STANDING ALONE, A LITTLE APART from the others, I fell to thinking about the strange and devious ways of fate, and, more precisely, about Germany, where I had spent some of the happiest years of my life.
Now, above my head, the sky was bright with stars, and the soft evening breeze would have been refreshing if, from time to time, it had not borne with it the odor of bodies burning in the Third Reich’s crematoriums.
Hundreds of searchlights strung on top of the concrete pillars shone with a dazzling brilliance. And yet, behind the chain of lights, it seemed as though the air had grown heavier, enveloping the camp in a thick veil, through which only the blurred silhouettes of the barracks showed.
By now the cars were empty. Some men, dressed in prison garb, arrived and unloaded the heavy baggage we had left behind, then loaded it onto waiting trucks. In the gathering darkness the forty box cars slowly faded, till at last they melted completely into the surrounding countryside.
Dr. Mengele, having issued his final instructions to the SS troops, crossed to his car, climbed in behind the wheel and motioned for me to join him. I got into the back seat beside an SS junior officer and we started off. The car bounced crazily along the clay roads of the camp, which were rutted and filled with potholes from the spring rains. The bright searchlights flew past us, faster and faster, and in a short while we stopped before an armored gate. From his post an SS sentry came running up to let the familiar car through. We drove a few hundred yards farther along the main road of the camp, which was bounded on either side by barracks, then stopped again in front of a building which was in better shape than the others. A sign beside the entrance informed me that this was the “Camp Office.”
Inside several people, with deep, intelligent eyes and refined faces, wearing the uniform of prisoners, sat working at their desks. They immediately rose and came to attention. Dr. Mengele crossed to one of them, a man of about fifty, whose head was shaved clean. Since I was standing a few steps behind the Obersturmführer, it was impossible for me to hear what they were saying. Dr. Sentkeller, a prisoner, and, as I later learned, the F Camp doctor, nodded his head in assent. At his request, I approached another prisoner’s desk. The clerk rummaged for some file cards, then asked me a number of questions about myself, recorded the answers both on the card and in a large book, and handed the card to an SS guard. Then we left the room. As I passed in front of Dr. Mengele I bowed slightly. Observing this, Dr. Sentkeller could not refrain from raising his voice and remarking, ironically rather than with intended malice, that such civilities were not the custom here, and that one would do well not to play the man of the world in the KZ.
A guard took me to another barracks, on the entrance to which was written: “Baths & Disinfection,” where I and my card were turned over to still another guard. A prisoner approached me and took my medical bag, then searched me and told me to undress. A barber came over and shaved first my head, then the rest of my body, and sent me to the showers. They rubbed my head with a solution of calcium chloride, which burnt my eyes so badly that for several minutes I could not open them again.
In another room my clothes were exchanged for a heavy, almost new jacket, and a pair of striped trousers. They gave me back my shoes after having dipped them in a tank containing the same solution of calcium chloride. I tried on my new clothes and found they fitted me quite well. (I wondered what poor wretch had worn them before me.) Before I could reflect any further, however, another prisoner pulled up my left sleeve and, checking the number on my card, began skillfully to make a series of little tattoo marks on my arm, using an instrument filled with a blue ink. A number of small, bluish spots appeared almost immediately.
“Your arm will swell a little,” he reassured me, “but in a week that will disappear and the number will stand out quite clearly.”
So I, Dr. Miklos Nyiszli, had ceased to exist; henceforth I would be, merely, KZ prisoner Number A 8450.
Suddenly I recalled another scene; fifteen years before the Rector of the Medical School of Frederick Wilhelm University in Breslau shook my hand and wished me a brilliant future as he handed me my diploma, “with the congratulations of the jury.”