humiliated, and frightened. It was my first encounter with the evil that would ensue in this new world. I was speechless and in shock.
My father and I did not ask each other why because we knew that neither of us understood. All I could do was look at the limp pile of clothes by my feet and wonder “Can I put them on? When can I put them on?” I was shocked to see clothing in piles on the ground beside the nude bodies that were lined up row upon row. The men in their nakedness were mere bodies. They had lost their individuality. Everyone was the same—there were no distinctions between fat-thin, tall-short, old-young, rich-poor, even the differences that were visible became invisible. As in death, we were all equal.
About ten SS men, whips in hand, wearing heavy shiny black boots, crisp uniforms, peaked hats, black leather gloves, all the regalia necessary to convey a power that was impossible to challenge, inspected us from head to toe, Once again the fit were weeded out from the less fit. The Kapos told the men who were ordered to take a shower to leave their clothes. Those of us returning directly to the barracks brought our clothes. We were given something to eat. My father shared his food ration with me. We were counted again. The full barrack was not present because the men who were taken to the showers never returned. I slept in the same place and was able to turn over freely. We looked for familiar faces but could not find many. I was used to the distance to my bunk—I counted the rows so I could find my place. We spoke little, humiliation encroaching on our sense of self.
Following the lead of one braver man, we crossed around the Kapo to ask what was happening. He was well fed and quite husky with some kind of insignia and number on his striped uniform and cap. I asked the Kapo about the chimneys. He replied, “It is the crematorium where you and all the Jews are going to be burned. All the Jews are going to die there.”
He said it with no emotion or feeling—as a matter of fact, as though it didn’t bother him at all. I had no experience with death other than when someone was sick and died of natural causes at home or in a hospital. I did not understand what burning bodies was and thus the word crematorium was incomprehensible to me. I continued all night to try to understand what this meant. Was this another tactic to frighten us or was it possible that people were being burnt to death?
The language from my world in Munkács did not allow me to understand what was meant in this world of horror. The difficulty in writing about the Shoah is that language and reason make up the model in which our mind’s eye places the reality of events around us in order to discern meaning. The expectation that language will explain is naturally and reasonably held by the reader. It is beyond the power of language, however, to convey the savage reality of the camps. When reading these pages the reader must enter a different context, one that is threatening to the value systems common to generations. My experience challenges the belief held for millennia that man is basically good. In short, the definition of humanity must be questioned. Although we may never understand the Shoah, only the unbiased reader who is willing to shed his previous beliefs will be able to glimpse at what happened.
We slept. The next morning we were given a ration of food and counted as I would be every day for the following year. We were marched to another barrack. As we walked, we saw people outside and inside barracks, some in uniforms and some in civilian clothes. Guards were positioned in towers that surrounded the camp. I thought that they might be stationed there to protect us and the camp from an attack. Inside the shower barrack we were ordered to undress and bring only our shoes with us. I took off my shoes and held them in my hands. We were given a small beige rectangular-shaped piece of soap with a small white hand towel. The room was long, and had many shower nozzles. The cold water ran constantly. The building was made of concrete with wooden benches on which we left our clothes, never to see them again.
They took us to an open field where there were 30 or 40 wooden chairs lined up. We sat on the chairs. Men wearing uniforms shaved our heads with hand clippers. Next we were ordered to stand and hold up our arms while they shaved under our arms and every other part of our body. According to Jewish laws, men are prohibited from using a razor to shave their body hair. Even today, remembering the shock of a man holding my genitals and shaving my pubic hair traumatizes me. Another person came and marked a line on my head with soap and with a razor scraped that strip bald.
The sight of a razor on my father’s body was bewildering and completely foreign to me. All the time this was happening, people were continuously coming from the showers to undergo the same ordeal.
Nobody resisted, not even the religious men who had never taken a razor to their face in obedience of Jewish law. My father looked as if he wanted to say something but he was silent. I did not want to look around because I was so humiliated. I did not want to see my father. We were paralyzed with fear—perhaps he more than I. There were SS men overseeing the process of degradation and piracy of identity. The thick layer of hair covering the earth was the strangest sight. My hair was a part of me, and if it was on the earth separate from me, I should be with it as I would be in death, or it should have been on my body as it is in life. According to what I learned in cheder, an amputated body part must be buried with the person to whom it belonged. With the Thousands of nude men and the mounds of hair covering the ground, I had the sensation of being disassociated from myself and of being prepared for death.
Body after body, in single file, we relocated from the vulnerability of the open field to the familiarity of the confinement of a barrack. I expected to enter a barrack like the one I had been in for the past four days. However this barrack presented yet another bizarre, unknown situation. From previous experience, I had learned that a new situation was probably a worse situation. We were in a uniform dispensary. Moving from one station to another we were given pants, a jacket, and a cap while being charged at each station to immediately put on what was given and then to get out—straight-away. I again knew something was disparate. How could I wear pants without underwear, a jacket without a shirt, a shirt without tzitzit? The antiseptic smell of the clothes was nauseating. The jacket was falling off me but I didn’t dare take it off. We were being screamed at and howled at in many languages not to exchange or remove our jackets. These voices were not the voices of human beings but voices transformed into what sounded like monstrous automated recordings. This place was not of this world. Something was askew, for although I was conscious that we were alive, we were being processed or transformed into another state.
In my second-to-last exchange with my father, he spoke in soft, kind reassuring words: ”I will fix the clothes so you will be comfortable in them.”
Ich verde deine Kleidung andern damit du dich besser fuhlst.
Today, when I contrast this with the heartless brutality of those shouting ”Juden Raus,” I am reminded that man’s capacity for evil knows no bounds.
Outside the barrack where we were given the uniforms, we found ourselves in the midst of a train yard. I looked at my father’s jacket and he looked at mine and we both asked each other why there was a number and a Magen David on the strange clothing.
We lined up. An SS man bellowed to everyone in the line, “What is your profession?” An inmate who stood next to him acted as interpreter to translate our answers. People were sent to different lines depending on what they did. My father overheard the questioning and said to me, “You may say you are a lumberman and I will be a tailor. Later on when we meet we can decide where it is better and be together in the best place.” These were the last words that my father spoke to me. We were separated when asked what our professions were. Tailors to the left and lumbermen to the right.
This was the last time I saw my father.
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