WALK IN MY SHOES
Collected Memories of the Holocaust
Sunday was usually a day off, so people could visit or talk. But one Sunday the Stubendiensts and the Senior Block Inmate showed up and said, "Don't go anywhere today. You've got to stay right here."
We all looked at each other, fearfully. Now the Germans were cutting into our one day of rest, and we were sure it wasn't so they could hand us sugar candies. About eleven o'clock in the morning, the Stubendiensts and Senior Block Inmate returned. This time they told us to take off our clothes and stand in rows of five.
"Those of you who are selected will be gassed tonight," the Senior Block Inmate told us.
I could feel my knees shake, though I tried not to let any emotion creep out into my face.
The first time was very much like all the times to follow. The selection ran for three hours. The Jews--non-Jews didn't have to endure selections-had to line up outside five abreast. Usually six hundred to seven hundred of the thousand men in a barracks were Jews. We had to strip naked, leaving our clothing on the ground. Even in the wintertime we had to stand for an hour in deep subzero weather. In a gesture of what Mengele considered compassion, he sometimes allowed us to keep our shoes on.
This time, as occurred most often, each row of five had to step forward to a space three feet away from him, forearms held out to show our tattooed numbers. Mengele would jab his finger at those he selected. His secretary, standing next to him with pen and clipboard, quickly jotted down the numbers. They went through our barracks in ten minutes.
After he went through, we all slumped. Mengele had gone so fast we weren't sure who had been picked to die, but we were prepared. After all, it wasn't as though someone had cancer or heart trouble and was hiding the problem. We had been sent to Birkenau to be killed.
"All the hunger and beatings, and now we've got this to deal with," Nuftul moaned to me.
I knew; we all knew: Every one of us was going to die. What was frightening was that we never knew when or how. That suspense added to our agony. The answer that evening came when we heard the grinding of truck gears outside, and the Stubendienst called out, "These numbers come forward and line up."
He called out the numbers. We started shaking hands and hugging those about to be gassed. They had to move fast, and so hugging our friends and our companions had to be very brief. It was that brevity that hurt so much. So quick, and then they were gone.
We all looked at each other with hollow and hopeless eyes.
"God forbid, the same thing might happen to us the next time. Or the next. We never know when, but it's coming," I said.
"Maybe it's better for them," somebody replied, a wheezing, sputtering sound coming from his throat. "At least their beatings and starvation are finished."
After several minutes of murmuring to each other, we went to sleep, all of us sunk deeply into the blackest pit of depression.
As time rolled along, those of us who survived selections got to know how they worked. They were conducted every two to three weeks. Sometimes Mengele would simply walk down the lines of prisoners, or have each line move back, instead of having them move forward. Always, though, he was dressed as though attending a formal state reception. His boots were polished, and his cap visor and holster were shined. I knew just how well they glistened because I had shined them. He always shaved for the occasion, and he smelled of the perfumed soap the German officers used.
My feelings were always the same: "Who knows whether I'm going to come out of this? Who knows whether I will be alive tomorrow? My family is almost completely gone, and I may become ashes, too."
Still, we didn't shake or tremble, though all of us were afraid. We held ourselves ramrod straight, no matter how sick we were, and hoped for the best while Mengele looked us over.
The first time we lost perhaps 350 or 400. The postselection routine was usually the same as the first time. After Mengele was finished, the secretary gave the numbers to the Stubendienst. When it got dark, the Stubendienst called out the numbers, his voice as emotionless as if he were reading from a telephone directory. One of the privileges of being Stubendienst was not having to endure selections, even if you were Jewish.
"Let's see number 50. Let's see 80," they would call.
The men who had been selected lined up single file. They didn't cry. We didn't have any tears left. There was no such thing as people saying, "I don't want to go." In a second the guards would have broken their bones, then thrown them into the trucks.
From inside, we would hear the squealing of truck brakes. As the men marched out, we heard their dull footsteps on the truck floors. Then we heard the whine of one truck pulling away, while another pulled up to take on its own doomed cargo.
Sometimes, because the gas chambers were very close, the selected prisoners had to walk. No matter how they left, about two hours after the men had glumly marched out the door, we would smell the stink of burning flesh.
Selections were worse than being beaten to death or getting a bullet in your head. You never knew who was going to go. The biggest torture was standing and waiting to see who was going to die. At least those of us who were beaten to death had little warning and it was generally over in minutes. In selections, those of us who were spared felt terrible for us and for them. Morale was almost at zero.
Just after selections started, I had a chance to get out of Birkenau. A Stubendienst announced in our barracks that we could go to the coal mines instead of staying there. Morris came to me.
"Joe, we've got to get out of here. Here, it's a matter of time and we're gone. I'm taking that ticket out," Morris said. "I'll die in here. It can't be worse, and maybe I can escape," Morris told me, his eyes flashing hope.
I had seen his spirits sagging. His privileged background worked against surviving this life. I, too, wanted out of Birkenau. Parts of my body hurt almost every day from beating, hunger, and work. I stood in line to sign up for the mines. Still, I had a bad feeling. I had seen the shriveled remains of dead miners, and I had helped the living onto crematorium-bound trucks.
I also remembered when I first worked for the Germans grooming horses. I had to feed the furnace with coal, and I saw how dirty it was. I remembered how black all of us who had come from Majdanek looked after so many hours in a car filled with coal dust. I had seen dying miners. I didn't want to die in the cold and darkness.
To work in the dark, with so much dust flying around, I won't be able to breathe. I'll die in the same way those pathetic wrecks from the mine I keep helping off the trucks have died, I thought.
I stepped out of line. Morris, who was
standing behind me, was shocked. I simply told him, "I don't like to
work in the dark." I didn't think I needed to give him any further
Morris still tried to talk me out of
"Let's get out of here. This is hell. It's unbearable here," he said, pleading.
"But we don't know what's there. It cannot be better. With the Germans, it always gets worse," I told him, my eyes hurting at the feeling of abandonment stamped on his face.
That same day, Morris left for the mines. I worried about both of us. I wondered whether we'd ever see each other again, and what kind of condition we would be in if that ever happened. By this time, just living another day was all the hope I could muster.
Suddenly, my dream came to me again, and it nourished my hopes. By now the other prisoners were so discouraged I started telling them about my dream. Of course, they said I was crazy--they said it jokingly, they said it lovingly, but they said it--and I think some of them half-believed it. Sometimes, I wondered a little myself.
I also was learning a few more rules of
survival. One was that nobody talked to Mr. Mengele. Well, almost
nobody. Father, Mengele's three assistant doctors, and his secretary
would converse with him. Otherwise, Mengele went about his grim tasks in
a businesslike way. Throughout the day, I would see him spending time in
his office. If he wasn't there, he was on the ramp, deciding who lived
Personally, I was afraid to talk to Mengele
for a most unusual reason: I didn't want any German words to slip out.
If they did, he'd know I'd been eavesdropping while he discussed
anatomy or politics with his assistant doctors.
I did start talking with Mengele's
secretary, a tall, good-looking man who had been a diplomat in the
Polish government. He kept the running totals of the number of people
dying and their nationalities. He walked the camp freely during
selections. He warmed up to me and told me something about himself. He
had graduated from the university in Krakow with Max Stein. He said they
had gone to the university together and were close.
Strangely, Father now was taking a more
personal interest in me. He would stop and ask, "How does it go?" or
"How are you doing?" Of course, he used to see me constantly with Max,
and I used to see Max and Mengele's secretary briefly meeting with
Father. I wondered what the three of them had planned for me
I took a lesson from the way the Germans referred to the Muslims, or Muselmanner, as they were referred to, in Birkenau. They called them "thin, dark, dirty, and unshaven," and most of them were selected for gassing almost immediately. I figured out that not resembling what Germans thought Muslims looked like gave me a better chance.
Being thin was a particular sign of trouble. It meant you might be too weak to work. If you had some meat on your bones, if you had a sparkle in your eye, you were a lot more likely to live another week.
The aches and pangs from hunger always crowed our thoughts. My stomach often felt as if somebody had wrapped his hands around my gut and squeezed very tightly. Some of us were so hungry we couldn't walk because our legs were so swollen. We were living on the equivalent of two and a half slices of bread a day. The bread was not real bread. It made of powdered wood mixed with flour. Even so, I would share what I had with my friends.
Despite these circumstances, I learned one thing that a lot of people didn't: you couldn't give up hope. If you did, you felt doomed, and soon, doomed you were. If you cleaned yourself, you looked better. If you had a good job, then you wouldn't be beaten as much and you ate better. That helped, too. But having hope meant they hadn't crushed your spirit, and that fact alone made you look more alive and vital when time for selections came.
I had taken care of myself for a long time. My mother had gone into business when I was fairly young, and we children had to be disciplined and well behaved because, our parents told us, we were helping to give the family a better way of life. I had an active imagination, and even then I could visualize just how our way of life would be better: better furniture, more clothing, lots of food. Now my imagination fed itself on other dreams.
Someday I will be somebody, I told myself. Someday I'll have people working for me. I will have a factory, a home, a wife and children, and a truck. As before, it was a dream that still fed my soul, no matter how much it defied all the grim reality surrounding me.
My daily routine consisted of cleaning
Mengele's offices and shining his personal items for the first couple of
hours. I also knew the Czech took a nap after lunch. That meant I had
to fill in a few hours before the autopsy tables needed cleaning, so I
wandered around the camp looking for work. I needed to look purposeful,
or the Germans would think I had no job. So, I'd go to the hospital and
give patients a little water or a cigarette.
Working in the hospital opened up another avenue to me. The hospital was right next to the Gypsy camp, so I started trading with the Gypsies. They were imprisoned with their families in their own compound, and every morning there was a pile of dead right outside their fence. At this point I had the run of the camp, so I could go pretty much where I wanted.
The Gypsies would go to the fence surrounding their camp and offer in German to sell us cigarettes. Many of us now had German marks, brought in by the civil engineers, who were Polish Gentiles. They usually had suitcases with them because they had to be out for weeks, surveying the land for more camps. In the suitcase generally were clothing, whiskey, and pieces of salami.
The Germans didn't bother the engineers, whom the guards respected. If any of the guards did ask to see what was in their suitcases, the engineers knew enough to say it was their whiskey and they planned to drink it.
The first time I wandered near the Gypsy camp fences, I heard "Pssssssst. Pssssssssssst. "
A Gypsy was motioning me to him. The camp was surrounded by electrified barbed wire, but the electricity was turned on only at night. I was about fifteen feet from the wire. I looked all around to make sure nobody was watching, then walked over to him.
"We have cigarettes if you have marks," he said softly.
I still had the change Morris the Hasid had given me for my fifty-dollar bill. It turned out that the German money had value after all. I paid the equivalent of two dollars for a package of perhaps a dozen German cigarettes with an eagle symbol and a swastika on the front. The Germans gave the Gypsies wine and cigarettes, though I never figured out why.
I myself didn't smoke at all. When I got back to the barracks, I told my friends what I had. Hymie and Nuftul were smokers, as were others, who would give away their soul for a cigarette. Hymie and Nuftul and the others hugged me, happy to have smokes.
Once a week after that first time, I'd buy a package of cigarettes and a bottle of wine for my friends, though the wine tasted nearly like water. We would pass the bottle around after the lights were out. I drank a little to be sociable but mostly kept passing it. My friends got used to my having cigarettes with me.
"Joe, I'm dying for a smoke. I've got to have a smoke," Hymie and Nuftul would tell me. Others would echo, ''I'm dying for a smoke. Help me, please," they would beg. I obliged them.
I also used the cigarettes to buy bread. Depending on the size of the loaf, bread cost twenty cigarettes or ten marks. Often I would use my cigarettes to buy a loaf, which I would share with my friends.
I didn't forget to do good things for myself. If you had the money or cigarettes, the people who were packing clothing would sell you garments. I bought a long-sleeved shirt a few times, and one time a jacket.
It wasn't always a fair exchange. One day we were digging a sewer with a German woman who was also a prisoner. She said she had bread which she'd trade for cigarettes. We struck a deal.
Sometimes the guards let us have a few minutes to go to the bathroom. She left the bread on her way there, and I left the cigarettes in rags on a nearby rock pile while I walked to the bathroom. On the way back, we each picked up what we'd traded for.
I could feel my stomach growl and my mouth
water. Ordinarily we were a lot better off not thinking about food, and
we didn't dare dwell on it for very long. I threw back one rag, waiting
to pounce on a big, fluffy loaf. I saw a brick.
I could feel the hunger pangs go shooting through my stomach. There it was: one brick. She had cheated us. We all held our stomachs and our heads. Our stomachs were aching from the lack of food, and there was a banging inside our heads for the same reason.
"Nothing is happening the way it should," I told Nuftul. "People are becoming like animals. Everybody is grabbing whatever he can, and there's no justice. If you have a piece of salami or a cigarette, somebody will grab it. I'm not surprised. We're all being starved like animals. It's not a surprise that many of us act like animals."
Shortly after we were cheated out of our cigarettes,
I started to feel sick. The September chill was settling into the air,
and I was having trouble swallowing. My throat hurt so much I had
trouble with even the tiniest portion of water.
This went on week after week. The cold
gripped us tighter and tighter. It was ironic that I was working in the
hospital but I couldn't get medical treatment. Finally, my throat had
ballooned so much I thought I was going to choke. I couldn't swallow
water and I had to fight for every bit of air.
I had to see the doctor. There actually was a medical facility for us. The camp even had an ambulance, though it was mostly for show in case the Red Cross inspected us. Occasionally the Germans used the ambulance to carry prisoners to a makeshift emergency room at the end of a row of barracks, where the healthiest of the sick prisoners were taken. That room was about six by seven feet. Inside were a small table five feet long and four feet wide and two chairs. There was one small bulb for illumination. Prisoners had to go here during the day, because it was shuttered at night.
When I went into the dimly lit room, a man stood up. Next to him, in a drawer, I could see small knives, a little gauze, and cotton. The doctor, who also was a prisoner, spoke Hungarian, of which I knew only a little. But he knew a little German, which I understood. I showed him my tonsils.
"My God, my God," I heard him say in German. "It's closed up your entire throat. If I don't cut this out right now, your tonsils will explode like a bomb and kill you."
He reached toward the open drawer and pulled
out a badly battered butter knife. Then the guy made noises, the meaning
of which escaped me. Then he made pantomimed gestures which meant he
wanted a match. I had a few. We prisoners were expert scavengers, and I
always had a match or two to light cigarettes for my friends who
smoked. I handed him a match.
"Go ahead. Take them out. I won't survive another two days like this. Do it, dammit. Do it," I rasped.
So I put both hands on the table, opened my mouth wide, leaned forward, and closed my eyes. Then I pictured myself standing in a factory, my factory, showing my wife and children what I had achieved.
"God, God, please let me live." I mentally beseeched him.
I could smell the stink of my own burning flesh rushing up through my nostrils. I could feel the knife cut deeply into my throat. I couldn't breathe, because his hand was blocking off the air, and I was in such a bad position I could scarcely draw breath through my nose. I wanted to scream but couldn't.
All I could hear come out of me were little squeaks, and I could feel the blood gushing into my mouth as he frequently dabbed with cotton and gauze to soak it up. Finally he huskily told me, "It's done, my friend. It is done."
I woke up a few minutes later, and the doctor gave me more gauze and cotton a take with me. I knew from other prisoners that recovery would take a day or two. Then I returned to Barracks 8.
Too bad there's not a taxi service available, I thought, with my usual humor. I'd probably give the driver a nice tip.
A few weeks later I got sick again. The hole in my right bicep where I'd been shot trying to escape from the Polish police into the forest had become infected. I'd only had a handkerchief to put around it. Eventually it got red and pus-filled. t was throbbing so hard I felt I had a drum beating inside my arm. Once more, returned to the emergency room, wearing a jacket.
This time there was a Polish guy inside. He was young, perhaps in his midthirties. He said he was a doctor or intern; I don't remember which. He examined my arm for about ten minutes.
"This arm is filled with pus," he told me. "If I don't cut it out now, it's going a spread to your whole body and kill you."
My sense of humor somehow kicked into gear.
Same tune as the guy who took out my tonsils, I thought. I almost wish he would tell me something new. Life in a concentration camp is monotonous as it is. At least I 'd like to get a little variety in my medical problems.
Out loud, I told the guy to cut out the infection, then took off my jacket.
The guy pointed to the same badly scarred table. Don't tell me. Let me guess. He's going to tell me to grab that table and hang on tight, I thought, smiling a little to myself.
"Grab that table and hang on tight," the guy said. "This is going to hurt like hell, but I don't have any anesthesia."
Can't they think of something original to say? I mused, just as the guy put a match to a short, but very sharp knife.
"I wish I had some anesthesia to give you, but you see what I have to work with--nothing. Just a little knife and some cotton. You're young. If they let you live, you may survive this."
Once again I smelled the stink of my flesh burning as pain pounded through my head and flashed up and down my arm and plunged into the rest of my body. This time I could hear myself screaming. I jumped around while holding the table.
As much as my entire body felt as if it were being ravaged by hot iron spikes, I dared not yell too loudly. Had the Germans discovered I was not well, they might have gassed me.
"There, it's done," he said. Again, I fainted.
This time I was awakened with a chill. The guy had a basin of water and was splashing it on my face. I looked at my arm, and it had a clean rag wrapped around it. Nothing fancy, and blood was certainly staining it. My arm throbbed so hard I could feel the pounding through my entire body. At least the operation was done.
I walked back wearing my jacket so the guards wouldn't notice the bandages. You couldn't tell anybody anything in there, for fear the Germans would find out, so I didn't shower for three or four days until the pain subsided. Then, for several days, I washed myself, skipping the arm. I noticed I was down to maybe 115 pounds.
Several weeks later, the Czech beckoned
Samuel, his son, and me into his shack. He had a serious but almost
angelic look on his face. He didn't seem to be the same man.
"From now on, I'm not going to hurt you or anyone else in the squad anymore," he said, pausing to take a deep breath and stifle what could have been a sob. "I became a murderer. I was the outcast of my family, and I killed people before the war. In Czechoslovakia, they gave me life in prison for my crimes."
He paused again, the lines in his face wobbling as the struggle inside him turned his face an alternating gray and pink. He composed himself, then went on.
"Then Hitler came in and took me out of jail
and to the army. When I was injured, they brought me here. And I still
killed people. But no more, no more," he cried out. Then his composure started to
crumble, and he waved us out the door. When we closed it, we could hear
One day later, Max pulled me into a corner. "Joe, I see you're getting along pretty well here. You finally tamed the murderer, though how you thought of flooding him with kindness is beyond me. It was a brilliant idea, and it's made my life easier. Yours, too, and all the other men's. We think you're a smart guy who can think on his feet. From what we can see, you can do a lot of things."
He paused for a moment, looked around to make sure nobody was listening, then locked his eyes with mine. He had glasses. I hadn't noticed before, but his eyes had a purple cast to them.
"Can you work with us? You've got to be able to think fast and know how to handle dangerous situations," he said. His voice was quiet, but tinged with menace. We both knew the consequences if either one of us were found out.
I took a very deep breath. Becoming part of the underground could save my life--or get me killed a lot sooner. There was no choice. My people were being killed for the crime of being born Jewish. I was angry with a world, Jews and non-Jews alike, which ignored what was happening to us.
I wanted the world to know what was happening here, no matter how small my contribution. Max was a dedicated and sweet human being. He also didn't like the killing he saw.
It was September 1943. My tonsils and arm had almost healed, and we both could see our breath in the air as we spoke. It was a good thing those little puffs of vapor didn't form words for people to read, or we both would have been dead.
"What do you want me to do?" I asked, surprised at the eagerness in my voice.
"As you know, every day we send out the Leichenkommandos, the death squads, to pick up the corpses of men who have died from beating or starvation or whatever, out on the job."
I nodded. I had seen the death details go out daily with a farm wagon, about twelve feet long. Seven or eight guys pulled the wagon. The Germans couldn't be bothered to provide horses. When the prisoners returned, the wagon was a heap of arms, legs, and heads. Nobody paid any attention to it. The industry here was death, and everybody knew it.
"Once or more every week, we're going to send you on the corpse patrol. We'll tell the commander you're going to be there to help them out."
I nodded again. So far this made sense. It was almost an adventure. I was going to go on a work detail outside the camp, but I wouldn't be in any danger of being shot or beaten to death. It was almost thrilling to have that kind of freedom.
"Before you go, we're going to give you a little letter inside a condom. Put that condom up your behind. We will tell you the spot to leave your letter. At that same spot, there will be another letter. Put that letter in the condom and bring it back."
"Sounds easy enough. Besides, I could use a little exercise and fresh air, as long as the corpses don't mind not my not attending to them for a little while." I chuckled a little at my gallows humor.
"One more thing, Joe," Max said, laughing a little. "If you get caught, you don't know us, and we don't know you. You're on your own, my friend. We will not be able to help you."
I could feel my bowels and bladder quiver. This was the tough part. My protection, even as an underground member, would only go so far. Once the Germans detected me, I would be dead within minutes--after they tortured me first to find out who my confederates were.
Still, there was no choice. To keep my life as it was, to wait for the Germans to decide when and how to kill me, was unacceptable. If I joined the underground, at least my life--and my likely death--would have a purpose. The faces of my dead parents, my sisters, my brothers, my uncle and nephews and nieces, all swam through my mind. Something my father told me popped into my head.
"This is going to be a tough war against Hitler," he had said. "I went through a war before, but this one is worse. Whatever happens, do what you've got to do."
I went out on my first trip the following
Max called me over. "You'll find a message at
the second work project, three feet away from the south side. You'll see a
rock and a little dirt. The rock will be next to two stones and a tree
with branches around the bottom. Look underneath the fifth branch, and
you'll find some wood with rubbish on it. The message is in the rubbish,"
he whispered. "I love you. God willing, we might be liberated in January
or February. But who knows what they're going to do with Us in the
He handed me a condom.
When I showed up for the trip at 7:00
A.M., my fellow Leichenkommandos
greeted me heartily. "We need you. Glad to see you. Strap
yourself in and let's go. There's plenty of business for everybody," the
leader called out, more cheerily than I expected.
I quickly understood why. The prisoners were
the horses, and we were the ones strapped into the harnesses. I took my
place, strapped myself in, and we started to walk, with me taking his
place. Now the leader didn't have to act as a horse, so he walked
"How did you get to help out? Who do you know?"
"I worked in the hospital. I just do what I'm told," I replied. I wasn't about to tell him anything, especially because I was the only person assigned to this detail part-time.
We arrived at our first stop, a sewer
construction site. Several corpses with their heads bashed were laid in a
pile. One of us would grab the head, while the other would pick up the
feet. Then we would swing the form toward the back. If the wagon, saying,
"One, two, three." On the count of three, we let the body fly forward and
its momentum landed it in the wagon in a disfigured heap.
Getting used to this work wasn't hard. The death camps were factories for killing people, so death was easy to accept. We ate and slept with it. We'd taken as many as twenty-five corpses a day.
We walked through project after project, following a map. We always found one or two corpses beaten to death by the Kapos. Heads were caved in, with food usually dribbling out of eyes or nose or mouth. Often legs or arms were bent at an awkward angle from being broken. We made up to seven stops a day, depending on how many loads we had and how far we had to walk. I discovered that the actual camp went on for miles. No matter how far we walked to retrieve corpses, we never left the boundaries of the camp.
At every stop we took a fifteen-minute break to relieve ourselves. At the second project, we took a break and I discovered the small rubbish pile under an outstretched tree branch. I reached into the pile and there it was, a packet about three-fourths of an inch square wrapped in waterproof paper.
I pulled my pants down and defecated. Out came the condom. Before I put the message into it and inserted it back into my rectum, I read it. The writing, tiny and precise, was on two sides.
It said, "From now on you will find a message here or some other designated place. We're going to give you all the information we have on how the war is going. In exchange, we want to know from you how many people are killed each day. How many children, old people, and women. We also want to know how many people are sent off to work camps. Send it to us as often as you can."
I was so happy I could almost shout. We were going to know what was going on in the war.
The people who die here will be known. Maybe not by name, but at least their deaths will be counted. Maybe, maybe, they even will be avenged, I thought, with flashes of my mother, father, and all my brothers and sisters hurtling through my mind.
I knew I couldn't keep the condom or the Germans would find it. They were always searching prisoners, looking for weapons, gold, dollars, and other valuables.
Two days later, I went out with a condom-wrapped message in my rectum and orders to leave this message at one place and pick up a message two stops later. The outgoing message said, "You'll get the news constantly. We want to now what's going on. Even God doesn't seem to know, and she seems to be asleep." .
Whoever wrote it had a droll sense of humor. After that, in very tiny precise handwriting, there was a list of how many people had been killed, barracks by barracks. Also included was a list of how many people had been transported to work camps, a laundry list of death, dying, and slavery.
The return message thrilled me. It said the Russians were close to Lublin and were marching toward Warsaw. It listed how many tanks, trucks, and planes the Russians, Poles, and Czechs had.
My God, my God, the Allies are pushing back the goddamned Germans. They're beating the bastards. We might be winning, I gloated inside my mind. Of course, I could never tell anybody what I knew. The Germans had spies everywhere. It feels good to think I'm hurting those bastard Germans. It doesn't nearly pay back what they've done to me and my family, but it's something.
After I picked up my first message, I knew the Allies were liberating my Poland. I talked to Hymie, to Nuftul, to whoever would listen. I knew telling them how I knew was too dangerous, but I tried to be a cheerleader.
"Have faith. Have faith. We have a chance. Take care of yourself. Do what you have to do. Fight. Survive," I would tell them, though many already were so discouraged they were talking about suicide.
I soon figured out the messages were left by the engineers, of whom there were about thirty. They hated the Germans. However, the Germans never ran out of surveying to be done because Auschwitz eventually was supposed to house one million prisoners after the Germans won the war.
The hiding place for messages almost always was behind a tree or bush which had been marked with an axe cut. Max would tell me where to find it. While the Leichenkommandos took their break, I would say, "I have to pee" or "I have to go to the toilet." Nobody asked questions.
I'd go to the spot Max had designated. Depending on the day, I would leave a message, get one, or do both. The paper that was used was waterproof, so I didn't have to leave it in any container. I just had to fold it up into a very tiny square.
Despite my involvement with the underground, my life in many respects stayed the same. Hunger always clawed at my insides. We now received only a quarter pound of bread per person at night. We customarily kept that bread overnight, so we would have some fuel to start the morning. We kept it in a cotton prison cap which we put over our heads while we slept. The cap kept us warm, and the bread we placed next to our head so we could feel movement if someone tried to steal it.
One night I woke up to find my piece of bread gone. I could see some guy I don't know standing near me, eating it. I couldn't help myself. I started crying.
"My bread has been stolen; my bread has been stolen," I wailed. I was surprised to hear such pain come out of my mouth. I was acting like a little child, but I couldn't help myself. That piece of bread was my lifeline.
The man who stole my bread whispered, "Don't cry. Don't cry. I will fix this." Then he disappeared in the barracks' eerie half-light, while the German guards stood watch outside. There were one thousand people there in an almost deathlike sleep from exhaustion. When he returned, I could see he had a piece of bread in his hand.
"Here's a portion of bread. Eat it up," he said.
To keep that piece of bread would have been to betray a fellow prisoner.
Someone else would be deprived of his nutrition because this prisoner had stolen it for me. There was enough light in the barracks for me to see his eyes. I looked at them hard. "This isn't right," I told him. "Show me where you got this bread."
I could see his eyes widen in disbelief. We both crawled to where a boy of twelve was lying. I shook him until he woke up.
"See whether you have your portion of bread," I whispered.
He felt for it and found nothing but empty space. He started to scream. I held one hand over his mouth and returned his bread with the other. I could feel his tears splashing over my face.
"It is nothing," I told the young one. "I would die of shame if I ate another man's bread."
I felt a little virtuous for what I'd done. The same could not be said for a friend of mine. One day a prisoner was brought back from the coal mines. His hair was stringy, his face streaked with coal dust. His eyes were hollowed out, his teeth broken. I saw him sprawled across one of the hospital beds.
"Morris?" I asked, my voice catching in my throat. He looked up at me with eyes almost vacant of hope.
"Joe, I know you," he whispered. "You make the impossible become possible. You know I come from a rich family. Can you help?"
"Morris, all of us are going to die here. I don't know whether they're going to take you and cure you," I said.
I knew he'd be gassed. I just didn't have the heart to tell him. I could barely recognize him, and I certainly couldn't help. Once the Germans decided they were going to gas you, nothing could stop them. As guards carried him off, I wept.
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