Excerpts from „Głos Demokratyczny”, Toruń, no. 3-17 from 4 April to 21 July 1946. Romualda Cieślik-Ciesielska
IN THE HELL OF AUSCHWITZ
THE GHOST BUS – PROCESSION OF THE CONVICTS
A coach is gliding soundlessly on the smooth Kraków-Katowice road. It’s unusual for people of the 20th century to pray at the sight of a bus, or to run away in fear as if they’d seen a mad dog; but they do when they see this one. The bus is filled with women. The benches inside are placed along the walls, and the windows are secured with iron bars. The vehicle is driven by the firm hands of a military chauffeur. Next to the chauffeur, on both sides, are also military men: four of them, all with automatic rifles ready to fire.
There are 26 women on the bus. All very calm, but in some of the beautiful eyes a question is arising – where are we going? Their lips move soundlessly, as if saying a prayer. There are the elderly, the middle-aged and the young inside. One of them – almost a child – is cuddling close to the woman next to her, and you can see the fear for tomorrow in her eyes. A chic young woman, with the same kind of fear in her eyes, glances at her friend, who keeps turning her head to the window and stares sadly at the white flakes of snow drifting by. She’s been gazing into the whiteness for so long that it seems to her as if the bus has stopped, while the snowy blurs scamper into the endless space. Next to her legs there is a leather suitcase with foreign hotel stickers, it’s clear she has travelled a lot in her life. Fellow passengers, less elegant, are looking through tears at her, following her sight wandering around the snowy fields, and when their eyes meet, the woman smiles in a somewhat unnatural manner. The women furtively wipe away their tears, whisper to each other and look out into the wintry universe, the white and scary landscape of 1942. Devious eyes of the thugs dressed in German uniforms are following them closely.
‘ Dirnen! ’ – one of them snarls through his teeth.
‘ Dummes Vieh!’ – adds the second one with contempt.
The bus becomes silent as the grave. Words get stuck in the Polish women’s throats, condemned to disregard, torment, death… The silence is dreadful, similar to that before an execution, when a convict has been read his sentence and the killing is about to start. A sad conversation of the souls and painful glances full of fear are more than a million words of grievance, remorse or fervent prayer.
And the coach is moving forward, passing by villages, settlements and towns, and they are well known in all these places, people look at them with awe, their faces growing pale with fear. The bus is speeding on. A stubborn silence prevails inside.
Suddenly, the car leaves the fine main road and slows down. After two hours, it bumps into a gate, whose sideposts, with a myriad of lights attached to them, are made of iron and entangled in electrified wires. The bus stops, soldiers come out and tell the women to get off. They obey the order calmly, as if they knew where they had come to and why.
A man dressed in uniform orders the women to stand in fives. He counts them, takes some documents from the guards who had been their escort. Now the women are looking around with curiosity, but they can only see posts with numerous electric lights attached. It’s completely silent, as if the bus had taken them somewhere underground; there is not a living soul nearby. The soldier who took the papers enters a little shack, ignoring the group of passengers, among whom was I myself.
After the two-hour trip we stretched our bones with pleasure and scanned the surroundings – the posts with lights, barbed wires, the sky and the ground.
‘Yes, it is Auschwitz’, said one of the women quietly, ‘we have heard so much about it, and here we are.’
‘The devil is not as black as he is painted’, replied another one, though her voice trembled a little.
A few of the women started crying, and a young girl addressed them:
‘Crybabies, are you showing them your weakness, or maybe you’re hoping they will have mercy on you?’
Having said this, she pointed at the little shack.
‘These people are merciless – I told you that many times – we can survive here too, just like in Montelupich [prison] – I will cook the potatoes and you won’t be starving. Just don’t grieve too much!’ ‘But what have we done to be brought here, miss?’, one of the older women weeped.
‘We were brought here because we’re Poles, and there is no room for us in Poland, because our houses and flats are needed by Germans. There is only room for us behind the wires.’
‘That’s the way it has to be’, said the second woman, ‘there is no other solution as of now, so keep your heads up and wait!’
A brave attitude of the young girl and her forceful words had an effect, because the women nodded their heads and stopped weeping.
After a while the military man came out of the barrack, counted us again, told us to straighten up the line and we moved on. Walking along the alleyways, we bumped into four women, all wearing striped blue and grey dresses, in dark aprons and with white handkerchiefs tied beside their chins.
‘Oh’, one of ours spilled the words out, ‘so that’s what we’re gonna look like.’
The women in striped uniforms were curiously looking at the newcomers, searching for familiar faces, but they couldn’t speak because of the guard standing next to them. We marched on until we eventually stopped by a house similar to the one where the bus had stopped, but with a clock above the entrance. The soldier told us to wait in fives and he stepped inside. We were standing for a very long time, and he wouldn’t come out.
There is a huge gate ahead of us, also coated with reflectors and wires, and two high posts behind it likewise with wires and lamps; between the posts, two prisoners are standing at attention, wearing the same striped clothes as the women. They are holding striped berets. People, usually military, keep entering the house that we’re standing by. We’re waiting patiently, nobody is paying any attention to us. Above the main gate there is a German slogan: Arbeit macht frei (work sets you free). Further behind the gate, we can see rows of terraced one-story houses. They look quiet and normal. And to think how much blood had been spilled and how many innocent souls tormented inside!
Suddenly, out of the blue, an orchestra starts to gather on a small square next to the gate. They are also in prison dress, waiting. So are we. We can see prisoners walking in fives from the opposite side of the gate, walking in our direction. The orchestra starts to play.
The soldiers come out of the wooden hut, some of them watching the marchers, others counting them scrupulously. When the first fives approach the gates, one of the prisoners, with a yellow band on his arm, takes off his cap, stands at attention and reports, while the striped fives are following the order “ Muetzen ab!” and marching in unison, bareheaded with their skin shaved to the bone. They are marching five by five, all looking good, well fed. Hope flares up inside us. The first column passes through and now there’s a break, but the orchestra keeps playing. The first unit has gone behind the gate, with the blunt slogan Arbeit macht frei towering above it.
Another group comes. As previously, the guy with a yellow band and a cap in his hand approaches the soldiers and reports. But these fives are not walking with such a spring in their step, they are dragging along like people who are ill and weak. You can see exhaustion in their faces. Their uniforms are dirty and torn, clogs on their feet – tattered. And there are so many of them, column after column, all in prison dress. One man from each unit reports, and everybody takes caps off with a trained move at the sight of the militaries.
‘Oh God! How they do look!’, somebody lets out a sigh.
Fear grips us. Those people are so skinny, pinched and ragged that it’s heartbreaking to look at them. The first units were walking jauntily, the second ones a bit worse, and the ones that followed barely walked at all, some of the prisoners were being dragged by their companions in misery or carried on provisory stretchers. They were also carrying dead people with their own coats thrown over their faces to hide their looks and to conceal the way they had died. Each column lined up in such a way that the strongest were walking in the fives up front, and then gradually the weaker and weaker groups were following, with those who couldn’t walk (or would never be able to walk again) at the end.
‘Good grief!’, the words tumble out, ‘these are not people, these are skin and bones that you can hear crackling from afar. And they have to work!’
Many of them are walking barefoot, some carrying their wrecked shoes in their hands despite the snow on the ground.
They are only a reminiscence of the humans they used to be. The things we’d heard outside about Auschwitz weren’t even partly accurate. Auschwitz is indescribable hell.
The orchestra ceases to play. The procession of skeletons has ended. We are led by the soldiers and move on. We’re walking left, right and left again. The path leads through empty fields until we eventually stop by a gate that looks very similar to the one where the procession was received by SS men. We have to wait here and the soldier disappears inside a grey hut.
THE OMNIPOTENT KAPOS
We wait for a long time, until suddenly a woman wearing a black cloak, with a dog on a leash, appears in front of us. She counts us twice and leads through the gate. We’re walking down the main camp road. On both sides there are women in prison clothes, lined up in fives, and then there are skinny women in green denim garments with huge crosses on their backs, all blue with cold. Some of the prisoners call us out by our names and surnames. They recognize us, and we seek a memory of their face. It’s impossible to know who’s who with all the costumery and shaved heads.
The women are attending a roll call while we are led along the main road into the disinfection barrack. The barrack didn’t have any floor, there was mud up to our ankles, only the walls and a leaky roof held it together.
We were brought into a room with narrow benches. We sat and observed. There was a water tap on the side, but a strangely dressed woman was standing by it with a stick in her hand, watching over that treasure so that nobody would – God forbid – approach the tap to quench their thirst. There was a stove right behind the door, similar to the big stoves used for baking bread. A woman lit a fire in it, and the steam warmed the room, going through the pipes under the benches and then outside. The woman was cooking some soup.
She turned to us asking us to give her any provisions we had, because if they found anything on us the next day, we’d get 25 strokes of the whip each. Naturally we complied, and kept waiting.
Under the cover of the night, our colleagues who had been transported to Auschwitz before us were visiting us. Another cargo of prisoners came that night from Kielce, and from Lubelskie Voivodeship.
This is how we spent the whole night on the benches in the barrack – nothing happened until the morning came. First, a woman in a uniform began to record our personal data. Zosia and I thought hard about what profession we should tell her, but finally we said we were clerks. Then we left the room with the benches and went to the corridor. One by one we were let into a room where our belongings were taken, then we were stripped and shaved. We looked funny with bald heads.
After we were robbed and shaved, we waited in the very cold corridor. It was a while before they let us into the barrack with the benches again. The woman at the stove worked constantly, and it got warmer. I sat by the window, where I could watch how the women in stripes were carrying stretchers full of dirt or bricks, how resigned they were feeling and how poorly clothed they were. They were walking like robots, and a woman with a band on her arm and a stick was constantly hustling and beating them. How terrible it was! They weren’t human, they were machines!
At some point, when there was enough steam in the room to make us sweat heavily, and when some of the women with weaker hearts started fainting, we were ordered to clear the barrack and go downstairs to another, much bigger room, which we did obediently. There we were told to stand by the ice cold showers and wash our hot and sweaty bodies. After that cold wash, we were standing naked and barefoot for hours, waiting for separate articles of clothing. We weren’t ready until evening to leave in our “chic” outfits decorated with red triangles and numbers on the chest. As we found out soon, the numbers were taking the place of our names and surnames. In other words, we weren’t people anymore, we were numbers.
Dressed in this way and marked with numbers, we were walked to the prison block. We were walking down the same road that we had been led into the camp on the previous night. The barrack was entirely dark. The woman who was guiding us called out the block elder and handed us over to her. Our details were not recorded while entering the block. In 1942 nobody in the blocks was aware where the prisoners belonged, only the general amount was expected to be right.
Our block elder, wearing a number and a “P” [Polish] letter in a red square just like us, didn’t speak good Polish (she came from Katowice), but was vividly interested in us. She left us quickly however, and we wandered around in the darkness, tripping all the time, until some kind soul pointed us to our bunks. We climbed to the top. As it turned out later, it was a very fortunate choice as there was so little space above the middle and lower bunks that you could only lie on them.
Darkness. The first night in the block, among women like us, taken away from families and children. But never mind, that was our fate, we needed to wait. Dark thoughts passed through our minds before we drifted off to sleep.
Terrible screaming woke us up the next morning.
‘Roll call, up, up!’
We got dressed in the pitch dark and hurried to the front of the barrack, where we were lined up in fives. The roll call lasted about three hours. After that, some German women came and took us to work. We tried to explain that we had just come and we weren’t prepared, that we were very hungry, but it didn’t help. We were hustled along with a stick, and had any of us resisted, they would have got beaten up, and all the others would then march calmly. At the crossroads, one of the inmates moved away from her row and started to run off.
The German with a yellow band on her arm saying “Kapo” noticed this and followed the marauder, leaving us unguarded. She got hold of her quickly, as the prisoner’s shoes were slowing her down, and started to beat her with a shovel handle, swearing at her in German. She passed out and couldn’t hear it.
The noise drew the attention of a muscular SS thug, who appeared out of nowhere. He took the stick from the German kapo and started beating the unfortunate prisoner on the head. After three blows, the snowy pillow around her head was dyed with blood.
The torturer, satisfied with the bloodshed, tossed the stick aside and walked away. The kapo returned to us, but only half of us remained out of the unit she had picked up from the block. The rest had managed to scatter in the meantime. The kapo, angered by this, was beating, pushing, and swearing at us. We crossed the street and went between the barracks. The ground was frozen solid, and there were numerous smashed and bent enameled bowls full of human feces stuck to them. The kapo ordered us to collect the bowls and put them in one place. Picking up the bowls was extremely hard, because, as I said, the ground was frozen and they were stuck. We were kicking them with our clogs, barely managing to detach them from the ground.
On the first day of our work we had a miserable dinner, because the portions were shared in such a way that some of the prisoners didn’t get anything, including us. We were terribly hungry but we still had to keep on working. After the meal, we were cleaning the bowls of the excrement, and when they were ready we took them to the barracks which didn’t have enough dishes and where the prisoners didn’t have plates to eat from.
The readers might wonder where such an amount of bowls with feces came from. Well, in 1942 there was no toilet in the camp. It was replaced by a long trough, which was quite remotely situated, and the whole area surrounding it was polluted due to the diarrhea that spread in the camp. None of the prisoners suffering from diarrhea would have managed to make it to the trough. Anxious to keep a certain level of cleanliness, they would defecate into a bowl or a pot and secretly threw it away behind the barrack. If someone hadn’t used a bowl, they would have had to stain the bed or the floor and get a beating from the block elder or the sztubowa.
Before all the bowls were cleaned, we heard a signal for a roll call.
‘Which way is our block?’, we asked, confused. ‘Are we going to make it?’, a few of us were looking around nervously.
We were lucky, because the kapo walked our unit to the block, so we didn’t have to wander around and look for one with missing people. We were on time to attend the roll call. The roll call was very long and our legs hurt badly, we couldn’t find the right position to stand. Finally we heard:
The German in the black cloak counted us, but it wasn’t over yet and we still had to stand. It was absolutely dark when we were finally ordered to disperse. We ran to our bunks. We were told to sit quietly on our beds while the bread was being given out. We sat and waited for a long time, it seemed like eternity. Later, when all the lights went out in the barrack, a prisoner with a candle came to us and we finally got a slice of bread and a thin slice of sausage. We ate it with relish, as we hadn’t had the meal before. We hadn’t been aware at that point, that to get dinner you needed to push your way through the crowd, almost fighting for it. That’s why there hadn’t been any soup for us.
‘We shouldn’t eat such raw bread,’ said one of the women, ‘it’ll most likely cause diarrhea.’
‘We need to bake it, or even burn it completely,’ added another one, ‘and then it won’t do any harm.’
‘But where do we do that?’
‘Here’s a stove, but no wood to burn,’ said one of the young girls, helplessly.
Without thinking much, a couple of girls went out to get some firewood. It was a risky excursion, but they succeeded. They took doors and window frames from an empty barrack.
‘Now we can bake the bread,’ they whispered with satisfaction.
Some women were walking from bed to bed asking if somebody would like to get a sweater or another garment in exchange for a slice of bread.
‘A sweater would come in handy,’ one of the prisoners responded, ‘because it’s freezing, but where would I get a slice of bread?’
The portions we were given weren’t even enough to satisfy our hunger, not to mention feeling full. Regretfully we had to say no, even though a warm sweater would have been useful. That’s how our first day in Auschwitz passed.
We turned in late. An elderly woman lying between us was cheering us up, saying somehow we would survive. Full of grim thoughts, we fell asleep. Just after we did, a signal and shouting woke us:
We got dressed fast. Some of the women hadn’t even gone to sleep yet, so they ran out of the building first, with us right behind them. We lined up in fives and the kapo counted and counted. It turned out that, because the number of inmates didn’t match up after the evening roll call, they decided to repeat it at 11:00 p.m. We were standing in the night, the icy wind cut right through us. It wasn’t until after two hours when the whistle sounded again and we were ordered to go back inside. There wasn’t much time to sleep now.
The next day, another German woman took us to another kind of work. The prisoners were running off again, ignoring the fact that one of them had been tortured to death the day before. Whoever had seen that hell would run away, even if it was straight into death’s arms. Those who remained were walked to the disinfection barrack. There were pallets on the ground next to it, so wet, rotten and covered in feces that it was tough to find a spot to pick them up by. We were ordered to collect the pallets and move them to another place. Of course we obeyed, because otherwise they would have beaten us, and everybody was afraid of that. First we carried the pallets on our own, then in pairs, because we felt weak. I was working with Zosia Bratro. We took the pallets to the square behind the barracks and shook the straws out into one pile and put the pallets on another, and all of these were burned. When we were emptying the pallets we found various things. Sometimes you could guess the thoughts of the people who had been dying on them. They must have been thinking of their homes, families and that the war would be over soon and they would get together with their loved ones. Something was hidden in every pallet. In one of them we found silver spoons, two tiny dresses in another, and underwear in the third one, and so on. The prisoners had hidden the treasures there thinking they would get back home, but in fact they passed away into the other world. It felt devastating. It suddenly became clear that we wouldn’t survive that hell and we would end our lives just like them, on rotten pallets, thinking of people we loved.
This time again there wasn’t enough food to feed everyone dinner, even though they served only quarter of a liter of a thin soup. Some were given their ration, some had to starve again. After the dinner we had to work hard and eventually there was the hated roll call, during which we had to keep standing for long hours. As we were getting weaker and weaker, the roll call was a torment for us. Due to the lice spreading in our barrack, illness took many.
‘How long will it last?’, asked one of the prisoners, staggering. Others were praying out loud, begging God for freedom, for returning home. Others were complaining and whispering. One of the prisoners wanted to fill her stomach with bread and die. Everybody was really nervous during the roll call. Lice, misery, humiliation and harassment were driving us to despair.
‘Please tell me why I got locked up, what have I done wrong?’, a young woman complained.
Suddenly everybody went silent at the sight of an approaching SS-Frau, and stood to attention. She went by, not paying any attention to us and walked on, while the poor women fidgeted, freezing. One of them started recalling her house, its warmness, and after a while everybody got so involved in conversations that no one noticed the German was coming back. She picked one of the prisoners, the first in line, and stripped her naked in the cold, including an extra sweater that wasn’t allowed to be worn, then she ripped her stockings off her and beat her ruthlessly. Other women in the row immediately started to take off their illegal sweaters and garments and threw them into a ditch.
When the whistle signaled the end of the roll call, the prisoners started going back to the barracks. Some of them would go back to the square and collect the clothes, some would already get hold of new ones. That’s the way it worked in the camps, that prisoners would always do what they were absolutely forbidden to do. The same rule applied here. The more things they took from us, the more we contrived on our own, because we knew precisely that concentration camps served to destroy people, and we tried to oppose it by using all means to survive, and it only worked because we were doing everything that was forbidden.
The next day we were searched for illegal garments again. The prisoners realized that quickly, and before the first one got stripped, they had already got rid of what wasn’t allowed. We were expected not to wear extra sweaters while piles of clothes soaking in the rain were rotting in the field. In the evening, when I lay down after the usual conversation with my friends, whom I had come to the camp with and whom I had been living with through that hell, I couldn’t fall asleep for a long time. Various thoughts were crossing my mind, I would have liked to understand everything, but the more I thought, the more confused I was. All the images of unbelievable torment from the camp were passing in front of my eyes, troubling questions arising in my mind that I didn’t have answers to. Why were there so many criminals among us? Why the starvation, why were there attempts to embroil us in conflicts? The Germans wanted us to hate each other. But we saw through that and did everything in the opposite way. Such reflections took me more than one night and made me weaker, not stronger. I was aware that the circumstances were extremely difficult. The only thought that cheered me up was that now all the people of Europe would be united because of the misery and harassment they had experienced.
Then the whistle was going off again, and we had to feel our way in the darkness to get dressed. But it was going smoother, because a person gets used to everything. The roll call, like all the others. Lots of swearing, but mainly the long standing and being cold in the freezing weather. Lots of shouting, counting, and circling around. The roll calls we hated with a passion. Many of the weaker women would collapse during roll calls. Their companions in misery tried to hold them up, slap them on the face or hold them firmly by their arms. Some water would be useful to give to the fainting person, but there was no water as well. In 1942 the water situation was very bad. Prisoners would get some only to infuse herbs, and it was such a tiny amount that you never knew what to do with it – drink it or wash yourself, because the feeling of dirt is as distressing as the feeling of hunger.
Finally, the end of the roll call. Yet another German picked us up for work and led along the main road. We were marching through the gate, and a whole squad awaiting us was there. The kapo was afraid of them, we could see this from her stiffness and nervous reports. More than a dozen eyes were watching us. They were coming from one side and from another, and we were marching on. If anybody tripped, they would get punched with a fist or hit with a stick. The dogs held by the SS men were barking furiously, definitely willing to “play” with us. We couldn’t hear our own thoughts amid the barking and the blasphemies of the SS. Each of us was so worried about that “ links!” that we didn’t see our colleagues right next to us getting beaten up. When we got through, two of the SS men with dogs and rifles followed us so that they could shoot in case somebody wanted to run off.
Behind the gate we slowed down and “ links” wasn’t necessary anymore. We slowed down, but still didn’t know where we were going and what we were going to do. Soon we found out. The unit stopped and the tools were being given out. They were heavy pickaxes. We were divided into small groups, and the kapo picked a couple of us to lead and the unit headed to one of the houses nearby.
THE CRUELTY OF THE ROLL CALL
The prisoners entered the beautiful premises of a house surrounded by a fence, with two thujas growing next to it. It was quite different from the buildings we had seen in the camp before. Above the main entrance, we noticed a fairly large triangle with the Eye of Providence, and the slogan: “God, please protect me from those who envy me.”
So those were the houses where happy Polish families had been living until recently, not knowing that the day would come when they would have to leave. We started to work. We were ordered to knock down the house. Some of us entered inside and others climbed on the roof, and the rest began to smash the walls. There was still furniture inside the house, covered with a thick layer of dust. Pots were on the stove, as if somebody was about to make dinner. Heavy blows were already reaching from the top, making the windows tremble. We were hustled and ordered to hack away faster and faster. The SS man with the dogs went inside, looked around and left. To discourage us from running, he showed us a line marked with a rope, and if anybody crossed the rope they would be shot. This is how they made sure nobody would run away. We were working only when the kapos or SS men were watching.
When they were gone, we rested, supporting ourselves on the pickaxes, thinking of our houses, families. Usually the voice of the guards or a blow in the neck would snap us out of it. The kapo was examining the stove and the pots carefully. She liked all of it, and she called over a woman, asked her to light a fire and peel potatoes. Two prisoners were on the lookout so that they could sound the alarm if anybody was approaching the house.
The space where we worked was utterly empty; we didn’t see any civilians at all, everybody had been resettled. Suddenly the kapo called over an interpreter, as most of the prisoners didn’t know German. The interpreter walked around and collected margarine. Everybody pulled out some margarine from their bags, which we carried all our treasures in – that is a penknife, a spoon, a small piece of bread and a small cream box, where we would keep a tiny bit of margarine, marmalade or a slice of sausage. Each of the prisoners handed the box to the interpreter. The kapo added the collected sausages to the boiling potatoes, and fried the margarine with onion on another pot, then adding it to the soup. A delicious smell filled the house, but the soup wasn’t for us. In exchange for our sausages and margarine, we were allowed to stand about for a bit.
But we weren’t allowed – God forbid – to sit down, though our legs were killing us because of the 18-19 hours of work a day. When we were cold, we could move around freely.
Suddenly, somebody shouted a warning and the soup was immediately gone from the stove, everybody started working steadily, swinging pickaxes vigorously. The kapo was on the move again and the SS men walked slowly with their dogs, keeping their rifles ready. In other words, perfect order prevailed.
Some senior SS man visited, examining everything carefully. The kapo, doing her “job”, was beating up some woman because she had smashed a brick. Then, she grabbed her pickaxe and showed her how to wield it skillfully. The master who was inspecting us didn’t spare the tortured prisoner a few more blows. She gave a grimace of pain but kept on working.
‘Work faster!’, shouted the SS man. ‘At work, there has to be pace!’ He went away after giving out a couple more kicks.
We sighed with relief and slowed down. The kapo brought the soup back to eat it together with the guards. Leftovers were given to the dogs. The hunger nagged us even more at the sight of the soup. Whoever had a remaining slice of bread in their bag, pulled it out and ate, but most didn’t. After appeasing her hunger, the kapo went to sleep while the SS men watched us. We were standing in the cold, waiting until it was time to return.
Finally, the workday passed. We were lined up and counted. The number wasn’t right so the kapo counted again. She got really edgy, beating one after another. Eventually the missing person came out from behind the house. When the kapo saw her, she started battering her. The SS men aided her. They didn’t stop kicking her when the woman fell on the ground, they had no mercy.
We set out again, carrying the unfortunate woman on our arms. We came late. At the gate, the SS troops counted us up carefully. The roll call went according to plan and wasn’t as long as usual. We were happy that one more day had passed, that we were one day closer to freedom or death.
We learned that in the camp everybody just reveled in giving a beating.
One day an SS-Frau came close to the gate which the inmates had to go through. The appearance of the prisoners varied. Some didn’t eat bread in order to exchange it for a dress and look good, some didn’t care about their looks at all and their clothes were really dirty, and they were even reluctant to wash themselves.
The SS-Frau hated the prisoners who were dressed well and clean. When she grabbed one of them, she struck blows all over her face and head. The victim didn’t realize the reason at first, but the German sensed her question and let her go saying:
‘Move, and pass it on!’
So the battered one started hitting another prisoner next to her, repeating the German’s words.
The SS-Frau rested her hands on her hips and watched with delight how the innocent women were beating each other up. You had to stay especially alert at those times, not to get a beating from one of your companions in misery.
Tired after the hard work and the distances walked, we fell asleep quickly. The night passed in a heartbeat. When the whistle for the roll call sounded, it seemed as if we hadn’t slept at all. We were getting dressed as usual, hurrying for the roll call. Every night a few of the women from our block passed away.
The roll call was short. The kapo was already with us before the signal. She started lining us up, counting, examining our numbers, and finally instructed us to go past the gate.
We headed out. The gate was surrounded with troops like on previous days, we were being counted and soldiers with dogs followed us. Past the gate, we could walk slower and wonder where we would work this time. It turned out we were going to work at a road construction site. Some of us carried rocks, others were passing them on, and the rest laid them down. We worked like machines, without a break. Nobody even mentioned cooking or rest. SS men with dogs were watching us closely. The kapo was walking around with a whip and striking us. There was one more man, whom we feared greatly, that joined us in the field. We worked without rest, we couldn’t slow down even for a moment. If we did, heavy blows fell on our backs before we knew it. We were weak, our legs hurt badly and the hunger plagued us. We couldn’t wait for the day to finish.
Finally, the work was over. A long way back and the roll call were still ahead of us. We hoped it would be short. We lined up and they counted once and again, making sure there was five in each row. Unfortunately there was one person missing. We didn’t worry too much at first, thinking maybe she was behind the house. But as their search wasn’t yielding any results, we got really nervous, unsure what they would do to us now.
‘They are going to decimate us, aren’t they?’, somebody whispered fearfully.
‘Shut up’, said one of the others, getting hysterical. In fact, everybody was thinking the same thing but was afraid to say it out loud.
They were looking for the runaway for a long time, with no result. We moved on, nobody was thinking about the hurting legs or the hard work we had done anymore, but the lingering question tormented us – what was going to happen next?
Nobody thought whether the one who had escaped would be captured, or if she would succeed.
We reached the gate. The man who had harassed us for the whole day came with us. He was standing there with all the officials and they halted us. They were counting, checking the fives and then told us to go to an empty square and kneel down. We obeyed, awaiting the course of events. The SS man was asking, with the help of the interpreter, if any of us knew the escapee. Nobody said a word. They told us to look among the faces of the women present, hoping we would notice who was missing. Silence again. Now they told us to put our hands up. Order obeyed. We were left kneeling, and the authorities went to our block. But nobody knew anything there either. So they made everybody kneel with their hands up as well. They were counting up the whole camp to make sure that the one person had actually escaped. One of the guards was watching us while others went looking.
The hunger nagged us, it was getting dark, we hadn’t eaten just like the day before, and we couldn’t be sure if we’d get any food that night. We were exhausted, but there was no mercy and we had to keep kneeling.
I don’t know how many hours we waited, I only know that somebody came on motorbikes and said she had been captured and the roll call ended. The camp’s commandant had a long speech about escaping, which was then translated to various languages. They claimed they had got her, but we didn’t believe it. We went to the barrack with heavy hearts, unsure of whether the escape had succeeded.
In the morning, the same kapo took us to work. We did the same thing as the previous day, with the same pace and hustling: faster, faster.
We heard motorbikes throttling. They were going to Auschwitz and stopped by. The guards were hurrying us so much that we were actually running around the worksite. The officials whom we had seen by the gate in the morning got out of the cars. They were the camp’s authorities. Their visit made us feel unsettled. We were told to line up in fives, counted up as usual. We stood scared stiff. The Germans walked between the rows, glancing at us, and after a long silence they called out two numbers. Now we believed that they were going to execute us because of the person who had escaped. But the SS-Frau stripped the scared inmates from their prison clothes and it turned out that they had nice, civilian clothes underneath.
When the commandant saw this, the beating of the perpetrators began. Everybody could strike them, whoever wanted. They poured water over the unconscious victims, and when they recovered, they were ordered to go behind the track, to a certain place, and they were shot there. The commandant concluded that every attempt to escape would finish this way.
We carried the victims’ bodies to the camp and attended the roll call. It was very short. We were so devastated by the incident that we felt willing to kneel for one more night if it would have helped those two to escape. The evening passed in absolute silence. Everybody was exhausted after the previous sleepless night and turned in early.
Sad news reached us – they were having our left arms tattooed. Until then, only the Jewish women were tattooed, so there were tears and wailing. Each prisoner was thinking how to avoid this. All the women apart from the Germans were to be tattooed. As it turned out later, the Warsaw transport from the Uprising was another exception.
We were led there by order of barracks, and the subsequent transports were tattooed and recorded on arrival. From that point on, every female prisoner of Auschwitz had a number tattooed on her arm. It had its advantages, especially in cases of illnesses and death. There were no mistakes anymore, and no situations where a family would get a notice about the death of somebody who was in fact still alive. The sick, running a fever, often forgot their numbers and said anything that came to their minds. That’s why families often got wrong information.
To make sure that all the prisoners were tattooed, a general roll call was held one Sunday. Instead of going to work, we went to the main camp road and we lined up by blocks. We weren’t sure what was going to happen. A mix of gossip circulated and we took every move of the Nazis as a sign of the end of the war. Many thought it was a selection, a general roll call that we had once gone through before. It seemed like we were leaving the camp forever and they would drive us God knows where. Each prisoner kept their belongings in a bundle and awaited the course of events. Every woman wanted to look good and applied blush on their faces with lipsticks or beetroots.
We were standing there until ten o’clock. Then the authorities came and things proceeded. They were inspecting the numbers on the prisoners arms and told us to line up in order according to the numbers. The numbers who had been checked walked to an empty square surrounded with guards and dogs. The inspection took the whole day. The next day we were doing our usual work, but this time not at road construction, but in fields covered with water. The fields needed to be drained by digging ditches. The excavated ground and stones were to be carried to a dry spot. Many of our women died in the process.
The German hosts were so cruel in striking and killing that the women would rather be killed on the spot instead being tortured at work. After the Lagerälteste intervened, killing female prisoners was banned.
One day we were walking to the fields with baskets full of fertilizer. The SS was attempting to make the camp self-sufficient, so the ground was fertilized with chemical fertilizers with the hope that it would yield more crops. The ash that we used for fertilizing came from the crematory. When it rained over it, it became red like blood.
Roll call after work. Something wasn’t right again. Once more, counting and interrogations about the location of the missing prisoner.
The sick also had to go to work. Epidemics broke out all the time, taking the lives of hundreds of people every day. The sick had to be carried to work.
There were also a number of prisoners with smashed heads. SS men were going crazy, beating people till they bled and torturing the harassed women in atrocious ways. Once they took a prisoner to carry out an execution. She was from Katowice and had met a fellow German, who was a guard in Auschwitz. Through her, she sent a letter to her mother, who – happy to be hearing from her daughter – sent her back a parcel of food. It was repeated a few times until the whole thing came to light. The prisoner was killed, and her accomplice sentenced to six years of incarceration. Many of the women, marching as far as 18 kilometers to work in the fields, were able to send gryps [secret message] home via the civilians. Right away, family members started showing up with parcels.
Another major problem in the camp was the lack of medicines and no aid for the sick, even though medicines could have kept many people alive. First off, our prisoners started to collect drugs from the local civilians, who provided the basic medications. The mortality decreased at once. Almost every day children were waiting in the fields, who – having bribed the guard – wanted to see their folks. The visits happened more and more often and the letters were getting through to the families.
From time to time there were recorded attempts to escape, but generally few of the women tried to save themselves in that way. Even though we were often feeling terrible, the thought of our families held us back from the madness of escaping, because the whole of the escapee’s family would be brought to the camp for that. The prisoners lived in permanent fear, and a day where they didn’t get a beating was a lucky day. Constant inspections at specific blocks were accompanied by „wsypa”, when potatoes were found in one spot, some flour and margarine in another, and the woman responsible was beaten up and moved to SK
[Strafkompanie]. On other days, the SS-Frau was there, and she looked for underwear and rags on bunk beds and in the pallets. She collected piles of those.
Lucky were the closed barracks infected with typhoid or scarlet fever. The authorities wouldn’t go there, and that was the place where some food could be made. The notice announcing an epidemic was like a seal protecting one from the SS. That’s why the blocks often attempted to get closed up for fake reasons. The isolation would usually last for three or four weeks.
FEAR OF THE CREMATORY OVEN
It was dark, the wind was sweeping with rain and snow, and there was silence in the barrack. Suddenly a shrieking whistle cut through it and repeated itself like an echo. The hoarse, unpleasant voice of tiny Genka reverberated in the room – sztubowa, a functional so devoted to her role that even at night she got out of bed, swearing at her companions in misery.
‘Get up, you damn stinkers! Get up and get coffee, coffee!’
No volunteers. The herbal drink that they served us for breakfast wasn’t warm or sweet, and it was quite a ways to the kitchen. The kibel [container] was a heavy 40-50 liters, and our legs were swollen and shoeless.
Cursing and shouting combined with beating finally forced one of us to go get the “coffee”. The kibel was still not there, but the block elders and the sztubowe were shouting at us to leave. They drove us out of the barracks and lined us up in fives. Using candles, they were making sure there was nobody remaining inside. She noticed a woman lying on the bottom bed. She started swearing and the stick landed on the unfortunate prisoner, who didn’t react – and it was driving the sztubowa crazy. So she grabbed her hand to pull her down onto the floor. But the woman was stiff and cold. The Sztubowa didn’t get frightened at all, she called somebody to help and threw the corpse out in front of the block, because the numbers have to be right at the roll call.
When the roll call was close to its end, all the weak and ill were gathered. Some of them were lying quietly, others shaking like leaves from fever and cold. It was raining and snowing incessantly. The roll call lasted for two and a half hours. When it was over, we marched to the fields to work, and the sick remained on the square. Finally, they were told to line up in rows. The stronger ones somehow managed, and the weak were helped and dragged into ambulances. I was among these poor creatures.
In front of the ambulance there was a long queue. Finally we got inside. It was warm and cozy. We could even ask for water and actually get it, despite its shortage (this was 1942) in the whole camp. They measured our temperature in the ambulance. The clever prisoners tricked the sanitary and got into the ambulance, provided there was still room. If it was the Polish doctors’ shift, Jasia Węgierska or Irka Konieczna, the sick were usually given assistance. The doctors, risking their own safety, admitted them into the infirmary, assigned them to light work or at least allowed them to stay in the barrack.
The sick were transported to a block assigned by the doctors, seated on long stoves, stripped and placed in beds. There were three sick people for each bed. It must be mentioned that at this time there was a typhoid fever epidemic in the camp. All the sick, no matter what condition, were squeezed onto little beds so that they couldn’t move at all, and left without help. Nature had to fight the sickness on its own. Four sick prisoners would lie on a single pallet without any straw in it, covered with two blankets swarming with lice and fleas.
A moment later, the door opened and everybody stood up. Somebody reported the number of prisoners in the cell. One prisoner – a kapo – was taken away from us, as this was a cell for mere criminals, and they handed us the aforementioned two blankets.
The storytelling and dreams of food began, then we sang and that’s how the first day passed. We made the beds. One blanket under the body, one over it and you could sleep. In the morning there was coffee, a tiny slice of bread, and no more food until evening. The day was dragging on, and we weren’t allowed to lie down for a minute. There was an eyehole in the door. Judging from what we could see, we were slowly finding out about times of the day. The worst thing was hearing the rattle of a cauldron and clanging of the bowls at dinnertime. They were right next to us and it made us extremely hungry, even though it was only the second day, while the dinner was served every four days. At night one of the prisoners was called out. Later we found out she had been executed.
Interrogations and inhuman tortures were carried out upstairs in this block. Also, a small number of newcomers were brought there and asked questions. A victim taken at night never came back. The next day they took us from that room to another, and it was much worse there – apart from the same setting and interior, you could see a courtyard surrounded with a high wall. There, on our sixth day, we saw five men being led out, naked from the waist up. At first we thought they were lined up to do squats, but they fell on the ground, forever. Blood oozed from their white bodies.
What did each of them think at this last moment? The wall they died by was “the wall of death”. Soon we saw the bodies being taken. That’s where our field of view ended. The people collecting the bodies must have been doing this often, because they were laughing and joking while doing their duty. That execution affected us so much, that when the dinner was served on the eighth day, we didn’t touch it, even though a liter of hot rutabaga soup was a real treat for a starving prisoner.
At night, sometimes we would be woken up by a blood-chilling groan; we would then pray passionately for help and for the survival of the unfortunate martyr. When the groaning didn’t stop, the goddamn sadists turned on the radio to make it inaudible. The nerves of one sensitive woman were shattered, with three days to being released from arrest. She didn’t think about food, couldn’t sleep, she just waited, holding her breath. It was Easter of 1943 and everybody thought of their loved ones, who were outside the barbed wire fences.
THE EASTER AFTER ARREST
All women were keen on working in the shoe factory. It was a job under a roof, not very hard – cleaning really dirty, really wet shoes. We would sit and scrub the mud from the footwear with knives. But here sickness also took its toll and knocked one after another off their feet.
One time, Skibińska came with her face being so different that we could barely recognize her. She had gotten swollen and couldn’t work, but because she didn’t have a 40 degree temperature, she couldn’t go to the infirmary. Her legs were so swollen that she couldn’t walk. She was told in the ambulance that she hadn’t got a fever and she had to keep on working, until some Polish medic finally had mercy and admitted her to the ward. She didn’t stay there for long – she died, leaving a 14-year-old daughter to mourn her.
The sick, weakened prisoners worked as much as they could, hoping they could cook something every now and then. The Germans sometimes accepted bribes. It wasn’t the case with kapo Szmidsłowacka though. She walked around like a queen, wearing stockings, elegant shoes and a different dress each day. She was certainly more successful in the camp than she used to be outside. Supposedly, for great merit, they wanted to release her, but she refused.
At 10:00 a.m. a prisoner messenger came and called: “Number 27 184, 27 184!”. The number’s owner got up fearfully. She knew it didn’t mean anything good. In her memory, she ran through the last days but no, she didn’t recall being reported. The messenger urged her to get a move on. She was walking, pale as death, and still weakened by the sickness on top of that. She was led to the gate and ordered to stand at attention, because the guard was busy.
After some time they called her over, so she reported and waited. “Kostusia” read her the sentence, punishing her with 14 days and 4 months of SK [Strafkompanie] (the penal block).
She was walked through the same gate again and told to stand at attention until the SS- Frau came and took her and one more to the Auschwitz bunker. Following tradition, she was deloused before leaving. The guard talked to the kapo – the Pole was wondering about her offense. What had she done that such a harsh penalty was imposed? Well, she had given someone the name and surname of her husband (who was also in Auschwitz at the time) on a tiny piece of paper, because she wanted to let him know that his wife had gotten better from typhoid and was well.
Thinking this, she was within the Auschwitz [main] camp before she knew it. Here, men were looking out of the windows or stopping by to glance at the newcomers. They knew very well where the unfortunate females were going and what awaited them. The convict was seeking her husband amid the crowd, in vain. They reached a gate and stopped. An SS man came out and intercepted the convicts. He registered them and told them to follow. The women flinched. One and then another pair of doors opened and they were in a tiny cell. There had already been five women inside, each of different nationality. When the door closed they started to talk about the reasons they had been incarcerated and how long their sentences were. Everybody was telling their stories. The cell’s dimensions were two and a half meter by three meters, one bunk, a bricked window with just a little hole through which we could see a small patch of sky.
‘How do you sleep here?’
‘You’ll be given two blankets and you’ll sleep. Herbs in the evenings, a pot of coffee and
a piece of bread in the morning and a dinner every fourth day, and that’s it.”
Every sick woman, even if senseless from the fever, knew that during a selection she might be sent to the crematory. The ill, plagued by insects, were scratching themselves so much that their whole bodies were covered in scabs, with the fleas and lice feeding off them, making the itch unbearable. It was an indescribable torture.
One evening, a terrible news spread. The fear gripped everybody. Even those suffering from fever had a sense of the end coming closer. Pale mouths were repeating one gruesome word: selection. Everybody started moving around, the healthy taking care of the ill: quiet night visits and discussions. One thing was certain – all who looked bad would go to the crematory. And nobody looked good there. Almost everybody was a candidate for the crematory. The sick ones, who didn’t have a high temperature anymore, hit and pinched their faces, others, miraculously getting lipstick, applied blushes on their cheeks, as this could also turn out to be a lifesaver. They did everything just to survive and return to their families at some point.
Visitations were expected everywhere. Everything was cleaned, tidied and washed, and the tension was building with every moment. A couple of the patients got a fever when they heard about the selection. The Poles, if they were holding a function, were helping out, but they were watched by the SS men too and had to execute their orders.
At ten o’clock in the morning, a tall, thin Lagerartzt with a large entourage of SS soldiers came to the deadly silent block. The doctor, walking from bed to bed, looked at the patient cards and the prisoners’ faces, sentencing them to death with a movement of her finger. The secretary recorded the numbers and moved them on to another block. Not all of the sick realized where they were going and that’s why they remembered to take their belongings.
In this hell, people representing twenty-two nationalities were tormented. They were united in their suffering, and even though they spoke different languages, they understood each other perfectly. There was a strange, powerful spark in the souls of these innocent people, pestered by the terrible starvation. It was the will to live, to survive that terrible horror, even if prisoners realized there was no way back.
We cherished every swallowed piece of bread, and even the clever women would argue over a thin slice. Everybody received equal rations. It would often happen, however, that a daughter – maybe tougher, or maybe sicker – put her bread aside and hid it for her mother as an additional ration. The mother, tempted by the bread, at first resisted but then reached out for it, weighing it in her hand and then eating it greedily when the daughter wasn’t looking. The same thing happened the other way round. Everybody thought only of themselves, because the most important instinct was to survive. During outbreaks of epidemics, only those with strong organisms beat the illnesses. For that reason, everybody in the whole camp stole from each other.
THE PENAL BLOCK AND THE DEATH BLOCK
It so happens in human life, that when the greatest misfortunes befall us from all sides and we are helpless, waiting for God’s grace, the slightest ray of hope fuels the desire to live and fight. That is why, after the numbers sentenced to death left the cell, everything went back to normal in the infirmary. The remaining prisoners who were feeling better were now mostly thinking about food.
The prisoners working in the kitchen got hold of everything they could. They didn’t starve and looked very well. They were helping others, being the main source of our self- distribution. Those who were employed in peeling potatoes were not in such a good position. A peeler could put a couple of potatoes in her panties or by her chest, and smuggle them to a certain toilet, if she caught the right moment when nobody was guarding her. But she risked a terrible beating and being thrown out from this light work. Even though the work wasn’t that easy, it was under a roof, and with the prospect of getting a few potatoes. She could exchange the potatoes for bread. A portion of bread equaled 9-12 potatoes, depending on the size. The potatoes were twice as nutritious when cooked, so they were more profitable than bread, which would be eaten at once, without filling up the hunger.