WALK IN MY SHOES
Collected Memories of the Holocaust
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.
We 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.
They 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.
The 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 and pounding.
They 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 frustration.
Still, 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 discovered instantly.
Every 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.
But we 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.
Inside 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.
"Maybe a miracle will happen," I said, in a low voice.
"Maybe it will, God willing," my father said hollowly.
About 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 the house.
We 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.
We 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 it."
We saw 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."
We 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.
He 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.
I 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 bunkers were.
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.
Then 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.
About 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.
During 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.
It's 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.
The 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 God?"
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.
We 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.
After 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.
I heard him whisper to me, "Joe, you'll follow me and we'll meet in front of the village."
Then 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 ahead.
Then I 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.
The 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.
They 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.
Then 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 Majdanek.
That 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.
The 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.
The 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.
We 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.
"What 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."
I saw 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.
Yudel said, "This is the end." He was almost speechless. We were all trembling in fear.
The SS 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 the crematoriums.
Sara's 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.
I looked at Jacob and said, soulfully, "We have to stay together. Now it's just you and me."
The 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.
Yudel 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 building.
I was 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.
Then 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.
"They 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 there."
But we 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 felt sickened.
"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 Jacob.
They 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 thread.
Each 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.
When darkness came, we were marched into the olive green barracks. We had to grab whatever bunk we could.
At 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 the run.
Lunch 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 filling.
Dinner 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.
During 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.
There 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.
The 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.
The 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 Germany.
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.
The 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.
A 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.
After 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 two-by-four.
We 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.
The 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.
Three 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 two weeks.
My 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.
This 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.
It 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.
One 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.
A few 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.
The 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.
When I 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.
They 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 me.
Just 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.
When I 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."
My 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.
We 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 siren blew.
While 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.
I was 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.
When I 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.
A few nights later, guards told us some of us would be transported elsewhere for a special job.
"All Jews, report to the infirmary tomorrow morning," one guard said, with a sneer.
I 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.
The 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 was overloaded.
I 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.
The 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.
The 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."
The 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.
After 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.
"Thank 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.
"It 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.
Jacob 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, Joe, I have some terrible news for you. Your father is dead," she said, weeping.
My 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.
She talked to me quickly.
"I saw 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 uttered, crying.
My 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 mist.
"I'm 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.
She nodded, then quickly ducked back to her work.
When I 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.
After 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 ghetto.
We're going to be special, really special. I wonder what they're going to do with us, I mused.
After 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."
We 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.
"You will be marched out of here tomorrow afternoon," we were told. "Be ready."
I 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 face.
Late 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 as usual.
While 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.
The 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.
"Where are we going?" I asked, out of the side of my mouth.
"This 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 Auschwitz."
I 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, lawyers, politicians.
This 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 station.
The 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.
They 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 residents.
They 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 before.
The 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 never fell.
By the 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.
I 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 thing.
The 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 five hours.
The 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.
Then the guards opened up the car doors.
"Raus, raus, raus," the guards yelled, beating us with whips.
The 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 later.
There 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.
We 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 life.
"From 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 Wilder.
Still, nobody tried to escape. Even though guards were standing on the roof, I talked to Jacob about fleeing.
"Let's break out of the window and jump," I whispered to him.
"You 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 shot."
I was feeling giddy and stupid from fear and fatigue. Summoning my courage, I said, "I'll steal a horse from a farmer."
Jacob laughed a small laugh. "By the time you get to a farmer, you'll be dead."
I 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.
After 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.
"Where are you from?" They asked us.
"We're from Majdanek," I said. "Where are we?"
"You're in Auschwitz-Birkenau now," they said grimly.
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