WALK IN MY SHOES
Collected Memories of the Holocaust
We were desperate. Every morning after the work crews had gone past the guardhouse and out to work for the day, about fifty Kapos and SS men formed a line standing shoulder to shoulder to go from the back side of the camp up to the guardhouse. Whomever they found, they sent to the crematorium.
The sweeps generally caught twenty or thirty people daily, though as the war went on and conditions grew worse, they caught more. Later, I would see the sweeps at work. the SS, Kapos, and Gestapo would cover the entire width of the camp, with their hands held out to their sides, almost touching fingertips.
Whoever they caught had to walk, limp, or crawl in front of them, like sheep being herded to slaughter. Most of them couldn't walk. At best, they were limping, but crawling was something they refused to do unless their bodies were too drained of energy to do otherwise. Instead, holding their arms around each other for support, the doomed men wobbled upright on spindly legs, using their last ounce of strength to lose their lives with dignity. They were pushed out the gate and to the hospital, which was about a quarter of a mile away. There, the prisoners were picked up by trucks and taken to be gassed.
One exception to the death sweep was the night shift people, who worked in an area called Canada. They gathered food and baggage and helped to unload boxcars when the death trains rolled in. They slept in a special area in one of the barracks, and none of the SS or Gestapo dared to disturb them. The Stubendiensts controlled who got in and out of that section, so the guards had no reason to go there.
I knew about Canada, and I knew that nobody could get a job in there because it was filled with people who had been there much longer than I. Largely the people who were there seemed to be tradesmen, including bricklayers, plumbers, and electricians. They knew what kind of haven Canada was because they had helped build it, so they quickly got themselves assigned there. I also discovered the hospital had the best jobs in the camp.
Then we got lucky. We spotted Hans Eisenstein. Hans was a golden angel, a Jewish Kapo. He had a reputation: If you couldn't find a job, see him. He would take care of you. He had lots of connections, and he looked German. He must have had women all over him before he ended up in the camp. He knew a lot of people in Birkenau and had compassion for young guys like me. He was fifteen years older than I was, a big man with a big heart. Later, he would be demoted to picking up rubbish, probably for being too soft.
He had been here a year before I arrived and had been made a temporary Kapo to move stones on the road near the hospital. Frank and I were desperate to find a new job. That day we were wandering near the hospital, along with several other people who looked as thin and full of pain as we were. Somehow they also had avoided the morning death sweep. Hans raised his arm and motioned for us to come over.
"I need some extra people to help clean up in the hospital and the barracks. It's only for a couple of days. You guys interested?" he asked with a smile containing the brightest teeth I'd ever seen and a look that radiated compassion. He knew we'd be gassed if we didn't find a safe job very fast.
I learned during my work under Hans that there was a sudden flurry of activity. A lot of barracks had been built quickly near the hospital, and I had helped build them. About half of them had thirty to forty triple-decker bunk beds. The others had seven hundred to eight hundred people. The big ones were for the dying. The smaller ones were for those who had a chance to live. They had all been built in about eight weeks.
Now, everybody knew the hospital was being opened and that Josef Mengele was moving to our camp. I had heard many things about Mengele from some of the Kapos, who knew him from Auschwitz Number One. They knew what kind of monster Mengele was.
I heard that Mengele was the reason new offices and a laboratory had been built in Birkenau. I also heard a lot about the rest of the camp. I could see that droves of new construction crews were being brought in after my group arrived.
What I saw during my few days working near the hospital startled me. I had been around dead people a lot by now, but this was a new experience. I knew only Gentiles were there, never Jews. Jews and Gypsies didn't get sent to the hospital. Germans wouldn't waste valuable bed space or medicine on them.
When the murderers weren't looking, we used to run into the hospital to urinate, and we would look around like animals sniffing for food. I saw teachers, lawyers, white-collar workers, all European nationalities. These people, mostly middle-aged, weren't used to this kind of life. Before I returned to use the toilet again, many of them were dead.
I also saw that they got food packages, and these were thrown out. The Jews had no family left, and nobody knew where they were, so, even if they had been in the hospital, they never would have received food packages. What a discovery! I tried sneaking food out of those packages, but the Germans were watching too closely. At least I knew the packages were there.
While I was working near the hospital, I kept looking for a steady job. I knew this job was temporary. While I was cleaning the hospital, I saw a detail working on the hospital roads.
I asked the guys which barracks they were in and who their Kapo was. They were in Barracks 8 and their Kapo was an old Czech guy. I saw him once wobbling by on a cane. I didn't approach or say anything to him. He would have killed me if I'd tried. Still, I figured out I wanted to be in that old Czech's squad.
After several days, Hans told Frank, me, and several others he had bad news.
"I hate to tell you this, all of you, but the temporary job is over. I've got to hire people I already know for my permanent work crew. I feel bad about this, I really do. But you know how it is in here. First you have to save the people you know."
We all nodded, with our eyes down. This could mean going back out in the winds, the snow, the rain. It could mean our death.
I've got to find something for Frank and me. We've got to stay alive, I thought.
We had to scavenge for jobs; we had to find a way to work that wouldn't expose us to the cold, the starvation, and the beatings. I knew that a few prisoners actually worked in each barracks every day, cleaning up and carrying in soup pots.
That's what we can use. An indoor job. No rain, no snow, no beatings, and maybe we can sneak a little food on the side, I mused to myself.
Then I was struck with an inspiration. I knew there were some prisoners who worked inside the camp cleaning up the roads, garbage, papers, and clothing that littered the grounds every day. They went to work after the death sweep. People who had jobs were in the buildings or in their barracks, so they were unharmed.
I had spotted a wheelbarrow, two shovels, and a broom, which were lying in back of the guardhouse every day. The guys who used them were supposed to clean up after the line went through. They usually left their equipment in that spot.
I created a plan. The next day, Frank and I reached the guardhouse before the line did and picked up the wheelbarrow and shovels.
"We've got to do this if we're going to last for another day. No questions asked, we have to do it," I told Frank. I could feel my heart thumping so hard I thought it would burst out of my chest. God forbid anybody should figure out Frank and I didn't really have a job. Every day I prayed, "God help us. Look out for us. This is our last chance. If we get caught, we are minutes away from death. God, please answer my prayers."
When the SS, Gestapo, and Kapos saw us, they dropped their arms, creating a space between some of them, so we could get through. As we did, they just waved and said, "Hello," figuring we belonged on the job. Then they walked around us.
As soon as we passed the line, we walked as rapidly as we could, without drawing attention, over an alley, then headed up toward the guardhouse. By that time, the line had disbanded. There was no window in the back of the guardhouse for anybody to see us, so we put the wheelbarrow, shovels, and broom back where they belonged in exactly the positions we'd found them. Shortly afterward, the prisoners who were actually supposed to use them showed up.
There was a drawback. Out on the jobs, the Germans brought us some lunch, little as it was. Here, we had no food, so we had to go find it. But by now I knew about the food packages at the hospital.
Now that our wheelbarrow and push broom trick had worked this first day, Frank and I were free t do what we needed to do; look for food.
"Let's go to the garbage bin," I told Frank. "Who knows? Maybe we'll have an international banquet."
There was only one garbage bin, about six feet high, fifty feet long, and twelve feet wide. Frank and I picked up garbage and litter around the grounds, slowly edging toward the bin. Several Germans passed by without saying a thing. When they saw us working, they figured we were on an assigned job. We picked up garbage for about a half hour. We knew the garbage was thrown out first thing in the morning, and we wanted to get to the top layer while it was still fresh and we would be the first ones to plunder it.
After looking around to make sure nobody was looking, we climbed in. The smell hit us right in the face. It made us gag so much, we had to cover our nose and mouth.
Most of the food was coated with bright green mold. When we opened up the bread, sometimes there were a few bites that hadn't turned green. The odor nearly burned my eyes out, but I couldn't afford to let that stop me. I knotted a handkerchief over my mouth to keep from gagging and then went on digging through the debris.
The food usually was wrapped in brown and stained paper. Sometimes it was just lying there. We ate every unmoldy crumb we could find: bread, potato peelings, meat left over from the guard's table. We would shove the small crumbs into our mouths while we looked for more. I drooled and coughed and licked my fingers.
I knew I couldn't eat the mold itself. It tasted like poison and burned my mouth. I did, however, eat most things. I tried a piece of bread with salami. It had been there so long it had worms on it, gluing the pieces together. We ate whatever we could, even the food that was congealed and gummy. Much of it had maggots on it. We brushed off the maggots and ate.
I thought of my mother and how much she once would have disapproved of my table manners. I knew she'd understand now. I also knew I'd sunk about as low as I could sink in order to survive.
"If I've become only a
little better than an animal, is it even worth saving my life?" I confided
to Frank. "What have I become? How much longer can I survive this way?
Somebody's going to catch on to our wheelbarrow trick or figure out
that if we're in the garbage bins we don't really belong in the camp, that
we should be out on work details. How much longer can I survive this way
without being gassed?"
Another inspiration struck me. All of the dishes in that camp were washed every day, but there was a constant shortage of clean dishes--or dishes of any kind--even so. In my barracks, I found a Stubendienst in charge of getting our quarters cleaned up and getting food. I asked whether he had any dishes to wash. I'd also noticed my barracks was short of dishes.
"Do you need any help or do you need more metal dishes? Do you want us to wash the dishes?" frank and I asked him.
"Ja, ja, we need dishes. They're dirty, they've all piled up, and even when he have them all clean we don't have enough," he said. "The bastards never give us enough. If you can get dishes, I'll give you some soup and a little bread."
I started washing the dishes, feeling my hands and arms luxuriate in the cold water, which my body heat turned warm. Meanwhile, Frank went to the next barracks, and, when nobody was looking, stole about twenty-five clean metal dishes and brought them to our barracks. When the Stubendienst saw all the old dishes were clean and there were new ones, he was thrilled.
"Take some soup for yourselves. You've done us a big favor," he said, waving his hand magnanimously at the soup kettles.
The next day we made the same offer to another barracks. Then Frank stole the twenty-five dishes he'd taken the day before from our barracks. The barracks were perhaps twenty feet away from each other. While I was washing dishes, I also watched to make sure the Stubendienst in the barracks where Frank was stealing the dishes didn't come into view.
This routine went on for six or eight days. We always got the same response. The Stubendienst was so grateful for having all the dishes cleaned and acquiring a lot of extra ones that he let us take some soup and a little bread. One time when I talked to a Stubendienst, I got a big bonus. I asked him whether he needed some dishes, and whether he could help me.
"Where are you from?" he asked, his eyes narrowing just a little. In this camp, you learned not to let your emotions show in any way, shape, or form.
"Where in Poland?"
"You wouldn't know it."
He started trembling.
"My parents were taken to eastern Poland to a small city near Treblinka. Name me some names."
I rattled off several, then said, "Miedzyrzec. My city."
"Oh my God, you're from that city?" he said. I could see his eyes widen, and his hair almost stood up. His eyes moistened.
"Yes, I was born there. Why
would I lie to you?"
So I told him the story of my city, how the Germans had occupied it, how the ghetto had been shrunk and shrunk and shrunk, and how the Jews who had no place to live had been crammed into synagogues, factories, warehouses, as though they were pieces of meat or piles of clothing. How the Jews who had been uprooted would go from door to door, begging just a crumb from the Jews who had homes there.
I told him how we would give them whatever we could, although we knew it wasn't enough and that more people just like them would come knocking on the door that same day. And how, even though we were all in desperate circumstances we all treated each other with dignity through our pain. And how most of us eventually were hunted out and shipped off to Treblinka or Majdanek, then gassed within the hour. I told him everything.
"Now I know what happened to them," he said, softly, little bits of moisture rimming his eyes, his shoulders sagging. Then he pulled a ragged piece of bread from his pocket. He could do nothing more for me, though. I had nothing to trade. If you didn't have something to trade, few people would lift a finger for you.
Several days after I created my wheelbarrow trick, I saw two of my friends get caught up in the sweeps. Samuel and Benjamin, both nearly my age, had come through Majdanek with me. They had been in my construction crew. They had carried the walls with me. When I had still been able to march out to work, Samuel would say, "Joe, you look good."
It hurt to hear that. I knew they looked ten times worse. They were ragged and dirty skeletons. That day, both of them were so sick, so tired of trying to survive for another couple of days, they could do nothing but prop each other up. I watched as the sweep line forced them nearer and nearer to the hospital and the death trucks. As they rounded a corner, I could see them holding onto each other, limping, crying, but determined not to crawl or beg. They were treated as animals, but they, like many others, chose to die as men.
I prayed, "God, let me live just a few more days. Maybe a miracle will happen."
Then, as the fires of the crematoriums shot upward, like hell's fire, I thought about Samuel and Benjamin again. I felt deep and bitter despair, and I cried out, quietly.
"Maybe Samuel and Benjamin are better off. Me, I keep going. Someday the Germans will catch me, and then I will join Samuel and Benjamin. Why do you let these things happen, God? Why? Why? Why?"
I watched the fires stabbing higher and higher into the sky, though they could almost scorch God Himself. Then, I turned away.
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