The Nizkor Project: Remembering the Holocaust (Shoah)

The Dentist of Auschwitz

Chapter 7

Zosia and I met every day. She became more than an acquaintance to me. Our attraction was real, and we both knew it. One day she and her work clothes smelled of exotic flowers. She came close to me in her modest way, her thick brown hair rolling around her face in the warm breeze. Her satin skin glistened with light. Her delicate smile had a sensual expression. I drew her close. She put her hands around my waist. I embraced her and gently caressed her face. Our lips touched. The scent of her skin and the softness of her lips sent my heart racing. Suddenly I felt my lost sexuality steering within me. We kissed, separated, then kissed again. I desired her, and she wanted me. We sat and looked at one another on a moss-covered tree stump, knowing our relationship had to climax, but not here and not now. Leaving her on that day was particularly hard. In parting, Zosia hinted in a timid way that perhaps on Monday we could meet closer to the garden nursery. We kissed in an unrestrained passionate embrace. For a young Jew, a camp inmate, to be loved and to be in love on a spring day--what a priceless feeling.

I recalled that while I was a student at the Jewish gymnasium in Kalisz, my cousin Josek, who was ten years older than I, wanted me to experience sex. The prostitute was a very attractive young girl. I remember my fascination with her craft and my regret that she sold her body for money. I spent all my time with her in an attempt to reform her. In the end I left without touching her.

When I returned to the office, Stasia squinted at me. She was curious, and it wasn't long before I admitted that I had been with Zosia. "Be careful, Bronek," she reminded me in her motherly way.

Returning to camp after our first work week, we were told that our camp Kommandant had arrived. When I entered the corridor, I saw him coming out of the first aid room, with a policeman trotting behind. The Kommandant was about two meters tall, around forty-five years old, and overweight. His square jaw made him look brutish. Across his bulging stomach, covered by a well-tailored black SS uniform, was a stub-nosed handgun held in place by a thin leather belt and holster. Riding britches and shiny boots completed his uniform. His SS cap showed that his Nazi rank was Scharführer, or group leader. Ironically, his last name was Krusche, the same as that of the infamous dentist in Dobra. He had a cold and distant look. In the first days he made new assignments and named the Stubenältester (room wardens) for each room. He stressed strict obedience with a fiery arrogance typical of the SS.

There was no doubt about who was running the camp now. From this time on, once a week we got gray, blue-striped undergarments, which were permeated by a strong smell of disinfectant. On Saturday afternoon, Krusche came, followed by our policeman, to check his flock. That year we had a warmer than usual spring. Patches of green grass sprouted near the fences, and once a bird flew into the wires, fluttered its wings, and dropped to the ground. The bird tried to get up but did not succeed. I wondered, is this an omen?

A debate erupted. Someone said, "Why are we always the scapegoats?"

"As we have done many times before, we will also survive this, Amulek (devil)," said Reb Moishe, who sat next to him. "Eventually all people have to live by God's Law."

"Did God really think men would live by his laws?" asked another.

"Yes," the rebbe said. He then recited: "I'll make thee a great nation, and I'll bless thee and curse him who cursed thee."

Then another prisoner interrupted. "Why were we driven out of our homeland and dispersed throughout the world? Why are we made into contemptible slaves? Why are we the focal point of hate at all times?"

Reb Moishe answered with calm dignity. "Losing faith and losing the belief in God run counter to our principles, counter to our Halakah." He had such a strong belief in what he said that it was hard for him to listen to the others. He ended the discussion, saying, "Our belief in God and hope is our only salvation." My belief was not as clear as his.

"Wars don't last forever," Papa remarked. "Once this is over we'll all celebrate victory over this amulek." No one mentioned resisting. We all seemed to be resigned to whatever fate had in store for us.

Organizing was the term we used for the simple thefts that kept us alive. To go on, we had to find ways to supplement our meager rations. That involved danger. It meant testing how far we could venture. On weekdays my group looked forward to the fresh bread we got from the bakery. Sundays always brought curiosity seekers to the fence. Most outsiders were sympathetic at first, but as the camps multiplied the novelty wore off.

Based on the news that filtered into the camp, a quick end to the war did not seem possible. One had to separate the probable from the desirable. Some lies were easily spotted, and others were speculative. We heard of Germany's resounding successes. Europe was at Hitler's mercy. The mere mention of his name made nations tremble. His newest successes were in North Africa. It was common talk that the Nazis would invade Russia. There was little hope that the other European countries would stop them. Only the United States, we thought, could deliver the Nazis a decisive blow. But we did not believe it would really happen. Freedom seemed far away.

That night I dreamed I was with Zosia in a strange park. Everything was alive as we walked close to each other. She had her arm around my waist and her head on my shoulder.

Monday, after a dismal start, the sky brightened, and we faced another warm day. Unlike the first weekend, this one had passed uneventfully. Marek told me he had gotten enough money for a week's worth of bread. As we approached the bakery, he and three other inmates ran ahead. "Be careful. If you see anyone in uniform, leave the sacks in the field," I cautioned them. We watched with suspense as they disappeared into the bakery.

It went without a hitch. The smell of fresh-baked bread made the thought of eating it irresistible. It was pure drama that morning as the oven-fresh bread passed down the line. Some cut it with their improvised knives, and others just ripped it apart. Fresh bread was always my favorite. This reminded me of Sunday mornings at home, when Mama would serve cake or challah for breakfast. I would quietly swap this with kids in the neighborhood for plain bread.

At noon I easily found the new meeting place that Zosia and I had arranged. It was the same distance for me and safer from discovery than the spring. It was a secluded area on low ground. On one side we were surrounded by tall spruce trees, and on the other wheat swayed back and forth. We talked briefly about my life in Dobra.

The next day I arrived early. I watched as Zosia gracefully came into sight, wearing a Krakowianka, a dress of hand-sewn lace in rainbow colors, typical of Kraków culture. The flaring skirt accentuated her small waist. Her white blouse was stitched with colorful silk threads. Her peach-colored small breasts were slightly exposed in the square-shaped décolleté. Her sparkling eyes radiated Polish beauty. The sun shone on her face. I was filled with desire, and as I clasped her hand I could feel her tremble. We walked into the wheat field. Finally our romantic urges won. I put my hands around her waist. She leaned slightly on me. As I lowered her slowly toward the ground, I saw anticipation in her eyes. The idea of lovemaking electrified me. Blood flamed in my temples, and my heart pounded. When we began kissing and then stopped, our lips could not bear the separation. If there is such a thing as dying of passion, I was close to it. Her breasts swelled, rising and falling rapidly. "Oh, Bronek," she repeated, as I thrust myself on her. The feel of her body increased my sensations, and I was in paradise. These were emotions I had not known before. Ecstasy brought tears to my eyes, followed by a pleasant feeling of exhaustion. Looking up at the bright sky, I realized what value she had brought into my dubious life. "I love you, Zosia," I said for the first time. She looked into my eyes and kissed me sweetly. I knew that she loved me too. But we each had to return to our jobs, she to the garden and I to the office.

On my way back I realized how risky this relationship had become and what danger it presented. According to Nazi theory, sex between races was the ultimate sin. If we were caught, it could cost us both our lives. Despite this, I knew that from now on we could not go on just being friends. We wanted something more, and so our lives were entwined in a most dangerous love affair. This was something I had best keep a secret.

Zosia, now our postal intermediary, received a package from my mother. She brought it promptly to me. Papa and I knew that whatever Mama and Pola had sent us, they could not spare. We asked them in our next letter not to send their small rations and not to worry. Between our share of bread from the bakery, Zosia's gifts, and the occasional leftovers from Stasia, neither Papa nor I suffered hunger. The work at the kitchen was more suited to Papa's strength. Also, I had been able to keep an eye on him.

Walking to and from work, we noticed the movement to the east of many German armored vehicles and tanks. It wasn't long before we learned of the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union. For a while that news lifted our spirits because we hoped that the Soviets would bring the Germans' appetite for world domination to an end. To keep the German war machine moving and their blitzkrieg against their former friend and ally in high gear, we were driven to work harder to complete the railway eastward. In the meantime, the Nazis were achieving one victory after another. Though most of us believed the Soviets would be victorious, the Nazis grabbed a good part of Russia on their first assault.

The fields of rye and wheat that we passed on our daily marches swayed as their stalks arched under the weight of heavy kernels. A field of potato plants was a lush shade of green. On the edges of streams and marshes were thousands of irises and marigolds. Frogs croaked in the green algae. Our sixth Sunday in Steineck had arrived. Before noon, a young boy came running up to me, almost out of breath. He looked around to make sure he would not be heard. "Someone at the fence is asking for you," he whispered. I followed him, and once we were near the fence he forgot all caution. "Right there," he pointed. "The girl and the man asked for you by name."

When I walked closer, I saw Zosia standing beside an older man. Her skin shone through her lace blouse. She wore a pink skirt. My fellow inmates were curious about who they were. Zosia had obviously not known that visiting an inmate in Steineck was verboten (forbidden). "My father wanted to meet you," she said, and he nodded.

"Zosia has told me so much about you," he said, looking at me through the squares of the fence. His voice sounded friendly. He was visibly moved.

"Zosia," I said apologetically, almost being impolite, "I forgot to tell you that we are not allowed visitors. If a guard were to see us, we might be in for trouble."

I wasn't sure what her father knew about us. But in coming here, he demonstrated that he approved of her helping me. At the risk of sounding ungrateful, I did not say anything further. While they looked at me, I remembered visiting the zoo. Now I was the one inside the fence.

"I have a letter for you," Zosia said. She had the letter and a package under her arm.

So far the guards hadn't noticed us. We only exchanged a few more words, and then Mr. Zasina, sensing that all wasn't right, said, "We should leave now."

There was enough space under the fence for the package and the letter to slip through. Zosia passed both of them to me. In a low tone, she and her father said good-bye, and then they left. As they walked off, I became concerned about what the pious brethren thought of my companionship with a shiksa, a girl who was not of the Jewish faith. With the letter and package carefully concealed, I returned to Papa in the room.

Papa read Mama's letter several times. The news was bad. He, the eternal optimist, was now concerned about the harassment and brutality that had spiraled in the ghetto. Even so, our receiving mail from home reminded us that even though we were divided, we were still a family.

The sun rose earlier every day, and soon we arrived at the longest day of the year. After wake-up, shoes pounded on the floors, as more than a thousand inmates hurried to shave and wash and prepare for work. Then followed the endless hours of standing in line for our rations and the all-important Zahlappell (roll call count) that one never dared missing.

On the way to work, we saw that the night's heavy rains had weighed down young willow branches. They swayed in the light wind like drunkards. The huge acacia trees bore balloon-sized blossoms. Freshened by the rain and the sun-warmed air, they released a flood of perfume. Farm dogs, though they had seen us come and go for weeks, still barked as we passed.

We encountered increasing difficulty in buying bread. The baker had continually increased his prices, and it was almost impossible to collect enough money for the food. Besides, now the guards also wanted their palms greased. But no matter what, we had to go on helping each other.

The next time Zosia and I met, I explained my strange behavior on Sunday. Suddenly I noticed something crawling up my sleeve. It was a body louse. I hoped she had not seen it. I excused myself and went to examine my clothes. There were more. I recalled that my grandfather had once told me he was a similar predicament in a trench during the First World War. They buried their clothes in the soil, he said, leaving a small piece out. Deprived of oxygen, the vermin would crawl out and sit on the piece of garment, and from there they could easily be shaken off. I tried it, but it didn't work. Always conscious of the ugly pests, I felt them crawling on me everywhere. I feared that if Witczak, Basiak, or Kmiec noticed the blight, I would not be allowed to work in the office. A ghastly awareness kept me from eating that evening. The turnip soup tasted so foul that I vowed that if I survived I would never eat turnips again. These schoolrooms weren't built to house eighty people. On warm nights the stench of our bodies was overpowering. No matter how much I tried to force myself to sleep, the bugs wouldn't let me. This seemed to be a new form of Nazi cruelty, as if to assert the claim "Jews are social vermin." At times all this seemed like a bad dream. I thought that someday I would wake up, and everything would be the way it used to be.

The next evening I saw my father picking the lice off our blankets. He thought the best way to get rid of them was with naphtha. I went into the first aid room to ask for some.

This was the first time that I had gone to the first aid station. The room was spacious and had a cabinet, two chairs, a table, a bench, and a stool. In the glass cabinet were aspirin, bandages, and a few bottles with iodine and the like. Goldstein, our first aid attendant, had the same remedies for all ailments: aspirin and bitter-tasting Baldrian drops. When I asked him if he had any naphtha to get rid of our lice and fleas, he laughed. "We do not have naphtha, and even if we did, you could not get rid of them. Every room is infested with them," he said.

Goldstein knew that I had been a dental student before the war. A few days later, on a Saturday afternoon, he came looking for me. Could I help an inmate suffering pain from a toothache? he wondered. I followed him into the first aid room. The man, about thirty-five years old, had a handkerchief tied around his swollen right cheek. There was nothing in Goldstein's cabinet that I could use to help him. I thought of the box under my pillow. When I returned with my tools, I looked into his mouth. I could see a fistula beside his second upper molar. I disinfected my scalpel over a flame and cut through the fistula, letting the pus drain out. My first operation was a success. From then on, Goldstein called me regularly. After work I spent many hours helping fellow inmates in the first aid room. By then, because of the lack of vitamins, especially vitamin C, most inmates suffered from bleeding gums. All I could do was dab iodine on the diseased gums, for temporary relief. In time everyone called me Dentist.

Eventually the day came when I had to attempt to extract a tooth. I winced at confronting it, but there was no one except me to do it. We had no novocaine. I had no choice. I quivered, my hands shook, and sweat ran down my forehead, fogging my eyes. I had to wipe them constantly. When I grasped the tooth with an angle forceps, Goldstein gripped the inmate's head to keep it still. But the molar crumbled and broke off, leaving all three roots in the gingiva. Shaking, I reached in and tried to pry out each root separately, using levers. The poor man cringed and yelped, yet he held on and let me do it. After a half hour of torture, I succeeded in extracting two of the three roots. By then we both had had enough. Luckily his gums healed, and the remaining root did not bother him. Extracting a decayed molar without novocaine gave me confidence in the future. I knew that I could do it again, even with my rudimentary skills and no anesthesia.

The bugs now multiplied much faster than we could kill them. My greatest concern was for them not to be seen on me by the people working in the office. When they gnawed, I discreetly scratched through my clothes, but that led to more itching and pain. Sometimes I could not stand it and had to leave the office. One day I saw them crawling on my sleeve. Kmiec was next to me. I held my breath in fear that he might have noticed. I walked out and went to a secluded spot, and there I again tried the technique my grandfather had told me he had used. I undressed, buried my clothes, and waited. My skin looked as though it had been pricked by a thousand needles. There were handfuls of lice in my armpits and my crotch. I waited, but as before, the method didn't work for me. These were not the same lice. They were not the lice of the First World War. Nearly impervious, they could only be killed with a hard fingernail. I killed as many as my time allowed and then returned to work. To go on killing them was useless. I knew that once I was in camp they would infest me again.

To avoid embarrassment, I was seeing Zosia less frequently. One day when she insisted on knowing why, I told her, adding that she should decide to stop seeing me. "Bronek," she interrupted, "this is not going to change our relationship." She came to see me as before.

The bugs were determined. The more we killed, the faster they seemed to multiply. They now were able to change colors. On the blankets they were gray, and on our bodies they disguised themselves in the color of their hosts' flesh. Shaking them off our clothes only freed space for new colonies. Finally one day, in desperation, we burned all the straw that filled our pallets and pillows and slept on the bare wooden planks. The people of Heine, Kant, and Goethe were degrading us to a life in lice pits. Even now, so many years later, remembering this still brings shivers to my spine.

On a hot unbearable night with a bright full moon, I noticed that my father had left his bunk. I waited a while. When he didn't return, I went to look for him. He wasn't in the washroom or in the yard. I went back to the room, hoping he had returned in the meantime. I was startled, for he wasn't back. This was unusual for Papa. I went back to the facilities building and saw him sitting in the back facing the fence. Being there at night was extremely dangerous. I walked in the shadow of the building so as not to be noticed by a guard and whispered, "Papa, is that you?" Hearing my voice, he rose. "Papa, what are you doing here? This is a very dangerous place at this hour. Is anything wrong, Papa?" I asked.

On the way back to our barracks, he said, "Oh, I just couldn't sleep." Back in the room I saw that his eyes were red, and I knew then that he had been crying. It suddenly occurred to me how hollow this sounded. So many things were wrong. It was wrong for us to be there. It was wrong for them to make us into slaves. That and more was wrong! I never found out why my father had sat out in the moonlight weeping. My father's generation of Jews believed that they were at the mercy of their fate, without rights or the capacity to change. It saddened me to see this once-proud man cleaning floors, peeling potatoes, and washing dishes.

We Jews weren't alone in hating the Nazis. One day when I came into the office, Basiak was standing by the window. "Those bastards," he gasped. "They took away my sister to work for them as a slave in Germany."

By then Tadek had my ring, and the other guards also had to be paid, as our bread-buying project continued. Most of us had found ways to communicate with our families. The news from the ghetto wasn't encouraging to anyone. In each letter new victims were mentioned. With Zosia's help and Stasia's leftovers, Steineck was still bearable for my father and me, but a sudden incident of deception changed our lives.

[ Previous Chapter | Table of Contents | Next Chapter ]

Home ·  Site Map ·  What's New? ·  Search Nizkor

© The Nizkor Project, 1991-2012

This site is intended for educational purposes to teach about the Holocaust and to combat hatred. Any statements or excerpts found on this site are for educational purposes only.

As part of these educational purposes, Nizkor may include on this website materials, such as excerpts from the writings of racists and antisemites. Far from approving these writings, Nizkor condemns them and provides them so that its readers can learn the nature and extent of hate and antisemitic discourse. Nizkor urges the readers of these pages to condemn racist and hate speech in all of its forms and manifestations.