The Nizkor Project: Remembering the Holocaust (Shoah)

The Dentist of Auschwitz

Chapter 10
The Murder of My Family

When I finished reading the letter I closed my eyes and stood paralyzed. Zosia sensed that something terrible had happened in the ghetto. She asked me what it was. I could not answer her. When she asked me if it was my mother and sister, I nodded my head. She looked at me and saw that I was in no condition to talk. She left me quietly.

I felt ill with stomach cramps. Walking back to the camp I read the letter again, hoping that it wasn't so. But over and over the words spelled out worse than we had expected:

When you receive this letter, Mama and I will no longer be alive. Though we were told that we are going to be resettled, we know where they are taking us--Chelmno--and no one has ever come back from there. We are the last in the ghetto, only two hundred of us left. It really doesn't matter anymore. We have had enough of this shameful life. Should you ever see Josek, let him know about us. Don't write anymore, as we will no longer be here. We hope that you, Papa, and Josek still have a chance to survive. Love to Papa and you, Berek. Pola.

Mama added two lines of good-bye to Papa and me. "Perhaps we'll all meet in another world," she wrote.

It was devastating. I couldn't breathe. My legs buckled and refused to carry me. I remembered Mama and Pola on the day of Papa's and my deportation. I remembered Mama's forlorn look and Pola, poised and fighting back her tears. I looked at the letter, and the outrageous crime stared me in the face. Their long suffering was ended. They had endured the ghetto for more than two years for naught. I raised my eyes and looked up, transfixed, to the heavens. I asked God why, but only silver rings swirled in front of my eyes. I had been raised to revere him. Now he had failed me.

I weighed the impact the news would have on my father. Do less painful words exist to change the bitter truth? If so, I could not find them. I stuck the letter in my pocket and walked into the barracks. I knew that Papa had to be told. My father sat at the edge of his bunk. I walked over and, without saying a word, handed him the letter. As he began reading, his face turned pale, and his shoulders slumped. Wrenched with pain, he closed his eyes and put his hands on his face. When I saw him wring his hands, I knew that he was saying Kaddish. He finished and, in a mixture of pain and anguish, said, "If they can kill women and children, perhaps the whole world has gone mad." Though our hearts were full of tears, we had forgotten how to cry.

"Only God knows what is happening, son," Papa said to me. He hadn't called me son in years. We sat a long time in silence, our heads bowed. There was little we could say that would make sense. Then, as if my father could take it no longer, he walked out.

It was a Sunday afternoon, a day of rest for us, no doubt intended for the welfare of the guards and the SS men. I lay open-eyed, motionless, staring endlessly at the high ceiling of the barracks. A few rays of sunlight penetrated the dirt-clogged windows, and particles of dust danced in a never-ending pattern. It didn't seem possible. They could not be dead. I read the letter again and feared that it was irrevocable and final. I pulled out a few old family photographs that I had kept under my pillow. By now they were yellowed and scuffed. I looked at Mama and remembered the last words she said to us when we left: "When this nightmare is over, we will all meet back here." I felt alone. I needed to share my grief with someone. But there was no longer any intimacy. Our lives were so agonizing that each person kept things like this to himself. Everyone focused his strength on his own survival. Nor did I have the right to burden others with my pain. Didn't each of us here have his own tragedy?

Behind our bunk someone finished a silent prayer with a loud "Amen." Then another man next to him began to question his devotion to God. "How can you still believe in prayers? They won't help you," he said.

"You don't have to believe in God. I still do. Just because you're here doesn't mean that you stop believing," said the first. "What is going on is not his fault. It's the failure of men. In the end they'll have to pay for these inhuman acts, for their immorality."

"Inhuman acts, immorality--leave that nonsense out. The Germans don't believe in God and morality. They follow Hitler," the second said.

"God does things his way. You must believe that he is the Righteous Judge. He won't turn his back on his chosen people," said the first.

"Chosen?" the second interrupted. "You mean we are the chosen? Chosen for what?"

"Having been chosen does not mean that we are chosen to be different from other people or better. He chose us to accept him and his teaching without question. He, the Righteous One, is always with us," the first said insistently.

"You may be convinced of this, but I'm not. If this continues any longer, he will be left without his people to worship him. If there is solace in being one of the chosen, I don't feel it," he added.

I did not deny the existence of God, but I asked myself where the God was that my father taught me to believe in. I stopped relying on him the moment I lay bleeding outside the first aid room in Steineck. There I embarked on a genesis of my own, without God. To come to terms with Jewishness in the pit of this inhumane life was very difficult. I buried my head in my pillow to close myself away from this, and I fell asleep.

I woke up in a sweat from a bad dream and realized that, in effect, my nightmares and my life now were much the same. I took a spoonful of belladonna for my excruciating stomach pains, slipped down to the floor, and left the barracks. I met Papa. We stopped and looked at one another without speaking. Our hurt could not be explained. It was a long and painful day for both of us, and that night the barracks seemed like a silent morgue.

The next night I dreamed I was home. It was Friday evening, the beginning of Shabbat. My father, my brother, and I had just returned from the synagogue. Mama closed her eyes, put her hands over the burning candles, and said a prayer. Papa raised a chalice of wine and said kiddush. Grandfather blessed the challah. Wildflowers that Pola had picked were on the table. Everything seemed so convincing, so real, as if I had never left. The next morning I was back to my bitter reality, and every German I saw seemed to me to be guilty of killing Mama and Pola.

As Nazi Germany put its plan of massive extermination of Jews into action, they chose Poland for the staging area. Perhaps this was not purely an accident. When Tadek told me of new labor camps in the area, it intrigued me. "Where are they? Are they far from here?" I asked.

"Oh no! One is only about twenty kilometers from here. That one is a camp for women," he said. I had not heard of women being forced into labor camps. Hard labor and camp conditions would not allow them to survive very long. Nonetheless, if that was so, perhaps I would find my mother and sister there. This promising thought did not give me rest. I told Grimm that I doubted that their camp would have dental care and said that, if I was allowed, I would go there to help them. Grimm liked my idea and agreed to speak with the Kommandant.

I knew that I would not be allowed to leave the camp without a guard. Since I had not implicated him in the bread debacle in Steineck, I had a good relationship with Tadek. He agreed to go with me. I knew he had a bicycle, since he rode it every day. I asked him if he could find one for me. He thought that he could.

It had been snowing for days, and more than a quarter of a meter was on the ground. When it did not snow, dark clouds covered the sky. The infirmary was filled with the sick and dying. Most prisoners survived by bare will. I hoped to escape this prison, even if for just a few hours.

Though I saw Grimm several times, he made no mention of what we had talked about. I thought he had forgotten, but one day he and the Kommandant came to the infirmary, and the subject arose. "Achtung!" Seidel yelled out when they entered. "Herr Lagerführer, sixty-five sick in bed and seven attendants. All is well." The number of inmates changed so fast in the infirmary that, at best, he could only be guessing. Seidel knew what was important to Scharführer Köhler.

The Kommandant looked like a country farmer, a bit older than the average SS man, with hair that was turning gray. But he was not heinous, and unlike his predecessors he took an interest in his prisoners. Then Grimm turned to him and said, "Herr Lagerführer, the camp for women nearby probably doesn't have a dental station. Our dentist says that he could go help the prisoners. Of course, a guard would be with him at all times."

The Kommandant looked at Grimm, stared at me, and after deliberating said, "Freilich, OK." I bit my lips to contain my exuberance.

"Thank you, Herr Lagerführer," I said as they left. Grimm later returned to tell me that the Kommandant cautioned that my entry into that camp was up to the Kommandant there. Having gotten this far, I was cautiously optimistic.

It was late in April 1943. The sun was out, giving us a deceptive taste of spring. Wherever the sun shone, winter seemed to disappear, for surrounded by the tall buildings we lived a fortresslike existence. When I told Tadek that the Old Man, as he called the Kommandant, had given me permission to go to the camp for women, he said, "Good." He added, "I talked with my brother-in-law. He'll let you use his bike."

Now I was anxious. "Tadek, when can we go?" I asked him. Wednesday was his day off, he said, and he would try to go with me then. Tadek played an important part in my life. Being a guard did not interfere with his basic good nature. In the midst of many evil guards, he was as helpful as the situation would allow. Whereas I knew that the chance of finding my sister and mother was slim, trying to find them meant a lot to me. In my heart I still had hope.

On Wednesday Tadek came to pick me up. When I was little I had watched my brother and sister on their bicycles, and riding just came to me naturally. I was too small then to reach the pedals, so I tilted the bicycle to one side and put one foot underneath the bar. Tadek's arrival with the two bicycles reminded me of those days. As we rode away from the camp, Tadek told me to remove my yellow star. "We'd better be careful," he said.

It was sunny but still quite cold. My heart pounded with excitement. The zest of life ran through me. Leaving the camp, unmarked, gave me an illusion of freedom. I didn't know which camp we would be visiting, and neither did Tadek. Not too far away we passed a village. A few peasants were working, spreading dung on their fields. Tadek asked one for directions to a village I had never heard of. "Just follow the road," the man said. Soon Tadek recognized a landmark and was certain we were going in the right direction. A few minutes later, around a curve, we saw people working on both sides of the road. As we came close, I saw guards and a hundred men grading the embankments. We were close enough to see their yellow Stars of David. Neither of us expected this.

"Just act natural," Tadek said. As we rode past, Tadek greeted the guards with "Heil Hitler!"

"Heil Hitler!" the guards replied. Then most heads raised up with curiosity. Though I wanted to see if I recognized anyone, I could not give myself away. I drove by them, stone-faced, as if I was completely disinterested. But suddenly one of them yelled out, "Look, it's Bronek, Josek's brother!" I feared their guard's reaction and put a hand over my mouth, trying to silence him. By then they all stared at me, while I remained indifferent to what the man had said. As we rode by the long rows of inmates, I kept making the hush sign. Then I thought I saw a ghost. One man's posture and the color of his sweater reminded me of my brother. When he looked back at me, I was sure it was Josek. He stopped digging, rested his arms on his spade, and looked even more shocked than I. It was a miracle, to find my brother so unexpectedly. Tadek knew something had stirred me. I whispered, "Over there, Tadek, in the beige sweater, it's my brother!" We moved off the road and stopped a hundred meters from them. If the guards noticed anything, they didn't speak.

"Tadek," I asked, "would they let me talk to my brother, even if it's just for a minute?"

"Wait," he said. "I'll go over and see."

The whole group was looking at me, wondering how I could ride around without the mark of a Jew. As Tadek walked over to the nearest guard, I followed him with my eyes, waiting anxiously for the answer. It wasn't long until he returned. "Those are inmates from Lenzingen, the camp we are going to. Their barracks are just a few kilometers down the road. He'll let you see your brother for a few minutes. They are afraid that if any of the SS from the camp come by and see it, it may cost them their jobs," he said.

When we got together, Josek and I hugged, two brothers who had never thought to see one another again. Then we sat down on a patch of grass that was free of snow. I saw that Josek hadn't changed, except that he looked thinner. I had so many questions to ask him that I found it hard to begin. I knew I had to share with him what I knew about Mama and Pola. But first I asked him how he got here, and what went on in Dobra before he was arrested.

"It was inevitable," my brother said. "The situation was ominous." Seeing that he was prepared for the worst, I told him about Mama and Pola. "Pola had chances to escape, and as for Mama, I knew it was the end," he said. "Someone had offered Pola an Aryan document, but she refused to leave Mama."

We saw the guards' impatience. When I told Josek that we were going to his camp, he said, "Don't go there. If Krusche sees you, he will kill you."

He amazed me. How could he know Krusche, and my troubles with him? I had never written home about Krusche. Krusche, he said, was their Kommandant, and when he heard that Josek's name was Jakubowicz, he asked him if he was my brother. Hearing that he was, Krusche got angry. "I hope to find your brother and see him dead someday," Krusche said. Conditions at their camp were much like ours. Most of them were working on the same railroad.

Before we parted, Josek asked me if I could come back someday. "From twelve to one we are off," he said. I promised to try to be back there very soon. I returned to Tadek. He was still scanning the road for any signs of danger. I told him that we couldn't go to the camp and why. He agreed. He wasn't anxious to see Krusche either.

It was past two by now. We had no time left to ride anywhere else, and we returned to Gutenbrunn. I told Tadek what the Old Man had told Grimm. It did not surprise him. He knew that Köhler couldn't speak for another camp's Kommandant. "Even being on the road wasn't risk-free," he said. Anyone who wanted to could cause us trouble.

Papa was returning from work as we entered the camp. I told him I had found Josek, and he could hardly believe it. Later I had to share every detail. When I told the unemotional Seidel that I had found my brother, he mumbled, "That's good."

Grimm, however, shared my joy in my good fortune. "Be careful," he cautioned. "You are on your own out there." In spite of the danger, I looked forward, blissfully, to my next day out. Grimm and I had a good relationship. He confided in me how difficult it was to minimize the harsh Nazi directives often given him and how hard it was to retain his self-respect. Working in the first aid room gave me a purpose. I could do something useful. Despite their misfortunes, some inmates here, eminently wise, affirmed their spiritual respect for life. This mitigated their sense of hopelessness.

The next Wednesday, with a few snowflakes falling, I went to the main gate and sneaked out. The young guard knew me. By now most of the guards knew me.

Then Tadek and I rode off. "It's too early to go to your brother. Let's try the women's camp first. It is only an hour away," Tadek said. With the miracle of finding Josek to boost my spirits, I had hopes of finding Pola and my mother. However remote hope is, sometimes it's stronger than logic. No matter how hard I pedaled the old bike, though, I couldn't keep up with Tadek's faster pace. Having served its usual time, my bike preferred to be in retirement.

We turned onto an unpaved road, where we saw many women working in a field. One kilometer further on was a cluster of barracks. "That," Tadek said, pointing, "is their camp." The barracks were typical single-story buildings all in rows. A fence topped with barbed wire surrounded the camp. We stopped. "Put on your patch," Tadek said. "The Kommandant here might not like seeing a camp inmate not wearing one." He left me holding the bicycles some hundred and fifty meters from the entrance, and he went alone to the gatehouse. The barracks were built of unfinished pine. It all looked like a hastily constructed job. Although I couldn't hear Tadek's conversation with the sentry, I followed their gestures. After a third joined in, I saw Tadek nodding his head. I suspected that they had reached some understanding. "The Lagerführer is not here, but they'll let you go in. However, only a few women are in the camp," Tadek said.

We leaned our bicycles against the guardhouse and entered the camp. The two Polish sentries gave us inquisitive stares and expressed particular interest in my little box. I assured them that it held only my dental tools. They looked at me with strange adulation and let me in. I followed Tadek. An eerie silence hung over the camp. So far I had not seen a single woman. My pulse raced. I didn't know what to expect. One door seemed an entrance to a kitchen. Surely someone must be there. We opened the door and saw two women in their early twenties peeling potatoes. Though I expected girls' faces, I was not prepared for their bizarre look: without hair, they looked more like young boys. Until we explained who we were and why we had come, they too were stunned. Then everything began to unfold. One of them was tall and slim, the other short and plump with a husky voice and a heavy Yiddish accent. The short one was the quicker to reply, very much the spokeswoman. They were dressed in their clothes from home and wore yellow stars. The tall one had a pleasant face, wide-open eyes, and a good figure. She wore a dark skirt and a light-colored flowered blouse. Once these clothes were fashionable, but now they were nearly rags. Had it not been for her bare head, she would have been very attractive. I asked them how long they had been here and where they were from. We found they had arrived only three weeks before. So far they had not buried any inmates. Of course, the term Mussulman--or, rather, Mussulwoman--meant nothing to them. There was not a doctor, a dentist, or even a first aid facility in their camp.

"I am Malka Rosen," the spokeswoman said in her colorless voice. "I am from Kalisz."

"Is Ruzka your sister?" I hastened to ask.

"Yes," she said. "Do you know Ruzka?"

"Did your father run a soda water business?"

"Yes," she answered.

I remembered Ruzka vividly. "Where is your sister?" I asked.

"She is here. She is now at work." I couldn't believe it! Beautiful Ruzka, here in this labor camp? We had gone to the same school, the Jewish gymnasium. I recalled a custom long forgotten. We used to promenade on the Boulevard in Kalisz for hours in the evening. Ruzka was always the most affable of company. When I calmed my surprise, I asked if anyone from Dobra was there.

"I am Chana Cimerman from Koo, not far from Dobra. I know a few girls from Dobra here," said the tall one.

"Do you know Pola Jakubowicz?"

They looked at each other, and then the spokeswoman said, "There is a Balcia Jakubowicz, from Uniejów." Balcia was my cousin, Uncle Chaim's youngest daughter. She should know more about what happened in the last days in Dobra, I thought. I knew I had to see her. I told Malka that we would be back the next Wednesday. Tadek added, "We will try to be here between ten and twelve."

"Tell my cousin about it," I added.

"I think it would be best if you came Saturday or Sunday," Malka replied. "Then all the girls will be here." I looked at Tadek, who shook his head no.

The door opened, and a broad-shouldered woman wearing a police armband came in, looking very surprised. Malka explained to her who we were. Satisfied that our visit wasn't her business, she left. Tadek reminded me that if we didn't go now, we might not get to see Josek.

It was half past twelve when we saw my brother. He and the others sat on the side of the road, resting against trees towering twelve to fifteen meters high. Tadek got off his bike and approached the same guard who had allowed me to see my brother the week before. By Josek's piercing look, I could see that he had been waiting. Since the guard had already given him permission, he came to me while the other one stared at us. The guard had told him that he could separate from his group but should remain in sight. We walked off on a path leading to some trees, about eight hundred meters away, and stopped there. We had so many things to ask one another. First he wanted to know if Papa was well. He was curious to know where he worked and what he did. Then he asked me how I found Zosia and where I got to see her. I told him in detail the miracle of our meeting. He also wondered where I had gotten the bike. Later I showed him the last letter we received from Mama and Pola and said that we had just been at a camp nearby that the Nazis had opened for Jewish women, and though many were from our area, I found neither Pola nor Mama there. After he had finished reading the letter, he shook his head and said that it had been obvious to him that the end of the ghetto was near. I also told him that I hoped to see our cousin Balcia and thought she might shed more light on the fate of our mother and sister.

I wanted to know about my friends from Dobra. "Sadly," he said, "most are in camps or dead."

When Josek had been drafted into the Polish cavalry and I had seen him dressed in his elegant uniform, I had wished I was him. When he clicked the spurs on his shiny high boots, he seemed to me the bravest man in our village. But I most liked his high-domed hat. Though it was three sizes too large for me, when I tried it on I felt like a grown-up hero. But now our six-year age difference vanished. Before we returned to the work detail, Josek asked me if I could bring Papa along with me to visit. As I left Josek and his fellow inmates, I felt embarrassed that, although we shared the same fate, I was free to go around and visit while all the others were confined to the rigorous life of hard labor.

When the inmates in Gutenbrunn heard about the women's camp, they swamped me with questions, and soon I found myself carrying notes back and forth between the camps.

One Thursday morning six inmates were brought to the camp in a now familiar scene. The SS and Gestapo henchmen had lots of experience, and the hangings seemed almost a joke to them. As the inmates returned from work, they were told to line up around the gallows. Out came the condemned, their wrists tied behind them, their flesh bulging, and their skin a grisly blue. They blinked at the bright daylight. They were led onto chairs, and their legs were tied together. After the Gestapo read their sentence, one of the condemned men raised his voice and yelled, "You will pay for this! Someday the world will take revenge for these crimes, you wretched murderers!"

A Jew's making such a threat stunned them. They probably had never heard anything like it before. "Keep your mouth shut!" a Gestapo man yelled. But the condemned man, having nothing to lose, continued to shout: "Murderers! Murderers!" We looked at one another, startled. We could see how embarrassed the Nazis were, and after a few more unsuccessful attempts to shut the man up, one scar-faced member of the Gestapo gave a signal to the hangman, and the ropes tightened. A demonic silence hung in the air. There were no more speeches, not even the reminder that this was to serve as a lesson. The six men were dead, and the hangman quickly left. Though this incident had been of no help to the condemned, their defiance was a brave act that burned itself deeply into my mind. After Dr. Seidel pronounced the men dead, the infirmary workers had the dreadful job of removing the corpses. As we carried their bodies, the echo of "Damn you, you wretched murderers!" hung in the air. Carrying our brothers' dead bodies was not easy. We didn't believe in martyrdom and looked upon every life lost as a penalty for being Jewish. That evening the turnip soup was difficult to swallow.

The following Wednesday, when Tadek and I again left the camp, I asked him if he knew of any other camps. "Yes," he said. "But they are too far away for us to go to." When we came to the women's camp, their Kommandant was away. We were told that he was only there in the afternoon. My cousin Balcia also wasn't there. One girl that needed my help, though, was glad that she had waited for me. She was in pain. I extracted one of her diseased molars. Her gums bled badly, so I brushed tincture of iodine on them and injected her with an ampoule of two cc's of vitamin C. We again passed my brother's work detail and stopped. This time I had letters from Gutenbrunn for inmates in Josek's camp. Our time quickly passed, as we spent it remembering the past.

Whereas the executioners usually came late in the afternoon, one Thursday an ambulance, followed by Gestapo and SS men, came early. Before the drama began around the gallows, our Kommandant led the visitors on an inspection. They marched through our rows, looking at us and making snide remarks. As they came slowly toward me, I saw that one, a man carrying a briefcase, was of high rank. He was a colonel, an SS Sturmbannführer. When he passed us, I was struck by his Semitic features. I turned to my right and unwisely remarked to some other inmates that he looked Jewish. The man following the colonel heard my comment, and he hit me in the face with his gloves, shouting, "Shut your mouth! You swine! Don't you know who this is? He is Sturmbannführer Adolf Eichmann!"

I wished I hadn't said it, but it was too late. Then the slim, tall Colonel Eichmann turned back, paused, looked at me, and grinned. Then, as if in an afterthought, he snapped open a thick oversized briefcase that he carried. "Look," he said. "Do you know what those are?"

That scared me. I saw rope tied neatly in four nooses. I couldn't say "nooses," for fear that the word would not pass through my lips. I didn't know what to do. Finally I said, "Herr Sturmbannführer, those are ropes."

"No, no. Those are zizith," he said gleefully, whereupon the whole entourage burst into laughter.

Though I had heard Eichmann's name mentioned, at that time I knew only that he was a Nazi bigwig. But that he knew what zizith were puzzled me. Soon afterward I heard that he also spoke some Hebrew. From then on, whenever I heard Eichmann's name, I was reminded of this bizarre encounter. In the end eight more Jews lost their lives that day in Gutenbrunn.

Hunger and hard labor were chipping away at our numbers bit by bit. Even the strong were now calling on their last reserves of energy. The monster had been devouring its prey with a ferocious appetite. "Organizing" had become more dangerous. Never a science, it now required connections and keen judgment. The squallor of our living conditions is hard to describe. Some claimed to have seen inmates inflicting wounds on themselves just to stay away from the unendurable work. In the infirmary I saw wounds and cuts on inmates that couldn't possibly have been accidental.

Mendele was our best source of news in those days. When he came one day to tell me what he had heard, he looked broken. "They are liquidating all the ghettos," he said. "They are gassing, burning, or machine gunning all the Jews." It was so startling, so unbelievable, that I had to stop listening to him. But when he swore by God, I believed him. I realized that we could be next. Zosia had visited only rarely, and when she came we hardly moved from the gate.

One Saturday an inmate told me that Zosia was waiting at the kitchen gate. As in times past, with no sentry near, we walked slowly toward our rendezvous place. This was unmistakably the nicest day that spring. Robins, swallows, and sparrows crisscrossed our path, chirping away. Their song was the only sound we heard. Fallen branches and trees toppled by the winter lay on the ground. Where sunshine hadn't reached, the young ferns seemed very pale. After a while we came to a clearing, and the bright sunshine invited us to sit down. We hadn't made love for some time, and sitting close to her I knew what I wanted. As I drew close, I saw that she felt the same, and soon we succumbed.

As we lay on the sun-warmed moss, she said, "We heard about the dreadful things the Germans are doing now to Jewish people. My family thought that you ought to come and stay at our house until the war is over. You'll be safe there." Then she added that the Allies had successfully landed on the Greek island of Crete, and that many Italians had turned to fight the Germans, and that the Russians were chasing the Nazis out of their land. "We have enough room for you and your father in the cellar. You'll both be comfortable there," she said.

She caught me speechless. I was overwhelmed. I realized that her family must have planned this for some time. Surely they must understand the danger to them. "Do you know what it might cost you if we were found staying in your house?" I answered. "You may not know, but harboring Jews is punished by death now."

"We live on a small street, and Germans rarely come there. You will be safe with us," she assured me.

The idea that they were ready to risk their lives for us was remarkable by itself. I thanked her and promised to discuss it with my father. She gave me bread and some more antacids for my ulcer. "Bronek," she said, "the war can't last much longer. Please think seriously about escaping from here."

Then we parted, leaving in different directions. When I came out of the forest, I saw two peasants crossing a field. I waited until they were out of sight, and then I returned to the camp. Rachmiel knew of Zosia, and when I passed him, he grinned. Inmates were waiting for the kitchen window to open so they could quickly grab some soup to still their hunger. Seeing this, I thought of Zosia's prediction. "The war won't last much longer." But for many, I thought, the end might come too late. I was bothered by guilt over my relationship with Zosia, but not because we had sex. It wasn't lust, I had rationalized. I really loved Zosia very much. I was not sure how long I would survive the camp. Still, comparing my life with those of my fellow inmates, I was the lucky one.

I walked to our block. A lone unburned log lay beside the stove. Bright rays of sunlight covered the wood floor. I began to mull over Zosia's proposal. I was in a terrible predicament. I felt that living in a cellar wasn't a good trade-off for what our life was like now. My father was still the coffee man in the Herdecke Kommando, and being the dentist made my day-to-day life bearable. Survival at this camp wasn't our foremost concern. Yet the offer Zosia put forward was simply too good not to deserve serious attention. When Papa heard about it, he was stunned. It was also the first time I mentioned Zosia's name to him. Reaching the right decision was not easy. I had my misgivings, and I was sure Papa had his. We carefully weighed everything we could think of, and in the end, Papa said it was up to me to decide. I knew that our roles had reversed. "Whatever you decide," he said, "will be all right with me." Still I was torn with uncertainties, and our dilemma remained unresolved.

The next time I went to see my brother, his work group was no longer working on the road. Though Tadek tried to find out where he was, I did not see him again there. At the same time it seemed that a plot around us had been thickening. The Nazi monster, now wounded and in convulsions, hastened his game, devouring his prey as never before. Many disturbing rumors circulated about the Jews who were still in the ghettos. New names like Majdanek and Sobibór were mentioned. Newly arrived inmates told us about the heroic uprising in the Warsaw ghetto and the battle that had followed. The few Jews who never doubted their end fought thousands of heavily armed Germans, they said, and inflicted heavy casualties on the Nazis. At first it was hard to believe, but as more Jews arrived, more stories detailed the ghetto's brave and fearless battles. They spoke of it with a pride I had never heard expressed before. We wanted to hear those stories over and over. We thought that the Jews had finally broken the long-standing myth of their being incapable of fighting back.

"The bastards are going to kill us all," Mendele angrily said. "If I had a gun, I would kill a hundred of them before they got me." A lot of us agreed. If we didn't rise up to fight here, it was for many reasons. Barely alive, we had nothing to rise up with. Killing one German would have meant retaliation on hundreds of us.

It was the end of May 1943, and though I had been to the women's camp several times, I had yet to see my cousin. Once again I asked Tadek if he could take me there on a weekend, but he again said no. When I suggested that we go there one evening, I saw him waver. He was close to saying yes. "If someone catches me," he said, "I'll end in Gutenbrunn, with you." Finally, when I insisted, he agreed, and we made plans for a Monday night visit, at half past ten. "This time we have to go on foot," he cautioned. He also warned me that no one was to know, not even my father. But first I had to find a way out of camp. I knew that Rachmiel could leave the back door of the kitchen unlocked. As I had often carried notes for him, it wasn't difficult for me to persuade him. In the evening when I left, I told my father not to worry if I came back late. It was warm that night, though clouds blocked the moon. Yet I was shivering, perhaps from fear and excitement. When I came to the kitchen, the door was unlocked, and a small package and a note were nearby. "Come on," Tadek said. "We have to get through this forest first."

Past the woods we heard the sound of a rushing river. We followed the stream, and when it narrowed, we jumped across. Then we crossed a stone fence. "We have to be careful now. We are coming to a road," he warned me. I followed him with Rachmiel's bundle under my arm. We were suddenly startled by automobile headlights. As they got closer, they suddenly swerved and sped away from us. This crisis over, we walked to the camp.

The perimeter guard must have heard us, because he came out of his guardhouse and looked around. Tadek walked slowly to him, and I remained out of sight. My heart raced with fear and anticipation. It seemed to me that I had lost all safety in being there. In any case, it was too late to go back now. When Tadek returned, he whispered that at first the guard wouldn't permit me to go in. Only after he had told him that I would slip into the camp while Tadek and he walked around the fence, so that he would not see me, had the guard agreed. "That way, if someone catches you, we will say that we didn't know." This was their condition, and I had to accept it.

As soon as they both disappeared into the dark, I sneaked inside. Except for the lights flooding some areas, which I carefully avoided, the camp was dark. As I raced to the first barracks, I felt my heart and my head pounding. How would I find my cousin at night in this mysterious place? I wished I had not come. At the barracks I slowly tested the steps, so that I would not make an unexpected noise and wake someone. I opened the door and tiptoed inside. It was dark in the room, and the air hung heavy with human sweat. The women were breathing out of rhythm. Soon my eyes got accustomed to the darkness, and I could make out a woman on a bunk. I tugged her blanket gently. She raised her head and gave me a startled look. I told her to be quiet. "Don't be afraid," I whispered. "I am the Jewish dentist who comes here weekly. I am looking for my cousin Balcia. I know she is here."

The girl was still scared. She pulled her blanket up to her chin and didn't answer me. By now I had awakened others. They moved slowly, like zombies, on their bunks. "Who is there?" I heard them ask. When they learned that I was the dentist and that I was looking for Balcia Jakubowicz, one said she knew her. "She is in Block 5," she added.

"Which is Block 5?" I asked.

The woman slid off her bunk and said she would take me there. We moved slowly, as she led me along the aisle. Curiosity brought questions from the women about their relatives and friends. "Is Shmiel with you? Do you know Hershel Mayer?" one asked. "Do you know my brother? my father? my uncle? my cousin?" I recognized one of the names, and that woman got excited. "Oh my God! He's alive." I promised to tell him about her.

As we reached the end of the aisle, my guide pointed to the door. "When you go out of here, you'll be facing another door. That's Block 5," she said, wanting to return to her bunk. I thanked her, turned the doorknob, stepped out, and found myself outside.

I moved in the dark and went inside the next block. There were the same piles of people, the same tired bodies, the same sweaty air. Their breathing was punctuated with occasional snoring. I remained unnoticed until I touched a woman's leg. She opened her eyes and looked frightened. She was about to scream. "Shh," I said, putting my finger on my mouth. When I told her who I was, she calmed down. Then I asked where Balcia was.

"Balcia? She is here somewhere," she said. Others also woke up, eager to find out what was going on. And then I heard someone quietly saying my first name. I recognized the voice. It was Rifka, a girl from Dobra.

"Is that you, Bronek? How did you get here?" she asked, keeping her voice low. "Balcia is right there."

When Balcia and I were kids, she was quite a tomboy. But when I saw her last, in 1938, she was fourteen and a good-humored teenager. I kneeled down to see her. Her head rose up, hitting against the bunk. Her wide, tawny eyes were sleepy. At first she didn't recognize me, but as she fixed her eyes on me, her face lit up. "It's you, Bronek. I had heard you were here."

As she stood up in her nightgown, I saw that she was no longer the gawky little girl I had known. Though the hair was shaved off her head, she looked like a mature woman. When she began saying things about home, I fixed myself on every word she said. Her sister Toba and her mother were taken to Chelmno, where my mother and sister were also sent. I remembered her brother Alje, a soldier killed fighting in the first days of the war. Another brother, Mayer, who was my age, was hanged by the Germans, along with Icek Lijek, Shlomo Lczycki, Moishe Neuman, and Hamek Lewkowicz. She talked about all this in a calm voice, as if such cruelty was just commonplace now. Next she told me about what had happened to her sister Mania.

"When the war began," Balcia continued, "Mania married her long-time friend from Lodz, and Aaron, a baby boy, was born to them. When they were all driven into the Lodz ghetto, they feared for his life. Babies were not to live in the ghetto. Her husband's job was to gather the dead in the street and bring them to the Jewish cemetery," she continued. "To save the baby, her husband built a tiny compartment under the seat of his cart and kept the baby there during the day. The hearse is Aaron's crib," she said. At the time of Balcia's arrest, the baby had still been alive. A long silence followed. Then Balcia asked me about my father, her uncle Wigdor. I told her that Papa was with me. I also told her how I had found Josek.

It was unusual for the women to see a strange man in their room, especially in the middle of the night. They looked at me as if I weren't real. Then I saw the familiar face of a girl in a long flannel nightgown who was listening to us. When she saw I was staring at her, she said, "Bronek, is that you?" I knew then that it was Ruzka Rosen, sweet Ruzka whom I had once been so attracted to. Sweat began to run down my forehead, hazing over my eyes. I saw that she was also moved. But so much had changed. I knew that neither she nor I could still feel the same about one another as we had in the old days in Kalisz.

It was past midnight. I knew that Tadek was growing impatient. I left Rachmiel's package, said good-bye to Balcia and Ruzka, and began to trace my steps back. I found Tadek in a deep conversation with the sentry in front of the guardhouse. Gabbing was Tadek's forte. "Let's go," he said when he saw me coming.

If I had had any illusions about my mother and sister escaping their terrible deaths, it was now gone. I knew then that I would never see them again. As Tadek and I approached the road on the way back to our camp, we saw a convoy of German panzers and troop vehicles coming. My heart pounded, as if they were driving straight at us. We fell to the ground, flattened ourselves, and waited, absolutely motionless. The darkness was our ally. We kept our heads on the ground until all the vehicles passed. Then we cautiously crossed the road, and returned by the same route.

A half hour later we saw the outline of Gutenbrunn. I knew then of the real danger of my undertaking. I promised myself never to dare anything like that again. Papa was still awake. He looked relieved to see that I was back. Except for Tadek, Rachmiel, and I, no one at Gutenbrunn knew what had occurred that night. I couldn't sleep. My heart throbbed with pain. Why did they have to die? Why, oh God, such a horrible death? I had to stop thinking of it. I wanted to remember them as I had once known them.

The next day I told Papa where I had gone the previous night. When he heard what I had learned from Balcia, we both realized that all that we held dear was now lost.

Zosia now came to the camp weekly and often reminded me of her proposal. Although I had been seriously considering it, something inside me kept me from deciding. "You must not plunge yourself and your father into a worse hell than this," a voice told me. Escaping from Gutenbrunn was still possible, but for a Jew to pass through Poznan was extremely risky, and if we succeeded in getting to the Zasinas, we had something else to fear. We knew that in spite of their good intentions, in a crisis situation they would have to turn us over to the Germans. By comparison, we were not that bad off here. Papa still had his job brewing coffee, and I enjoyed some benefits. Small as they were, they were still very important. The next Saturday Zosia came again. She looked beautiful, in her simple Polish peasant dress. As we had done before, we walked from the camp along the path that led to the forest. As soon as we were at a distance she renewed her bid, asking me if we had made a decision. "My father urged me to ask you when you are coming," she said. The decision was a difficult one, I told her, letting her know that we had decided to stay. She showed her disappointment. When she left she asked me to reconsider.

The next time I went to the women's camp, Tadek and I encountered difficulties. The sentries said their new Kommandant had forbidden them to let us in. A few women who were expecting me looked on while Tadek pleaded with the sentries to let me in. But we were unable to persuade them and had to leave. Though Tadek promised to make an attempt to get permission from the new Kommandant, this was the end of my travels with him.

On Saturday Rachmiel came to the infirmary and whispered, "The shiksele and someone else are at the kitchen gate." Both Zosia and her father had come to try and change my mind about leaving the camp.

"There is little you have to fear being with us," her father said. "No one will ever find you." I told him that though we were humbled and grateful, we had decided that our best chance was to remain in Gutenbrunn.

In a final attempt to persuade me, Zosia said, "It's too bad, Bronek. We have made everything ready for you." Their warmheartedness overwhelmed me, but I was unable to imagine surviving any length of time in a cellar.

Everything had a value in camp. Bread was the most wanted, but potato peelings were the most traded commodity. As bed rest curfew began at eight, there was a rush to the barracks stove before then. The healthy peelings didn't smell bad, but the once-frozen ones made the barracks reek like a cow barn. All essentials had an established trading value. For example, one cigarette was worth two handfuls of potato peelings.

My most frequent dental procedure was extracting loose and diseased teeth, often with little or no anesthetic. Because of a lack of nutrients, especially vitamin C, I also saw a great deal of gingivitis and periodontitis. All I could do for the inmates suffering from these diseases was to give temporary relief with tinctures of merbromin and iodine. Within weeks those people suffered more serious gum deteriorations, and most of their teeth had to be extracted. In time I became inventive enough to scrape decayed dentine from cavities with excavators and explorers and to deaden the nerve with an arsenic paste. Meanwhile, more inmates had reached the state of Mussulmen--easily detected by edema and bulging eyes--and they were dying. That was inconsequential to the Nazis, since a telephone call or a memo brought more Jews to replace the ones who died.

The newly arrived hoped to find a semblance of humane treatment, but they soon saw that they had been brought here to work in a systematic process of destruction. They lost their strength within weeks. My stomach had been raising havoc. The antacids only relieved the throb for a half hour at best. I continually wondered, Am I condemned to this for the rest of my life? Will I ever be normal again?

By now we were on our fourth or fifth Lagerführer. It seemed that Gutenbrunn was their training camp. I don't recall this one's name. In any case, he was one of the young Nazi breed. Strict, rigid, and unyielding, he was obsessed with Ordnung (neatness). He, and only he, ran the camp. If Grimm was not at the gate in the morning to salute the new Kommandant, he was seriously reprimanded. The Kommandant showed his anger with his whip. Everything had to be just so, his way, the German way. Surely, he would have never allowed me to go out to another camp. His orders were always preceded by the cynical SS epithets Faulenzer (malingerer) and Drückeberger (shirker).

There was anger in the Kommandant's face as he and Grimm entered the infirmary one day. "Scheiße," he yelled. "Where is the doctor? Why did he leave that saboteur in the camp? He should be out working with the others."

Dr. Seidel got scared. At first he tried to explain to the Nazi the medical problems of the sick inmates. But seeing that this did not quiet him down, Seidel told the Kommandant that he acted in the best interest of the camp. "As his wounds heal, the inmate will become productive again." Normally this would have made sense, but it didn't to this man. The Kommandant said that he wouldn't tolerate inmates whom he thought could be working being idle in the camp. As a result of this, Dr. Seidel had to send many inmates to work whom he might have otherwise exempted.

Although we had heard of the Final Solution and its significance, it was hard to accept this new hard line that threatened the life of everyone. It had become the camp's main concern. Our days in Gutenbrunn were even more troubled. A sense of catastrophe hung in the air. In more than two years of being in labor camps, I had not seen such anguish. Soon we noticed significant changes. We were told that the Russians were racing through Poland. The guards watched us like hawks. It went on like this until the beginning of August 1943, and our deportation was announced.

One day Rachmiel informed me that Zosia was outside the kitchen window waiting to talk to me. It was no longer possible for me to leave the camp grounds. I went through the kitchen, over to the iron-barred window. When she heard of the plans for our immediate deportation, she reminded me of her family's standing offer. Could I still find a way to leave Gutenbrunn? she asked. "We begged you," she said. I too had been thinking about it. Had I known earlier that we would be deported, my father and I would probably have left. Zosia and I took one last look at each other and said a final good-bye. Her parting words were "I'll find you and come to see you, wherever you are."

That day was the last time that we saw one another. I remember Zosia as a kind, loving human being. She had always been ready to help us, regardless of the hardships she had to endure or the risks she had to take. In a world of terror, in a world littered with hatred, she still regarded us as human beings. All my attempts to find her after the war were fruitless. I was told that she had died in an Allied bombardment somewhere in Germany, where she was working as a forced laborer.

A few days after Zosia's last visit, the camp leaders stopped sending us out to work, and Grimm told us that we would be leaving within a couple of days. When I went to the infirmary for the last time, I saw a few sick inmates staring at me. I knew they were being left behind. They knew that their fate had been already decided. As I gathered my instruments, I couldn't say good-bye. It would have been too painful.

I joined Papa on his bunk. It was a long, silent night. Just an occasional sigh was heard. The thought of what lay ahead gnawed at all of us. The uncertainty even overshadowed my stomach pain. I listened to my father's heartbeat and remembered when, as a young boy, I sat on his lap, feeling warm and protected. We could do little for one another here, but having someone close meant sharing traumas that the others had to endure alone.

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