WALK IN MY SHOES

Collected Memories of the Holocaust

WORLD WAR II AND THE HOLOCAUST

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Gross-Rosen: Slavery and Scavenging

as told by Peter Kleinmann in his autobiographical memoir.
 


Peter Kleinmann.

 

Within a few minutes l was put on a cattle car with about 120 men. I was enveloped with a fear that words can only hint at: it was as if I had become the fear. My father was gone, my mother was gone, my sisters were gone. I had not seen my brother in four years. My community disappeared before my eyes. I was alone.

The door of the cattle car was closed and locked. It was black. I could not turn or even lift my hand after we were herded into the car. As me eyes got used to the darkness I could see through the slats. There was not enough light to recognize faces. Although it was so crowded that I could not move, I have never felt so completely alone. When the train started, something was shoved through the small openings on each side of the car. Because I was tall, I was able to grab what was tossed in. I didn't know it was bread because the texture was unlike any bread I had ever held, the taste, unlike any bread I had ever eaten. It was like sawdust.

 I ate some and put the rest in my jacket. The first decision I made on my own was to save some bread for later. I wanted to eat the bread but couldn't because whatever was in it made me thirsty. This was my first encounter with the hunger of the camps. Hunger, like a good friend, was always by my side, while, at the same time, was the tyrant I carried with me for the next 11 months.

People were collapsing, but it was so dark that I realized this only when I started to lose my balance and found myself standing on bodies. I had to remain upright because had I fallen, I too would have been trampled to death. It was too crowded to get up. Falling meant dying. I did not want to step on bodies but instinctively did, to maintain my balance to save my life
.
Surviving meant standing and standing meant killing and the survival instinct overrides everything.

Men were moaning, whimpering, and shuddering, making sounds I had never heard. Cries of prayer reminded me of the Day of Atonement when we ask who is going to live and who is going to die. In contrast to my recollections of the past during the train ride to Auschwitz, now memory was all I had. It was what temporarily distracted me from the horror of the cattle car and the dread of the future. I was struck with the change in my perception of my past. My memories helped me to survive. My past had become a retreat into which I could escape. Only a week before, I would not indulge in even the slightest recollection.

There was no pail, so no decisions had to be made in this regard. I lost control and urinated during what must have been the night. My first reaction was that of warmth and then relief from the cold. Seconds later I was again cold and wet. Losing control of a body function was the first of a series of surrenders.

When the train stopped and the doors opened, we were blinded by the light and assaulted by screams of “Raus! Raus!” as the SS, Wehrmacht, and Kapos ordered us to disembark.

We were at the outskirts of a village in Poland--Gross-Rosen. l realized the stench on the train was the scent of death when I saw 30 or 40 bodies being pulled out of the car and loaded onto wagons. The Germans expected and were prepared to remove the bloated, misshapen corpses. There was no dignity in this world; even in death men were heartlessly hurled on top of each other to be carted off and disposed of callously, as if they were waste.

We lined up and were ordered to march in rows on a country road. There were thousands of us marching through the village of Gross-Rosen to the labour camp, located on the periphery of the town.

“Where am I?" "How long?" "What am 1?” Continuously I asked myself these questions. “What could be next?"

We marched through narrow gates with the Arbeit Macht Frei sign posted on the side. It struck me as odd to see slogans posted. The signs I was familiar with were geographical pointers. These signs seemed to be conveying a message with a thematic meaning. The numbers on our jackets were recorded by inmates clad in the same striped uniform I had just received. I wondered if I had entered some hitherto unknown kingdom. There were many similarities between this place and Auschwitz, both in appearance and in the citizenry.

We, the new inhabitants, were directed to a large open area where there were a gallows and a pole with a bell on top. I was struck immediately at how much smaller this working camp was than the place I had just left, Auschwitz. Although the camp was smaller, there were many more people assembled in the Appelplatz than there had been during the roll calls in Auschwitz. There were probably about 7,000 to 8,000 men wandering around. I searched for a familiar face. People were difficult to recognize with their shaved heads and striped uniforms. I saw a couple of people from Munkacs--Adler and Schwartz. After seeing them I did not want to recognize people, l felt ashamed and embarrassed for them and myself.

Schwartz was short and stocky and although I did not know him personally, I knew that he was a lawyer. Two months previously he had been a dignified well-dressed, and respected man in the community. In Gross-Rosen he looked hideous, like a caricature of himself. A few weeks later, the folds of skin on his face would be all that was left to testify to his former corpulent self. There was a craving in him now that had not been there before. I wanted to avoid this beastly need.

Adler was a working-class peer of mine. Although we had the same right to dignity and respect that Schwartz had, the reality was that it had not accrued to us. It was awkward to see Schwartz dressed as I was and in the same despondent state of being.

Time was difficult to measure. A free man uses time to order his life; when to eat, when to sleep, and when to go where. Time has no meaning to a prisoner. When I arrived in Gross-Rosen it was clear to me that I was a prisoner and my time was not my own, so it is impossible to say whether we were in the Appelplatz for an hour or for three. Time was not ours to control and we did not measure it. On the day of my arrival we remained in the Appelplatz until the inmates returned from their work in the quarry and the Messerschmidt factory.

After, we were counted—an official with hand-held loudspeakers announced that everyone must remember the numbers they were wearing. From then on we would be referred to only by number. Use of our names would result in death. We were never given information about the future. Before being assigned to a barrack we were given our first meal in two days: a bowl of soup unfit for human consumption.

The barracks were smaller than in Auschwitz, each holding 300 to 400 men. I tried to get a lower bunk--a wooden plank without a pillow cover, or mattress. Exhausted after having stood on my feet for 48 hours, I fell asleep.

"Raus! Raus!” The hollering seemed louder maybe because the barrack was smaller. We were sent to the running water located outside the barrack, to splash ourselves with cold water. Once back in the barrack we were ordered out again and given the regulation piece of bread and cold coffee by the door and counted in front of the barrack.

We were counted first as a group, then divided into smaller groups of 50 or 100. Marched to respective work areas, we passed six or seven inmates playing musical instruments. When describing this now the image takes on a surreal characteristic. Today, when I visualize the band whose members were inmates seated in an open field playing marches as thousands of emaciated skeletons in ill-fitting striped uniforms passed by I am struck with the absurdity and utter senselessness of such an ordeal. This recital occurred twice a day as we went to work and returned. But 50 years ago, the music was just a variation to the noise of the usual yelling and screaming and the barking of dogs. At night, there was a constant drone in the barrack with 400 men moaning from the fatigue, pain, and a sense of helplessness that permeated every minute of our existence. The noise was exaggerated due to the structure of the barracks, which did not include any acoustic buffering. Occasionally the music distracted me from the constant hunger that was overcoming me. I never looked at the musicians and they never looked up at me or the men who passed by. There was no contact. This, too, was bizarre, for music is a form of communication. To be so close to musicians without any kind of exchange seemed entirely unnatural.

My first destination outside of the barrack was the quarry. There we lifted stones onto wagons that were then pushed to a rock pile and emptied. This was done over and over for eight to ten hours a day. I think I worked for about three or four weeks in the quarry. There were SS men who came in periodically. People from the village were employed there but were forbidden to speak with us. The Kapos had sticks with them all the time and if I slowed down they would beat me. If an SS man was nearby, the Kapos administered the beatings with great vigour and enthusiasm to impress their superiors. Sometimes men did not survive the clubbing. This meant the Kapo had an extra ration of food that day. They patrolled constantly, like Vultures circling, waiting for their prey to fall.

Although we worked under virtually all weather conditions, once during a torrential downpour it became impossible to move the wagons in the heavy blanket of mud that covered the earth. We were assembled and marched for half an hour to the Messerschmidt factory. Each of us was assigned to work with a civilian who had a bench with a vise, lathe, and other metal-working tools. The man I was with spoke Polish. I was able to communicate with him because of the similarity between Slavic languages. I knew that the work inside was much easier than in the quarry. I tried to please him and be as helpful as possible. I asked him if I could return the next clay. He didn't answer me but when the Kapo passed by, the civilian requested me to work with him again. On his next round, the Kapo recorded my number without saying a word to me. The next morning my number was called during the roll call. I was sent with other workers to the Messerschmidt factory. I didn't ask where we were going because it was already clear to me that withholding information about our future was one of the Nazis' goals.

I was assigned to the same worker as the day before, and was so relieved to be working inside that I took off my hat and thanked him, "Dequi barzo.” This startled him but he did not acknowledge me. It was forbidden for inmates to speak with civilian employees, so I will never know if he requested me out of kindness or because I was useful. I don't know whether this peasant chose to work in this factory or if he too was forced. It made little difference, for choice was not an option during the war for someone from a Polish village. There was no work alternative for the village peasants if they declined employment in the German-owned factories that used either the inmates for slave labour or the so-called civilian labour. Labour is a scarce resource in a war economy. In the sphere the Nazis created, it was absurd to judge choices made by using the ethical standards of my previous life. To this Jew, working with this man at that time meant the difference between life and death. I had begun to lose weight and strength. In the intolerable conditions of the quarry men were not able to last working more than six weeks if they were not clubbed or shot first. l saw more people murdered in the quarry than in any other work place I was in.

I assisted this man every day from the end of June until September 1944. In the Messerschrnidt factory l filed, sanded, and cut pipes, polished metal, and did any other job he asked me to do, including cleaning and sweeping our work area. I tried to anticipate everything that he needed. I observed and attended to anything that I could. The Polish man indicated daily to the Kapo that 83150 should return. He never knew my name. I too did not know or dare ask him his.

A horn blew before every lunch break. The civilians ate outside while the inmates were counted and their food rations distributed. After receiving my ration I went outside. Not every horn that roused us was for a lunch break. If an inmate was missing we had to stop working, file outside and wait until everyone was accounted for. This disturbed the man with whom I worked.

I became a scavenger, constantly on the lookout for any garbage that was discarded by the civilians. I gathered paper bags to use in the latrines, asked for the cucumber peels, radish stems or any scrap of food riot consumed by those whom I thought it safe to approach. As time went by, focusing my thoughts became increasingly difficult. I thought of nothing but how to obtain food. I realized that I would not survive, even under the improved conditions in the factory, unless I was able to supplement my meagre rations. I took more risks in my approaches, not only to civilians, but also to a man wearing a German military uniform. l looked to see if anyone was watching and, without making eye contact as I passed him. I asked. "Can I have a piece of bread?" I had recognized this man and knew his lunch-break routine. Repeatedly I asked him over the course of several days."Geben Sie mir ein Stuck Brot?"

One day he had a small parcel with him and as we passed each other I slowed down in case he had something in it for me. He looked to see if anyone was watching and then dropped it on the ground. I turned, picked up the parcel, put it in the pocket of my pants, and immediately covered the bulge it made with my jacket. Inside was a piece of dry bread. He continued to show the same generosity, risking his life daily by leaving a parcel for me.

During the time I was in Gross-Rosen these were the only two occasions on which I had any social contact or a kind gesture was made towards me. These were shrouded, in a necessary veil of secrecy. If this contact had been recognized as an act of kindness either I or the German soldier or my Polish workmate would have been shot or severely punished. It was mandatory for prisoners to take off their hats when passing any man in a German uniform. When passing this German soldier I removed my hat as I said. "Dinke Shane." He acknowledged this with an expression of gratitude, pierced with sorrow.

In contrast to this kindness, during the lunch breaks some of the civilians treated me as if I were an animal, hurling vegetable peels different distances to watch me scurry and scramble to retrieve them. I have wondered whether they did this as a foil to protect themselves in the event that they were caught or if they enjoyed this heartless play. The man I worked with threw vegetable scraps that were thicker than those thrown by others. He did not tease or badger me, rather he avoided any eye contact and thus minimized the chances of being observed by others. Every night as I left the factory, I thanked him and said good night.

At night in the barrack, the inmates who had pilfered potato peels would put the peels in a can with water and cook them in the oven. The inmate who was in charge of watching the fire received some of the cooked peels for looking the other way.

There were people of many different nationalities in the camp—French, Germans, Hungarians, Poles, and Russians. Jewish inmates had few privileged positions working within the camp, such as those coveted in the kitchen, disinfection rooms, infirmary, latrines, or in the yards. My Kapo was a Polish Jew and was merciless.

I prayed every night before I went to sleep, hoping that a miracle would occur. l thought we would return to the outside world and it would be possible for things to be as they once were.

We, the inmates, had a day off every second Sunday. On that day Aplicing, so named because we were supposed to wash ourselves to get rid of the lice, we were given the much-needed opportunity to go through our clothes and check for lice. It was almost impossible to avoid catching lice in these crowded conditions, where people lived on top of each other, swarming in a mass of bodies. The only thing that differentiated us was our numbers. We were all slave labourers without families, names, or anything that distinguished us as individuals. If any of these beings were so badly infected with these disease-bearing creatures, I would attack him to keep him away from my social space--that crucial arms length that is too great for a louse to vault. Its hard resistant body, which gained in endurance and strength from the inmates, is a testimony to natural selection. These little creatures were my enemy number two after hunger and before man.

Oddly enough, I engaged in a kind of play with these animals. During the Aplicing, we, the inmates, enjoyed our leisure time... engaged in our own kind of destruction, crunching lice. In my delirium, each crack was cause for rejoicing for I reigned victorious over a thwarted attempt on my life. This bug held within its nature control over my life. It was able to determine whether I would live or die, not with the gesture of the hand, but simply by being. I enjoyed this activity, the execution of a louse, because it was a form of play and so different from the usual daily routine of submission. The merit and pleasure was derived almost exclusively from distraction.

We washed our uniforms and took a cold shower in a disinfecting room. If we were lucky we had kerosene to wash ourselves and our clothing. l sprinkled kerosene on the seams of my clothes and anywhere the lice could be hiding. If people did not go early to the laundry room they would not have time for their clothes to dry, so they avoided washing them. But if you did not wash your clothes, the number of lice bites during the next two weeks would become unbearable. I wanted to avoid scratching myself at the workbench. I was afraid my Polish workmate would not tolerate me assisting him if he knew I had lice. Sometimes I chose not to wait for my food ration on Sunday morning because I desperately wanted to shower and disinfect my uniform. During the selections, the SS would look for scratch marks on the inmates and these people were among the first to be removed.

As more people were interned in the camp, the frequency of the selections increased. The selections were always the same--usually at night after returning from work, during roll call; as we stood in line, an order was made to remove our clothes. Two SS men walked up and down the rows examining us, one in front and one from behind motioning, usually with a whip, to those who did not pass the inspection. These men formed another group, which increased in number as the group being inspected became smaller. The SS had the power to decide with a glance the fate of a man. The only indication that a selection was taking place was that the count took place in front of the barracks and not at the usual Appelplatz. The selections made among those working in the Messerschmidt factory resulted in fewer men being removed than in those made among people from other work places. Skilled labour in the factory was more difficult to replace than manual labour. Rumours circulated concerning the fate of those who were selected. I did not know for sure what became of these people then, but what I was sure of was this: it was better to be in a place you knew than to go somewhere new.

One night after I returned from work, and after we had been counted, I saw a truck unloading beets. I ran to grab as many as I could, eating them while stuffing them in my pants. I traded all the beets I could for a cap or a piece of bread. The caps were valuable for repairing holes in shoes. The bread was not as bulky as the beets and, therefore, not as visible. It was also easier to conceal the bread overnight. The next morning when I went to the latrine, I noticed my urine was red. I was sure that it was blood. If you were sick in the camp, you were brought to the infirmary and didn't have to go to work that day, and depending on your state of despair, perhaps fortunate to never return. It was a risk that I took, and one that the inmates took only when there was no other option. I thought I was bleeding, so I went to the Kapo and told him I wanted to go to the infirmary. He sent me. I encountered an SS man and two inmates wearing white coats. They came to me and first asked for my number, questioned the nature of my illness, and then demanded an urine sample, which I had to produce on the spot. Before the next morning, the diagnosis was given. Two men came and attacked me with clubs saying, "You stole beets and ate them! Where did you get them?

The men who beat me were soldiers, not the doctors. If you faked an illness, they really made you suffer. I went back to the barrack all bloody and washed myself. The Kapo asked me what happened and I told him I ate something bad. Had I told him the truth, I would have gotten another beating.

The hours of the inmates' clandestine trading market were restricted to evenings after we returned to the barracks. I did not smuggle anything of value into the camp, so the only materials I could use for bartering were the clothing and shoes I was able to remove from the bodies of those who died in the night. This required the cooperation and strength of other inmates. Once the clothing was stripped off, we had to remove the body from our bunk so the Kapo would not be able to identify the area from which the corpse came. The people in the vicinity were at serious risk. Removing bodies was permissible and obligatory. We would lay the pants or jacket on top of the corpse in order not to be discovered stealing. Had we taken the clothes outside, we would have risked being caught. Shoes were the most valuable items, jackets were never touched. It was too dangerous to be caught with anyone else's identity. This was punishable by death.

The day was Yom Kippur. Jews prayed with such intense fervor. It reminded me of the cry of prayer I had heard in shule on Yom Kippur. According to Jewish tradition, on the Day of Atonement, the fate of everyone is sealed in the book of life. That night I repeated the words of prayers recited on this holiest day of the year:

On Rosh Hashanah their destiny is inscribed, and on Yom Kippur it is sealed. How many shall pass away and how many shall be brought into existence; who shall live and who shall die; who shall come to an untimely end; who shall perish by fire and who by water; who by sword and who by beast; who by hunger and who by thirst; who by earthquake and who by plague; who by strangling and who by stoning; who shall be at ease and who shall wander about; who shall be at peace and who shall be molested; who shall have comfort and who shall be tormented; who shall become poor and who shall become rich; who shall be lowered and who shall be raised1.

As I repeated each way of dying, I imagined that this might be my death and this would be the last time I would say this prayer. How could it be that only a year before I was with my family in a synagogue reciting the same prayer? At that time, more than 50 years ago, it was impossible for me to comprehend how differently I was to understand the meaning of this prayer in only a year. In Munkacs, only a year earlier, the words "who shall live and who shall die..." had no meaning within the context of my destiny.

In Munkacs on Yom Kippur, I repeated within a communal setting the prayers reminding man that his fate is not in his control. At this time of the year all men are obliged to make amends with their enemies. It is a time of reconciliation. On Yom Kippur in Gross-Rosen, l was reminded in memory that one's fate is sealed for the coming year, but this year I knew and realized this truth because of the reality that surrounded me. Those who are convinced of their beliefs do not need reality for confirmation of their beliefs. They are comforted with their faith. Years later when reflecting on this incident, I recognized that interpretation and reality are indelibly woven.

The ration that day was not the usual soup. It was a milk soup with what appeared to be noodles. Yom Kippur is a day on which Jews abstain from all food and drink. Since I was a Bar Mitzvah and had publicly declared my responsibilities as a member of the community, I had always fasted on this most sacred of days. The Nazis, in their cruel, tortuous manner, tempted us with this soup. In this same vein, they punished the observant among us who did not violate their religious obligations and consume the soup.


 

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  Peter Kleinmann  

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