WALK IN MY SHOES
Collected Memories of the Holocaust
Two weeks after I had started picking through the garbage, I spotted a dull green which was not mildew. It looked familiar. I had an uncle in Detroit who used to send us money during the Depression, so I had seen American money.
This small bit of green looked very much like that. I crawled over rotting apples, bread, and potatoes. With the stink rising into my brain, I clawed at the pile where this hint of green was almost winking at me. I picked it up. It was an American fifty-dollar bill.
I almost wept, though I knew I could not betray such emotion, even around Frank. This money would be stolen if anybody knew about it. I went into Barracks 8, where all the good jobs were. I talked to the guys in charge. One guy was from Slovakia. He was a Stubendienst in my barracks, but he lived in Number 8. He was the one whose parents wound up in my city. I knew he knew most of the Senior Block Inmates, and if anybody could help me, he could. I pulled him aside, and he looked at me suspiciously .
"And what can I do for you?" he asked, knowing with the sense of someone winning the game of survival in Birkenau that this conversation had not happened accidentally.
"Can I trust you?" I asked.
"Of course," he said, giving me a small smile. "You gave me peace with my parents. Now I know what happened to them." Tears dribbled down one of his cheeks. He had been deeply touched.
It was my turn to cry. I was shocked to feel my chest heaving, my eyes dripping, and my voice so filled with sobs. "Can you help me, please? I want to get a good job. I want to be in the hospital group. Do you know the Czech?"
"Morris the Hasid knows him quite well, Morris is the Senior Block Inmate.
He talks with the Czech every day. The Kapo is a murderer. He's been here for years, not just in Birkenau but in several other prisons. They brought him in to beat and kill us. I'll talk to Morris and see what I can do. What do you have to trade?"
"Can I trust Morris? I have fifty dollars in American money. I want a half loaf of bread, a stick of margarine, a whole salami, a job in the hospital, and fifteen dollars change. Do you know Morris well?"
I knew if I asked for a lot, I wouldn't get it because there wasn't a lot of bread or salami to steal. They had enough for themselves but not enough to be extravagant. If I asked for more than they could deliver, there would be no deal and they'd just beat me up and steal the money. Still, I'd heard good things about Morris.
He nodded, his eyes widening with new respect. "I'll talk to Morris tonight."
That night, exhausted as I was, I could barely sleep. I kept the bill in the lining of my pants. I knew this piece of paper, manufactured thousands of miles away, was my passport to staying alive. If I lost it, I would be lost. I also had confidence.
I've got a good way with people. I work when they want me to work. I never stop. I keep myself clean. And this guy needs good workers so he can look good and save his job. I can do his work and outsmart him, too. I have faith, God willing, that this will happen, I thought, hoping I wasn't overconfident. Being too confident in a death camp could be a way of hallucinating away reality. If anyone else found out about my fifty dollars, I would be dead.
The next day I met the Stubendienst after work. He introduced me to Morris, the Hasid. Morris had been a thief in Lodz but was a well-respected Senior Block Inmate in Birkenau. I could feel my spine tingling, my bladder pulsating, and my sweat gushing. If this didn't work, I knew my life expectancy was short. And what was to prevent them from just stealing the money?
"Maybe you can help me," I told Morris in a voice almost husky from fear.
"Here's the situation: I've got fifty dollars American money. I would like to get a good job with the Czech, a loaf of bread, some margarine, a salami, and fifteen dollars in change."
Morris nodded his head. "OK, come in tomorrow. I'll talk to the Czech tonight."
I went to bed again with great hope. But in here, anything could go wrong. I went to see Morris the next day. My wheelbarrow-and-broom trick had worked again, and I'd spent more hours in the garbage bin. Morris knew none of that. He looked at me thoughtfully.
"I talked to the Czech," Morris said, his voice emotionless. "All he said was 'We'll see.' Come see me tomorrow night."
I left Morris and felt my heart soar. If only my trick would work for one more day, I thought this deal might happen. I knew the Czech couldn't fight Morris. Morris controlled the food, and that meant all the extra salami, bread, anything extra the Czech wanted to eat, Morris could give him--or not. Morris had a reputation for doing well by people who did well by him.
In the morning, Frank and I waved at the SS and Gestapo as usual. We almost ran back to the spot where we dropped off the equipment, then went diving into the garbage bins, wiping maggots off food and looking for something not coated with mold. I hadn't told Frank about my fifty-dollar bill.
That night, my body felt as though it were liquid. I tried all day not to think about Morris. I couldn't afford the luxury of hope, but I did offer up sever prayers. When I finally went to see Morris, his slender face broke into a big toothed grin. "You've got yourself a deal," he said. "Give me the fifty dollars.'
I reached into my pants lining for the bill, which I had wrapped into a bag no bigger than a pill. I gave Morris the money. He motioned me over to a small sack in the barracks corner. In it were a loaf of bread, a stick of margarine, an a bulbous salami. He also gave me forty reichsmarks change. I looked at the coin. Anything German was considered worthless, because it often had been devalued.
"I can't use the German marks. They're good for nothing. I need dollars," I said, looking him in the eye. I was feeling frantic. I could see him sense my hostility and helplessness.
He looked darkly at me and said with some impatience in his voice, "Look, I just gave you food and a good job. You'll eat, you won't have to go outside the camp, and you won't be beaten as much. There's nothing more important in here. Nothing."
He was right. There was nothing I could do anyway. I just shrugged and put the reichsmarks into my pocket. I hid and took a few bites out of the margarine, salami, and bread. I had to get rid of the food because anybody who smelled would steal it. I gave the rest of my food to Frank and Noah--who was always asking me for advice--along with Morris, who was the guy who had a girlfriend, and another five or six people.
"Boys, come on. I have something," I told them.
I had already sliced it
so I could hide it. I pulled the salami and margarine out of my pants and
When the Czech saw that, he would hobble and hop out of his shack, then quickly move toward the offender. He would raise his cane and strike, using the thick, round brass knob on the end to crack guys on the head. The cane made a whooshing sound every time he would strike. Sometimes we could hear a dull thud as the cane struck a man's head, maybe even his nose or eyes--again and again and again. We could see blood flowing from the victim's head, often trailing off in snakelike streaks. Sometimes the beaten man would die with a caved-in skull, his eyes bulging out so much the whites looked like golf balls.
Every day three or four guys were hit and blood would flow as the Czech raised his cane and whipped it downward with an anger I wouldn't have expected from someone who looked so old. Though he was in his midforties, in some ways the Czech looked like somebody's grandfather. He was about my size, maybe five foot six, very skinny, and a face so white it looked drained of blood.
He looked as if he were going to a funeral: he always wore a heavy knit cap over dark black hair and black clothes, and he stood very straight, though his hernia made him take gingerly steps. The story was that when the Germans overran Czechoslovakia, they found him in a prison. Like many others, he had a ticket out: beating and murdering Jews. As long as he did his job, the Germans were happy and he ate and slept well.
Fortunately, I wasn't beaten at all. First, I figured out that if I were one hundred yards on the other side of the work site with 120 people in the squad between him and me, the Czech couldn't see me very well. The site was about half a mile square, with several streets in it. When he wobbled out of his little trailer, I tried to keep even more people between him and me.
The second reason I wasn't beaten was that I quickly figured out how to break rocks. On the farm, I had learned how to calculate the fastest way to get a job done. Now, I quickly spotted out that every rock has a vein which, if hit, makes the rock explode. I could do it better than anyone else. Most of the others were swinging their hammers and getting only small chips, while my rocks turned into pieces and pebbles with one blow.
Lots of guys noticed, and I gladly showed them the trick. I felt sorry for them. I showed the people working near me how to grip the hammer for maximum force and how to find the vein. Then those people showed other people. Pretty soon, everybody in our work group knew how to break rocks. I found out the Czech knew I was responsible for this productivity burst and was pleased.
From my time in Majdanek and on other work squads I knew how to stay in motion so I didn't look tired or sick. "Keep moving, do a little something, just look like you're on the job so he won't hit you," I said again and again.
But we were all tired, if not exhausted. Sometimes one of the guys was just too drained to move, unfazed by the possibility that the Czech might beat him to death. I noticed that a man named Josef paid attention to me, followed my ideas, and started asking me for lots of advice. Josef was a Polish Gentile. He was quiet and well behaved, and I didn't think he was an anti-Semite. He had become a kind of casual acquaintance. He would get a little bit of food from home, even though his parents were quite poor. He willingly shared his food with me, no matter how little. The food generally had been dried out to prevent mildew and was hard to chew. Still, it was food. I was learning to trust him. Later, he was to help me execute a bold scheme.
During this time, I came to notice Max Stein, the Czech's secretary. His job was to make sure the work squad of 120 was fully staffed. If people were lost to selections or got sick and were carted off to the gas chambers, he had to find replacements. I noticed that Max, like me, tried not to be around the murderer very much.
Guys were always going to Max for advice. He was a good-looking man, a big personality. He was a convert. His parents had become Catholic, and he didn't know much about Judaism. Still, the fact that he had been born Jewish was enough for the Nazis to throw him into Birkenau. He never beat or cursed anybody, just tried to keep track of manpower. I wondered whether becoming his friend would help me.
Max had already noticed me. Once, when I had to be near the murderer, I overheard Max saying, "This guy Joe is the best. He shows people how to work, he's always clean and neat, he always does his work."
I was ecstatic. I had a feeling there was something special about Max. I was glad he liked the way I kept up morale and productivity. Two days later, Max purposefully walked all the way across the work site to talk to me.
"Where are you from, Joe?"
"Poland," I said, using the terse response all prisoners learned to use. Saying more than absolutely necessary to someone in charge could mean betraying secrets you didn't mean to betray.
"I'm from Poland. Lived in Krakow."
He asked me a few more questions, such as how I was doing and when had I come here. Then he left.
A few days later he was back. "I want to ask you how you came to be here," he said, his eyes betraying nothing but mild curiosity. I couldn't imagine why he was so interested.
I told him about working on a farm, being captured, working in the distillery, then being caught up in a massive selection. I didn't tell him about being with the partisans. That was a dangerous secret even here.
Max wasn't satisfied with just a small answer. He kept asking, "And then what? And then what?"
After several minutes he left me, but I knew with instincts honed by surviving in Birkenau that Max was up to something, though I couldn't imagine what.
After that, Max passed by me frequently during work. He didn't say much, just nodded to me. Then one day, Max pulled me aside. He wanted to know more about where I had been working in the camp. Where were you? Working in the hospital? In the barracks? He had a kind of mocking, yet serious look in his eyes.
"I want to talk to you about how you have managed to make it through all of this so far," he said.
I told Max again about working on the farm, and how I had substituted for my father in winter because I loved him. I told him about the day the farm family next door was killed. I still didn't tell him about the partisans. I just told him I'd run into the woods.
"You mean you didn't join the Jewish or Polish partisans?" Max asked, looking very stern.
I really didn't want to answer, but I couldn't see many ways around it. "Not exactly," I said.
"Any other partisans?"
I took a deep breath. "Well, there were Russians in the woods. I gave them food when I was on the farm. When I was in the woods, they helped me." I didn't tell him the Russians were partisans.
Over a period of about two weeks, Max had several more conversations with me pressing for more and more detail. Finally he stopped asking and started bringing an occasional piece of bread.
Why is this man so curious about me? Something's going on, but I'll be damned if I can figure out what, I mused.
In the meantime, I finally had a chance to help some friends. The Czech was pushing hard to get the roads done. One day Max came over and asked, "Do you know anybody? People who will work as hard as you?"
"I know several. They're working in bad jobs, very bad jobs." I picked Frank, Noah, Hymie, and Nuftul. A few days later, I got Morris Tisch and two other men transferred to our group.
Later Samuel, who had noticed Max was talking to me a lot, asked me what was going on. I told him truthfully, I didn't know. Samuel and his son had been in the Czech's squad long before I was. He was a tall man with a lean and friendly face, and his son resembled him. They were just nice people. I asked Samuel and his son what they thought was going on, but they had no idea either.
About a week later, Max was complaining to me about the murderer. "I can't do much with him, Joe. He's got a vicious temper, and he hates the world because of his injuries. I just try to stay as far away from him as I can."
A plan started forming. It was daring, and I would need some very good help. Samuel and his son were the perfect helpers, but I wasn't sure they'd go along. Several days later, Samuel approached me.
"Joe, you're an expert on keeping people out of trouble. That bastard murderer is going to kill us all. Any ideas on how to get closer to him so we can avoid getting beaten to death?"
This was my time. I already had the plan, and now Samuel wanted to hear it.
"I have an idea," I said. "1 don't know whether it will work, but let's give it a try. We can't be any worse off."
"What have you got in mind, Joe?"
was simple: drench him in kindness. He was a bitter, sour person. I
figured he wouldn't know what to do if people he had abused treated him
well in return. I thought back to Michalek, the anti-Semite in the
brewery. I saw from that experience that if I treated people nicely, they
would treat me nicely. The murderer was tougher than Michalek, but it was
worth a try.
We executed the plan in stages. First, I carried the Czech water in a little bucket. Then I found some potatoes from the kitchen through a friend of Samuel's. When I gave the water to the Czech, his eyes grew very large. He didn't know what we were up to. He nodded at us, then grunted. I offered to get him wood for his little wood stove. He looked surprised, but pleased. He nodded his assent.
A week later, I asked the murderer whether he'd like a haircut. I had a pair of scissors I used to cut people's hair. Then they'd use the scissors to do mine. He nodded his head. It would cost him too much to thank me. He nodded in a way that said, "That's nice." I started giving him haircuts. By now he wasn't suspicious of me.
As I snipped his hair, I saw it was clean and shiny. I wanted to plunge my scissors into his throat, but I resisted. I kept thinking of Michalek, and I just kept snipping and combing.
Two weeks later, Samuel and I asked the murderer whether we could get him some soup. Our job description had been broadened. By this time, part of my job, in addition to breaking rocks, was to take food from the main camp's kitchen in stainless steel kettles to the hospital patients.
On this occasion, while we were there, Samuel and I loaded up our pockets with potatoes, then took back enough to give a couple to the murderer and several to our friends in the group.
"Let's put the potatoes behind the corpse pile," I told Samuel. "Nobody will find them there."
The corpse pile was where the bodies of men who died on work sites away from Birkenau, including the coal mines, were dumped. The bodies piled up until trucks hauled the corpses away. It wasn't a place where anyone volunteered to go, and that's why hiding food there made so much sense. We wrapped the potatoes in newspaper, then stuffed them behind a corpse which had a particularly hideous grin.
The pile was a fenced-in mountain of bodies about 7 feet high, perhaps 250 feet long, and 100 feet wide. The corpses were all squashed together like herring, and buzzing flies gathered in black, glistening clumps all over the pile. The smell, especially in summer, was rank, requiring a handkerchief or rag over your nose to prevent vomiting. Sometimes you threw up anyway. The corpses didn't mind, though. They never complained.
The next day we retrieved some potatoes and took them to the murderer's shack. On his hot plate, I made him potato soup, which became his favorite. The murderer smiled at me a little, the corners of his mouth barely crinkling.
The Czech language was close enough to Polish that we could talk a little.
"Thank you, thank you, thank you," he said as I stayed in his shack for a half-hour, making soup and cleaning up. As I left, I made some hot water so he could wash up later. Then we started making him tea and stealing him more kitchen
A few weeks later, Samuel, his son, and I started polishing the Czech's shoes and shining the little shower he had in his shack. About a month later, we worked on his clothing. The Czech used to wash his clothing so he always had a spare pair of pants, shirt, and underwear. Now, one of the three of us would wash the spare clothing, then hang it from a rope over the hot plate to dry off.
Every necessity we could think of, we provided to him. I thought if he had so many comforts in his shack he wouldn't want to leave it, so he wouldn't go around and beat people to death.
After several weeks, I noticed the campaign was working: People were sprawled out on the job, not doing work. Everybody knew the Czech would beat anybody not working, but now nothing happened. I'd told the others about our campaign, and they could see it was working, too.
However, we were running out of road work. If there wasn't any more labor for us, then our work squad would be disbanded, most of us would be gassed, and the Czech wouldn't even be a Kapo. Alarmed, I took Max aside.
"Max, we've got a problem. There's not enough work. If we don't have work, you know what's going to happen. What do we do?"
Max stroked his face for a few moments. I had believed he was a smart man. He now confirmed my suspicions.
I've been giving that some thought myself. But let me first talk to the Czech."
The next day, the Czech took me aside.
"You and the other guys try to find some work in the hospital," he whispered. "Stretch out your work on the roads as much as you can. Keep moving and don't look as if you're not doing anything or you'll get beaten. In the meantime, clean up the barracks, work in the hospital, any way you can find to keep yourself busy."
I now could see there was another reason the Czech wasn't beating us nearly as often or as hard, though I'm convinced he had a sincere change of heart. He had been beating us to make the work go faster. Now he wanted to drag it out. I quickly spread the word to everyone else: the Czech would let us do virtually any work, as long as we were busy, because then he still was a Kapo.
Several days later, another opportunity materialized to reduce my beatings. I had been looking at the number on my shirt, and the Jewish star on it always made me a marked man. I knew every guard, every Kapo, everybody who considered himself above me, thought I was a target for every insult passing through his mind.
Even with the Czech's anger now tamed, I still was being beaten fairly regularly. If I could just alter my identity slightly, that would help. I had blue eyes and blond hair. I was well behaved and didn't shout or curse. I thought people would assume I was a Gentile if I didn't have a Jewish star showing.
One night I looked at my prisoner's shirt. I resewed my prison number above the left shirt pocket, but very far away from the buttons, toward my armpit. If I could find some clothing with wide lapels, they would almost cover the number.
Fortunately, there were lots of wide lapels available. The engineers, lawyers, doctors, all wore wide lapels, because that was the fashion at the time. These people had a lot of education, but they hadn't worked on farms or fought with the partisans. They hadn't learned the art of living through another day.
Consequently, I saw these people dying all around me in the barracks. I saw their insignia was covered, but their number wasn't. The next day, by the barracks door, I saw corpses of people who had died during the night. We had to find work, so we carried the corpses to the corpse pile. One corpse I was carrying had a crinkled yellow face and no teeth, but it was wearing a wide-lapelled jacket a lot warmer than mine.
I didn't even have to prevent myself from gagging. I stripped that jacket with one hand. After I started wearing wide lapels, I was only beaten half as often. The Germans still beat me, though. They knew who I was.
I didn't let the beatings prevent me from looking for other work, as the Czech had told us to. I knew the hospital had the best jobs, so I started helping to take kettles of soup there. The Stubendienst would ladle out the soup. Then, when we carried the pot back to the kitchen, I'd bend down and scoop the pot's inside with my fingers. My posture wasn't elegant, but I got soup.
More food came my way when we cleaned up the belongings of the dead there. They always left behind food packages containing rye bread, which was hard but quite edible. When I got a piece of bread or potato or whatever scraps I could find, I sneaked out of the hospital, wrapped the food in newspaper, and put the scraps behind the pile of corpses. The dead eyes and empty grins on faces yellow from disease, or black and blue from beatings, or both, never bothered me.
Nobody ever found my food there. I would put it between corpses, then tumble another corpse over it. I knew exactly where the food was, but it was impossible for anyone else to tell. If I didn't hide it, people would steal it, so I figured the dead were doing me a service.
I'd retrieve my food about 4:30 in the afternoon. Samuel and I would eat, along with other friends. I always gave away much of my food. I liked kitchen work. It was clean, I didn't get beaten, and I could steal some soup from the kettles. I also started carrying corpses from trucks to the corpse pile.
In addition, I helped with the mine workers. Every couple of days, the Germans took used-up men from the coal mines and dropped them off at the far end of the camp, near the corpse pile. Appropriately, the pile was at a dead end, surrounded by wooden boards. Some of the miners we helped down, others fell down, and some jumped down. There was always one truckload from each mine. The Germans waited until late in the day, then I and others, including Frank, would help them onto the trucks to be gassed.
About a quarter of the time I would work on roads, and maybe 15 percent helping with the miners. Mostly I worked around the hospital, which really was a collection of buildings resembling a small village. Mengele had his office near the hospital wards.
One particularly depressing hospital task was Schrott duty. Schrott means junkyard scrap. I and others had to move the sick whom the nurses and doctors decided were terminal over to the barracks for the dying, which we knew as the Schrott. Many times the patients died before we could move them, so we took them directly to the corpse pile.
No matter how disgusting our duties, we still had to eat. We scavenged in the hospital for the dirty potato peelings. There wasn't any water available, so the potatoes were unwashed, with dirt clinging to them when they were thrown out. I still was going through the garbage bins, along with Frank, Hymie, and Nuftul. We discovered we could eat soft bones from chickens or pigs. The sick patients ate the meat, then the bones were discarded into the garbage bins. We also enjoyed apple peelings and an occasional fish head.
Sometimes we would get food even before it was eaten. When we went into the hospital, the intelligentsia were often the patients: priests, doctors, lawyers, engineers, and such. We could spot the priests. We talked to them, gave them water and a few crumbs, then they'd start talking about God.
No matter what part of the intelligentsia these people were from, they had lived delicate lives and couldn't stand up to the hardships of a death camp. But they did have food packages, so we would tell them we'd get them water, but they had to trade for it.
Water came from rain barrels sitting next to the outside wall of the hospital. Actually, they were for the sick to urinate into, but they were too bedridden with typhus, pneumonia, and other diseases to go, so they urinated in their beds.
When we offered water, the patients by then didn't have much to trade. They usually had only a piece of bread, perhaps a little soup. Some offered a cigarette.
The hospital barracks was as big as a regular barracks but with far fewer people. Hospital patients were too weak to climb up bunk beds, so there was only one bunk per floor space. The wards themselves were eerie, shrouded in an almost deathlike quiet. Patients were so sick they had no strength to moan or cry. They were sprawled out on the bed, waiting to die.
During the summer, the three doctors Mengele was training would dissect Gentile corpses--they wouldn't consider touching Jews or Gypsies--for one to two hours every day, to learn about anatomy. The autopsy tables were outdoors, just outside Mengele's office. I knew the Czech was nervous because our work was running out. I also saw the autopsy tables were far away from the Czech's shack.
Germans hate sloppiness and messes. Autopsies are messy and they have a stink that fills the air and doesn't go away. They'd love to have that mess taken care of, I thought.
It indeed was a mess. All the corpses had been cut into bloody pieces. There were piles of body parts on the wooden tables, which were about twelve feet long and four feet wide, peppered with numerous bloodstained nicks. I thought I'd use a stiff brush to scrub the blood off.
I told my plan to Josef, the Polish Gentile. He had continued to share his food and I thought I could trust him with my plan. Besides, I needed another guy to handle the corpses. I had worked with him on the roads, and he was a good worker. After I talked to Josef, we immediately started cleaning the autopsy tables, which were about three feet from Mengele's office window. I knew nobody was going to object.
It was a tough job. The stink of decaying human arms, legs, livers, and heads of what, days before, had been assembled as human beings, made me gag repeatedly. But I couldn't risk the Germans' thinking I couldn't do a job. I would put the body parts into waterproof paper bags, then put the bags on the corpse pile. I excelled at this kind of work. I'm a perfectionist. When I take on a cleaning task, whatever I set out to clean comes out sparkling. It's always perfect.
A couple of days after Josef and I started to scrub the autopsy tables, the young doctors complimented us in German. Then I heard them talking to Mengele about how fabulous we were.
A few days passed. A thin German in a particularly shiny uniform walked over to us while we were scrubbing. He had been looking through his office window, overlooking the autopsy area.
I knew it was Mengele. Through Max Stein, I had come to learn a lot about him. One of Max's friends was Mengele's secretary. One day, Max had pointed out the "Angel of Death. " "Watch out for your life around that man," Max had said. "He'd as soon shoot you as breathe." Now the monster himself was standing almost in my face.
"Clean the windows, straighten the office, wash the floors, polish my boots and those of my three doctors. Empty the wastebaskets," he said to me in German.
I understood him, but I didn't want him to know I knew his language. I played dumb and answered him in Polish. He ended up pantomiming what he wanted me to do. Basically I made Mengele act like a stilted puppet trying to show me what he wanted done. I loved the feeling of making him look stupid, but I knew I shouldn't press my luck. I pretended his pantomiming had worked.
"Jawohl, jawohl," I told him. Everybody in the camp knew jawohl meant "yes" in German, so I wasn't betraying my deeper knowledge of the language by saying it.
I knew I was playing a very dangerous game. I wanted to keep busy, and I wanted to stay in the hospital, so I could pick up crumbs of food. This was a steady job, at least. In a way, I had deliberately picked Mengele to work for. I had a certain charm, and so did my friend, Josef. I was always good at guessing what was in a person's mind and what he would do next.
''I'm not afraid of Mengele," I heard myself saying to nobody in particular. "Mengele is here to kill us all. I'm going to die anyway. Once I've accepted that, what can he do to me?"
It was October 1943. Only four months after I had been taken to AuschwitzBirkenau to build the death camp, I now worked for Josef Mengele himself. For the next eighteen months during 1943 and 1944, I worked for him. For several months, I had the same basic duties I'd had on the day he motioned to me and Josef into his office. I cleaned the windows inside and out, dusted, washed the floors, then polished his boots so they gleamed. I also washed down the roof and the walls inside and outside his office. Autopsies were finished by 2:00 P.M. Then I'd do my duties there, plus cleaning barracks and carrying the dead to the corpse pile.
Mengele always talked at a very slow and deliberate pace. Even so, whenever he or his doctors or any of the Germans addressed me in their native language, I just continued to act puzzled. They all spoke to me in pidgin Polish when they wanted to tell me something. Otherwise, they lapsed into German, talking as though I were nothing at all.
I grew to like the three doctors Mengele was training. They were young and very naive. They didn't beat or curse us. Every morning we came in they said, "Good morning." The three young doctors all wore German military uniforms. Mengele and the doctors always were very cordial. Mengele would just point to the table or to the office windows or whatever else he wanted cleaned and we did what he wanted. When we were done, he would say, Danke schon.
Usually, though, Mengele's three assistants didn't speak much to me or anybody else. A Jew had about the same value to them as a rat. In fact, a rat had a better chance to survive because he could hide.
Josef and I also started taking on hospital duties. The Czech, intensely wanting to remain a Kapo, let us be assigned to the hospital. The good part was that all the doctors and interns liked us. We were clean, we shaved, we didn't smell. We were thankful and cordial, and we both looked Aryan. We did our jobs with no commotion. They kept thanking us, though they never gave us food.
We still were taking soup or water to the sick. We also continued carrying out the dead from the hospital and elsewhere. Other corpses were straight from Mengele's autopsy tables. These corpses were in various pieces plus intestines which had been piled up outside the bodies. We had to put the dismembered corpses in separate bags for legs, lungs, livers, and stomachs. These bodies were so light they weren't much trouble to move.
We knew exactly when it was time to clean the tables. We would pass by the doctors several times during the afternoon, keeping a close watch to determine when they finished. We had to act quickly, because flies would cluster around the bodies almost immediately.
No matter where the corpses were from, we had to carry them to the corpse pile. Once a week a truck would come. Then we'd dump the corpses, whole or in body bags, into the back.
This is a good job, I thought. I get a piece of bread and hide it under dead people. Nobody beats me, and the doctors, including Mengele, are nice to me.
However, Father and his good graces were the most valuable commodity of all. All of us who worked in and around the hospital had reason to be thankful for Father. He was built like a stubby barrel, about five feet tall and 250 pounds, with more jowls than a bulldog. He was only forty-five years old and one of the sweetest people imaginable. His pudgy arms were always wrapped around somebody, so kind was he. He wandered the camp all day, looking out for people.
"Stay away from the wires," he'd tell us. Or, "I know you're hungry but you'll get beaten. Watch yourself," he would say.
Father was a Socialist and
didn't believe in dictatorships, Nazi or otherwise. For that heresy the
Germans had thrown him into prison. He wore the red badge of a political
prisoner. He also was German and a doctor. In fact, he and Mengele had
been in medical school together.
Father ran the hospital for Mengele, who was always talking to him. When they conversed, Mengele would nod his head emphatically, occasionally even gently touching Father. It was clear Mengele had considerable respect and affection for him.
Father lived a good life there. He had his own room and, as his ample weight displayed, plenty of food. He was basically in charge of making sure the hospital was running right.
He had every reason not to jeopardize his situation, but he did. He was a lovely man who always watched over those of us who worked in the hospital to make sure we weren't beaten up.
After a while, I noticed that Father, Mengele's secretary, and Max were meeting briefly a couple of times a week. The first time I noticed, the meeting lasted about two minutes.
God, what could this be? Something is going on, and it's clearly meant to be a secret, I thought.
Then it struck me.
My God. Maybe they're with the underground.
Site Map Holocaust Main Page Feedback Opportunities Holocaust Links
Copyright © 2007 Museum of Family History. All rights reserved. Image Use Policy