The Nizkor Project: Remembering the Holocaust (Shoah)

The Dentist of Auschwitz

Chapter 5
The Ghetto in Dobra

Greed for Jewish booty lured many followers to Hitler. Little by little, without pretense or restraint, the Nazis had taken our homes, our possessions, our hope, and our pride. And though each downward spiral seemed to take us to the lowest state imaginable, we were to learn that this abyss had no bottom.

In the spring of 1940 we were ordered out of our house. We were the only Jewish family in the vicinity. Everything of ours--business, house, and land--was given to Anders, a Volksdeutscher who was a former worker of ours. His only credential was his heritage. The Judenrat then assigned us an attic room across the street in what was once a school. We were allowed to take one armful of possessions. Pola sneaked across to our house once more and rescued a few of her favorite books. Unsuited to running any business, Anders closed its doors shortly afterward. Nothing caused my mother more pain than looking down on her home, which now seemed so alien.

The third-floor attic room, once used for storage, became our living quarters. Pola, Josek, and I slept on straw pallets on the floor. Mama and Papa had two cots. We hung blankets to create privacy.

We continued to observe the Shabbat. Each Friday evening Mama lit candles and recited the prayer. Papa, acting as if not much had changed, kept saying, "Nothing is lost. It's all only temporary. When the war is over we'll move back to our house, and everything will be as before."

At the end of March 1940 the birds returned. Nature was taking its course early that year. On one sunny day, as I stood in the school yard, five Germans in army uniforms rounded the corner of the school. This was odd, I thought. What could they want? No one except the former caretaker and ourselves lived in the schoolhouse. As the Germans walked toward me, a corporal, their leader, sternly asked if I was Bronek Jakubowicz.

"Yes," I said.

"You are under arrest."

I thought surely that it was a mistake. "Are you sure that you want me?" I asked. "Why? What have I done?"

"You'll find out later. Come with us."

Although I knew it was unmistakable, I still couldn't understand why they were arresting me, or why they needed five soldiers to do it. Mama and Pola had heard the commotion. They came down to the yard and, startled, gasped. "Why are you arresting my son? What do you want of him?" Mama asked.

"He is coming with us," one soldier bellowed, ordering me to move.

"Wait, let me at least bring down his jacket," my mother pleaded.

"He won't need it. He is going to be shot," the corporal grumbled back at her. Mama nearly fainted. She covered her face, as my sister held on to her.

I followed them out of the yard, one soldier on each side, two behind, and the corporal ahead of us. That aroused the neighbors, and they came out and looked. I had lived in this village since I was born, and nearly everyone knew me. They couldn't understand why I had been arrested and was being led away by five soldiers. In spite of my fear, I held my head high like a character in a Shakespearean play. It was a long way. I was led to the other end of the village, into the army headquarters and Schweikert's residence. In the yard, against a barracks wall, soldiers with rifles in hand guarded four other men. The corporal waved to me to join them.

Then I recognized on my right Wigdor Celnik, a friend of my sister's. Next to him stood Jan Kozlowski, a Pole of questionable character from Dobra. He had been jailed several times. "One would do well not to have anything to do with him," I had heard people say. The third, Pavel, I knew only by name. The fourth was a stranger. I thought Celnik might be there because of his having once been a representative of the Bund, a Jewish socialist labor organization. Was I arrested because of my membership in the Zionist youth organization Hashomer Haklal Hazoni? * I had not known anyone arrested for that offense before.

I asked Wigdor why he was arrested. "What did they say to you?" he whispered back.

"I heard them saying that I'd be shot."

"Me too," he replied.

Suddenly one of the guards yelled at us, "Shut up!" as he cocked his gun.

I wasn't ready to die. Why was I here? Was it God's will, as people sometimes say? If this is my fate, I thought, what can I do to make the agony of dying easier? I tried to convince myself that I had lived what was to be my life. After all, no one lives forever. I tried hard to persuade myself, but that didn't make much sense, and it wasn't very consoling, but it was the best I could do. All of us were puzzled. Without knowing why we were there, we exchanged worried looks. Even passing soldiers asked their comrades who we were and why we were under arrest. The guards didn't know either.

After two hours a sergeant came over and ordered us to follow him. We went a few hundred meters down the road and came upon odd-looking rigs--three shallow carts with huge wheels that had six Belgian horses hitched to them. We were ordered to board. The sergeant and guards followed. As we left the army compound and headed out of the village, I spurred my courage and asked the sergeant where he was taking us. He did not answer. He seemed surprised that I had asked him. Wigdor Celnik, who was on the same wagon, looked at me as if to say, "Did you expect him to tell you?" Discouraged, I asked nothing further.

After a while we veered off the road into a gravel pit. Why did they bring us here? I wondered. A gravel pit that is constantly dug in would hardly be suitable for a burial place. The sergeant then got off and ordered us to fill the wagons with gravel. That still did not make sense. After a couple of minutes the sergeant looked around carefully. He whispered to me, "You will not be shot." Then he uttered the name of a dentist in Dobra, Krusche.

I only knew Krusche by name. I knew that he had come to Dobra a couple of years before. He was the only dentist in the village. People did not say bad things about him. "He is a cross between a decent Pole and a decadent German," I had heard. When the Germans came to Dobra, he quickly rose to prominence in the Nazi aristocracy.

I was overcome by a sensation of having been born all over again. I passed the news to Celnik, and he relayed it to the others. We began fill the wagons with fury, as if to avow our usefulness to our adjudicators, thanking them for saving our lives.

At the first opportunity I asked the sergeant what Krusche had to do with my arrest. "I can't tell you here," he said uneasily. "Give me the address where I can find you, and I'll come to see you." I gave him directions to the school, and he promised to come.

We filled the carts with gravel in record time. By five o'clock, after ten loads, the gravel had piled up in the yard of the army compound. Without indicating to any one of us the reason for our arrests, the Germans released us.

I thanked God over and over and quickly disappeared from their sight. Once on the road, I ran as fast as I could. When I reached home, out of breath, Mama's face lit up. Seeing me, her agony was replaced by joy. She had already been to the Jewish councillors, I learned, begging them to find out why I was arrested and pleading with them to intervene. In contrast, Papa believed it had been a mistake all along. A few days later I heard that Kozlowski was arrested once more. No one ever saw him or heard from him again. The rumor was that he died in some camp.

At dusk I wondered if the sergeant would keep his word. After a while I saw someone resembling him coming down our street, checking house numbers. When he saw me, he came up close and whispered, "I have to be very careful." He quickly entered the school with me. When I introduced him to my family, he gave his name as Sergeant Sprengle. He begged us not to tell anyone he had come into our room. Then he told me that because of Krusche's complaint, Schweikert had ordered my arrest. Krusche insisted I had practiced dentistry here, depriving him of his income. All this, of course, was a lie. Few Poles were conscious of dental care, and most were too poor to spare the money for it. Even after losing their natural teeth, they didn't see the need to get false ones.

Before long Sergeant Sprengle developed a friendship with us and came to see us almost every day. At first we were cautious of him, but in time we learned to trust him. He seemed to lack the anti-Semitic venom that characterized most Nazis. One had to wonder about him as a member of a superior race. Sprengle was an odd young man. Of medium height, he had very short legs, almost to the point of abnormality. His typically German light hair was in a military crew cut that looked as stubby as a badger's bristles. The tanned reddish skin over his square jawbones made his face look as if it were cut out of a redwood log. Seeing him, one couldn't escape the thought that he might be trapped in a role that didn't fit him.

Sometimes he brought us German newspapers. Of course they were full of the usual anti-Semitic propaganda, which portrayed us as devil-faced Lucifers and as disease-spreading, unsociable villains of society. Two things we never talked about were nazism and politics. The sergeant often warned us to leave. "We won't do you much harm, but those who follow us will make your life very difficult," he muttered.

When the Germans invaded France in May 1940, they made light of the Maginot Line, calling it a picket fence. A few days later we read that France had surrendered and Hitler had celebrated the victory in Paris. Shortly after that Sprengle's company was transferred west. By then we were so fond of him that we genuinely missed him. Although he promised to write, we never heard from him again. As the first German troops were replaced with new ones, more discriminatory laws were piled on our backs. Jews had been barred from associating with any other race. The Aryans shall be spared the impurity of Jewish blood, the laws said.

By the summer of 1940 the vise around us tightened even more. The Nazis decided to clear Dobra's slums and create a ghetto there. Some of the poor Jews who had lived there for years could only keep one room. They had to give the rest to other families. We had to move out of the school and were given a room with a dirt floor. We came to realize that even our cramped quarters had had advantages. By then our home was just a distant memory.

The ghetto rations were our only source of food, and hunger became the number one enemy. Butter, milk, sugar, and flour were almost never available. Even though we were ready to part with anything to win another day of life, those who came to trade with us, masquerading as do-gooders, did so mostly for personal gain. Because we had fewer and fewer tradable goods, in time the merchants stopped coming.

Each morning all Jewish men, and sometimes women, had to report for arduous and demeaning chores. I'll never forget the strain of kneeling on the side of the road and breaking down large stones with a heavy hammer for road construction.

In the meantime the Nazis rolled through Europe with unparalleled ease. To the west they were in France, Belgium, and the Netherlands. In the north they were in Norway. To the southeast, Italy, Yugoslavia, Greece, Romania, Hungary, and Bulgaria were under their control. In North Africa, General Rommel was near El Alamein. The Nazis seemed to extend their influence to the entire world. It seemed unlikely that Great Britain and the Soviet Union were a match for Hitler's armies. In their speeches, Hitler, Himmler, and Goebbels used harsher, more venomous anti-Jewish rhetoric. For the Germans to fail was unthinkable.

Deprived of hope and broken in spirit, we waited for a miracle that we never really expected. Our biggest dilemma was that our people would not believe what was about to happen. We defied conventional wisdom. At each new Nazi anti-Jewish action, people commonly thought, That's as far as they'll go! What else can they do to us? But we were living in a world that didn't make sense, and what we thought to be inconceivable happened. Escape from a Warthegau ghetto held extraordinary risks. Even if we were successful, where would we go? We had to accept whatever our fate had in store for us.

Suddenly the tires screeched, and the truck swerved to avoid a cow crossing the road. I opened my eyes. I was on the truck, and my father was staring at me, reading my expression.

A while later the truck pulled off the road and stopped on a grassy embankment. The guard yelled, "Get off, everyone, and relieve yourselves in the woods, but be back in five minutes." The guards now formed a cordon around us. "If one of you escapes, all of you will pay for it." We knew it wasn't an idle threat.

There was a dense forest on the side where the trucks had stopped and a green meadow with red poppies across the road. When I went into the forest, the trees were so dense that they repelled nearly all light. Pervasive in the near dark was the scent of spruce. Twigs snapped under my feet. After relieving myself, I returned to the truck. I found Dr. Neumann's eyes fixed on me.

"You there, come here," he snapped at me. I wondered why, of all of us, he would call me, so I didn't respond. But when I once more heard his command, I turned. "I am calling you," he said.

Though I knew that being singled out by a Nazi often meant nothing good, I had no choice but to go. I rushed over to him and stopped at a distance of two meters, as Nazi protocol required. Don't show him you're afraid, I thought. "Jawohl," I said loud and clear. He asked my name and age. When I answered, he asked me what I did before the war. "I was in dental training," I answered him obligingly.

"Report to me when we get to camp," he ordered.

I managed to reply a second time, "Jawohl," and returned to the truck. My father had heard it all and saw that I was worried. Papa, always the optimist, urged me to forget all about it. "By the time we get there, he'll have forgotten about you," Papa said.

We drove past a pious woman kneeling in front of a Black Madonna icon, with her kerchief pulled over her face. These statues were quite common along Polish roads. A while later we came to Turek, the county seat. More trucks like ours waited in the square. They carried Jews from Kodawa, Kutno, Golina, and Turek itself. Thirty minutes later the whole convoy pulled out in an northerly direction. "This means that we are going to Poznan," Papa said. He had traveled here often, and he knew the roads well.

Outside Turek the road widened, and the trucks began to clatter along at a faster pace. The sun arched overhead, bathing the fields and the people who toiled in them in warmth. Most of the peasants stood up and stared at the convoy of strangers being herded past. The two Waffen SS guards on our truck stood stone-faced and rarely spoke. After a three-hour journey, we turned onto a gravel road. The bouncing of the truck made resting against the sideboard uncomfortable. Big clouds of dust, loosened by the tires, enveloped our clothes and faces. Gravel banged against the fenders constantly.

As the sun made its slow descent, the vehicles approached what seemed to be a typical two-story schoolhouse. Near it were three wooden barracks. All this was surrounded by a three-meter wire mesh fence topped with barbed wire strung on cane-shaped posts. Except for these structures, there was nothing but fields. This must be our new home, I thought.

* During the interwar period, Jews living in Poland, especially my generation, were attracted by the Zionist ideology, Herzel's "Judenstaat," the idea that one should not wait for the Creator to send a Messiah to return his people to the homeland but should advance that conviction by working for a homeland in Palestine.

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