The Nizkor Project: Remembering the Holocaust (Shoah)

The Dentist of Auschwitz

Chapter 1

On the morning of May 5, 1941, three ancient trucks labored along a Polish country road, carrying 167 Jews from Dobra, a village in the Warthegau region of Poland, to a destination known only to their captors. It was spring, but the fields, which were full of colorful budding flowers, seemed lifeless on that gloomy morning. The songbirds, whose melodies usually filled the country air in May, were strangely quiet.

This was a dark day in our village. The Jewish Council, by decree of Herr Schweikert, the Nazi governor of the region, had delivered for deportation to a labor camp all Jewish men between the ages of sixteen and sixty, with the exception of one male per family. My father wanted to leave, and I volunteered to go with him, since my older brother was susceptible to ailments. So my brother stayed with my mother and my sister in the ghetto. My father and I were each allowed to take two bundles. My mother insisted that I take the few dental tools I had from my first year of dental training, along with my necessities. Little did I know then that those tools would save my life.

Mother's face was lined with sorrow. Pola, my older sister, bravely held back her tears, and brother Josek promised to live up to his new role as head of the family. We all felt the pain of parting, and I turned my face away from them to find courage.

My parents hadn't often shown affection for each other in public, and certainly not in front of us. But that day, for what was to be the last time, they embraced before us. As we left, Mama reminded all of us not to forget what we had agreed to do. "When this nightmare is over, we will all meet back here," she said, with tears in her eyes.

On the way to the town school, our assembly place, we saw similar scenes. At every doorstep a small drama played out. A young girl cried and wouldn't let her father go, seemingly knowing she would never see him again.

When we arrived at the school yard, SS men were everywhere. From their black uniforms and shiny boots to the skull and crossbones on their caps, they personified malice. Their belt buckles carried the ironic slogan "God with Us." At the center of the yard stood the feared Herr Schweikert, along with Morris Francus, head of the Jewish Council. Two of the ghetto's Jewish policemen were to come with us. Chaim Trzan, formerly a butcher, was perfectly suited for this job. But the other man, Markowicz, seemed out of his league, for he was a simple man with more bark than bite. Dwarfed by the tall SS men was the deputy of Jewish matters for Warthegau, Dr. Neumann. He was burly and middle-aged with snow-white hair and bright blue eyes. His stance spoke all: he was obviously in charge.

The Nazis knew how to pit Jew against Jew. They had created a Jewish Council, the Judenrat, for that purpose. In Dobra, the members of the council were self-styled community leaders with little conscience. With the help of the policemen whom they appointed, they wielded indiscriminate power over us. As difficult as it may have been for them to make the choices that no human should ever have to make, the members of the Judenrat primarily sheltered themselves, their families, and their friends from the privation and discrimination the rest of us had to face. Little did they know that, having sent their people to their deaths, they would in the end fall victim to the same fate.

As Francus read our names aloud, we responded with "Jawohl." At 9:00 A.M. the gates of the school yard opened, and in groups of about fifty-six per truck, we boarded the three trucks. The SS guards jumped on the tailgates for one more check. With this they cast a net around us.

As we picked up speed on the cobbled streets, we saw in a doorway two women watching the approaching trucks. We got closer, and Papa and I recognized Mama and Pola. They timidly covered their yellow Star of David patches and waved to us as we passed. We stared back, our hearts as heavy as the dark clouds above, until they were no longer visible. From this moment on, our family was split apart forever.

So there we were, 167 Jewish men, sixteen to sixty years old, one, two, and in some cases even three from one family, of varied skills, lifestyles, and backgrounds. We were united in the same fate and bound together on a journey as alien to us as the times we were now in. I glanced at my father, and I saw the once-proud head of our family embarrassingly helpless.

Leaning against the side of the truck, I stared at its plume of dark exhaust, believing I saw in it my own black future. To find a bit of solace, I thought back to my childhood days.

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