WALK IN MY SHOES
Collected Memories of the Holocaust
After three months of working for the underground, I saw a startling change in the way Mengele conducted the selections. The change was in relation to me personally. The first time I saw it, I had to tighten my bladder and anal muscles to contain myself. As Mengele passed by me, he gave me a half-smile. Then his secretary quickly winked as he also passed by me.
Are they kidding me? I thought.
I could feel my toes go cold. Mengele and his secretary probably thought they were being reassuring, but this routine was strictly business to Mengele; it was life and death for me.
I couldn't talk to my friends about it. How could I explain it without telling them I was in the underground? I had to keep it to myself, and wonder why this bizarre turn of events had taken place. I understood why the secretary was trying to reassure me. After all, he was in the underground, too. But Mengele? I could only wonder.
My underground connections came in handy in other ways. I was still buying cigarettes from the Gypsies, but I, like everyone else, knew that if the SS or Gestapo saw us, they would beat us. Occasionally, Father would see me and walk over.
"Be careful. Be careful or
they'll beat you to death," he would say in a voice so low only I could
hear him. I knew I wasn't the only prisoner Father tried to help. He was
well known and loved by all the prisoners as somebody who would slip us a
small word of encouragement here, a tip on how to stay away from beatings
there. He just tried to make sure people wouldn't get hurt.
Of course, Father couldn't save us from selections. They had become a monotonous, if terrifying, routine. Every two or three weeks we would be called out to stand naked, with our clothing in a neat pile next to us, while Mengele looked us up and down. Wintertime was especially bad. Sometimes there would be as much as twelve inches of snow between the barracks, where we had to stand.
No matter what the weather, Mengele did the job himself. Apparently he enjoyed playing God far too much to delegate. Whenever he came near me, he gave me that crooked half-smile and passed me by.
After I've worked for him for so long, the least he could do is give me a full smile, I jokingly thought. It probably costs him too much to make the effort.
I also suspected that even if Mengele selected me, his secretary wouldn't write down my number. Still, I felt no comfort or certainty. I remembered what happened to Lazar, and the wet sound his body made when it landed on the street after the Germans threw it off the roof. I didn't trust anybody. When selections went on, I was just as terrified as anybody else.
Of course, in order to give myself the best chance of surviving selections, I had to make sure Mengele knew and liked me. When he came through his offices, no matter how quickly or slowly, no matter how little or much I was doing, I smiled a big smile, as though he were the most benevolent employer I had ever worked for.
Of course he saw me taking care of the inside of the offices, because he and the three young doctors practically lived there. They met there, they talked there, they ate there. Because they were using the office area so much, I constantly straightened the tables and chairs, wiped the windows, and mopped the wooden floors until they sparkled and gleamed. He would leave his boots to be polished, with the tops and toes practically lined up like soldiers at attention. The boots had to be mirror-perfect.
I knew I had to do my work both fast and well. My reward was that he said nothing to me. If he had spoken to me about my work, I knew it would be a complaint, and a complaint from Josef Mengele could be fatal. He would smile, but only a small upward slanting of one side of his mouth. Then he'd nod his head up and down and purse his lips in approval.
The three young doctors would exclaim German words meaning "Clean. It's very clean." Mengele never said a word. Just his look of satisfaction was all I wanted. The reward I got was his quirky little smile during selections--and being allowed to live.
Others were not so fortunate. With so little else to do and our lives resting on each selection, those of us who had endured several of them had figured out that 20 to 25 percent of us were chosen to be gassed each time. We calculated that our chances of making it through the entire war were not very bright.
"Sooner or later it will catch up with us," Hymie might say, his head hanging low so the Senior Block Inmate and Stubendienst couldn't see him talking.
"For some of us, it's all over. For the rest of us who are still here, it's just a matter of time," Nuftul would respond, the thickness of his voice betraying his sadness, though he tried not to show it.
"Nobody can avoid it," I would say. "This is a death camp. Anybody who is sick or skinny gets shipped here. We don't get a lot to eat; the people in the working camp get a lot more. They're valuable, and we're not needed. Still, a miracle might happen. We might get through this. Just keep fighting, just keep fighting."
They'd all look at me with wide eyes, then grin and shake their heads. They thought I was the eternal optimist. I was. Still, we lived with constant torture. Inside myself, I thought that if we didn't get picked for this selection, we'd get nailed in the next one or die on the job.
Every three to four
months, there was a mass selection in which about 150 Jews would be picked
At first, that job seemed to be a real plum because it
meant you could pick the pockets of the dead for food or belongings. After
a while, we discovered that being a
yourself would die in a few months.
They had good food because they got whatever people threw away or what they could find on the corpses. Even better, they could keep--if nobody caught them--whatever treasure they plundered from the corpses' pockets, underwear, or anywhere else somebody had tucked a jewel, money, or bread, as long as a guard didn't take the loot for himself. As life in a death camp goes, this was pretty soft living. All they had to do was extract corpses from the gas chambers.
As I remember, before Mengele came, prisoners fought to be Sonderkommandos because the life was so good. Eventually, though, people figured out that the crew was gassed every few months, even though the Germans staggered the intervals so the Sonderkommandos couldn't predict when their time was up.
The Germans never let people know that was where they were going. Whenever they needed a new Sonderkommando shift, the Senior Block Inmate would assemble everybody from the barracks and call out, "Attention. The following numbers will stand on the right-hand side in the morning. You will be moving to another job." Nobody knew exactly which job it was until it was too late.
The Sonderkommandos had a grisly task: they removed the corpses from the gas chambers and took them to the ovens. Each of the four gas chambers was about ten feet from its own crematorium, like a pair of evil twins. Each pair was connected by several boards slanted downward from the gas chambers so bodies could be transferred easily to the ovens.
When the gas chambers were being heavily stoked with bodies, the Sonderkommandos would roll the corpses down the planks into the mouth of the ovens. When there was more time, they'd carry the corpses by the head and feet down the planks, dropping them like garbage sacks into the vast crematoriums.
One time in October 1943, some of my landsmen, my compatriots from my city, were picked. I saw them in the Sonderkommando barracks the next day. I talked to them occasionally near the barbed wire, when nobody was looking, and that's how I found out what being a Sonderkommando was all about.
One of the worst parts, they told me, was that people in the gas chambers would climb on top of each other clawing toward what they hoped was untainted air. The result was a pyramid effect: a mass of people on the bottom and an increasingly small cluster of corpses rising toward the top.
Naturally, people in the throes of terror and death lose control of their bodily functions. However, I was told, a chemical washed the smell from the released bowels and urine and sweat out of the air.
The Sonderkommando compound was isolated from the rest of the camp. It consisted of two barracks, one for sleeping, the other for necessities such as washing. It was almost encased in barbed wire, and soldiers tightly guarded every square inch of the perimeter, so supposedly word of what happened there wouldn't leak out. It was futile. We all knew what was happening. When people live so closely together, keeping such secrets is almost impossible.
Still, the Nazis tried. In October 1943, four Leichenkommandos escaped. They were from that part of the country and thought they could get away. Germans hated prisoners who escaped for several reasons. First, escapees could spread word of what was actually happening at the camps. Personally, I think a lot of people knew anyway, but the Germans thought anything they wanted to keep secret would stay secret. They certainly had succeeded in keeping the Red Cross from knowing what was happening.
Second, people who escaped obviously had outsmarted the Nazis, a fact incompatible with their being a master race. Third, escapes reflected badly on everyone, from the commander down to the guards, making them look incompetent and stupid at the hands of lowly Jews. Fourth, if some prisoners escaped, then other prisoners might get the same idea. A constant stream of breakouts would disrupt the tidy order the Germans had imposed upon Birkenau.
The four were captured in
a few days, brought back to the guardhouse front gate, then put up on a
small wooden platform. The German soldiers put ropes around the prisoners'
necks, then pulled them up in the air. I watched as the prisoners' heads
dropped over to the side after their necks broke. Their faces turned
black, their legs kicked at the air, their eyes bulged, and their tongues
protruded like long, pink snakes from their mouths.
Finally, they were still.
They'd been executed before the day shift returned, so their bodies were
left suspended until after thousands of workers had passed by the limp
forms. Eventually, the bodies were cut down and tossed into a crematorium.
"I want to escape every day, but seeing what happened to these guys rips the guts out of me," I whispered to Nuftul, my voice filled with sadness. "These people knew the territory. They knew where to run and the Germans still brought them in. We're so tightly patrolled, even a mouse couldn't escape."
Still, two overheard
conversations filled me with happiness. The first occurred when Mengele
was in his office discussing politics with his three doctors. He had such
discussions with them almost every morning. They all had access to daily
newspapers, which they read religiously.
The suite was four
approximately twelve-by-twelve-foot rooms, each with a handmade
rectangular table, some wooden chairs, and a few books. Mengele would sit
on one side of the table in his office, and the three young doctors would
sit on the other side, sipping coffee from metal cups. The young ones
leaned forward, listening intently. Mengele acted as though he were having
a casual conversation among friends, discussing politics, the daily
Almost every day the young
ones would ask Mengele what was going on in the Fatherland. They were
reading in their papers about staggering German military losses, and they
Mengele was soothing,
telling them that Hitler had special plans, that he was letting the
Russians think they were winning the war by letting them capture a lot of
little countries, but scientists were working on new, awful weapons which
would miraculously change the war's entire complexion.
They listened respectfully but were skeptical. They asked, "How come the Canadians, French, and English all are attacking us? How come we can't protect our own people?"
"We let them do a little bit of damage to us. At the end, they'll be finished.
They'll never bombard the
Homeland," he said smugly. I knew from the underground messages that
Britain had already bombed Germany a couple of times.
I was often around during these discussions, because Mengele still didn't think I understood German. One morning, I went in to clean Mengele's offices. The doctors and Mengele were having their usual cups of coffee and asking Mengele why the Gypsies, Masons, Slavic races, and Jews were being eliminated. One of the doctors earnestly asked Mengele, "Why are we killing Jews? They never did anything to us. They have the best engineers, artists, scientists, doctors, musicians. Germany was built with streets named after Jews."
Mengele looked over his shoulder to make sure nobody was watching or listening. Then he leaned forward in his chair and looked at the doctor who asked the question. He would address them all as Meine lieben Kinder" (My dear children). The doctors loved that. Every time Mengele called them that name, they acted almost like dogs rolling over on their back so their stomach could be scratched.
He treated them with such fatherly affection that he often didn't even let them go along when he did selections. Instead they did research, from what I could gather in the snatches of conversations I overheard. What kind of research, I never did find out. I'd heard about Mengele's experiments, but I never saw any. I heard Mengele had stopped them after he moved over to Birkenau. In any case, all I saw were autopsied corpses.
"Meine lieben Kinder," Mengele said to the three doctors. "The Jewish people, no matter where they are, they become the best in the world. Yes, you're right. They have all kinds of medicine, music, and scientific discoveries." Then he described how rich some of them were, including the Rothschilds, and how the French borrowed from the Jews so the country could fight a war. "There can't be two smart peoples in the world. We're going to win the war, so only the Aryan race will stand."
One doctor asked a question, to which Mengele replied: "My father fought in the German-Austrian war with the tsar. That was in 1914, when they started fighting, and we kept winning the war. Then the United States came in, and we started to lose the war. Now, the whole world is involved against us and we're only 90 million people."
Still, Mengele said, the Germans had some of the French and Italians on their side. "We didn't realize the Jewish people were going to fight," Mengele said, slowly, deliberately, without any passion.
"Where are they fighting?" one of the young doctors asked.
"Right here, next to the camp, there are all kinds of chemical factories. Take a look. They work right next to us in those camps, those Jewish pilots. A lot of them were shot down. Take a look. All kinds of nationalities are fighting, the English, the Indians, the Pakistanis. There are even some Jewish brigades fighting us. "
A lot of what he said just then was correct. Many times when I went out with the death wagon to pick up corpses, we would see and talk to English pilots, American pilots. We even ran into a number of Jewish pilots. Under the Germans they were being forced to build factories. They lived in the work camps surrounding Auschwitz.
Listening hard, I continued to clean the windows, wash the floors and tables, and shine boots.
"Look," Mengele said. "Even the Russians are fighting us. They've brought in Jewish pilots, nurses, and doctors. Everybody's ganging up on us. We didn't think it would happen this way."
"What will happen in this war?" one of the doctors asked Mengele.
"Meine lieben Kinder, what can I tell you? You know what the situation is now. Everything is in the open. There's nothing to hide."
Then Mengele stood up and said something that made me want to grab his neck and crush his throat, to kick his balls until they were jelly, then stomp on his face.
"Actually, we never had anything against the Jewish people. But they're smarter than we are. Hitler wanted to be smarter than the rest of the world, so we had to eliminate the Jews. In reality, they never did anything to us. They didn't even have a country of their own to fight against us. We have to eliminate them. There can only be one smart people and it's us. We're winning the war. Our Fuehrer knows what he's doing."
One of the doctors just shook his head, and Mengele proclaimed again that the Fatherland was working on the world's most destructive weapon, which would change everything overnight. The young ones just looked at him pityingly. They knew it was a lost cause. Then the talk ended. It was time for Mengele and his doctors to make their rounds, to see how quickly and efficiently Jews were being killed.
That crazy bastard, that bastard, I thought to myself. It was the beginning of 1944; I knew the end of the war was a long way off. Of course, not a syllable of any of these thoughts escaped my mouth. He would have had me gassed without hesitation.
After the conversation was over, my friend Josef asked me what had been said.
But I played dumb with him, too. We went on to clean something else.
In the second conversation that thrilled me, I happened to be cleaning in Mengele's office while the three doctors were there alone. They were discussing how the war was going, and it was going badly.
"We didn't expect the Juden all over the world to bring educated people into this fight. Pilots, boat captains, officers: all of them are fighting us," one doctor said.
"What do you expect? People have to fight for their lives. You can see how many prisoners we took in, educated people. Now they're destroying our cities and killing our people."
Another one said: "We didn't realize they had so many Jewish people in England. They're bombing and destroying our cities."
One of them looked very somber. "Well, we're getting paid back for what we did up to now. Why should they lie down and die? Look at what we're doing to the Juden."
Another one leaned forward in his chair, forehead furrowed.
"Why are we killing the Jews? What did they do to us?" he asked. "They're the smartest people in the world, and they're the richest people in the world, too. They have banks. Look at what they're doing in England. Rothschild gave them all that land to open up new air force bases. He gave up all that land to fight us. The Jew bastard wouldn't give up that land before."
I could tell what they meant. It was the same old Nazi propaganda. They were saying that the Jews control everything and are greedy, rich, and selfish, so they're getting what they deserve. But I was excited to hear how badly the Germans were losing.
Just because the Germans
were in deep trouble militarily didn't mean that the way they treated us
had softened. Germany was being blanketed by bombs without pause or mercy.
The Nazi mythology said the master race was invincible and Germany would
never be bombed. Yet the mothers, wives, girlfriends, sons, and daughters
of these soldiers and doctors were being killed, maimed, driven into
starvation and homelessness by repeated attacks.
The Germans had trouble grasping the problem. It was beyond anything they had been led to believe. Their world was being exploded, one bomb at a time.
A little later, some of the most pitiful prisoners I had seen in all my time there began arriving. The Greeks had been conquered, and a number of Jews from there were being sent to Auschwitz. They spoke Hebrew. Most were small and skinny, with no meat on their bones to insulate them from the marrow-freezing Polish winter. Being thin and accustomed to a warm climate, they had a life expectancy, even by prison standards, that was particularly short.
Even if they didn't freeze, they were likely to starve. Their small size put them at a big disadvantage against the taller, stronger, and more belligerent prisoners. I saw many of the Greeks walking around with bread and a piece of salami they'd been given. The Russian prisoners, among the biggest in the camp, would punch the Greeks in the face and force them to hand over the food. Whenever this happened, tears would swarm into the eyes of the Greeks as they were lying on the ground, their eyes and nose bleeding and swelling from the beatings.
They looked so frail, so helpless, I had to do something. Being in a death camp meant being next to people from lots of different countries speaking numerous languages. Survival depended at least in part on communicating with fellow prisoners. I had picked up enough Greek to talk to one of them. I knew in particular the Greek word for "eat." Whenever I saw a Greek guy walking around with food in his hand, I would rush over to him.
"Don't keep food. Eat it or somebody will steal it from you," I said in my fractured version of their language. It was enough to get the point across. The Greeks would look around at the numerous Russians and other larger prisoners. They instantly would shove the food into their mouth. With their cheeks puffed out and their saliva showing, they'd try to smile their gratitude.
"It's nothing," I'd say. "We all must help each other."
They would look at me strangely. Because their size seemed to invite people to slap them around, they weren't used to anybody's helping them. But I was as short as many of them, though not nearly as thin. That made me seem like more of an ally. I would just nod my head in acknowledgment, then walk on. I didn't need a lot of thanks.
However, I did desperately want to escape, and it looked as though a gate might be opening. Months after the Warsaw Uprising, rumors started circulating that the Germans wanted volunteers to clean up Warsaw's wreckage.
I can get to Warsaw and run away as soon as I get there, I thought. I know the terrain, and maybe I'll be able to travel the 125 miles to reach the Russian partisans. I can do it. I can do it. I can get out of here.
The rumors were true. I volunteered. Usually the German guards handpicked people, but this time anybody who wanted to go could do it just by standing in line. We were told to go clean up, but I didn't want to lose my place. Then one of the Germans looked at me.
"You're a Polish Jew. You filthy Jew. You thought we wouldn't find out you were from Poland? Stupid pig. Get back to your barracks."
I never did discover how they found out, but I felt about as low as I'd ever felt. This place is going to be my graveyard. I had a way out, and it was stolen from me, I thought, despairing. My heart sank to my shoes as I heard the Warsawbound group march off.
One day, while the
winter's ice clamped itself onto trees and bricks and made the snow
slippery, I returned from work and noticed a huge gray vat the size of a
large swimming pool. It contained chemicals so raw the smell almost ripped
out my sinuses, which had been leaking for days. I knew I was getting a
very bad cold.
Is this how we end? In a tub of chemicals that will send us screaming and shrieking in pain before we die? I wondered.
I walked inside our barracks. Before we had a chance to eat or do anything, the Stubendienst yelled out:
"Today we're going to be disinfecting. Just the Jews."
At that point it didn't matter much. The Gentiles largely had died; most remaining prisoners were Jews. We had to march out of the barracks and line up a half-mile away.
"Take off your clothes. Now. Everything except your shoes."
We did. The wind was gently kicking up puffs of snow and made the ever-present ice seem to darken.
"Now, tie your shoelaces around the clothing so you can find them later. Now throw your clothing into the vat."
The Germans were always frightened of disease, so they constantly stayed three to five feet away from us. The chemicals were so strong they'd kill the worst germs even the Germans could imagine.
We were forced to stand there in our laceless shoes for an hour and a half, while the wind and cold made our flesh swell up into large goose bumps. Many of us started to sneeze and cough. After a while, I heard the rasping sound of people spitting up huge wads of phlegm, but we had to stay in formation at attention.
When the Germans finally let us retrieve our clothing, the pants and shirts and underwear were all stuck together. There wasn't time for each guy to find his own clothing, so each of us had to grab the first bundle we could find and put it on fast. Of course, the clothing was saturated with chemicals. By the time we got back to the barracks, the uniforms had frozen on our bodies.
Naturally there was no heat in the barracks. In temperatures that seemed to be plummeting down way below zero, we all ran around looking for someone wearing clothing with our prisoner number on it. At the same time, the owner of the clothing we each were wearing was looking for his own uniform. It took several hours for everybody to get his own uniform back.
Over the next few days, sneezing and deep bronchial hacking became a kind of ragged melody which played all day and night. Many of us would die of pneumonia during the next few weeks.
I was affected, too. Two days after the vat, my head was starting to feel as though it would burst apart like a ripe melon. It throbbed. My whole body became so feverishly hot I climbed onto the barracks roof at night so I could keep my body cool while I slept. To protect myself from the wind and cold, I wore a summer jacket; I stuffed cement bags all around me and into my shoes.
It wasn't working. I could barely pull myself off the roof in the morning, even though I'd slept next to the warm chimney. I knew I had to keep doing my job, but I tried to beg off carrying messages to the outside. I could scarcely do my hospital work. I saw skeletal prisoners moaning and bleeding in bed, and I almost envied them. At least their suffering was about to end.
The pain intensified, and my strength was draining fast. My head felt as though explosions were going off almost every minute. Then another small explosion went off in my head; it wasn't pain. It was a thought as clear as the forbidding ice that coated the camp.
"I'm going to die. If this hammering in my head doesn't stop, I'm going to die."
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