WALK IN MY SHOES
Collected Memories of the Holocaust
It was July 1943. I turned to Jacob and the others. "Damn. For once, the Germans told the truth. We are in Auschiwtz."
Most of the other people in the car swooned. There was mumbling, even crying, over what we knew would be our fate.
We were taken to a
bathhouse to wash. It was a huge building, eight feet tall and made of
brick. We were handed bars of hard soap which smelled like oil and felt
like lime. We scrubbed and scrubbed. We were astonished that we were given
so long to wash, perhaps ten minutes, and the soap actually removed the
Inside, three French Jews were tattooing numbers into everyone's forearm. One started talking with me in Yiddish.
"Where are you from?" he
asked, in a voice that said he wasn't all that interested.
"My parents were from that city," he said, excitedly.
Then he sneaked me a piece of bread under his tattooing table.
"Come over and see me," he whispered. "You're going to be in a quarantined barracks and that's very tough. I'll give you a few more pieces of bread. You've been through Majdanek, so you're already toughened."
After we had all been tattooed, they gave us each a half-cup of soup. We met the barracks leader, a French-educated man who had been born in Poland and was the son of an important rabbi. His name was Greenberg. He was strikingly handsome. He also was the Senior Block Inmate, the barracks boss. The Germans had taken him from France to Auschwitz. He assembled us together, five abreast in our barracks.
"Don't even raise your filthy heads, you goddamned Juden," He screamed at us. Then, with our heads properly bowed, he told us how to live at Birkenau:
"You have to do whatever you're told. If you don't, you'll be whipped. This is not a sanatorium and this is not a hospital. This is a concentration camp. and you're here to die," he screamed.
Then he introduced us to his Stubendienst, who was in charge of daily barracks life, and told us what the other rules were: "When the time comes to go to sleep, after you hear two whistles, you'd better be in bed. And no going to the bathroom during the night."
His Stubendienst held up a cane, then slashed it down across the face of one of the men in the first line.
"Stay in formation, Juden; stay in formation," the Stubendienst yelled as he used the cane to slash and bruise prisoner after prisoner.
Our sleeping quarters were three-tiered bunk beds with no blankets. The bunks were three inches thick, the width of a brick, which is what they were made of, and perhaps eighteen inches high. We could squeeze into our beds by positioning ourselves on the edge and pulling ourselves backward. Once we were in, we were in. There was no turning over.
We learned that our situation was typical, that inside the barracks there were two kinds of officials who oversaw the prisoners: Senior Block Inmates and Stubendiensts. The Senior Block Inmate was the top dog. There was only one of these per barracks, and he was in charge of making sure everything in the barracks was neat and orderly, the way the Germans liked it. the Senior Block Inmate made sure the rubbish was cleaned up and the food delivered on time. They sometimes had a mattress made out of wood chips, the height of comfort by death camp standards.
Under the Senior Block Inmate were the Stubendiensts. There were generally five or six of them, some of whom, I later learned, also were Jews. The Stubendiensts controlled the barracks and gave out food. If a prisoner had a question, these were the people to ask.
Stubendiensts also called out the numbers of the people who had been chosen to die. They got their jobs the same way the Senior Block Inmate got his: being thrown in the camp early, then being crafty and lucky enough to stay alive long enough to get promoted. They had the same privileges as the Senior Block Inmates. Both slept in the same section as the Kapos and the foremen and had the same privileges.
During the four weeks we were quarantined, the Germans took us out to do a lot of jobs. Sometimes we would pull leaves from trees for cooking. Sometimes we'd sweep the road or pick up garbage, all in the rain and cold, and all while we were being beaten.
Each barracks had a barber, and ours was a short Polish Gentile who hated Jews. He would spit on us, hit us with a stick, whatever he felt like. all we could do was duck and cringe.
"No matter where we are, even in the barber's chair, we're always the punching bag," I told Jacob, who just nodded, quietly.
We had been given old shoes, but that wasn't much help. We soon discovered the ground was laced with lime, which seeped into our leaky shoes. I could feel the lime's sting on my naked, bleeding feet. The trouble was, once you put your shoe in the lime, the wet ground had such suction, pulling the shoe out was difficult.
Meanwhile, many of us lost our shoes in the lime and became barefoot. The weather was cold and rainy, and the combination of the wet and lime made the clinging soil burn on naked flesh. One time I lost my shoe, and I still had to run. If we didn't run at the Senior Block Inmate's command, we would be beaten, shoes or no shoes. Our clothes also took a beating. They were constantly soaked and often fell apart like paper, rotted by the lime and rain.
The only advantage to the lethal weather was that we were forced to work only a few hours a day. Even so, the phlegm-filled hacking and wheezing in the barracks were testament to the pneumonia we all were getting from the cold and wet climate.
One of the few consolations I had in quarantine was the tattoo artist. He was a specialty worker, so he got more food than most of us. He also had free time, and during those occasions, he would always manage to find and give me some food, whether it was a piece of bread or some salami.
Few others were so fortunate, and many of us died. Although that was sad for the deceased, it was useful for the living. When we discovered that one of us had expired, we would strip the body of its clothing and shoes.
I felt disgusted pillaging the dead at first, but my feelings soon numbed as I felt more and more desperate, recognizing that survival meant doing things I wouldn't do under other circumstances.
One time I took one shoe apiece off two corpses, because each one had only one shoe left. The shoes were different sizes and neither one of them fit right, but having them was better than having one shoe or, worse, no shoes at all. I followed the basic law of survival: Whoever found the corpse got the clothing. I, like everyone else, wanted to stay alive for another day.
"I'm doing no harm," I would tell myself, "They're dead."
So corpse-robbing was how I improved my wardrobe. After my successful shoe theft, I vowed I'd try for a jacket or pants next. Even if they were wet, I could dry the clothing in the sun. I never talked about this feature of camp life with my fellow inmates. We all had the same attitude: the dead didn't need the clothing and the living did. There was nothing to discuss.
Meanwhile, our food situation continued at subsistence level. We learned to find worms in the soil, or swat mosquitoes, then toss them into our mouths. We'd pick up roots and leaves to fill our stomachs. I learned to peel the bark off trees while I was still moving. Personally, I liked worms and roots best. They seemed to me to be more nutritious.
Even so, we were always hungry. Back at the camp, we could at least get water out of rainwater barrels. Solid food, however, was hard to come by. Fortunately, nature had provided an answer, though not an easy one. The thousands of acres we worked consisted of mostly grass, and the sounds of frogs croaking after a spring or summer rain were never far from our consciousness. Of course, they disappeared in winter.
I quickly learned the French Jews considered frog legs a delicacy. I saw one of them popping a live frog into his mouth and I almost vomited--until my rumbling stomach told me any food would do. The French Jew showed me how to peel off the skin, even while the frog was still alive. After I learned, it took only seconds to skin an entire frog.
I could only catch the smaller ones because I was younger and had small hands. The Germans, French, and Dutch were generally bigger and older. They caught the big frogs.
I also quickly learned there was no time to peel off the skin. You had to pop the frog into your mouth fast, or another prisoner would grab it from you and eat it. That happened often because many prisoners didn't have the strength to chase the creatures. These prisoners were just waiting to grab frogs somebody else had caught.
I sometimes felt almost that weak. We were getting even fewer calories a day now, and sometimes we felt too feeble even to crawl out of bed. My heart was often beating so hard it was like a carburetor sucking for gas. I would just pop the live frog into my mouth, chew it, and swallow. The taste was quite bitter. I thought a lot more about the taste than about the frogs, which I assumed were asphyxiated before they hit my stomach.
Our diet was helped a little more by eating grass. We also dug up tree roots and peeled bark off trees. The roots were bitter, and the bark tasted like wood, almost sticking to our throats. We tried to find smaller trees because the bark was softer and we could chew it. We also would break it into small pieces to go down our gullets more easily. Because of the constant rain, the ground was almost alive with worms as long as five inches. These we would grab and swallow, with no chewing. We desperately ate anything we could get our hands on.
The beatings were constant. The Senior Block Inmate's assistant lashed out with a cane at his whim. I myself was beaten many times.
I did find someone I never expected to see: Morris Tisch, son of the Tisch family, whose house was being used as German headquarters in my town and whose courtyard was the scene of so many executions. I met him one Sunday as we were both washing in the latrine. We were astonished to see each other.
Finally, after four weeks of quarantine, about four hundred of our group were still alive. When our four-week isolation expired, we were moved to a barracks we ourselves had built. We had constructed barracks without benefit of roads; the floors were packed dirt. When it rained, the floor was soaked. The only good aspect was that there was only six to eight feet of space between bunks. That meant many people stood often on whatever floor space was there. That compacted the earth, making it less sloppy after the rains.
After being moved to the new barracks, we were herded into a large field of perhaps five thousand acres. For miles, we could see only grass and trees, all green and wet. the foreman and guards were standing in formation. One of them stepped out and pointed to the large empty space in front of us and smirked.
"Here is where you will work. and here you will die. Don't expect to live through this. You won't. We have brought you here to be worked to death. None of you will survive."
Our stunned silence was punctuated only by the never-ending croaking of frogs throughout this lush land on which most of us were to shed our blood and lose our lives.
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