Chapter 4 -- Auschwitz and Other Concentration Camps

 

Chapter 4 -- Auschwitz and Other Concentration Camps

The destruction of a community that existed at least for a century took place in a few weeks. A date was announced when everybody had to be ready for an "evacuation." On that date the rural police collected all the assembled families. They were marched several miles to an abandoned brick factory. The empty warehouses became a new ghetto. It was used to collect the communities from the surrounding villages. Paul found himself with his few meager possessions in one of the corners of a wooden shed.

The selection of an abandoned factory as a ghetto soon became obvious. Within a few days a freight train arrived on the railroad track leading to the factory. The German official in charge told the assembled families that they are to be temporarily resettled. They should identify their possessions, and leave them behind. It will be sent after them shortly. Thus the process of deception was started to lull the victims to cooperate with their murderers.

Each of the freight cars were loaded with one hundred of the unfortunates. If the count was exceeded, then families were separated. As an outsider, Paul found himself detached from his remaining family -- his widowed aunt. He was now the ultimate orphan.

The train was set into motion. Inside the box cars men, women and children were jammed together. For their bodily needs a bucket was placed in the middle. The bucket soon overflowed, as the bashful people had to relieve themselves in plain sight of everyone. Paul also saw a recently married young couple. As darkness fell they embraced each other, to cuddle in love.. This was their final chance for the conjugal bliss of holy matrimony.

The death train slowly journeyed its way to its destination. Through the cracks of the wooden box car it was possible to see the early spring landscape of Central Europe. On the second day the railroad signs showed that the train was in German-controlled territory. Those familiar with the Gothic script deciphered the word "Auschwitz." Nobody knew what it meant. The train halted. Darkness fell on the crowded multitudes, tortured by thirst and the fear of the unknown. Paul started to experience his own survival mechanism. He withdrew his consciousness from reality. He remained sensitive to the sufferings of others, but his helplessness caused him to become somewhat detached. As horror piled up on horror, Paul had to become an observer, if only to retain his sanity.

During the dark of the early morning the train started to move again, only to come again to a halt. Outside there was a dimly lit train platform. Close by huge flames were erupting from a brick structure. Groups of men, dressed in striped uniforms -- obviously prisoners -- were moving about. Here and there uniformed guards were ordering the men to their tasks. Suddenly, one of the guards started to club the prisoners, to enact whatever act of obedience was demanded. Paul abruptly remembered his reading of a great classic of European civilization. Here was a scene worthy of Dante's Inferno -- a man-made hell! Inside the train the horrified people knew to expect the worst. Even here the religious faith of the orthodox Jews did not desert them. They started to say the Kaddish, the final prayer for the dead -- or for those condemned to die.

The doors to the freight cars were flung open. The people were ordered to leave the train, leaving their possessions behind. The prisoner detachment pushed people into groups. Men, women without children, and women with children were standing in three groups, separated forever from their families.

In the early light a group of Nazi officers arrived. Paul suddenly heard a new German word -- the beginning of a vocabulary of genocide: Zwillinge. Those who knew German quickly translated: "Twins to come forward." To Paul this was just another of the mysteries of the last few days. Later he came to understand that he saw the infamous Dr. Mengele, and his selection of twins for his human experiments

The men and women were pushed forward in a single file before Dr. Mengele, the "angel of death." After a brief glance a gesture directed the able-bodied to join the separate groups of men and women. The infirm or very young were directed to join the women with children. Husbands and wives, parents and children, brothers and sisters had one final chance to see each other, before they were forever separated.

At the age of 15 Paul passed the selection. He was tall for his age and the prosperity of his master did provide him with good nourishment. He was accordingly adjudged able to work as a slave laborer. His utility now depended on his ability to labor on starvation rations of food. Paul was taken to a place where his hair was shorn. His prisoner number -- A-9867 -- was tattooed on his left arm. After a cold shower he was issued the same striped uniform he saw earlier. He was then marched with a group toward a cluster of brick buildings. Over the entrance there was a sign: Arbeit Macht Frei. Again some could translate: Work Makes Free. Soon he was inside the main concentration camp of Auschwitz.

Paul now entered the daily routine of slave labor. The prisoners were organized into labor commands. Some worked in armaments factories. Others performed various supporting functions. Paul was assigned to a group that cut grass to make hay on the huge fields surrounding the death camps. His group moved all over the gigantic death camp complex. Paul was forced to watch the mechanism for the annihilation of millions. Throughout this ordeal, and in the other concentration camps he never once saw Hitler. This was the great myth of the Holocaust. It was not Hitler, but the millions of German soldiers and airmen in their different uniforms who did the work of the genocide. And they were supported by millions of German civilians in their various capacities.

In the beginning Paul and his fellow prisoners could not believe the reality of their fate. In the distance the huge smoke stacks of the crematories emitted gigantic clouds of smoke. The strong odor of burned flesh hung over the area. But when Paul asked about the smell, the other prisoners thought that old clothes and other refuse were burnt. They could not admit that it was their families and communities who were cremated. But one day their illusions ended. On a new field they found piles of ashes. Paul and some others curiously shifted through one of the piles. There were some bone fragments among the ashes. Somebody ventured that perhaps meat was baked in a camp fire. But suddenly they saw an unmistakable human jawbone with a set of full teeth still attached. Then there was no more illusion. The crematories were burning people, and the ash piles were the remnants of their own loved ones...

By then Paul was beyond horror and consternation. He now became a nameless cog, identified only with his number. The thousands of prisoners represented every country in Europe. There were Catholics, Protestants and Jews. They were there for many reasons. Some were there for reasons of racism. Others opposed Nazi rule for political reasons. Professional criminals intermingled with pacifist Christians who would not fight for Germany or for any temporal power. They had one thing in common. They were declared unilaterally enemies of Germany, in most cases without cause. They were exploited for their labor, and labored under military discipline. Paul saw the same military drill used in controlling the prisoners that he learned in his earlier years. The concentration camp was just another form of militarism

More and more prisoners perished as the months went by. Inadequate food and hard labor combined to take a deadly toll. Paul survived because he had a relatively easy work assignment. His youth made some of the prisoner functionaries sorry for him. They provided him occasionally with extra rations. The relative plenty of Hungary seemed far away. The influence of America was only a dim memory. But one day Paul observed the approaching might of the United States.

News was filtering into the camp about the invasion of Europe by the Allied forces. The bombing offensive of the U.S. Air Force was beginning to hit targets in Eastern Europe. Whenever the warning sirens sounded, the prisoners were moved from their assignments to the confines of the camp.

One day again the sirens sounded. Paul's work group was force marched back into the camp. Suddenly high above the sky a fleet of American bombers appeared. As Paul and his comrades looked up, he saw the face of the SS guard in charge of the detachment. The guard's normal arrogance was replaced by a look of fear. Then Paul knew that the apparently invincible power of Nazi Germany met its match. America again will vanquish the villains, just as the good guys did in the old movies!

As the Soviet armies approached Auschwitz, the extermination camp was gradually evacuated. Paul was made part of a group of 600 that were sent to a labor camp in Southern Germany. Their job was the construction of a network of air strips and roads. These were to accommodate the new jet planes and ballistic missiles of Germany. Of course, there would be no fuel to operate these advanced weapons systems. The allied bombing raids destroyed the plants that made gasoline from coal. Under the irrational command structure of a totalitarian state this was not recognized as a valid problem.

Paul was fortunate to be assigned to the kitchen as a helper. He was able to stay out of the cold winter weather that sapped the energies of outdoor laborers. The extra food he received also kept him going. But more and more of the prisoners died from the inclement climate, short rations and lack of medical care. Every day four or five wooden coffins were piled up in the yard of the camp. The guards -- detached from the ground troops of the Nazi Air Force -- knew what was happening. Their faces betrayed their unhappiness with what was taking place. By becoming part of the military machine of Germany they, too, became part of the machinery of genocide.

When half of the prisoners perished a cut had to be made in the kitchen staff. Paul found himself assigned to regular labor duty, which virtually guaranteed his death. The survival instinct of Paul now took over. He realized that he must do something drastic. He decided to feign illness, so that at least he could stay indoors during the winter. His ruse succeeded. He was admitted to the infirmary. This was the place for prisoners who were in the final stage of starvation, or contracted some ailment from the cold weather. By staying in bed month after month, he avoided the rigors of the cold weather that drained the life of the slave laborers. Paul endured, although continuously tormented by the body lice that infested the entire camp. In the beginning three inmates had to share one narrow bed. As one by one the prisoners died Paul was alone, almost in a complete solitude. Again, his mind was able to withdraw from the cruel reality of genocide. The inaction of his body preserved the precious calories, and slowed down his metabolism so that he still lived, while gradually 500 of the other inmates died.

The labor camp was finally dissolved, when only about a hundred of the original group remained. Those still able to work were sent to another labor camp. Paul, with his group of about twenty-five still in the infirmary were sent to what looked like their ultimate destination -- death.


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