ONCE WHEN I WAS DISSECTING THE body of a fairly old man, I discovered some very beautiful gallstones in the bladder. Knowing that Dr. Mengele was an ardent collector of such items, I washed the stones, dried them, and then arranged them in a large-necked flask, stoppered with a glass cork. I stuck a label on the flask, giving the person’s name, the kind of stones they were, and their pathological characteristics. During his visit next day, I gave them to Dr. Mengele. He admired the beautiful crystals. Turning the flask round and round, he looked at the gallstones and then, turning abruptly to me, asked if I knew the ballad of the warrior Wallenstein. His question was completely out of keeping with the surroundings, but I answered: “I know the story of the warrior Wallenstein, but not the ballad.” Whereupon, smiling, he began to recite:
“Im Besitze der Familie Wallenstein
Ist mehr Gallenstein, wie Edelstein.”
which, translated into English, would go something like:
“In the Wallenstein family
There are more gallstones than precious stones.”
My superior recited several stanzas of that comic ballad. He was in such a good mood that I decided to ask a great favor of him: that he let me go look for my wife and child. Only after I had uttered the request did I realize how daring it was: but it was already too late. He looked at me with astonishment.
“You’re married and have a child?”
“Yes, Captain, I’m married and have a fifteen-year-old daughter,” I told him, my voice breaking with emotion.
“Do you think they are still here?” he asked.
“Yes, Captain, because at our arrival three months ago you selected them and sent them to the right-hand column.”
“They may have since been sent on to another camp,” he said. Suddenly I thought of the crematorium smoke: perhaps they had since been dispatched with that smoke to some celestial camp. Dr. Mengele, who was seated, his head bent forward, seemed lost in thought. I remained standing behind him.
“I’m going to give you a pass to go look for them, but . . .” and placing his forefinger on his lips, he looked at me menacingly.
“I understand, Captain, and thank you.”
Dr. Mengele left. I returned to my room, completely elated, holding the pass in my hand. Once there I began to read it: “Number A 8450 is authorized to circulate freely within the confines of the Auschwitz KZ. Signed: Dr. Mengele, SS Hauptsturmführer.” Never to my knowledge had anything like this happened in the history of the camp. I did not know quite where to begin. The women were quartered in the C, B3 and FK4 Camps. As far as I knew, most of the Hungarian women were in C Camp. I decided to try there first.
The following day I got up still tired, not having slept a wink all night. Terrible doubts assailed me. Here, where three months was an eternity, so many things could have happened to them. My position in the KZ had made me realize only too well everything that went on inside these bloody walls.
I entered the SS office to announce my departure, and bid my comrades good-bye. They wished me luck. Although it was still early, the white August sun was already scorching hot when I set out on my three kilometer journey. As the crow flies, C Camp was considerably closer, but I had to keep within the fences, and was therefore obliged to make numerous detours. Filled with a mixture of dread and curiosity, I set out through the neutral zone, which was bordered by electrified fences. They never fired on you without warning when you passed through the maze of wires. Motorcycle patrols rode by with signs hung round their necks reading: “Lagerpolizei”: “Camp Police.” I met several of them on my way, but none molested me.
Reaching C Camp, I saw an immense iron gate looming before me, whose two wings bore numerous porcelain insulators, reinforced by barbed wire. In front of the gate, the inevitable guard house. Some SS soldiers were basking in the sun. They looked me up and down, for I was an unusual guest, but said nothing. They did not bother about business that concerned only their comrade seated near the guard house window.
I approached the latter and gave him my tattoo number. He looked at me expectantly. I took Dr. Mengele’s pass from my pocket and handed it to him. After perusing it, he ordered his comrades to open the gates, then asked me how long I wanted to stay inside, for, as always, he had to record it in his register.
“Until noon,” I said evenly. Two hours was a great deal to ask, but the customary bribe of a package of cigarettes was sufficient to get his assent. I handed him a pack and passed through the gate.
The main road of C Camp, bordered by dilapidated, faded green barracks, was animated. A woman’s detail was carrying a large iron cask filled with hot soup, for here the noon meal was distributed at 10 o’clock. Another group—a highway kommando—was busily engaged carrying stones for repairing the camp roads. Several women were stretched out in the sun along both sides of this main thoroughfare. Their bodies were clothed in rags, their heads were shaven; they were indeed a pitiful sight to behold. Many were dressed in the most fantastic clothing—one was wearing a sleeveless evening gown—and were seated on the ground, busy delousing themselves or their companions. The exposed parts of their bodies were covered with foul, oozing sores. It was from this section that convoys were chosen to be sent to camps farther away. As far as I could tell the selections had been very carefully made, for all those left here appeared to be the very weakest. Lucky were they who had been sent to more distant camps, for they still had a chance of surviving, whereas the fate of those still here was sealed, a fate identical to that of the Gypsy Camp.
I headed towards the first barracks. From all sides cries and shouts greeted me. Those who had seemingly been mere bundles of rags lying on the ground or crawling on all fours revived and, leaving their places, ran towards me. About thirty of them had recognized me and crowded around asking anxiously for news of their husbands and children.
If they had been able to recognize me it was because I had managed to live in such a way that I still looked like a human being. But it was almost impossible for me to recognize them, so greatly had they changed. My situation in the middle of the clamoring crowd was becoming embarrassing. In ever-increasing numbers they crowded around me. Everyone wanted to learn something about her family. For three months they had been living under an impossible regime and in constant fear. Here selection took place once a week. Three months had been long enough for them to have learned to regret the past and fear the future.
The women asked me if everything they had heard about the crematoriums was true. What was the smoke you saw pouring from the chimneys during the day, and the flames that replaced it at night? I tried to reassure them, denying everything.
“It’s not true,” I repeated after each of their questions and surmises. “Besides, the war is almost over and soon we’ll all be back home.” I said it without really believing it myself.
I left them without having learned any news of my wife and daughter. I entered the first barracks and asked the overseer, a young Slovakian girl, to have the names of my wife and daughter called out. There were between 800 and 1,000 women stacked one above the other on the berths that lined the walls of every barracks. To have the names called out here was not easy. The noise of the thousand women drowned the single voice. The overseer returned a few minutes later to tell me that her search had proved fruitless. I thanked her for her kindness and entered the second barracks.
Here the situation was much the same; the same scene was repeated with like results. I was in the third barracks, standing in the middle of the room. Again I had the overseer called and asked her to have my wife and daughter sent for. She sent two little girls down each side of the barracks; they stopped at each layer of bunks and called out the names. In a few minutes they returned bringing my wife and daughter with them!
They approached hand in hand, their eyes wide with fear, knowing the probable consequences of a personal summons. But they had already recognized me. They stopped dead, astonished, rooted to the spot. I approached them, took both of them in my arms, and embraced them. They were incapable of speaking, but were satisfied to cry softly. I tried to console them, to reassure them, but already the crowd surrounded us. Under such conditions there was absolutely no way of holding a conversation. I asked the overseer if she would let us have the use of her little room for a few minutes. Then, at last, we were alone.
They brought me up to date on their sad experiences of the previous three months: the dreaded selections, from which they had till now escaped, but the very thought of which made them tremble with fear, living as they did in the shadow of the crematorium chimneys. Dressed in rags, they suffered from cold and perpetual hunger. It rained in their barracks and their clothes never dried out completely. The food was uneatable and, what was worse, they were unable to sleep. The place assigned to them was meant to hold seven people: twelve were stacked in there. Women whose social rank back home was fairly high pushed and shoved each other in order to give themselves a few inches more space, thus hoping to sleep a little better, even it it was at the expense of their companions. Everybody here had lost her former personality. Friends or strangers, each was concerned only about her own well-being, unwilling to make the slightest concession. My daughter told me that she slept on the concrete floor, since nobody would make a place for her on the bunk where her mother slept. My wife asked me about my work. I explained to her that I was Dr. Mengele’s assistant, and as such a member of the Sonderkommando. After three months of KZ life they too had learned that the Sonder was the kommando of the living dead. Both looked at me aghast. I reassured them as best I could and promised to return the following day.
The fact that I had found my wife and child made sensational news at the crematorium. I took warm clothing, linen and stockings from the clothing department, toothbrushes, nail cutters, penknives and combs from the toilet article section. From the pharmacy I got a stock of vitamin pills, ointment for their sores, and anything else I thought might be useful. I got a sizable quantity, much more than was necessary for my wife and daughter. Besides, I filled my sack with blocks of sugar, butter, jam and bread in quantities large enough to be able to distribute them to the other prisoners. So it was that I left for the C Camp with my sack bulging. But all good things must come to an end.
For three weeks I visited C Camp every day. One day what I was afraid would happen actually came to pass. I had already come to the conclusion, after the liquidation of the Czech and Gypsy Camps, that extermination was merely a matter of chronological order. Sooner or later the time came for all those who spent their days of misery within the confines of Auschwitz’s barbed wire barriers.
One afternoon I was seated at my work table in the laboratory. Dr. Mengele and Dr. Thilo were present, discussing questions pertaining to the KZ’s administration. Dr. Mengele, as though he had just reached a decision, got up from his chair and said to Dr. Thilo: “I am no longer able to feed the debilitated prisoners of C Camp. I shall have them liquidated during the next two weeks.”
Such scenes often took place in my presence. Affairs of a most confidential nature were discussed as though I were not even there. Was I not after all a living dead man, whose presence no longer meant anything?
I was deeply shaken by Dr. Mengele’s decision concerning the liquidation of C Camp, for it concerned not only my immediate family, but thousands of my unfortunate compatriots. I had to act immediately.
As soon as Dr. Mengele and Dr. Thilo left the crematorium, I followed them and headed directly for D Camp, where the SS group which supervised the incorporation of foreign prisoners into forced labor battalions was installed. In this camp the prisoners necessary for that program of slave labor in force throughout all Germany were portioned out. The head was an Oberschaarführer. I found him alone in his room. I introduced myself and showed him Dr. Mengele’s pass.
I explained to him that my wife and child were interned in C Camp. After having tracked them down with Dr. Mengele’s help, I had been doing all I could for them. Nevertheless, I knew the fate in store for C Camp, and thus had to arrange to have my family sent to some place far from here. He concurred and promised to help me.
That week two convoys of 3,000 prisoners were due to be sent from C Camp to western Germany’s war plants. “These factories are the best setup,” he said, “since the lodging and food do not aim at exterminating, but rather at the maintenance of good conditions for the workers, in order to assure maximum productivity.”
I left a box of 100 cigarettes on his table. He accepted the package and promised that if my wife and daughter volunteered during the selection, he would assign them to one of the two convoys. I had got what I wanted. I hurried to C Camp, but there my job was even more difficult. I had to make my family understand that they had to get away from here. I could not tell them the truth, for I would only start a panic, which would be fatal for all of us. I asked for my wife and daughter in the overseer’s little room, and tried to make them understand that, however painful it was for me, the situation demanded that they leave. They would have to renounce my help. For my part, I too would have to forgo the pleasure of seeing and helping them. Some time this week there would be a selection to fill a convoy quota. They were to volunteer for one of the convoys, preferably for the first. I explained to my wife that serious motives forced me to advise her thus; I asked her to tell all her acquaintances to volunteer as well for the convoys but that she say nothing more about it.
I might add that during the filling of work quotas, the SS commission first accepted volunteers for the convoys, and used arbitrary incorporation only when the number of volunteers did not attain the required number. Nevertheless, there were few volunteers, since nobody wanted to forsake the advantages of his present situation—that of not working—for another. Few were willing to volunteer for forced labor when the food rations were insufficient even to sustain life in the KZ. Poor, short-sighted women, if only they had understood the mentality of the Third Reich’s KZ, they would have realized that those who did not work did not live.
My wife and daughter realized, however, that my reasons for making such a decision must be good, and they promised to volunteer for the initial quota. I made my good-byes, but told them I would return in two days to bring them some warm clothes and food for the journey.
When the two days were up, I returned to C Camp to bid them a last farewell, bringing the clothes and provisions with me. But I did not return alone. I was afraid to take such a load of packages through the C Camp gate. Some high-ranking officers might have been in the neighborhood when I arrived and become curious. So I asked one of the crematorium SS guards, whom I had treated for pleurisy, to come with me and help carry the packages. This time I did not visit my wife and daughter in their barracks, but had them sent for from a deserted point along the barbed wire enclosure. It was there we held our last conversation. We threw the packages over the barbed wire. The place was so out of the way that nobody saw us. With the barbed wire strands separating us, it was impossible for us even to kiss each other good-bye.
In the few minutes we spent together my wife assured me that everything had worked out as planned. Both she and our daughter had been accepted for the convoy, without having had to solicit the Oberschaarführer’s help. I was also happy to learn that many of the other women in the camp had taken my wife’s advice and volunteered for the convoy.