WALK IN MY SHOES
Collected Memories of the Holocaust
as told by Shiku Smilovic in his
autobiographical memoir "Buchenwald
We are herded like animals into the cattle cars with beatings of whips if you were slow. Young or old, it didn't matter one bit. The SS were now well-represented. Mr. Eichmann in person was standing by, grinning like a drunken butcher at the slaughter house. About 200 people were crammed into each cattle car; a total of 20 cars were loaded, about 4,000 people to the slaughter. The train finally started moving and we passed our old neighborhood. It was late in May; the beautiful trees were in full bloom; the weather was sunny and beautiful. Father standing at the little window called out. Come here and see your old neighborhood, who knows if we will ever see it again.
We all rushed over and took turns to look out and see our childhood playgrounds, where we had so much fun not so long ago. The train traveled very slow and stops at each station for hours; the adults were discussing the route we are taking.
It was understood by most of the
businessmen that used to travel a lot in peacetime, they were pretty sure
that when we reached Kosice, we would be able to tell which way we were
going. Kosice is located in northern Slovakia. Traveling west, would be to
Hungary or Germany; going east, would be heading for Poland or Ukraine.
After 2 days' travelling, we reached Kosice. In the train we faced heat
and bad sanitary conditions; very little water was given, maybe once
during the two days of traveling. Food was practically all gone; the
situation was bad. I stood in the train with Tefilen (phylacteries)
on my head and arm. I cried bitter tears; suddenly I felt my father's hand
on my shoulder. I must have been too loud and didn't even notice it.
"Cry, my son cry, perhaps your prayers will reach in the right places and stop this tragedy upon our people."
Our tragedy on the trains continued without mercy. People were dying in the trains; they were piled up in one corner of the box car covered up with blankets. What is happening? Everyone just stood there and nobody talked. The faces of the elderly turned ash-colour, even the babies stopped crying, something very awful was happening, you could feel it in the air. We looked out the little window in Kosice, Slovakia while passing an intersection with the ramps down, and some people standing at the ramps waiting for the ramp to lift up. We asked them, "Where are we going?" They indicated with their fingers across their throats, like saying you are heading for the slaughter. But the people shook it off and said they must be anti-Semites from Slovakia.
On the third day of our travel, we finally reached the city of Krakow, Poland. On the platform were a lot of people; they were motioning to us.
Escape, you will be (a stroke with the finger over their neck), meaning death. Things started to add up; we saw the same sign in Kosice and now here also the same sign; we were a forsaken lot. At the same time we noticed some people on the platform with yellow stars on their coats. How was this possible? According to news we received, there was not one Jew left alive in Poland, and here we saw not one, but maybe half a dozen, roaming around the station. It really had us confused again. The same day, as soon as we passed Krakow, we arrived in Auschwitz-Birkenau. The doors of the boxcars were opened and we saw hundreds of SS and their dogs standing and waiting for the new victims.
Immediately, as the doors were opened, a number of Polish Jewish boys climbed up the platform and started to chase the people out of the boxcars.
Leave everything in the car; you won't need a thing where you are going, pointing to the chimneys of the crematorium, there, you see that smoke, all of you will be killed and burned today. At the same time, they were giving advice quietly to the young mothers. Give your children to your mothers; you might save yourself from the crematoriums. Some did, and some didn't have the heart to leave the children, and paid for it with their lives the same day. Sister Sheindl who gave her little baby to mother, was saved by a miracle (will give details later in the book). She lives in B'nai Brak, Israel with two daughters.
Chane and Mirjam and son Tuvia with their families plus 19 grand children. Sister Golde, also gave her boy to mother and walked down the ramp, when all of a sudden her little boy Lajzerku started screaming, Mommy, Mommy, I see German SS they are going to kill me, please don't let them kill me. Sister Golde ran over and picked up Lajzerku hugging each other while they walked. They were all gassed with mother and sister Eva the same day.
Father, brother Beri, and I headed for the selection line where Dr. Mengele was standing with one foot resting on a chair waving with his hands to the left or to the right. As we approached closer to the place where Dr. Mengele was standing, we heard him questioning the people. How old are you? We also saw that some boys my age were sent to the other side, which meant the crematorium. Father turned to me and said you tell him that you are seventeen. Brother Beri passed, he was first, than my father was next. He was asked how old are you? Father replied in fluent German: I am 54 years old and I served in the Hungary Austria Army as sergeant in the cavalry. He passed with Dr. Mengele saying you speak a perfect German. I was next, again father spoke in German saying, that's my son, he is 17 years old, and he is a good (feldsarbeiter) farm boy, I passed the test.
We were now proceeding single-file to a large building. As we entered the big room we were asked to give up all valuables and threatened with hard punishment if they found valuables on you. Everyone was ordered to undress and put their clothes onto a pile. As we were getting undressed we heard screams of people; we were frozen from fright; it sounded like people were being burned alive. The stench was so great that we could hardly breathe. We saw the crematorium chimneys spewing black smoke that reached high into the heavens. We were standing close to each other since we undressed and a cold chill went through our bones; so we huddled father, Beri and I, to keep warm. After about 15 minutes the screaming had stopped.
We are handed a piece of soap; every part of our body was being shaved and special disinfection liquid applied to the shaved areas. It burned like hell; after a few minutes the burning sensation stopped. We proceeded to the bathhouse next to the crematoria; we looked up and saw the showerheads, the showerheads were able to deliver water or poisonous gases. When we saw the water coming out the showerheads, we all took a deep breath saying we were safe for now.
As we finished showering we were chased out to an empty area next to the bathhouse. In single file we march toward some tables with the striped K.Z.uniforms; we each received a pair of pants, a jacket, a shirt, a cap, and one pair of underwear. We dressed quickly, since we were half-frozen, standing naked outside for about 2 hours. Since we kept our own shoes, we managed to sigh with some relief.
The next genius trick of the German barbaric system how further to split up families. They announced all trades: plumbers, electricians, carpenters, bricklayers, and auto mechanics should line up separately. Everyone thought they would get to work in their trades. Brother Beri, being an auto mechanic, said goodbye and left us to go with the auto mechanic group, and that's how we got separated from him.
As we all got finished with the selection of trades, we were herded on the double to the Gypsy camp where we entered a big block containing about 1,000 people. The reason why it was called Gypsy Camp was because this camp was occupied with thousands of Gypsies before we arrived. Since they needed room for the new shipment of prisoners, they killed all the Gypsies the night before in the gas chambers.
The big barrack where we were chased into consisted of stacked pritsches (plank beds) on both sides of the room, a pritsche size was about 8 x 10 feet, to which ten people were assigned, which meant you would have to lay on your side to accommodate everyone; if someone decided to turn, everyone had to turn. In the center of the barrack was a raised platform made of concrete, right through the length of the barrack. That's was for the kapo, who was also a prisoner, but acted like he would be G-d. "Nobody gets off the bed unless I give permission," walking along this raised platform, he continued to yell at the top of his voice with a rubber hose in his right hand, swinging. All valuables were to be handed over right now, if anyone was found to possess valuables, he would be punished. He picked on an innocent man, made him bend over and started beating him with the rubber hose, lash after lash, the screams were so terrifying. Finally, the man stopped screaming, and the show was over. "One dead, and more to come. You better hand over your goods now, before I start my inspection." Two SS soldiers walked in and climbed up the platform. By now, some people were bringing some valuables and handing it over to the kapo; this went on for hours with warnings again and again. Our bodies were aching from lying on the wooden pritsche and to change position of your body was a real job.
"Food will be given once a day and you will eat it, if you like it or not." Funny, we were not even hungry; food was the last thing on our minds.
Father started to talk to me about the last minutes we got off the train. Did you say goodbye to mother? He was upset because during the rush and commotion getting off the train, he didn't say goodbye to mother. I only remember seeing mother walking down the road with the baby in her hand, sister Eva beside her, and waving to us for a while. With a nod of his head he lay down and cried. We spent about two weeks in Birkenau. Our daily routine consisted of getting up at about 6.a.m., marching to the washroom facilities where we washed to our waist with cold water, and then lining up for work details. The type of jobs varied from working in the kitchen pealing potatoes, picking up the dead bodies around camp and loading them on the small rail cars and delivering them to the crematoriums. There were plenty of dead bodies every morning at each barrack, either dead from beatings, hunger, or broken hearts.
One day, father and I were picked to work in the kitchen; when we arrived there, we were given the job of removing the roots from the potatoes, which lay there in two great piles. We bent down on our knees and we threw the clean potatoes into the pail. When the pail was full, it was my job to bring the clean potatoes to the kitchen. At the entrance of the kitchen there was an SS soldier on guard. This work went on for about 3 hours when, all of a sudden, a group of young boys were running away from a group of children being led to the gas chambers; I noticed Walter Spitz among the runaway boys; he saw us and came crying, "Save me, save me, they are taking us to be gassed." Before I could say a word, the pursuing SS that were busy catching up to the runaway boys, grabbed me and ordered me to go with him, saying that I was runaway kid.
Father came to the rescue. In German, he said to the soldier, "This is my boy, he has been working here all morning, look at his knees, they are all dirty from kneeling on the ground." By this time, the SS guard came over and vouched for me that I was not a runaway kid; he was there working all morning. I was saved. Poor Walter never made it. After the liberation, I met with Walter Spitzís mother, father, and family and told them about Walter on that tragic day in Birkenau.
The food consisted of a soup made of some thing that looked like potatoes but smelled more like yech. For days we couldn't even smell the soup; we just lived on a piece of black bread that tasted like mud with cold water. But after a week we were so hungry that everything tasted like good home-cooking. One morning while standing at Apell (the daily counting of the prisoners) I noticed some girls waving at us from across the road. I immediately recognized sister Shari, Henyu, Rivszu, and Freidy. With their heads shaven it was hard to recognize them, but I saw them clearly and pointed them out to father. I will never forget his great smile and his words, Thank you G-d. Thank you, Thank you.
One of my bad memories from Birkenau took
place one morning outside our barrack while we were all resting after the
daily Apell. A young Polish Jewish boy, maybe 17 years old,
approached a man with brand new high leather shoes, and ordered the man to
give him the shoes. The man couldn't understand why this boy would like
his shoes. Since the man did not react fast enough the boy produced a whip
and started beating the man with the new leather shoes. The kapo
that was beside the boy encouraged him to hit harder, harder, We all stood
by in horror, while this young Jewish boy continued to beat this innocent
man; as he was beating this man to a pulp, he was screaming insults at
him. You stinking Hungarians, you had it so good for too long, now we will
take good care of you. The man passed out, and he removed the shoes from
the beaten man and walked away whistling a tune.
End of May 1944
We were told to get out of the barracks and line up for selection. We were going to a working camp and we would have a selection for able bodies only, the rest would go back to the barracks. A number of S.S. soldiers appeared with their dogs at their sides; the selection lasted about one hour. We were given a piece of bread and some margarine and were taken to the railway station where we were quickly herded on to the boxcars, about 85 prisoners to each boxcar, feeling happy to leave this hellish place called Auschwitz-Birkenau. Our transport consisted of about 2,000 prisoners, mostly people from our town Munkacz. We were heading somewhere, where to, nobody knew. We were all seated on the wooden floor and people were finally talking to each other, while in Birkenau, people were so tense that they didn't even dare open their mouths to talk and now the situation was much more normal. The train was moving pretty fast now, you could tell by the klak, klak sound that you heard constantly. The doors were shut tight; there was no one giving orders how to breathe, how to stand, how to lie, how to sit. You were able, for the first time in weeks, to talk to your neighbor without fear that the block leader would hit you over the head and scream, "Who gave you permission to talk?" The conversation on the train was mostly sad. Everyone counted their losses and, with tears in their eyes, they rebelled openly to G-d. How could you let this happen to your children??
There were great debates going on, you could even hear someone screaming, "G-d knows what he is doing!! It's us that don't know why this is happening. We don't want to admit to our sins!!" As a 15 year-old, I was bewildered by these outbursts. I looked upon those people as if they had gone insane. We could still smell the stench from the burned bodies of our loved ones and these people were talking about our guilt. What guilt can you put on little babies burned alive by the thousands? They had no time to sin. In all this anger I started to eat my portion of bread that tasted good after our long ride overnight. We traveled for two days and we arrived in Buchenwald on a very nice sunny day. We got off the trains at the Buchenwald station and we were amazed by the beautiful scenery. Tall birch trees as far as your eyes could see, beautiful valleys, and beautiful wild flowers all around the place.
We marched in rows of five towards the camp, when all of a sudden we heard music in the distance. As we came closer to the gates of the camp we saw a full marching band playing Czech marching songs while we entered the gates of Buchenwald. Strange as it was it felt much better than entering Auschwitz-Birkenau.
Funny how you adapt to all circumstances no matter how tragic the situation. When we entered the camp marching toward the bathhouse, fellow prisoners were waving to us assuring us this was not Auschwitz. Here you will be treated like human beings. We were overjoyed by these remarks, and you could even notice a smile on the faces of our group for the first time since this group had been together. As we entered the bathhouse we were all shaven from top to bottom and disinfection liquid applied to all shaved areas; it burned like hell, but what was hell to us?
We graduated from Auschwitz, and nothing could be worse than the hell over there. Here in Buchenwald, all the staff consisted of political prisoners of all nationalities. There were no German SS to be seen in the camp. They only came once a day, for the daily Apell (counting the prisoners) at 6 p.m. and were not seen till the next day. The staff consisted mostly of German political prisoners, Czech, French, Polish, and Russians were also part of the staff. Everything looked well organized; the kapos did not carry sticks in their hands; they had a welcoming smile for us, again telling us that Buchenwald was not like what we have seen before.
We finished our showers and we were given new striped clothes and taken to the large hall where pictures were taken of each prisoner and numbers were given to each individual prisoner. Dad's number was 56,465 and my number 56,466. We had to learn these numbers in German, French, and Russian. Your name was not part of the record; you were just a number; that was it.
Immediately after that, we were placed in block number 56 which was in the middle camp. Buchenwald had three different camps.
The large camp. The middle camp. And the tent camp.
The large camp was strictly for the staff members, ammunitions factory workers: all tradesman working in Buchenwald. Block 8 was the childrenís section, the kitchen and hospitals.
The middle camp was for transit only. You stayed two weeks, rested and then were shipped to another working camp to wherever prisoner labour was requested.
The tent camp was for the sick and the old who were not able to work. They were systematically annihilated, were shipped to Auschwitz gas chambers or shot in the woods near Buchenwald. The corpses were shipped to a crematorium not far from Buchenwald for cremation.
In the bathhouse, when we saw the shower heads spewing out nice warm water and not gas, we were delighted. Father washed my back and for the first time in my life I felt his love for me was even greater than I imagined. First, he never washed my back before, back home we had no running water, period. To get water, we had to use a manual water pump and then heat it. Imagine 12 children standing in line to get a bath, and father was nowhere near this group. He was probably somewhere helping the poor and the sick. And now I felt his hand on my back and it felt real good. We got settled in our block 56 and most of the prisoners were from Munkasz: The rich and the poor, the religious and the secular we were all the same; just everybody had different numbers. The stay in Buchenwald lasted for three weeks. The food was no comparison to Birkenau food; we gained weight and our strength came back. Father looked like never before; his cheeks filled up and you could see it, since he had no beard and his face was nice and round. But, it was too good to last. After three weeks we were loaded into the cattle cars again and we traveled to a working camp, destination unknown. We traveled for one day and one night, on the way we noticed that we were going through Leipzig, Germany and when the train stopped we were in Zeitz.
This was the new place where we were going to spend our time working, cleaning up the mess after the recent bombings. As we got out of the train boxcars, we are again lined up five abreast, and were marched through small towns and villages to reach our new living quarters. People of the villages came running out to witness this great catch of prisoners. It must have been reported the previous day in the daily news that some prisoners would be coming to Zeitz the next day. But among our group were hundreds of boys my age. The old German ladies witnessing the prisoner march were holding their hands against their mouth like saying, these are the prisoners? Children, Children. By shaking their heads they indicated their disgust at our plight.We marched for about 4 hours when we arrived in a small town called Gleina. A nice small town surrounded by German housing development for the workers at Zeitz. We were herded into a large barn with three levels of bunk beds.
We met a group of Dutch inmates that build the place for us. They were all tradesmen reserved for building living quarters for the prisoners. They were all in their middle and late twenties, all tall and handsome men. They were all arrested because they did not want to join the German military service. They were treated much better than the rest of prisoners.
There were 1,000 prisoners with us in the barn. There was hardly any room to walk around in the barn so you lay on your bunk. The situation was much better than even Buchenwald, we were in the middle of the town with German population all around us. We could see and feel that there was still a world out there that lived normally and did not know what was really happening to our people. They talked to us from the upper floor balconies next to our barn. "Why are the children in prison?" they ask. We explained to them, "Because they are Jews." They just stood there in disbelief as if we had been telling them lies. They gave us some fruits and bread; we were astonished that this was possible. Germans sharing their food with us? The situation got out of hand: hundreds of prisoners held out their hand toward the German neighbors. The SS moved in quickly and all windows facing the barn were sealed tight: no more conversation with the population, or you get 25 lashes on the spot.
The next day as we arrived we were awakened at 6.a.m. We received a good breakfast: half a loaf of bread, with margarine. We were taken by bus to the factory in Zeitz about 20 km away. The factory, in the days before the bombing, was producing coal extracts, and also refining gasoline in a big way. About a month before we arrived on the scene, this factory was blown to smithereens. None of the factory's facilities were in working order; we were brought in to clean up the mess and help rebuild the factory. As we arrived, the foremen of the factory were waiting for us, and each foreman picked his crew for the special detail in the factory. The jobs consisted of different type of functions like cleaning away the debris of the bombed out buildings, digging trenches for laying electrical heavy cables, hauling and cleaning old bricks, mixing and hauling cement, all of it done by manual labour.
For the boys this was a new experience: working in a factory, riding to work by bus, it was much different than to go to school or Yeshiva: that's what we all did prior to this new madness of concentration camps. At 6 p.m. we were back in the barn; a hot meal was served; the meal consisted of a hot potato soup with some horse meat floating around the top of the soup. It reminded me of the food we used to feed our cows back in Munkacz, but the food was hot and filling; so we ate, with a bit of humour, and discussed the way it smelled.
This was too good to last. After one week the buses stopped and we had to walk to work every morning. Not only that, we also had to remove our shoes and walk barefoot. That seemed to be the worst part of the daily suffering.
The German kids threw little stones onto the road which made the walking barefoot very painful. Father, after walking to work a few days, told me he could no longer continue. While walking to work barefoot with the SS soldiers and their dogs on both side of the marching columns, screaming, "Schnell, Shnell," (Faster, faster), they practically kept us running all the way to the factory. The walk to work lasted about one hour. The ones that fell behind and couldn't keep up with the column marching were beaten so severely that, I recall, some of the people that were beaten were left lying on the road with their guts beaten out of them. This was a sight I will never forget. By now, the food rations were reduced to 1/4 of a loaf instead the 1/2 loaf we got the first week. The soups in the morning were gone, and instead we received some lukewarm dark water, which was serving as our morning coffee without sweetener or sugar. Naturally, everybody used the black substance for rinsing your mouth and spilled the rest because it was so bitter that you couldn't swallow it.
More people were sick, people older than 40 were hit the hardest; since the food rations were reduced, these people were going downhill by the hour, some of them could hardly walk and couldn't work. The situation for father was getting so bad that one night, as we stood in appel (counting the inmates), the head of the camp, SS Obersturmfuhrer, passed by. Dad jumped out from the row, saluting the officer, and, in German, told him that he was a Sergeant from the Austria Hungary Army, and that he fought in the First World War when he was hit by a shrapnel injuring his hip: "I cannot continue to work any more." The officer listened to father and told him to report to him in the morning, and not to go work the next day. I was surprised that the officer was even listening to father, and everybody who witnessed father's actions was also speechless. I pleaded with father not to go through with his plans, rather continue to go to work in the morning.
By now, after our poor diet, father felt very weak and his rupture, which he brought from home, was very painful. He was a broken man, physically and spiritually,
"My son," he said, "there is a time for everything. The time has come that I can not go to work anymore, no matter what happens."
The next morning father stayed in camp and went to see the camp leader who ordered him to go to the hospital and have a medical examination. While I was at work, I was thinking of my father, would I see him again or would they finish him off? Luckily, when I returned from work, father told me that the doctors gave him permission to stay in camp for a while and not to go to the factory until next week. The next day they announced that all men unable to work should step forward. A group of about 250 sick people lined up for the call. The head of the camp selected the very sick, about 50 men all together, and were told that they are going back to Buchenwald.
Father was among the group selected. The next day I said goodbye to father; as we were standing next to the trucks, we hugged for a while, and I felt that I was losing him forever. The truck with the 50 men left the camp and we started marching to work. While walking to work my mind was traveling in many directions. Maybe I had lost father forever. Or, maybe without the burden of father, it might be easier for me to survive. It became so bad, that for the first time I wished I was dead. The pain and sadness after father left was unbelievable. I cried myself to sleep every night for weeks until my tears dried up and I couldn't cry any more. No matter what was happening to me my thoughts are continuously with father. Would I ever see him again? I felt so lonely. But I made up my mind that I would survive this hell, in order to be able to tell the world about the crimes that were committed against our Jewish brethren, by the German Nazis. After two weeks in Gleina Camp in the barn, we were relocated to a new camp next to the factory in Zeitz.
This was much better for our sore feet, no more walking to work on those treacherous roads. Plus wake-up time was an hour later, since we were only five minutes away from our job site across the road.
The new camp consisted of tents with hundreds of people to each tent. With the regular two layer bunk beds, nice new blankets and more room to move around between the beds. But our diet was getting worse, less bread and the soups were like water. The children got second helpings after everyone was served. Fights broke out every night at the second helpings, since everybody claimed to be a child and there was only so much food left over. There was a lot of pushing and screaming. To this day I hate to stand in line for food.
The daily menu was very skimpy. Breakfast consisted of the famous dark lukewarm liquid, lunch the same liquid. We started work at 7 a.m., had a 1/2 hour lunch break, and finished the day's work at 6 P.M. We marched to the camp. There were 4,000 of us in camp now. We lined up, 5 per row, stood and waited for the counting to begin. Sometimes, if the going was good, it took one hour and we lined up again for supper, but sometimes the German SS found ways of punishing us, for some reason or other, and we could stand outside for hours, practicing "Mitzen up, Mitzen down" a punishing exercise to remove your cap and return it in unison. And this could go on for hours while we were hungry and tired, rain or shine. Finally, when we were done, we headed for our barracks to collect our supper: a bowl of soup, a piece of black bread that tasted like mud, sometimes a bit of jam; that was the food till the next night. Every one ate up the food; there was no use saving it for breakfast because it would be stolen during the night. The jobs in the factory were very heavy and very strict, you were not allowed to talk to any other workers in the factory. There were a number of Polish, French, Yugoslavian, Czech, and many other nationalities that were on forced labour in that factory, taken by the Germans in the cities all over Europe. They were not in concentration camps, but lived among the German population in special quarters separated from the general German population. There were strict laws about not mixing with the German inhabitants. They were paid for their labour and had to take care of themselves.
I was working with a group of 30 boys in a
special commando in the Factory. Our job was to remove a live bomb in a
large chimney, which had not exploded at the time of impact. The chimney
was about ten feet in width; most of the chimney was blown away by the
impact of the bomb when it dropped right down the chimney. Without
exploding, the bomb landed in a bed of dust, preventing the bomb from
exploding. That's exactly what we were told before we started the cleaning
job. Since the bomb was deeply embedded in the dust we were supposed to
remove the dust from the chimney before the bomb could be removed. Every
morning, with buckets and shovels, we were lowered down the chimney by
ropes on pulleys about 20 feet down and landed on pure coal dust. Another
group of boys was on top of the chimney hoisting up the full buckets and
lowering the empties. We used to joke around and say, letís eat up our
food, if we blow up we might as well go on a full stomach. We never had a
bit of fear on the job, we just didn't care if we lived or died. When we
finished our daily work we emerged from the chimney. Our faces and our
clothes were covered with coal dust, we looked like chimney cleaners. The
SS guard made us jump in a pool every night to clean ourselves and get the
dust off our clothes. We were marched in earlier than the rest of the
workers, and taken straight to the camp kitchen where we were given some
food as a bonus.
2,000 more prisoners arrived from Buchenwald to replace the large amount of sick people that had accumulated in the past few months. Of the 4,000 prisoners, 50% were unable to work. So they had to bring new slaves to try and rebuild the bombed-out factory. Among the new group I found our friend Joseph Spitz from Munkacz, sister Heddy's wig-making boss, also her future father-in-law. She married his son, Arthur Spitz, in 1945 in Munkacz. He was very happy to see me, since he was very heart-broken and needed a friend to talk to.
He gave me good news. He saw father in Buchenwald and said that he looked fine. He said they did not go to work, that they prayed a lot and told stories from their Rebbes, which took up most of the day.
All of a sudden I felt a foot taller. I thought that father was killed for sure with the rest of the people that went back to Buchenwald from Zeitz a few months earlier.
And now I heard that father was still in Buchenwald, alive and well. I attributed this miracle to some of my tears that I shed all those nights.
Whatever it might take, I felt I had to find a way to return to Buchenwald and see father again. That night I went to bed so happy that I cried my self to sleep.
Since 50% of the people in camp were sick, you had to have a note from the hospital in order to avoid going to work. People were lined up for most of the night in order to obtain a note. Some received medication, but most of them were turned away without getting any help. Camp life was getting much harder to take, people were bitter and selfish, there was no sharing of ideas, even plain talking was a strain. People stole from each other, like bread that you saved for the next day.
It happened to me one morning when I awoke from my sleep, I noticed that all my belongings had been stolen from me, and I thought I had a secure hiding place. I kept all my stuff, like extra bread that I always exchanged for cigarettes; we got four cigarettes once a week, which went for a quarter loaf of bread, according to the market price. I had accumulated about four pieces of bread, plus my red rusty metal bowl, my special spoon, the handle which I had sharpened on a stone to use as a knife, and one pair of socks. That fortune was all taken from my linen bag while I slept; I had used the bag as a pillow. To replace my loss was humanly impossible; all my sobbing and crying didn't help. I had to borrow a plate from someone after they finished eating. Sometimes I was out of luck, since borrowing a plate took too long, and the food ran out, and I had to go to sleep without any food. But within two weeks I was back in business, I managed to purchase my utensils with the cigarettes in a trade.
By now my job had changed; the chimney cleaning was canceled after they realized it was too dangerous for the people working in the factory next to the chimney. I joined the Nerge Commando, erecting steel columns for the new buildings. It was much harder work, but we worked in the fresh air and the job was not dangerous. One day, while hoisting a steel column with an electric hoist cable attached to the end of the column, the hoist was lifting the column, and about ten people were at the bottom end, moving the column forward. As the column was lifted to the concrete platform, all of a sudden, the column came tumbling down trapping my hand between a steel reel and the column. My middle finger on my left hand was severed about 3/4 of an inch. I was rushed to the emergency facility rooms in the factory.
The German nurses were very nice to me with a million questions. How old are you? Where do you come from? Why are you in the concentration camp? When I told them, just because I am Jewish, their faces became ashen like they had seen a ghost. No more questions, or even talk; they washed and bandaged my finger and I was told to wait. Within an hour they marched me back to the camp which was across the road and I had to see the doctor. in the camp hospital. I was examined and was given a sling to keep my arm in at all times. Since my arm was heavily bandaged and in a sling every one in camp asked me what had happened. Everyone felt sorry for the young boy, and I made a lot of friends. Especially our block leader, a religion teacher from back home, he was six feet tall, about 200 lbs, and gave me a job in the barracks.
Since I just received a five-day pass from the hospital, and did not have to go to work in the factory, but just do light work in camp, I thought that I would take his generous offer, even with my hand in a sling and still pretty sore.
My job was to help the block leader divide the portions for the group in our barracks, like bread, margarine and sometimes a spoonful of jam. Since my right hand was functional, the job was a blessing, especially, when we portioned of the marmalade and I was given to scrape out the barrel: what a feast. I scraped, and scraped, until there was no sign of marmalade left in the barrel. When the five days of the pass was over I went back to the hospital. They examined my finger, new bandages applied, and since it was still sore, they gave me an additional pass for 5 days for light work in camp. I returned to the barracks and gave the pass to the block leader, and I was given an additional job, I had to fold all the blankets left unfolded, plus help make the food portions of the day.
I felt much better now, with the additional food and the extra sleep I got during or after folding the blankets under one of the beds, because sleeping on the job was a no, no.
With the daily happenings, plus hard work, and very little food, plus the cool nights, people were getting sicker. A lot of people were staying in camp unable to go to work, so much so, that the labour force was cut in half: only about 2,000 people were able to walk and work. One morning, all the sick people were lined up for a selection by the SS to see who was cheating.
Since I was staying in camp by way of extending my pass, mostly by myself, I was considered healthy according to the assessment of the SS chief doing the inspection, and I was sent out to work with the rest of the disqualified prisoners to a punishment commando. Our job was moving bricks by throwing the bricks up from one floor to the next, in a human chain, from floor to floor. Since my left hand was still not healed and I had to keep it in a sling I couldn't let my hand down, it was still very painful. I could perform my catching with one hand only, but after a few hours I fainted and when I awoke I was on the floor covered with a blanket and an SS soldier standing over me. It was time to get back to camp, the day was finally over.
This was my worst day in camp since father left for Buchenwald, one day at appel when we returned from work and we stood lined up in rows of five. The sirens were sounding the alarm, usually we had to run to a bomb shelter, but this time we were told to stay in line.
We looked up and heard the sound of a plane, but there was only one plane, and it disappeared into the clouds. Little did we know that it was an American plane taking surveillance pictures for the next day bombing.
The next morning the sirens sounded again but this time we were working in the factory. We were chased on the double to our camp located just across the road. We had just entered the gates of the camp, and when we looked up we saw a plane making a big circle around the factory; within ten minutes the roar of the planes were becoming louder and louder. We looked up and we could not believe our eyes, hundreds of planes were approaching in groups of ten. When they reached the circle they came diving down and released the bombs, we could hear the bombs whistling over our heads and when they exploded, the whole earth shook under our feet. Balls of fire were rising from the factory; everyone was lying on the ground, we looked up and we could see some of the planes coming down and the crew parachuting over our heads. The heat of the fire was so great that we ran toward the wire fences and broke them down, running toward some excavated quarries.
The SS guards were shooting at us from the watch towers, but we kept running anyway. Getting killed by a bullet was similar to getting killed by a bomb. So we kept running till we reached the pits in the quarries. We all rested on the ground while we enjoyed the show in the sky. Everyone, as the custom was, ate the last piece of bread: "In case we go, let's go on a full stomach."
The bombing was going on for about 1/2 an hour. Groups of planes by the hundreds were coming and delivering their bombs, the factory was burning, and the explosions were deafening, but we enjoyed every minute of the bombing. Later when we returned to camp, we marveled at the accuracy of the bombing. Not one bomb landed in the camp area which was just across the road from the factory, thanks to the surveillance plane the day before the bombing. The factory was destroyed to smithereens; when the "clear" siren sounded, we were marched to the camp. The SS immediately called for an appel.
We were counted about ten times; it looked like one prisoner was missing; we were counted and recounted; it went on for hours past our suppertime; everyone was hungry and tired. But the German's didnít care, they kept us busy till midnight. Then we retired to our bunks without any supper.
The next day after the bombing we stayed in camp; there were a lot of unexploded bombs all over the factory. A special group was brought in to handle the bombs.
After two days of rest in camp, we returned to the factory, cleaning the roads, and demolishing bombed out buildings, loading and unloading trucks. The SS were very strict now, especially after the bombing, they were yelling and chasing us to work faster and harder; they were using their gun butts at every opportunity. My injured finger was very sore. I couldnít sleep at night from the pain. I went to the Medical building for help and all they gave me were some pain killers that didnít help a bit and I had to go to work every day. Life was very depressing; the thought that father was alive in Buchenwald and my will to see him again kept me alive. The days were getting cooler, especially at night, if one awoke and had to urinate, the way to the washrooms being very far, everyone urinated while walking to the washrooms.
After a while the grounds smelled like a toilet, guards were hiding at night and whoever was caught urinating on the ground was given a bad beating. The colder the weather got, the more you ran to the toilet 3 or 4 times a night.
One night, when we returned from work, we were all assembled for Apell. The SS were dragging a young boy about my age (16 years old) in chains. They placed him in the center of the grounds, bent him over and he was given 25 lashes by an SS butcher. He was then paraded around with a big sign around his neck: "This is what happens to someone who thinks he can escape this camp." The boy could hardly walk with the chains around his ankles; his bottom was swollen twice its size.
We found out that during the alarm before
the last bombing he had escaped on a train that was pulling out from the
factory, and got as far as Czechoslovakia, where he was apprehended and
returned to Buchenwald, and then back to our camp. To protest this brutal
show no one ate supper that night. We had seen death all around us, but
the pain on the boy's face did not escape us for a long time.
The prisoners in camp were getting weaker and sick from poor nutrition, a lot of them acquired skin diseases with terrible boils that made walking impossible. From 4,000 people, only about 50% were able to work. The SS management was upset and announced that 1,000 inmates would be shipped back to Buchenwald for recovery. We all knew that recovery by the Germans was only a dream, they had only one cure for the sick, and that was death--period. But the thought of seeing father again gave me courage and I made up my mind that I would do everything possible to get back to Buchenwald, no matter what happened to me. All applicants had to line up in order to register for the trip to Buchenwald. The registration began with a lot of pushing, since everyone wanted to be in front for the 1,000 allotted for the trip. The SS camp commander and two of his helpers were taking down the numbers of the people in line for registration, but as the night wore on, a lot of people kept lining up and, of course, the number allotted got way over. The SS got very mad and announced that those caught cheating were going to be punished with beatings and would join the punishment detail the next day. No one moved; they then started to beat the ones they thought should not be in the line up, with such beatings that the line was reduced in a few minutes. I stood my ground and didn't move, with my hand in a sling and all of my 40 kg, I stood there bent over, as if I was in great pain. I was registered without any questions asked. I thought to myself: what a miracle. Finally, around midnight, we were placed into one of the tents and ready for the trip in the morning.
But it wasn't to be so easy. In the morning when all the people left for work we were told to line up and get ready for the trip. We lined up and, what do you know, after the counting we were 500 over. It seems that a lot of people sneaked into the closed barrack by digging under the tent creating a tunnel where hundreds managed to sneak in and create turmoil. It was a beautiful sunny day; it felt like I was going for a summer holiday trip. But the SS started to be very mean, screaming on top of their voices. Those not registered last night get out of the line! No one moved. The counting started again and when someone was not on the list, they were beating them with rubber hoses making a lot of people get out from the line and move to a new group lining up for going back to work in the factory. But the numbers were still too high and a new selection started all over again.
Everyone had to undress, and in single file naked had to go past the SS inspection team; there were a lot of beatings again. But I stood my ground, since I passed the registration the night before. As I approached the SS inspection, they looked at me and since it was daylight I looked healthy to them. With a kick to my behind, with the heavy SS boots, I was lifted about a foot off the ground and told to get dressed and go to work.
I felt sick to my stomach first from the kick and also from my shattered dream of going to Buchenwald to see father again. As I was walking toward the other group going out to work, I suddenly made a dash for the group I just left and positioned myself in the line just as they were marking down the numbers. I managed to push some of the people backwards in order to fit in the line just as the SS approached. Without questions, my number was taken and I was a candidate for Buchenwald. This was one of my survival miracles of that day.
In a few hours, as we were heading out to
the railway station, we were each given a piece of bread and jam by the
same SS that kicked me in my pants earlier. He looked at me and with a
twisted smile told me in German I wanted to spare you, but if you want to
go that much, go boy, go, and he handed me my portion for the trip. The
distance to the train station was about 5 miles. We walked, and some of
the very sick were taken by trucks, but while walking I felt a free
feeling, since I managed to outwit the SS and I was going home to father.
It was a special feeling,
We were loaded into the cattle cars, about 100 prisoners to a boxcar, most of the people needed help to get into the boxcars since most of the prisoners were practically half-dead. It was a sad sight seeing the SS beating these sick people to hurry up, and they just couldn't move and the SS kept beating them without mercy.
We were traveling for about a day, stopping at different stations for hours; we did more stopping than traveling. Nobody seemed to care, as long as we didnít have to look at those murderers in the eye. Some of the people in the boxcar were already dead and many of those alive looked ready to expire any minute. I felt guilty; I was the only healthy one in the car, and couldnít help those dying souls.
The thought of seeing father kept me going. We traveled one day and one night and when we finally arrived in Buchenwald, somehow I felt relieved from all the pain I experienced on the train. I recognized the Buchenwald train station. I felt like I was coming home again; I felt really good. It was a good feeling knowing we were not taken somewhere and killed, as the system worked all over the concentration camps and ended up here in Buchenwald where we were sure no killing was going to take place, at least for a little while. We were unloaded from the boxcars, the sick were taken off by stretcher, the dead were just tossed out from the train on the ground, and we who could walk started to march towards the bathhouse. I recognized the facilities since I had been there in May together with father taking a shower when we arrived from Auschwitz. While we were showering I heard some one calling "Shiku, Shiku," I looked up and to my amazement it was father calling me. He managed to push the shower room window open. If not for his voice I would never have recognize him. Last time I saw him he was a skeleton, skin and bone, and now his face was rounded and he wore a happy smile. Oh, what a sight. I yelled, "Father, how are you?" "Good, Good," he replied, and pulled a loaf of bread from his coat and threw it towards me, but it never landed. The gang thought that bread was a first come-first serve, they grabbed at the loaf and it was gone before it hit the ground. I was not mad at the people. I wasn't hungry at that moment. I was rather very happy for a change.
My mind was working overtime trying to figure out a way to meet father. The showers were running in full force and somehow I could not stop crying, my tears were flowing down my face but the shower kept washing them off. I tasted my tears, but this time they tasted sweet like sugar. We finished the showers and were led in to this big huge room where everybody was handed fresh striped uniforms with long underwear, and wooden Dutch shoes. As we were lined up outside the bath house, suddenly father appeared, he gave me a big hug and told me that this place was off limits for him and that he was in Block 57, and to contact him there as soon as I got settled in camp.
We were taken to the tent camp in the rear of the camp, separated with wires from the middle camp which father was in. The tent camp was very poorly equipped for human use; there was no running water in sight; the washrooms were far away from the tent. Most of the people in camp were very sick and couldnít walk. I felt very funny about the whole situation. The next day I was called to the fence where father was waiting for me. I received permission to enter the middle camp to see father. We sat and talked for hours about our family, relating stories of the past. For the first time that I remembered, father asked me about our sister Feige, what happened to her? Did she write to us in the past few years?
I was astonished and also happy to know that he really did not forget about her and that he was anxious to know if she was still alive. The story that I was told, that she eloped with a gentile engineer when she was only 18 years old. After 2 years of fighting with father and half of the city of Munkacz. Mordche Shmielís daughter marrying outside her faith was crazy, unheard of. After a war of nerves and madness, the engineer made a deal with father that he would turn to the Jewish faith providing father gave him a great sum of money to be able to settle in Western Czechoslovakia. Father agreed, even if the monies were not available at the time; father arranged for the conversion and all that went with it. Within two years the conversion was done and a wedding was arranged in the next town of Ungwar. They lived in Western Czechoslovakia most of their lives. She bore three children: two girls and one boy. Lorinka came first, then the boy Lolo, and Miluska was the third child. Eva, a grandchild of my late sister Feige, lives in Kfar Chabad: an ultra-orthodox family with seven children. She was discovered in an underground movement in Czechoslovakia by the son of a friend of ours from Toronto who visited the place in 1979 while on a secret mission. Somehow, the story of the conversion I was told had a break-down since father did not fulfill his promises fully. The groom reneged on his promises and a new problem befell father after all these years of negotiations. I don't remember father ever mentioning Feige's name or any talk about her while we lived in Munkacz. So I was surprised and happy that he questioned me about Feige: after all, she was his daughter and my sister.
With tears in his eyes he talked about mother. How was it possible to part without even saying goodbye? By now we both knew what happened to mom and so many others of our family. We hugged for a while and let the tears flow freely. I was very sad for the great loss but also very happy to be with father again. Father told me that he heard that our group was called Commando Auschwitz, which meant only one thing: our transport was going to Auschwitz soon. I started to cry. Father looked helpless, saying, "Don't give up, son, G-d will be with you, and you will find a way to break away from that group." I couldn't tell which G-d he was talking about.
I was at my lowest I have ever been. We hugged and said goodbye.
I started walking and talking to myself. You are 16 years old, why can't you figure out a way to separate yourself from these unfortunate 1,000 souls? After all, you want to live, don't you? Suddenly, I decided that I was not going back to my tent. I would hide out in another tent to avoid being rounded up with my group tonight. I entered the tent next door to investigate the situation where I would like to sleep over tonight. I noticed a young man walking with a blanket over his head, he could hardly walk and looked very sick. As I came closer to him I recognized him. "Aren't you Ashkenazy from Munkacz?" His eyes opened and he asked me, "How are you?" "You are a Smilovic, are you Shiku or Beri?" I told him that Beri was separated from us in Auschwitz, that he had gone with the tradesmen to a different camp. Father and I were in Buchenwald. "What happened to our people in Munkacz?" he asked. With tears in his eyes, he stood there with the blanket covering his degraded body and listened while I told him that all Jews from Munkacz were taken to Auschwitz.
The old and the young were killed the same day on their arrival in the gas chambers. The able-body men were shipped to different working camps all over Germany. Mr. Ashkenazy was one of the leaders in the Mizrachi organization in Munkacz. He was originally born in Germany, and in 1938 he and his family moved to Munkacz to avoid deportation to concentration camps in Germany. His family was very close to our family. We worshipped in the same synagogue and I was very good friends with his brother, since he was my age.
The Ashkenazy I met in the tent had been away the last two years studying Medicine in Budapest and he did not know the fate of his family after they were taken away to Auschwitz. We talked about our town and the Kliver Rebbe's shtiebel where we prayed for years together. He told me about his fate and how he got to be in Buchenwald.
Late in 1944, the Zionist movement organized a group of one hundred boys to send to Israel through Rumania; when they reached Rumania, they hired a boat for the trip. On their way to Israel, they were taken prisoners by a German U-boat on the Black Sea and they were all brought to Buchenwald. Mr. Ashkenazy was in charge of this tent, consisting mostly of the boys from the captured boat; they all suffered from malnutrition and were constantly in their bunks, since they were very sick and couldn't walk. Since he was a medical graduate, he acted as the physician, but had no access to any medicine.
He showed me around the bunks: about five people per bunk, all looking half-dead, they couldn't eat or move. His job was to feed them once a day and portion off the food for about 400 patients in his tent. Since most of the people could not eat, he accumulated baskets full of food which were just sitting there, collecting dust.
He, himself, was dragging his foot since it was very infected. When I explained to him that I was just next door and I would be more than willing to help him with the feeding and the dividing of the food. He was very grateful and I had half my dream fulfilled: plenty of food. I just had to find a way of getting out from that condemned group. So I hid that night in this tent and early in the morning I was handing out the food to the sick in the bunks. All of a sudden, I heard one of the men asking me, "Aren't you Smilovic from Munkacz?" "Yes sir," I replied. "Don't you recognize me? I am your brother-in-law Shulem Weinberger's brother." I was shocked to see him in such a mess. I would never have recognize him. I remember him as a 6-foot tall handsome man, and now he lay there, half his former weight, unshaven, a helpless body of skin and bone. The only thing recognizable were his famous big blue eyes. He asked me the fate of his brother, and my sister with her baby. I told him, as far as I knew, his brother was in the Hungarian forced labour camp and that my sister had given up her child to mother when we had arrived in Auschwitz.
I explained to him that when we arrived in Birkenau and we were getting off the trains, we were told by the Jewish boys working on the trains that all the small babies should be given to the elderly, that you would be dead in a few hours if you kept your child. So my mother took sister Sheindelís baby and, this way, saved her life. He listened carefully and offered me his portion of bread, since he couldn't eat anymore. But I insisted that he eat some of the bread, soaked in the soup we were serving. I continued to serve the rest of the sick prisoners and to answer most of their questions, since they were all from my hometown or from the surrounding villages and towns.
Most of them had been away from home working in Budapest, Hungary for the past two years and were not up-to-date on the happenings back home in our part of Hungary. My staying with my friend Ashkenazy gave me a chance to save some food and give it to father on his daily visits, which he enjoyed very much. Father kept telling me to try and get out from this group, since we were destined for Auschwitz, and that meant certain death. But how? I kept saying. And father kept saying, "G-d will give you a way." "But father, there is no G-d." I saw that he was stunned by my talk. With tears in his eyes, he kept saying, "There is. There is. Yes, my son, there is." As he was getting up to leave, I noticed a hurt on his face. He kissed me and said, "Have faith, my son." I was sorry I said it, but it just came out of my mouth without any thought behind it.
Night came and I decided to stay away from my tent. In the corner of the tent there was a piece of material overlapping. I made my bed from some old cardboard boxes and a blanket, and the overlapping tent hid me from view. I had a corner for myself. The night was cool and I couldn't sleep. I was planning to escape from my group. With all the groaning and crying going on, I couldn't fall asleep. The weather was getting nastier; it started to rain and since I was in a low corner, the water was running on the floor like a river; it was very uncomfortable. But I had no choice. I wouldn't go back into my tent. I waited and suffered till morning when I warmed up with some hot coffee that was served for breakfast. The next day was the same: serving the sick, portioning the food, and helping to clean some of the very sick people that were unable to move. That night I managed to fall asleep and I dreamed that I was on the train going to Auschwitz. I awoke in a sweat looking up. I saw Ashkenazy and a Czech Physician standing over me. I jumped up and I greeted them in Czech: Good morning. They both laughed and said, "What is so good about this morning?" The doctor wore a red triangle with the letter "T" in it, which meant that he was a political prisoner from Czechoslovakia. He asked me my name and where I came from. "Are you Jewish?" I said no. "Why are you here in Buchenwald?"
It was definitely out of place to see a non-Jewish 15 year old boy from Czechoslovakia in Buchenwald. That's why the doctor was so surprised to see I lied because I knew even in Buchenwald you had a better chance to survive if you were not Jewish, especially a 15 year old boy. And maybe I really wanted to deny that I was Jewish because, at that moment, I hated everything that was Jewish. Since I was 3 years old I heard nothing more than that we Jews were the chosen ones. Chosen to be hated and discriminated against. Ever since I could remember, as a young child going to cheder, the kids used to throw stones at us and call us all kind of dirty insulting names. And sometimes we even got a good beating on the way to cheder or school, both on the way there and on the way back.
The chosen people had to attend the discipline group once a week, where at the age of 12 we were given hard jobs to clean the sport fields, latrines, etc., with beatings and insults. The ghettoes that followed, the train ride to Auschwitz, and then Auschwitz with the crematoria smelling up the whole world with the stench of the burning of our loved ones. And there I was, the chosen one, in Buchenwald, facing life or death. Yes, I lied, and continued to lie. I told the doctor that my father was a member of the Communist party and that the whole family was taken to Auschwitz and that I was the only one left. His sad face told me I must continue to lie. I told him that my eyes were running constantly, and that he must help me. He took me around and said I will help you as soon as I finish inspecting the sick. One hour later, as the doctor was ready to leave, he told me: "You come with me to the hospital and I will give you some eye drops for your eyes and you will feel much better." "But doctor, please!" I continued. "I want you to know that my stomach is also very bad. Every time I eat, the food comes back up and I have trouble breathing after that." I spoke to him in Czech, I spoke fluently, as never before. I was amazed myself. He took me by the hand and told me, "Don't worry, my son, I will put you in the hospital for a few weeks and you will recover just fine." The Akeida came to my mind, Abraham leading his son Isaac to the sacrifice. When suddenly a voice from heaven sounded just as he was ready to sacrifice his son.
Abraham! Abraham! Do not touch your son! He is also my son! As explained in the Midrash. I felt I was just taken off the Mizbeach (altar) and my life was saved. Walking hand in hand with the doctor, I looked up and said to him, you must be an angel send from G-d. He smiled and said, "I am no angel and I don't believe in G-D. I have a boy your age at home in Czechoslovakia and I am worried about him and my family. I havenít heard a word from them for the past year." We reached the hospital and I was registered and assigned to a room. I thanked the doctor, and said goodbye to him. With a tap on my shoulder, he departed with a big smile, never to be seen again.
My hospital room was shared by a number of boys my age, plus we also had some very sick Russian prisoners of war in the room. The bunks were much wider with white linen and a good mattress. I hadnít seen white sheets since I left our home in Munkacz. I couldnít believe my eyes, I was finally lying on a proper bed. As soon as I lay my head down, I fell asleep and slept for two days straight without even going to the washroom once.
Father, in the meantime, didn't know what had happened to me. As I walked out from the tent where my friend Ashkenazy was in charge and walking hand and hand with the doctor. I heard the announcement over the loudspeaker: transport from Zeitz must report to the front gates as soon as your number was called. For one hour they were calling numbers, but I didn't stand around to hear my number called.
I was very happy to have escaped certain death. I was anxious to share my happiness with father and to thank him for his prayers that must have been the reason of this miracle that happened to me. My group that came from Zeitz, about 1,000 people (we learned this after the liberation) were all taken to the woods in Buchenwald and shot.
After my two days of sleep, I awoke and investigated the location of our hospital. I concluded that fathers block must be just around here. I rushed to the hallway and looked out from the window at the end of the hallway. To my surprise, there he was, sitting at the table in the back of his barrack with some people, eating lunch. I waved with my hands, trying to get the attention of the group sitting around the table, my hands were getting stiff from the waving, when all of a sudden, I saw father notice me and he was raising his hands to heaven and trying to tell me something, but I couldn't hear a thing, since the windows were shut tight.
There was no way of getting into the hospital. The building was off limits to everyone with guards posted at each entrance. For the next few days, whenever I came to the window father was there waiting for me and gave me a big smile and always saying something I couldn't understand.
I stayed in the hospital for about five days, the food was nice and warm, mostly milk with noodles or noodles with milk. We thought that the cook was not much of a cook. But we didn't protest at all, we ate it gratefully day and night. My physical condition improved immensely and I felt very good.
Each of the boys spoke of their losses and where they came from, the sufferings they had endured. This took up most of the day while we lay in our beds. The conclusions of the stories were that each one of them had been saved by a miracle similar to mine.
We completely forgot about the surroundings we were in, the old and sick people in the same room. From experience, we already knew that this place smelled of trouble because the Germans had no mercy for people not able to work and produce. We were lucky this hospital was a show place for the Swiss Red Cross, as we found out later after liberation. It was also the place for the high-ranked political prisoners. Like the late President of France, Leon Blum and the like. That's why we had such good care in this hospital. But, one early morning, we were told to stay in bed and not to go anywhere without permission.
We started to worry a bit. What was happening? Something stank to high heaven.
Additional SS were in the building, running from room to room, counting the sick and recording everybody's number. After a while, a number of high-ranked SS officers entered our room. Leading the group was General Himmler in person, with his heavy rimmed glasses, approaching each bed and talking very quietly to each patient, and when he finished with each patient he gave everyone a number 1, 2, or 3. He approached my bed and asked me. "How old are you?" I said I was 18 years old. "What is the problem with you?" "I have an upset stomach," I replied. "Is that all?" "Yes, sir, that's all." "Number three."
He continued until each and every one had a number. After they left the room we started to study the situation. Since most of the boys were Yeshiva Talmud students, we soon came to a pshat (Talmud Gemore language for a deciding fact).
Since most of the sick got numbers 1 and 2 and all the boys got number 3, we concluded that we were being exempt from annihilation and that we might escape death once again.
About one hour later we were informed that all patients having received number 1 and 2 should prepare for resettlement to another hospital. All patients who received number 3 were to remain in place until further notice. Within an hour, two large military trucks pulled up at the entrance of the hospital and about twenty Russian P.O.W.s entered the building.
This was the second time I had met Russian P.O.W.s. The last time I saw them, they were skin and bones and a lot of dead bodies in Auschwitz-Birkenau. From reliable documents discovered after the war, it was said that there had been a German plan to starve the Russian P.O.W.s to death and that's why we saw so many of them in very poor shape.
But these P.O.W.s in Buchenwald are just the opposite; they were all close to 6 feet tall and well-fed; they looked like a new breed. They were employed in the camp only, and were not permitted to go outside the gates. They carried the very sick that couldnít walk to the trucks, the rest of the sick patients were also loaded on the same trucks. The floor we were on was practically empty; there were just about two dozen people left, the rest were taken to neverland. After Liberation, we were told that all the patients from the hospital were shot in the woods of Buchenwald as soon as they left the hospital.
We were left in the hospital without supervision. In the meantime, I was trying to get father's attention. I wanted to tell him that I was being transferred to another location. I was waving my hands in the window; perhaps someone would notice me and call father. By now everybody in fatherís barrack knew that I was the son of their friend Smilovic from Munkacz, waving every day to get someone's attention. We couldn't talk to each other since our window was four storeys high and a distance of about 300 feet away, so we used sign language to communicate.
I remember once I was together with father on summer holidays in a resort place called Szinyak not far from Munkacz when we didn't have anything to do after we finished the daily learning. He taught me the sign language that his father taught him when he was a young boy. You never knew when it would come in handy, and this time it did.
That's how we communicated for about two weeks while I was in that hospital.
When he finally arrived, I told him about my transferring to another location. He was very happy to see me alive, since the news in the camp was that the whole hospital had been liquidated that morning in the woods. Hours went by and still nobody told us of our fate. We were all depressed thinking: what next, will we be shipped to some other working camp? Who knew what our fate would bring? Finally, our waiting was over: we were taken by a very nice young Czech person to Block 8 in the main camp next to the Red Cross barrack, second block from the Apell Platz in Buchenwald. Block 8 consisted mostly of children from 12 to 18 years old. The man that brought us from the hospital was named Franta, he was about 30 years-old from Prague, Czechoslovakia, and was a political prisoner. Franta interviewed each one of us separately about our life history: how, and why we came to Buchenwald. I was very impressed with the whole system.
Franta was such a good-hearted man and I could converse with him in Czech for hours, telling him all about our family and the Czech people with whom we were doing business in our tavern and grocery store. He was a very good listener; he just sat there and didn't say or ask one word. The place was more like a dormitory in a private school. Discipline and cleanliness was the order of the day. Cleanliness was especially stressed, since the boys who were in there before were very disciplined and clean. We were a mixed group of children, most of them were from Russia, but also from France, Belgium, Czechoslovakia, and Hungary. Our barrack did not take part in the general Apell on the Apell Platz, where about 10,000 people lined up for Apell, sometimes for hours if the count was off. Our barrack was fenced off from the rest of the camp with gates and wire fences and we had a special detail of SS doing the counting in our barrack which lasted only a few minutes. We also had two Russian teachers that were teaching the Russian kids regular school programs and we all had to learn Russian songs. New regulations sprang up: all kids over 16 years of age must report to work the next day. It was too good to last: whenever I arrived at a new place the rules seemed to change immediately. Until we had arrived, no one from block 8 went to work, and now we all had to report to the Apell place, where we were each placed in a working units. My unit was called Bau commando (building unit); it consisted of bricklayers, carpenters, and all other trades to rebuild the factories that had been destroyed by the last bombing. My main duties were to gather firewood or coal to keep the fire going in the kapo's (foreman) small hut fireplace. This little hut was used for the tools on the job, and was also where the elite had their lunch, sitting around the metal drum stove which I called the fireplace. I used to prepare the bouillon soup just as the lunch siren sounded. The bouillon was supplied by some Belgian political prisoners who received weekly Red Cross packages from Belgium. They were the elite, because they supplied the kapo with all kind of goodies in order to have the use of the hut, and the hot bouillon.
Our kapo was a Czech man in his forties, and a criminal prisoner rather than political. You could tell by the colour of the triangle on his jacket (his was green). Green meant criminal and red meant political. After a little while on the job, I told him I was also Czech. What in hell are you doing here? Are you Jewish? There I went again with my big lie, "I am not," I said.
But tell me, a young boy like you, how and why were you arrested? I started to tell him my lie. Because my father was a Communist, the whole family was taken to Auschwitz and I was the only one left. Don't worry, my boy, he said, from now on you will be on this job steady and I will look after you. From that day on, every time somebody put something on the stove to warm up for lunch, he made sure that I was fed first.
For weeks I performed my duties and sometimes I found it hard to gather firewood, but I always managed to find some, even when I had to break up some existing scaffolding. I managed to keep the kapo warm at lunchtime. I thought I had everyone believing I was not Jewish.
One Belgian political prisoner who kept asking me about my being in Buchenwald kept saying, "Only Jewish boys your age can be found here, no other nationality your age are in Buchenwald." "You are wrong," I said. "You come to our block 8 and I will show you boys from all over Europe, hundreds of them."
He was quiet for a while until one day when we were having lunch in the little hut, he pulled out a few golden coins from his pocket and flashed them in front of my face. I jumped up and screamed, "Let me see! Let me see those beautiful coins." "Aha, now I am sure you are Jewish!" He started telling me the story about Moses and the pharaoh. When the pharaoh's advisers warned him that Moses was the savior of the Jewish people, in order to prove to the pharaoh that they were right, they produced two plates, one with gold coins and another with burning coal and if Moses decided on the gold, they were right, if he went for the hot coal, they were wrong. As the story was told, the two plates were put in front of Moses. As he was reaching for the gold, an angel pushed Moses toward the burning plate of coal, burning his lips. That's why, as it is known, Moses stuttered all his life.
Sorry, there was no angel in the hut. But he was satisfied that he proved that I was Jewish. They all had a good laugh and I laughed the loudest. Like making a joke about the whole thing.
Just another story why we hid our identity even in Buchenwald.
As I was the one assigned to keep all the elite happy, I kept a pot of hot water ready for the foreman, and also for the bulldozer operator, a Polish gentile young fellow in his early 30s who was also a prisoner for whom I delivered hot water twice a day. Since it was late in December, the weather was very cold and he really appreciated my delivery of the daily hot water. One day, when I made my regular deliveries to the bulldozer operator, he invited me to climb up into the cab of the bulldozer. "I will show you something very funny ha, ha." He was laughing his head off. I couldn't wait to see his act that he thought was so funny. Down in the excavating hole while the bulldozer was excavating were two Jewish boys with shovels leveling the ground, when all off a sudden he quickly lowered the shovel, barely missing the two Jewish boys as they just managed to save their lives by jumping out off the shovel's way. Janek, the Polish operator, started to laugh at the top of his lungs, "To jsou zsidky." (those are Jewish boys). I felt like bringing it up, I was really mad. I asked him, "Why did you do that?" He replied, "those are only Jewish boys," and continued laughing his head off. I said to him, "This isnít funny at all." I jumped down from the machine and headed for the hole where the boys were nearly killed by this insane anti-Semite. I asked them if they were alright? They answered, "Yes!" I asked them, "AMCHU?" Their eyes lit up and they answered, "yes, yes." Amchu was a password for being Jewish. They also told me that they were brothers from Lodz, Poland, they also gave me their names. You could not keep track of names in camp. I can't remember the name of my bunk partner with whom I slept on the same bunk for 4 months in Zeitz in block 11. As it was almost time for lunch, I rushed to the hut where the foreman was already waiting for his lunch that I prepared with the leftovers from the day before: some bouillon soup and some roasted potatoes.
Suddenly, I started to cry, and I couldn't
stop. "What's the matter, Pavel (my Czech name), why are you crying?" I
said, "Please transfer me to another detail." "But why?" he asked. I told
him the truth, that I had lied and that I was a Jew. I then told him about
the circus I had just witnessed on the bulldozer with Mr. Janek the
operator. He jumped up from his seat and left his lunch, grabbed my hand
and said letís go. We reached the job site where Janek the bulldozer
operator was having his lunch in his cab. He ordered him down from the
bulldozer, as he came close to the foreman, he punched the operator a
solid right to his face and Janek went flying to the ground. He was told
not to operate the machine anymore. From now on, you are working with the
bricklayers as a laborer. The two Jewish brothers realized what was
happening and called out Amchu, and I replied "Yes, Amchu."
The winter was very cold, but the good news from the front lines kept us warm, the Americans were already fighting on German soil and the Russians had occupied most of the lost territories and were progressing very successfully. The air raid sirens were heard more often, every few hours instead of once a day. Since we were only 10 km from Weimar, we heard the bombings practically every day and we prayed that it would never end. I was so mad, I could scream at the whole world: "Come quick and see what a people have done to their fellow men. Not only to Jews! But to all German occupied countries. The stories we hear in Buchenwald of the torture and killings that are happening daily to their own people opposing the Nazi government. English flyers are being executed and burned in the crematoria in Buchenwald or in the close-by facilities. Russian prisoners are also being slaughtered here in Buchenwald. You are surrounded by nationalities from all occupied countries, not Jews. The Jews were killed a long time ago by the occupying forces." The air raid alarm was sounding again; most of the prisoners ran back to camp, it was only about 15 minutes to camp and some remained on the job, taking a nap somewhere on the spot in the place they were working. In my case, the tin hut was nice and warm; so some of us stayed and rested until the air raid sirens sounded again indicating there was no raid. One day, when the air raid sirens sounded and everybody started to run back to camp, I decided to stay in our little shed; as usual, the fire was going nicely, so I lay myself down on the wooden bench for an afternoon snooze. Suddenly, I was awakened by the roaring of the planes overhead. I stuck my head out and looked skyward, when I saw this big smoke circle. I knew right then that the factory was targeted for that day's bombing.
I remembered I saw the same circle back in Zeitz just before they destroyed the factory there. I began to run toward the camp at a pace I had never ran before; while running on the road I noticed that all the SS were in the ditches beside the road with their guns pointing at me. They screamed at me and were shooting over my head. I thought I was a-goner for sure. While I was running, I tried to make up an excuse for the main gate SS guard as to why I was late coming in. To my luck, all the guards at the gate were gone, probably hiding in their bomb shelters. I ran straight through the gates without stopping; while running across the Appel Platz which was adjacent to the main gates, as big as a football field. When I was across the field, about half way, I fell to the ground from the air pressure of the falling bombs about 500 yards away in the factories.
I lay there stunned for a while; when I opened my eyes, I was in my block laying on a cot and Franta, our block leader, was standing over me, asking me, "What in hell happened to you?" I just looked at him and said, "I don't know!"
Later I found out, since our Block was just 1 block away from the Apell Platz, you could actually see the main gates from our barrack. They saw me running through the main gates when I suddenly fell flat on my face. They actually thought that I was shot while running across the Apell Platz. They ran out and picked me up and brought me in. I stayed on my bunk for the rest of the day. I couldn't move because of the running and the bomb pressure. The factory was blown to pieces, not one building was left standing.
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