Auschwitz, Hailfingen, Vaihingen: Hell on Earth

(as experienced by Peter Avram Zuckerman)


Why this title: Hell on Earth.

In 1947 I emigrated to the United States. During the Korean war I was drafted into the U.S. Army. I served in the 2nd Armored Division, stationed at Bad Kreuznach, Germany. The military insignia of the 2nd Armored Division included the term: Hell on Wheels. It referred to the tremendous fire power of its armored vehicles and supporting artillery directed at the opposing forces.

My experiences in the Nazi concentration and labor camps can similarly be compared to Hell -- this time on our planet. Hell on Earth is a good description of Auschwitz, Hailfingen and Vaihingen. In some ways, these places were worse than the Hell of religious beliefs. Hell, ruled by Satan and operated by devils, was a place for punishing wicked, sinful humans. Innocent children and adults would not be allowed to enter and suffer. The Hell on Earth created an efficient system for collecting, transporting and then murdering millions of innocents.

Between 1941 and 1944 I was part of a Jewish community in a small town in Hungary. Rumors of persecutions and massacres by Nazi Germany came to our attention. But they were simply unbelievable. The nation renowned for its culture and civilization, which produced some of the world's greatest philosophers, scientists and artists simply could not do such horrible things! Our illusion was shattered, when suddenly in 1944 the German army occupied Hungary. The entire Jewish community was rounded up and transported to the extermination camp of Auschwitz-Birkenau.

The Road to Auschwitz

I was born in Budapest, Hungary, raised in poverty. The situation got worse for the Jews, with the rise of Nazism in Germany. The anti-semitism in Hungary, stimulated by the Christian churches, significantly increased with the beginning of World War II, and the rise of the Hungarian Nazi (Arrow Cross) party. In the elementary school that I attended antisemitic songs were common from the Christian children.

My mother, estranged from my father, suffered a terminal disease. Before her death she sent me to live with her two sisters. I was 12 years old when I moved to Nyirbator, a small town. There I became a printer's apprentice, until the Nazi occupation in 1944 initiated the Holocaust in Hungary.

The destruction of a community of about 1,800 men, women and children that existed for many decades 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 a warehouse for agricultural goods called Simapuszta. The empty storage facilities, cattle and horse stables became a new ghetto. Surrounded by barbed wire and guarded by the rural police, the ghetto was used to collect the communities from the surrounding villages. I soon found myself with my few meager possessions in one of the corners of a huge wooden shed.

The selection of an agricultural warehouse as a ghetto soon became obvious. After a couple of weeks a freight train arrived on the railroad track leading to the warehouse. 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 was loaded with one hundred of the unfortunates. If the count was exceeded, then families were separated. As an outsider, I found myself detached from my remaining family -- my two aunts. I 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.

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. I started to experience my own survival mechanism. I withdrew my consciousness from reality. I remained sensitive to the sufferings of others, but my helplessness caused me to become somewhat detached. As horror piled up on horror, I had to become an observer, if only to retain my 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 the chimney of 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. I abruptly remembered my 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.

Suddenly the doors of the freight cars were rolled 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.

At dawn a group of Nazi officers arrived. I 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 me this was just another of the mysteries of the last few days. Later I came to understand that I saw the infamous Dr. Josef 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.

In the Auschwitz Concentration Camp

At the age of 15 I passed the selection. I was tall for my age. I worked as a printer's apprentice, and the prosperity of my master did provide me with good nourishment. I was accordingly adjudged able to work as a slave laborer. My utility to Germany now depended on my ability to labor on starvation rations of food. I was taken to a place where my hair was shorn. My prisoner number -- A-9867 -- was tattooed on my left arm. After a cold shower I was issued the same striped uniform I saw earlier. I 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 I was inside the main concentration camp of Auschwitz.

I now entered the daily routine of slave labor. The prisoners were organized into labor groups. Some worked in armaments factories. Others performed various supporting functions. I was assigned to a group that cut grass to make hay on the huge fields surrounding the death camps. My group moved all over the gigantic death camp complex. I was forced to watch the mechanism for the annihilation of millions. Throughout this ordeal, and in the other concentration camps I 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 me and my fellow prisoners could not believe the reality of our 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 I 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 our illusions ended. On a new field we found piles of ashes. Me 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 we 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 our own loved ones.

By then I was beyond horror and consternation. I now became a nameless cog, identified only with my number. The thousands of prisoners represented every country in Europe. There were Catholics, Protestants, Jews and atheists. 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.

More and more prisoners perished as the months went by. Inadequate food and hard labor combined to take a deadly toll. I survived because I had a relatively easy work assignment. My youth made some of the prisoner functionaries sorry for me. They provided me occasionally with extra rations. The relative plenty of Hungary seemed far away. The influence of America was only a dim memory. But one day I 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. My work group was force marched back into the camp. Suddenly high above the sky a fleet of American bombers appeared. As me and my comrades looked up, I 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 I knew that the apparently invincible power of Nazi Germany met its match by the might of the United States.

The Labor Camp of Hailfingen

As the Soviet armies approached Auschwitz-Birkenau, the extermination camp was gradually evacuated. As part of this process, I was included in a group of prisoners transported to Stutthof (near Danzig, now Gdansk in Poland). There my group was combined with other selections of Jewish prisoners, to be assembled as a labor force for a construction project.

This group of 600 prisoners, from the various countries occupied by Nazi Germany, was sent to a labor camp in southern Germany: Hailfingen. Their task was the construction and repair of a network of air fields 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. (List of prisoners includes me as Peter Zuckermann, Prisoner 41018.)

The first phase of the transport from Stuttfhof was horrible. We were placed onto the open wagons of the narrow-gauge railroad from Stutthof to Danzig. I had the misfortune of being in the front of a wagon, and thus had no protection from the freezing air. I nearly died from the exposure to the cold air. Once we reached the main railroad of Danzig, we were put into the box cars commonly used to transport the Jewish prisoners from place to place.

Living in Hailfingen (like in the other so-called labor camps) was designed to exploit our labor, while the prisoners were slowly dying from lack of food and poor sanitary conditions. The labor camp was located in a large hangar originally built for storing airplanes. It lacked even the basic requirements for sanitation. The poor sanitary conditions and insufficient winter clothing resulted in a higher rate of death than the ones I experienced in Auschwitz.

I remember the Commander of the camp quite well. He cursed a lot, which introduced me to the negative aspects of the German language. At the age of 11 I was in a class that taught the German language. I only learned good things, such as this poem:

Treue Liebe bis zum Grabe
Schwör ich dir mit Herz und Hand;
Was ich bin und was ich habe,
Dank ich Dir mein Vaterland!
Nicht in Worten nur und Liedern
Ist mein Herz zum Dank bereit,
Mit der Tat will ich's erwidern
Dir in Not, in Kampf und Streit.
With true love until my grave
I swear with my heart and hand.
What I am and what I have
I thank you, my fatherland.
Not in words or in songs
is my heart ready for thanks.
With deeds will I reciprocate
to you in trouble, in war and conflict.

I applied this principle to my country, Hungary. But I was betrayed by that nation, so that today these principles are applied to my adopted country, the United States of America.

I was fortunate that because of my youth I was assigned to work in the kitchen as one of the four helpers. Perhaps the worker selector thought that I was not strong enough to do the hard labor. A young French prisoner was in charge of the kitchen. The French are supposed to be good at cooking. But the ingredients available to him were only some potatoes, cabbage and sugar beets. No chef could make good meal out of these vegetables. But I received some additional food, so that I did not lose as much weight as most of the other prisoners.

As a kitchen helper, I was able to stay out of the cold winter weather that sapped the energies of outdoor laborers. The extra food I received also kept me 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.

Once about half of the prisoners perished, a cut had to be made to the kitchen helpers. I was one of the two who were sent out to labor in the cold air. I went out with one of these groups to collect some wood. I soon realized that the freezing cold and insufficient food will result in my death. I had a confirmation of this. The other helper, who was also let go when I was discharged from the kitchen, went to work regularly with one of the labor groups. I remember that after about four weeks one evening he was brought back unconsciously. He had a high fever, and died within a couple days.

My survival instinct made me realize that I must do something drastic. I decided to feign illness, so that at least I could stay indoors during the winter. My ruse succeeded. I was admitted to the infirmary, located at one end of the hangar. This was the place for prisoners who were in the final stage of starvation, or contracted some ailment from the cold weather or unsanitary conditions. The infirmary was without any medication, and merely served as a place for life termination.

By staying in bed week after week, I avoided the rigors of the cold weather that drained the life of the slave laborers. I 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 I was alone in my bed, almost in a complete solitude. Again, my mind was able to withdraw from the cruel reality of genocide. The inaction of my body preserved the precious calories, and slowed down my metabolism so that I still lived, while gradually 400 of the other inmates perished.

I was fortunate in not catching any of the sicknesses of other prisoners. They died of spotted typhus, pneumonia and other infections. The worst disease was malnutrition -- insufficient food. Many of the prisoners gave up living under the horrible circumstances, possibly resulting in depression and the loss of will to live.

The death camp was finally dissolved, when only about two hundred of the original group remained. Although the victorious allied forces of the United States, Britain and the Soviet Union were rapidly converging on the shrinking Third Reich, the genocide bureaucracy still continued to function. The relatively healthy prisoners had to continue their futile labors. Those suffering from illness or extreme malnutrition had to be disposed by being dispatched to what looked like their ultimate destination -- death.

Vaihingen: Rescue and Liberation

It was still winter when my final ordeal began. I was given clothing from the discarded garments collected from the hundreds of the dead. After being confined for weeks in my bed I almost had to learn to walk again. The prisoners still able to work were sent to another labor camp. Me and about a hundred of the infirmary survivors were loaded into another of the now familiar box cars. Fortunately the weather turned mild. I also encountered the prisoner in charge of the labor camp's kitchen. He gave me an entire loaf of the dark bread that was part of our regular ration. Since the usual portion was only a quarter of a loaf, I was able to sate myself with food for the first time in many weeks.

Word was passed down from the guards that me and my group were going to an Erholungslager -- a convalescing camp. By then I was no longer fooled by this type of talk. In Auschwitz the veteran prisoners converted the propaganda from the gate of the camp to Arbeit Macht Frei, Durch Krematorium Nummer Drei -- Work Makes Free, Through Crematory Number Three. I knew that my next destination was meant to be the end of the road.

Camp Vaihingen (near Vaihingen/Enz in southern Germany) started out as one of the underground construction sites for building the jet planes that were to turn the tide of war in Germany's favor. But continuous Allied air raids forced the abandonment of the project. Vaihingen was turned into a camp for prisoners no longer able to work. The sick and dying inmates were brought from other labor camps of Nazi Germany. The camp's secluded location in a valley required little effort to hide its horrors. A nearby abandoned quarry provided a final resting place for the dozens of prisoners who died each night. Prisoners still able to work toiled in some other of the futile construction projects of the demented war efforts of the Nazis.

After a day's travel in the slowly rattling train, I arrived at my destination. I knew that the usual starvation rations and my weakened condition did not bode well for me. But my luck finally changed. I was unexpectedly saved by the courage and charity of a German woman. Using her political influence, Irmgard von Neurath -- related by marriage to a former high ranking government official (Konstantin von Neurath) -- requisitioned prisoners to work on the family farm. She then provided them with extra food to help them to survive. The day after my arrival I was selected to be one of the laborers. The work was relatively easy and I received extra food rations that enabled me gradually to regain my strength. The unseasonably warm weather also helped. Was there perhaps a chance to survive the horrors of this existence? Will the German military engage in a final round of killing the witnesses to their depredations? I did not dare to hope too much.

With the recovering of my physical strength I also started to regain my faith in humanity. After the ordeal of the genocidal machinery of Nazi Germany I learned to distrust everything that was German. Earlier I met Dr. Mengele, the Angel of Death at Auschwitz. Now I met a veritable Angel of Life, who risked her own security to save at least some of the unfortunate Jews condemned by racial and religious hatred. The other Germans who worked on the farm also showed some kindness. One day I heard a teenager twisting a popular song into a statement of hope: "Everything shall pass, even Hitler with his Nazi party." I now realized that many of the Germans were also victims, like I was. Perhaps they were fooled by the Nazi propaganda; perhaps they felt helpless before the power of a totalitarian state. Rumors were passing through the camp about the Allied advances into Germany. The war was coming to an end.

I still had to surmount one final ordeal. The unsanitary conditions caused a typhus epidemic to rage in the camp. I contracted the disease and again found myself in an infirmary without medical care. My body became covered with red spots, and my eyes were glassy with fever. I totally lost my appetite, as my raw lips only demanded water to quench my thirst. At the end of a week I sank into a delirium. As I was losing consciousness I heard the sound of distant explosions. Am I dying, I was wondering, as I felt my consciousness slip away.

Suddenly I woke up in the familiar surrounding of the infirmary. Some of the beds still hid the twisted bodies of the sick, or even the dead. But many of the beds were empty. My head felt clear, and my body without the devouring fever. As I weakly lifted myself from the bed one of the prisoners was slowly moving through the aisle. "The Germans left during the night." I could not believe him. Is this part of my delirium, I wondered. Then my body's need to relieve itself made me realize that I was both alive and free!

I was fortunate, after all. Had I been healthy I would have been compelled to accompany the guards to still another camp, perhaps to be killed. This way I surmounted the crisis of my sickness during the night while the Nazi guards evacuated the camp. I dressed slowly. I again felt hungry, and ate some of the bread I hid at the beginning of my sickness. Sluggishly I walked through the now open gates of the camp. I saw some of the Arab soldiers of the French army that liberated me. I watched some of the other prisoners going toward the nearby town. I followed them, for I wanted to thank the lady who helped me to survive. With my physical weakness even walking was an ordeal, but the joy and the emotions of freedom and the end of suffering kept me moving. I was now ascending the hill, leaving the camp behind. A sense of elation possessed me. Will the resurrected dead feel this way when the Messiah shall come?

The surviving prisoners lingered around the camp, waiting for their evacuation from the hell hole. They were joined by a few healthy prisoners who hid while the guards were moving out. Since there was still a war on, nobody was getting any medical care. The extremely sick continued to die, and the procession of corpses was still carried to their mass grave. In the end nearly 1,600 of the victims found their final resting place in this additional monument of man's inhumanity to man.

I now had a chance to become exposed to the values of America. Some officers visited the camp, and started to document the horrors found there. As I was standing around with several of my comrades, an officer wearing a different uniform joined them. He introduced himself as an American liaison officer attached to the French army. As he spoke German he was able to communicate with the survivors. He said he was Jewish and from Texas. This surprised me, for my movie stereotypes made me understand that all Texans were cowboys, and who ever heard of a Jewish cowboy?

Suddenly a procession joined the group. Some of the survivors located one of the German civilian supervisors of the construction projects. This German viciously abused the prisoners in his charge, beating and punishing them mercilessly. Now they returned to him in kind the torments he gave. The German was horribly beaten. One of his eyes hung out of its socket as he collapsed at our feet. The American was outraged. He bawled out the tormentors. No matter how bad crimes the German committed, they must not administer the punishment. He must be punished under the legal system, and not by this type of primitive justice. In spite of my own beatings and punishments I found myself agreeing with the American. The survivors must never sink to the level of the Nazi criminals. This was my exposure to the principle of due process.

I now became a ward of the United Nations, as a war orphan. Again I moved from place to place, until I was finally placed in an orphanage-type institution. The war ended in Europe with the unconditional surrender of Germany. A few months later Japan also surrendered, after an incredible new weapon -- called the atomic bomb -- destroyed two of their cities. To me, there seemed to be no end to the horrors of war.

Normal life was returning to Germany. That country was no place for Holocaust survivors. I did not want to return to Hungary, for I now feared and distrusted the country of my birth. My relatives died during the Holocaust, and I had no ties to anyone. I briefly considered going to Palestine. But news was emerging about new strife and killings between Arabs and Jews. I longed for peace and quiet, and the end to turmoil. I was now given an opportunity to come to America.

I eagerly accepted. Here was my chance to see at first hand the opulent life styles of the Americans, the endless prairies of the West, the land of limitless possibilities. After a mysterious routine called immigration processing I was on board of a ship, the first ocean voyage of my life.

In 1947 I came to the United States. During the Korean war I was drafted into the Army -- and ironically, returned to Germany as a member of the occupation forces. My service in the 2nd Armored Division helped me to regain my confidence much weakened by my experiences during the Holocaust. After my military service I obtained a college degree, started a family, and initiated a professional career in management and systems analysis. However, the disasters I experienced and witnessed made me continue my education -- this time trying to understand the reasons why the Holocaust took place, why organized warfare persists to remain an accepted social institution, and what could be done to bring about a peaceful world.

Germany After the Holocaust

After my liberation from Vaihingen, I spent more than three years in Germany as a displaced persons (DP), and as a soldier in the Occupation Army of the United States. These were the places where I lived for months as a DP:

Neuenbürg April 11, 1945 to June 1945 Under jurisdiction of the French Army
Benzheim June 1945 to July 1945 Under jurisdiction of the U.S. Army
Schloss Langenzelle July 1945 to August 1945 Under jurisdiction of UNRRA
Stuttgart 1945 to December 1945 Under jurisdiction of UNRRA
Aglasterhausen December 1945 to January 1947 Under jurisdiction of UNRRA

During this period I met many German civilians in the different cities and residences. Generally they were friendly, and sometimes introduced me to German culture. For example, I learned about the cartoons of Wilhelm Busch, inventor of this popular form of entertainment. I managed to buy and read all of his published volumes.

In Aglasterhausen there was a school for us war orphans, but I did not attend. Most of the students and the instructors were from Poland, and I could not participate. Instead I started to read in German. I learned the basics in my school years in Hungary. Gradually I was able to read in German. I visited occasionally the nearby city of Heidelberg. There I found a store that was lending books. The owner trusted me sufficiently to loan me books to read in my room in Aglasterhausen. I still remember the first German novel he recommended: Der Abenteuerliche Simplicissimus by Christoffel von Grimmelshausen -- about the Thirty Year's War. I read many books by Karl May about the American Wild West and the translations of the science fictions of Jules Verne.

During this period once I suffered a severely sprained foot. I was admitted to the hospital in Lauffen, where I received excellent treatment.

What a change from the concentration camps of the Nazis back to the once again civilized Germany. How could the Nazis so tarnish the reputation of their own country by their evil deeds?

* * *


1. Chronology of imprisonment locations

* Simapuszta Ghetto (Hungary) -- May 6, 1944 to May 25, 1944
(In Birkenau for a few days)
* Auschwitz -- May 30, 1944 to October 27, 1944 (Prisoner A-9867)
* Stuttfhof -- October 28, 1944 to November 17, 1944
* Camp Hailfingen -- November 19, 1944 to February 13, 1945 (Prisoner 41018)
* Camp Vaihingen (Vaihingen/Enz) -- February 14, 1945 to April 6, 1945
* Liberated by the French Army -- April 7, 1945

2. References

"Auschwitz Chronicle -- 1939-1945" by Danuta Czech, Henry Holt and Company, New York, 1997. (Provides dates of arrival and departure from the Auschwitz concentration camp.)

"Darkness Over the Valley" by Wendelgard von Staden, Ticknor and Fields, New York, 1981. (Covers a full account of Irmgard von Neurath and Camp Vaihingen.)

"Genocide and Rescue -- The Holocaust in Hungary 1944" edited by David Cesarani, Berg, Oxford/New York, 1997. (Explains why and how the Holocaust happened in Hungary.)

"National Socialist Concentration Camps in the Service of Conducting the Total War (in German)" by Herwart Vorländer, W. Kohlhammer Publisher, Stuttgart, Germany, 1978. (Describes in great detail the Hailfingen and Vaihingen labor camps.)

"Shlajme -- From Hungary to Israel through Auschwitz-Birkenau, Fünfteichen and Görlitz (in German)" by Shlomo Graber, Hartung-Gorre Publisher, 2002. (Includes a description of the events in Nyirbator, Hungary, which sent the Jewish community to Auschwitz-Birkenau.)

"The Concentration Camp Near the House Doors (in German: Das KZ vor der Haustüre)" by Manfred Scheck, City of Vaihingen/Enz, Germany, 2005. (Surviving prisoners describe in great detail their experiences in Camp Wiesengrund near Vaihingen/Enz.)

"Traces of Auschwitz in the Region of Baden-Württemberg (in German: Spuren von Auschwitz ins Gäu)" by Dorothee Wein, Volker Mall, Harald Roth, Markstein Publisher, 2007. (Extensive documentation of the Hailfingen/Tailfingen Labor Camp.)

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