What the camps were like, told through the eyes of people who suffered through them.
Rudy and his family stayed in the Ileresiendstadt ghetto for almost two years. Then in 1944, they were told to prepare to move. In the selection below, Rudy describes what happened next.
In March or April, 1944, we got the dreaded notice that we had been selected for resettlement farther east. The train cars they took us in were actually cattle cars. We entered the cars and sat on our baggage. There was not very much room between us and the roof of the cattle car. Our car had from 80 to 100 people in it so it was quite crowded. We were sifting tight on tight. We had some water and some food but no comfort whatsoever. The cars were sealed. We could not open them from the inside. The w indows were small, open rectangles. Perhaps we could have jumped off the train and run into the countryside, but we did not know ff anyone on the outside would help us. We thought most civilians would probably turn us in. We could not speak the Czech lang uage. It seemed better to go along with the SS and do what they wanted. By that time the war had been going on four or five years. We thought the end might be in sight and we would be liberated.
Our train left the ghetto at six o'clock in the evening. At night as we traveled, we heard gun shots. We did not know why these shots were fired. After the war, I learned the SS troops were on the roofs of the cattle cars shooting past the windows todiscourage people from sticking their heads out. The train was moving at a fairly great speed. We did not know what country we were going through. There was no stopping.
At four o'clock the next afternoon, we arrived in Auschwitz (Ow- Switch) in Poland. When the train stopped, we again thought of trying to escape. But we knew that in Germany most Germans would turn us over to the local authorities for a reward of money or food. We had no way of knowing ff the Poles would be any differe nt. Someone would have to hide us or bring us food. We had no money to pay for our keep. So in the end, to keep our family together, we dropped any plans of attempting to escape.
The doors of the cattle car were yanked opened. The first thing we heard was shouts of, "Out, as soon as you can, out. Your belongings you leave therel" Despite this we grabbed what we could and assembled outside. Before us stood an immense rectangleof land surrounded by electrically-charged barbed wire. This was the Auschwitz death camp.
We were assembled in long rows and marched between the troops of the SS special death-head division into the camp. We were marched up and down a broad avenue for foue or five hours between posts of barbed wire with a huge sign, EXTREME DANGER, HIGH VOLTAGE ELECTRICAL WIRES. We saw guard towers high above us. We saw men with machine guns inside them, but even then we did not know that we were in a death camp. Back and forth and back and forth, they just kept us in motion. As it got closer to one o'clock in the morning, we were more and more desperate. You could hear more and more cries for food.
Finally they set out large boxes. Everybody had to put in their valuables. Women and men were forced to strip off their wedding rings and hand over their prized possessions like lockets of relatives no longer there. Whatever we had, we lost. Those who didnot give up their possessions willingly or quickly were beaten. Then we were separated into male and female groups and walked to what they called the B camp of Auschwitz. The women's camp was separated from the men's camp by a wide road. There were about 24 barracks for men and the same number for women.
The men in charge were called barracks' elders or capos. They were German criminals taken from German prisons and sent to oversee the people in the barracks. They made us walk by a crate again and put in our valuables. The only thing I had that they wante d was a leather jacket. I told my father that I regretted having to give my jacket. He said, "Child, if we ever get out of here, I'll buy you ten of these."
The bunks we slept in were in three tiers, lower, middle, and upper. The mattress was just burlap filled with straw. We had not eaten at that time, and we were not to get anything to eat until the next morning.
In the morning we got metal cups and spoons. We were each given two slices of bread and sometimes a pat of margarine or a little bit of marmalade. The coffee was toasted acorns ground up. It tasted terrible. The midday meal was potato soup with maybe a li ttle bit of meat. Potatoes were the main ingredient and the kind of beets you normally feed to cattle. We were already hungry in the Theresienstadt ghetto because we did not get enough to eat. In Auschwitz we were beginning to starve. In the evening we go t another slice of bread, some coffee, no marmalade, no butter, no nothing.
Every morning we had the counting of the prisoners. We were arranged in groups of five with just small distances between us. The SS trooper would come by and start counting one, two, three, four, five. If he miscounted, he went over it again. Sometimes we stood there two hours. I kept wondering why none of us tried to overpower this lone guard who had just a small pistol. But what could we have done? There were guardposts on either end and high tension wires in between. We would all have been killed.
We did not know that Auschwitz was an extermination camp or that we could be put to death. We did know that there was always this sickly sweet smell in the air. We saw a large chimney belching smoke 24 hours a day. We saw German military ambulances with t he Red Cross symbol on them going back and forth. The Germans had painted the symbol on the vehicles to hide their true purposes from the camp prisoners and from overflying airplanes. Much later we found out these ambulances were carrying military personn el or cyanide poison gas cannisters for use in the gas chambers.
We made the best we could of the situation. My younger brother had hidden a book by the German poet Goethe. We read it twice. We read it three times. We memorized it. We quoted from it. We had a deck of cards. We played card games. There wasn't anything else we could do. Eventually my brother got a job laying a stone road. They gave him a half a portion of food more. But the work was excruciating.
Nothing grew in Auschwitz. There was not a bird, not a living thing, no grass or anything. A drainage ditch ran through the B camp. Daily the SS guards sent prisoners from other camps to lay sod along the banks of this ditch. We were desperate for food. M y mother remembered seeing in our small village the geese eating the wild grasses. She knew there were plants growing in the sod that we could eat. She gathered them and whenever we could we ate them. We were starving. We were dreaming of food. We were ta lking about food. We had not had enough to eat for three or four months already. Yet we hoped in 1944 that the end of the war was in sight.
At Auschwitz people died of huger because they had come to the camps already weakened. The people who had died were thrown or stacked at the very end of the barracks row underneath the watchtower. They were stacked like cordwood, naked, without dignity. Nobody to close their eyes. They were stacked four feet high. Every twenty-four hours a cart came. People were simply grabbed by the hand and foot and tossed on there. We knew they were taken to the crematory to be incinerated, but we still had no knowledge of the gas chambers and that people were killed or gassed in such numbers as they were.
Ben Stem spent six months in the Kielce ghetto and then was taken to a forced labor camp called Henrykow. In 1943 the Kielce ghetto was disbanded and the people in it sent to concentration camps. In this reading, Ben recalls his experiences in the Auschwitz (Ow-Switch) concentration in Poland.
I'd heard rumors that Jews were going to Auschwitz. But I didn't know what Auschwitz meant. I didn't know what "extermination camp" meant. People told me, but I couldn't imagine or understand it. We were rounded up and packed into cattle cars like sa rdines. We could not move our arms or legs. We traveled for two days -- day and night. The heat was unbearable. Then one morning at dawn, we looked through the cracks in the cattle car. I saw the name Auschwitz or Oswiecim in Polish. I was paralyzed. I go t numb. I didn't feel anything. When daylight came, they slid the car door open. All we heard was, "Raus, raus, get out of here, get out of here!" I had to crawl over people who had died from the heat and from lack of food and water.
When they opened the doors to the cattle car, we jumped off as quickly as we could because we were under orders. SS men with the skulls on their hats and collars stood in front of us stretched out at intervals about every ten feet. The SS officer in charge stood with his German shepherd. The officer had one foot propped up on a little stool. We lined up and filed by him. Right there the selection took place. As each person passed by him, he pointed left or right. The thumb left and right was your des tiny. The people sent to the left went to the gas chambers, and we went to the right.
They told us we were going to be given some new clothing, but before that, we were sent into the showers. Luckily, when we turned the faucets we saw water instead of gas. We started washing ourselves. We got out and stood there. We were deloused beca use we had lice. One guard stood there putting some kind of a chemical on our heads. Another put it under our arms. A third one shaved our heads.
Then we were given some prisoner's uniforms, very similar to the uniforms a prison chain gang used to wear here. We got wooden shoes. We didn't get the sizes we normally wore. We had to make do with what we got. Then we were lined up again in single file and tattooed on the forearm. My number was B-3348.
We were marched to a barracks in Birkenau (Beer-Ken-Now). Birkenau was a part of Auschwitz. Above the entrance was an arch with an inscription which said in German, Work Makes Men Free, pretending that this was a work camp. There were two rows of barracks with a wide street between them. In front of us was a crematorium and gas chambers. We smelled the flesh of human bodies burning. We couldn't mistake that smell for anything else.
Every day we were awakened by a German prisoner who served as the block or barrack captain. He woke us at 5:00 or 5:30 each morning. We slept in beds stacked three high and about three feet wide and three feet long. We laid on straw. We were told to get out of the barracks as fast as we could. We lined up and everybody was counted. Then we stood there and did absolutely nothing for quite a while.
We got a little soup at lunch time, around twelve or one o'clock. We got soup or just plain warm water in a metal tin like a mess kit. It wasn't hot. We each had a spoon, and we were fishing all the time in the soup to see if there was anything in it to eat. Unfortunately we could never find anything in there. In the evening we got a slice of bread about a quarter of an inch thick. On Sunday we got something with the bread like a tiny piece of margarine and a slice of salami.
Sometimes I was too sick to eat my soup, but I treasured it so much that I hid that little soup behind my bunk. One day when there was an inspection, the guards found the soup I was hiding. We weren't supposed to have any soup in the barracks. They took me outside and beat me. I passed out after three blows. A friend gave me coffee. He saved my life because I felt so sick I couldn't even move. With the coffee I was able to stand up when the camp officials came into the barracks for the next inspection. Anybody who couldn't move from his bed was taken away.
During the day sometimes, German guards on trucks ran back and forth telling prisoners to jump on. One time I was taken to do a little work carrying steel beams. It was winter time, very cold. Fifteen or twenty guys were lifting each side of the beam because it was a wide beam. Eventually they told us to place it somewhere. But when we tried we couldn't tear away our hands from the steel because they were frozen to the beam. The skin came off and started bleeding. They didn't permit us to put any kind of cloth over our hands. We had to carry it bare. The next day we put this same beam back in the original spot.
We stayed there until the end of 1944 when the Russians started pushing the Germans from the eastern front back to the west. The SS loaded us into cattle cars and took us to a forced labor camp in western Germany called Sachsenhausen. There was no cremato rium, so ft was by far a better feeling. I was there about a month or six weeks.
At the end of 1944 1 was moved again. This time I went south to a German concentration camp called Dachau (Dock-ow) closer to the Austrian border. By this time I was just a skeleton. Shortly after I arrived, camp officials decided it was time to leave. We could hear the machine guns and the heavy artillery booming and they told us to march. The Allies were getting closer. I marched for about five kilometers to Allach which was a tiny little camp. Then I fell. I couldn't walk anymore. The rest of them continued walking. The Germans killed all the people who kept walking. That was the death march. I survived because I could not walk.
In 1942 Pincus and his brother were taken from the Bochnia ghetto where they had lived for around two years to the Auschwitz (Ow-Switch) concentration camp in Poland.
When we left the ghetto, they put us on cattle trains. They packed 100 to 120 people into a sealed car. There was no food on the train. Fortunately it took us only about two days to get to the concentration camp. Train from places farther east or south, like Greece, sometimes took ten days. Many of the people on these trains did not survive the trip.
When we got to Auschwitz, we had to undress completely and line up before the gate. We had to line up in fives. A Nazi officer was pointing left, right, right, left. I was fortunate. I went to the right. The ones to the left went to the crematorium. The ones to the right went into the camp.
It was dark, but I could see the people to the left were mostly elderly or young children, so I realized that we were going into the camp. Inside the camp first they shaved our hair. We were stark naked and they tattooed us. I am 161253. They gave us cold showers. It was November. Bitter cold. Then they put us in striped uniforms and took us into Birkenau (Beer-Kin-Now), the killing center at Auschwitz. I was fortunate. After I had been there four weeks, they picked several hundred men to go to Bunno, another part of Auschwitz. It was a labor camp and they gave us a little better food. The barracks were a little nicer. There were about 300 or 400 men to a barrack. We had double or triple bunks. The bunks were actually single beds, but two people had to sleep on one bunk.
The capos woke us at five o'clock each morning. The capos were prisoners who were in charge of the barracks and the work groups. They were mostly Germans, Poles, and some Jews. The Nazis assigned them to guard us. In the morning they gave us one piece of bread mixed with sawdust to eat. We also got a piece of margarine and a cup of coffee. It was not real coffee. We had to work until the evening. In the evening we got soup. If we were fortunate, we might sometimes find a few potatoes and a piece of meat in the liquid. Most of the time it was just hot water and a few potatoes. For that we had to work 9 or 10 hours a day. When we first came there, we worked unloading gravel and coal from trains. If you didn't finish your assigned task, you got a beating. We were clothed in an undershirt and a thin, striped coat. We worked outside when it was often 10 to 15 below zero. People just froze to death.
The hunger was also terrible. We used to search for a potato peel and fight over it. We were constantly, 24 hours a day, always hungry. We would think about food and dream about it.
To survive in Auschwitz you had to get a break. My break came when I met a friend of mine from my hometown. He gave me the name of a man who had been in Auschwitz for a long time and was a good friend of my family. At Auschwitz, he supervised other inmates. I went to see him and asked if he could give my brother and me different jobs. Lucky for me, he gave us work making metal cabinets. Our job was to carry things. We were not cabinet makers, but we did the lifting. It was indoors. I don't think I could have survived the winter doing more outdoor work. I think he saved my life.
Every few months we had what they called a selection. They came into the barracks and picked out the people who looked very skinny and couldn't work anymore. They looked you over, and if they didn't see much fat on you, they put down your number. The next morning they came with trucks, picked up these people and put them right in the crematorium. It was heartbreaking.
In January, 1945, the Russian offensive started. When the Russians came close to Auschwitz, the Germans took us from the camp and marched us west away from the approaching army. They moved us out in a dead march. We marched a whole night to the Polish city of Gleiwitz, about 70 miles away. My brother kept saying to me, "Let's escape." I kept telling him that this was not the time because I knew we were still in German territory.
I said, "Where are you going to hide? The population, they are not friendly." But he wouldn't listen. Suddenly I didn't see him anymore. Since then I lost him. I was with him the whole time in Auschwitz.
They put us on a cattle train in Gleiwitz and took us to Germany. it took 10 days. They packed us about 150 people to a car with no food. Fortunately for us the cars were open. Everybody had eating utensils. I had a string. At night while the German guards were sleeping, we attached the string to a plate and scooped up snow. That kept us alive. You can live without bread for a long time but not without water. Finally we got to Nordhausen, a large German concentration camp. We were there about 10 days, and then they sent us to a camp called Dora in the mountains. The Germans were making V2 missiles there. We did hard labor, digging tunnels into,the mountains. We worked there from the end of January until April, 1945.
Bluma Goldberg was born in Poland in a small town called Pinczow (Pin- Shawv). When the Nazis invaded her town in 1939, they set fire to most of it. Bluma's house was destroyed and the family moved in with an uncle. In 1942, the family heard rumors that the Germans were rounding up all the Jewish people. Bluma and her sister spent several months hiding in the dense forests near their village. After learning that someone had informed on them to the Nazis, they decided to turn themselves in to Nazi authorities. They agreed to go to a labor camp where the sisters spent the next two years working in a factory where bullets were made. In 1944, as the Germans began to lose the war and the Russians moved toward Germany from the east, Bluma and her sister along with the other prisoners working in the factory were moved to a city closer to Germany. Here they continued to work twelve-hour shifts, seven days a week. Three months later they were moved again to the Bergen-Belsen (Burg-In Bell-Sen) concentration camp in Germany. In this passage, Bluma describes her life there.
One day the Germans put all the camp inmates on trains. The Russians were coming closer, so they decided to take us to Germany. We had no idea where we were going. When we arrived in Bergen- Belsen, they stripped us of all of our personal belongings. They gave each of us prison clothes. They consisted of a striped dress, shoes, and socks. They didn't care if the clothes were too short or too big or too long. Any jewelry that we had was taken away from us. They took us to the barracks. These barracks were just empty rooms. There were about forty girls in one room. It was winter and very cold. There was no water and no bathrooms.
Every morning they got us up at five o'clock and they counted us. After this roll call, they gave us a cup of coffee. For lunch they gave us watery potato soup made of potato peels and a piece of black bread. In the evening, we received only a cup of black coffee.
In Bergen-Belsen diseases spread quickly; many people became sick with typhoid fever. Some people just went crazy. They started talking to themselves. They walked back and forth. The Nazis just wanted people to die there from hunger and disease.
The only work we had was to carry a pile of junk from one end of the place to another. We all lost a lot of weight. We were there for three months and if we had been there for another three months, I don't think anybody would have survived. We had lice all over us. There was no way I could get rid of them. I cried a lot. I didn't want to live any more -- the cold, hunger, and disease.
One day we got lucky again. A German military commission came. They were looking for workers for an airplane factory. They looked us over as we went by. Some were told to go right and the others to go left. I was lucky. I went right and finally my sister also went right. They took us out of Bergen-Belsen and we went to Burgau. They made airplanes there. My job was painting the number on the airplane. It was much better there than at Bergen-Belsen.
Accounts obtained through: South Carolina Voices: Lessons from The Holocaust
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What the camps were like, told through the eyes of people who suffered through them.