FOR THE NEXT THREE DAYS I HAD NOTHING to do. I was still drawing the supplementary rations issued to doctors, but I spent most of my time either stretched out on my bed or seated on the bleachers of the stadium, which was located not far from F Camp. Yes, even Auschwitz had its stadium. But it was reserved exclusively for the use of the German prisoners of the Third Reich, who acted as clerks in various camp sections. On Sundays the stadium was the excited hub of sports activity, but on weekdays the vast field lay quiet and empty. Only a barbed wire fence separated the stadium from number one crematorium. I wanted very much to know just what went on in the shadow of the immense stack, which never ceased spewing tongues of flame. From where I was sitting there was not much one could see. And to approach the barbed wire was unwise, for the watchtower machine guns sprayed the area without warning to frighten away anyone who happened to wander into this No-Man’s-Land.
Nevertheless, I saw that a group of men in civilian clothes was lining up in the crematorium courtyard, directly in front of the red-brick building: there were about 200 in all, with an SS guard in front. It looked to me like a roll call, and I assumed that this was the night watch being relieved by the oncoming day watch. For the crematoriums ran on a twenty-four-hour schedule, as I learned from a fellow prisoner, who also informed me that the crematorium personnel were known as the Sonderkommando, which means, merely, kommandos assigned to special work. They were well fed and given civilian clothes. They were never permitted to leave the grounds of the crematorium, and every four months, when they had learned too much about the place for their own good, they were liquidated. Till now such had been the fate of every Sonderkommando since the founding of the KZ; this explains why no one had ever escaped to tell the world what had been taking place inside these grim walls for the past several years.
I returned to Barracks 12 just in time for Dr. Mengele’s arrival. He drove up and was received by the barracks guard, then sent for me and asked me to join him in his car. This time there was no guard with us. We were gone before I even had time to say good-bye to my colleagues. He stopped in front of the Camp Office and asked Dr. Sentkeller to get my card, then started off again along the bumpy road.
For about twelve minutes we drove through the labyrinth of barbed wire and entered well-guarded gates, thus passing from one section to another. Only then did I realize how vast the KZ was. Few people had the possibility of verifying that fact, because the majority died at the very place to which they were sent when they first arrived. Later I learned that the Auschwitz KZ had. at certain periods, held more than 100,000 people within its enclosure of electrified barbed wire.2
Dr. Mengele suddenly interrupted my meditations. Without turning, he said: “The place I’m taking you to is no sanatorium, but you’ll find that conditions there are not too bad.”
We left the camp and skirted the Jewish unloading ramp for about 300 yards. A large armored gate in the barbed wire opened behind the guard. We went in: before us lay a spacious courtyard, covered with green grass. The gravel paths and the shade of the pine trees would have made the place quite pleasant had there not been, at the end of the courtyard, an enormous red brick building and a chimney spitting flame. We were in one of the crematoriums. We stayed in the car. An SS ran up and saluted Dr. Mengele. Then we got out, crossed the courtyard and went through a large door into the crematorium.
“Is the room ready?” Dr. Mengele asked the guard.
“Yes, sir,” the man replied.
We headed towards it, Dr. Mengele leading the way.
The room in question was freshly whitewashed and well lighted by a large window, which, however, was barred. The furnishings, after those of the barracks, surprised me: a white bed; a closet, also white; a large table and some chairs. On the table, a red velvet tablecloth. The concrete floor was covered with handsome rugs. I had the impression I was expected. The Sonderkommando men had painted the room and outfitted it with objects that the preceding convoys had left behind. We then passed through a dark corridor until we reached another room, a very bright, completely modern dissecting room, with two windows. The floor was of red concrete; in the center of the room, mounted on a concrete base, stood a dissecting table of polished marble, equipped with several drainage channels. At the edge of the table a basin with nickel taps had been installed; against the wall, three porcelain sinks. The walls were painted a light green, and large barred windows were covered with green metal screens to keep out flies and mosquitoes.
We left the dissecting room for the next room: the work room. Here there were fancy chairs and paintings; in the middle of the room, a large table covered with a green cloth; all about, comfortable armchairs. I counted three microscopes on the table. In one corner there was a well-stocked library, which contained the most recent editions. In another corner a closet, in which were stowed white smocks, aprons, towels and rubber gloves. In short, the exact replica of any large city’s institute of pathology.
I took it all in, paralyzed with fright. As soon as I had come through the main gate I had realized that I was on death’s path. A slow death, opening its maddening depths before me. I felt I was lost.
Now I understood why I had been given civilian clothes. This was the uniform of the Sonderkommando —the kommando of the living-dead.
My chief was preparing to leave; he informed the SS guard that as far as “service” was concerned I depended exclusively on him. The crematorium’s SS personnel had no jurisdiction over me. The SS kitchen had to provide my food; I could get my linen and supplementary clothing at the SS warehouse. For shaves and haircuts, I had the right to use the SS barbershop in the building. I would not have to be present for the evening or morning roll call.
Besides my laboratory and anatomical work, I was also responsible for the medical care of all the crematorium’s SS personnel—about 120 men—as well as the Sonderkommando—about 860 prisoners. Medicines, medical instruments, dressings, all in sufficient quantity, were at my disposal. So that they should receive suitable medical attention, I had to visit all those sick in the crematorium once a day, and sometimes even twice. I could circulate among the four crematoriums without a pass from 7:00 A.M. till 7:00 P.M. I would have to make out a daily report to the SS commandant and to the Sonderkommando Oberschaarführer Mussfeld, listing the number of ill, bed-ridden and ambulatory patients.
I listened, almost paralyzed, to the enumeration of my rights and duties. Under such conditions, I should be the KZ’s most important figure, were I not in the Sonderkommando and were all this not taking place in the “Number one Krema.”
Dr. Mengele left without a word. Never did an SS, no matter how low in rank, greet a KZ prisoner. I locked the door to the dissecting room; from now on it was my responsibility.
I returned to my room and sat down, wanting to collect my thoughts. It was not easy. I went back to the beginning. The image of my abandoned home came back to me. I could see the neat little house, with its sunny terraces and pleasant rooms, rooms in which I had spent so many long and trying hours with my patients, but with the satisfaction of knowing I had given them comfort and strength. The same house in which I had spent so many hours of happiness with my family.
We had already been separated for a week. Where could they be, lost in this enormous mass, anonymous, like all those swallowed by this gigantic prison? Had my daughter been able to stay with her mother, or had they already been separated? What had happened to my aged parents, whose last years I had tried to make more pleasant? What had become of my beloved younger sister, whom I had raised practically as my own child after our father had fallen ill? It had been such a pleasure to love and help them. I had no doubt about their fate. They were certainly en route to one of the forty-car trains that would bring them here to the Jewish ramp of the Auschwitz extermination camp. With one mechanical wave of his hand Dr. Mengele would direct my parents into the left-hand column. And my sister would also join that column, for even if she were ordered into the right-hand column, she would surely beg, on bended knee, for permission to go with our mother. So they would let her go, and she, with tears in her eyes, would shower them with thanks.
The news of my arrival had spread like wildfire throughout the crematorium. Both the SS personnel assigned here and the Sonderkommando came to call on me. The door was first opened by an SS noncom. Two extremely tall, militant looking Schaarführer entered. I knew that the attitude I then assumed would determine their conduct towards me in the future. I recalled Dr. Mengele’s order: I was responsible only to him. Consequently I considered this visit merely as a private act of courtesy, and remained seated instead of rising and standing at attention. I greeted them and asked them to sit down.
They stopped in the middle of the room and looked me over. I felt the full importance of this moment: it was the first impression that counted. It seemed to me that my manner was the best one to have adopted, for their rigid face muscles relaxed slightly and, with a gesture of careless indifference, they sat down.
The scope of our conversation was extremely limited. How was my trip? What was I doing in the KZ? These were questions they could not ask, for the answers would embarrass them. Whereas politics, the war, and conditions in the KZ were subjects I could not broach. Still, this did not bother me, for the years I had spent in prewar Germany furnished plenty of material for discussion. They were much impressed by the fact that I spoke their own language better, or at least in a more cultured manner, than they did. I soon realized that there were even certain expressions they did not understand, although they carefully refrained from letting me know it. I knew their country well, was fully informed about life in their cities and their homes, and about their religious and moral concepts. So conversation was not overly difficult for me. I had a feeling that this examination had also been a success, for they left smiling.
More visitors arrived, men in civilian clothes, cleanshaven and smartly dressed. The Kapo-in-chief3 and two of his men entered my room. This too was a courtesy call. I learned that they were the ones who had had my room prepared. They had heard of my arrival and invited me to dine with them and meet the other prisoners.
As a matter of fact it was almost dinner time. I followed them up the stairs to the second story of the crematorium where the prisoners lived: an enormous room, with comfortable bunks lining both walls. The bunks were made of unpainted wood, but on each one silk coverlets and embroidered pillows shone. This colorful, expensive bedding was completely out of keeping with the atmosphere of the place. It had not been made here, but left by members of earlier convoys who had brought it with them into captivity. The Sonderkommando was allowed to draw it from the storerooms and use it.
The whole room was bathed in a dazzling light, for here they did not economize on electricity as they did in the barracks. Our way led between the long row of bunks. Only half the kommando was present; the other half, about a hundred men, was on the night shift. Some of those here were already in bed asleep, while others were reading. There were plenty of books to be had, for we Jews are a people who like to read. Each prisoner had brought some books with him, the number and type depending upon his level of intelligence and education. To have books and be able to read was yet another privilege granted to the Sonderkommando. In the KZ anyone caught reading was punished with twenty days’ solitary confinement, in a sort of sentry box just large enough to stand up in. Unless, of course, the blows dealt him beforehand had already killed him.
The table awaiting us was covered with a heavy silk brocade tablecloth; fine initialled porcelain dishes; and place settings of silver: more objects that had once belonged to the deportees. The table was piled high with choice and varied dishes, everything a deported people could carry with them into the uncertain future: all sorts of preserves, bacon, jellies, several kinds of salami, cakes and chocolate. From the labels I noticed that some of the food had belonged to Hungarian deportees. All perishable foods automatically became the property of the legal heirs, of those who were still alive, that is, the Sonderkommando.
Seated around the table were the Kapo-in-chief, the engineer, the head chauffeur, the kommando leader, the “tooth pullers” and the head of the gold smelters. Their welcome was most cordial. They offered me all they had, and there was an abundance of everything, for the Hungarian convoys continued to arrive at an ever-increasing rate and they brought a great deal of food with them.
I found it difficult to swallow, however. I could not help thinking of my fellow-sufferers who, before starting on their exodus, had gathered and prepared their provisions. They had been hungry, but had refrained from eating during the entire trip in order to save their meager rations for their parents, their children and the more difficult times ahead. Only the more difficult times had never come: in the lobby of the crematorium the food had remained untouched.
I drank some tea spiked with rum. After a few glasses I managed to relax. My mind cleared and freed itself of the unpleasant thoughts that had been plaguing it. A pleasant warmth penetrated me: the voluptuous effects of the alcohol, comforting as the caress of a mother’s hand.
The cigarettes we were smoking had also been “Imported from Hungary.” In the camp proper a single cigarette was worth a ration of bread: here on the table lay hundreds of packages.
Our conversation grew more and more spirited. Poland, France, Greece, Germany and Italy were represented around the table. Since most of us understood German it served as our common language. From the conversation I learned the history of the crematoriums. Tens of thousands of prisoners had built them of stone and concrete, finishing them in the middle of an extremely rigorous winter. Every stone was stained with their blood. They had worked day and night, often without food or drink, dressed in mere tatters, so that these infernal death-factories, whose first victims they became, might be finished in time.
Since then four years had passed. Countless thousands had since climbed down from the box cars and crossed the thresholds of the crematoriums. The present Sonderkommando was the twelfth to bear the name. I learned the history of each preceding Sonderkommando, when it “reigned” and who its heroes were, and I was reminded of a fact I already knew: that the Sonderkommando’s life span was only a few months at the most.
Whoever among them practiced the Jewish faith could thus begin, on the day of his arrival, the purification ceremony in preparation for death. For death would come to him as surely as it had come to every member of all the preceding Sonderkommandos.
It was almost midnight. The company assembled around the table was weary from the day’s work and the evening’s consumption of alcohol. Our conversation grew more and more listless. An SS making his rounds stopped to remind us that it was high time we were in bed. I took leave of my new companions and returned to my room. Thanks to the rum I had drunk and my tired nerves, I spent a relatively quiet first night.