The Nizkor Project: Remembering the Holocaust (Shoah)

The Dentist of Auschwitz

Chapter 11
On Cattle Cars to Auschwitz

It was early morning. I had barely fallen asleep when I heard the police shouting, "Get up! We are moving out." Our freedom was slipping further away. Instantly everyone was in motion. A half hour later the twenty-six hundred "good workers" stood in rows of fives. Papa was at my right, my instrument box was on my left, and the ubiquitous soup utensil, the menashka,dangled in front of me.

As the main gates opened, I had hoped to see Tadek, but our guards were gone. In their place stood an echelon of tall, stern-faced Croats wearing Waffen SS uniforms. Their green jackets were buttoned up to their chins, and heavy carbines hung over their shoulders. The black-uniformed German SS men held German shepherds on leashes. We were ordered to march.

As we rounded the corner, I took a last glance at Gutenbrunn, which had been my home for more than a year. During this time I had believed that if Papa and I could endure just a little while longer, the Soviet army would free us. We were now on a winding road, parallel to the tracks that had just been built. The tracks, once so busy, looked deserted now. Our marching raised clouds of dust that swirled around us. As we passed Herdecke's hut, he stood in the doorway looking at us. I tipped my cap, and he nodded. I saw good-bye in his eyes.

I had regarded him as my good fortune in Gutenbrunn. I was reminded of the others who had helped me, here and in Steineck: Zosia, Stasia, Witczak, and Tadek. The good people remained much longer in my mind and heart than the villains did. Someone once said, "No memorial has ever been built for bad deeds."

"Quickly! Quickly!" the guards rushed us. After an hour we came to a road. Alongside it were three tracks. About fifty cattle cars waited on one of them, and about a dozen railroad people milled around. Beyond them was the station and a couple of steam locomotives. These tracks had been built by the sweat and blood of our brothers.

The SS men rolled open the doors of the cattle cars, and the real drama unfolded. The floor of the cars was more than a meter off the ground and difficult for inmates to climb up to. The guards again yelled, "Quickly!" and then we were beaten and pushed into the cars with their rifle butts. Though the cars were nearly full, they kept shoving more in. Only when the wagons were packed to the limit were the doors rolled shut. To avoid being beaten, some inmates ran like the animals that these cars were built to carry. Eventually our turn came. Thanks to some inmate's outstretched hands, Papa and I were able to pull ourselves up. More and more inmates were forced in. The wagon door slid closed behind us, and there was no room to stand.

The old cattle cars were three meters high inside. About two and a half meters up from the splintered board floor were four twenty-by-twenty-eight-centimeter openings. Each had two iron bars across it, strung with barbed wire. Only the very tall inmates standing on their toes could reach them. The SS men were talking leisurely, which meant that we weren't leaving yet. The sound of their conversations created fear in us. Soon the heat became unbearable. Tempers wore thin. "We'll all die here. These are our coffins," someone said in panic. "Give me a little room. I can't get any air," another said. Papa and I were wedged in. People begged for a little space, but it was useless.

As the sun set, we had still not departed. Finally we heard an engine whistle. We guessed that it must have been after nine o'clock when we moved out of the station. We were a swaying mass. Each time the locomotive slowed or banked in a curve, we were jostled from side to side. My father tried to sit on the floor, which was no small feat. Although we were told that it would take two days to reach our destination, we did not know where we were headed.

It was dark. Only occasionally moonlight passed through the small air slots in the wagon. At times Papa and I reversed positions, one sitting and the other standing, the instrument box always between us. I rested my head on my bent knees and tried to sleep. The sound of the moving wheels eventually put me to sleep, and that's when my torment began. Each time the car passed over a rail joint, I heard two words, doom and death, which stayed with me, an unending morbid echo, until the trip ended. As we snaked through the countryside the train swerved and rolled. All that we had been deprived of in Steineck and Gutenbrunn was minor compared with this. There seemed no bottom to our abyss.

I tried to move to the window to get air, but it was impossible. At dawn I tried again. This time I pushed hard, and my persistence was rewarded. I was 1.7 meters, and a fellow prisoner had to give me a boost so I could look out the window. I gulped a few deep breaths, which eased my distress a little. The train had just come to a screeching halt. As I looked out, a nearby guard stared me in the face. His merciless, unconcerned look said that I was a hardened criminal. The early sunrise had just touched the window grates. One inmate seemed happy that our Lagerführer was with us. "He can tell them what good workers we are." What an absurdity to believe that the Lagerführer was there to help us. How much of an ally could the Kommandant be? He was only there to deliver his slaves.

Our biggest dilemma was satisfying our physical needs. Everything that we once did in private had to be done now in public. Our soup bowls became chamber pots. We tried to dispose of the excrement through the wired windows but were unsuccessful. Our car began to smell like an outhouse. By midday, in the heat, it got even worse.

Should I eat now or save the bread for later? This was a constant inner debate. By this time thirst parched our throats. Our cries for water did not let up. "Water! Water!" someone dared to say to a passing guard.

"Shut your mouth," he replied. It was past noon. The cars moved a few meters forward and that much back. Each time the locomotive whistled, we thought we were about to leave. Most of us were stripped to the waist.

We got under way again, and each lurch of the wagon toppled us on top of each other. Finally, when the train stopped, Papa and I made our way to a window. When I raised him up to reach the air, I realized how little he now weighed. One inmate at another window looked to see the end of our convoy. "They must have added more cars at the last stop," he observed. "We're now at least a hundred cars. Our convoy stretches all the way around the bend."

Suddenly the door to our wagon rolled open, and an SS man placed a pail of water in our car. Each man was allowed to take one ladleful, about two handfuls, and pass the ladle to the next man. Each drop of water was precious. It did a lot to quench our most pressing thirst. I promised myself then that if I ever got the chance I would immerse myself in water. The SS guard left the door open. The fetid smell was still there, but this was a definite improvement.

As we began to move again, my father thought that we had passed Nowe Miasto nad Warta, a town southeast of Poznan. "If we continue on that route," he observed, "we will be coming by Katowice." Katowice was a well-known city in the coal mining region of Poland.

Nighttime was a bit cooler and brought some relief in the car. But as soon as I fell asleep, I heard the two words again, doom and death. Even when I awoke, I couldn't drown them out with other thoughts. While passing over bridges, the words inside my head reverberated, and I thought I was going insane.

The train came to a halt. We were at Pleszew. The wagons jerked back and forth until they stopped. We were on a side track about two hundred meters from the station. Since we were the least important cargo, we were left standing there. "You know who lived here in Pleszew?" Papa asked me. "My sister Malka and your uncle Mordechai. You remember their daughter, Jadzia, who was Pola's age?" I remembered Jadzia well. She was slim and tall and had a small cream-colored face. I remembered visiting them one time when I was very young. Papa sighed and said, "God knows where they are now." Pleszew was a fairly large city. "We are a long way from Katowice," Papa said plaintively.

We remained standing there until morning. Many trains passed during the night carrying German soldiers and civilians. We watched as their comfortable, brightly lit cars passed by. These travelers casually glanced in our direction, and we looked back at them through our barred windows.

By midmorning a few civilians had gathered around our train. Menashe, the spunky Jewish policeman from Gutenbrunn, who was now with us in our car, begged them to bring us water. "They heard me!" he suddenly shouted. "Someone is bringing us water."

We were already jockeying for positions close to the door when a loud voice outside ordered, "Halt." Then we heard the same voice yelling, "Zurückgehen" (Turn back). A guard had seen the civilian carrying the pail of water.

One inmate moaned, "The SS made the man pour it on the ground." There was no water for us at that station.

This was our second day. This should have been the end of our trip. Our rations were gone, and our hunger and thirst had become intense. One man asked our guard where we were being taken. "I don't know," the Croat answered in his twisted German. I reached into my pockets, hoping to find some crumbs. But I only found a few bits of lint.

A little while later we began moving again. At each whistle we believed that the train would stop and we would be at our destination. My father still thought we were headed for Katowice. Finally we arrived. We were at Katowice.

The streets were lit, and the factories spewed dark smoke. It seemed that the war hadn't caused much damage here. Even the railroad station was brightly lit. As we passed through the city and kept moving, I could see my father's great disappointment. He had thought Katowice was our destination because of the many iron factories and steel foundries there. "They could use us here," he said.

We were puzzled. We hoped this traveling purgatory would soon end. The locomotive labored hard and loud, pulling the long train up a mountain. At night it slowed further, and we again stopped. After the usual tugging and screeching, we ended up stopped on a dead track. The guard slid the door open wide so we could empty our overflowing buckets. We were near Czestochowa. Czestochowa was a well-known Catholic mecca. There at Jasna Góra was the shrine to the Black Madonna. I remembered pilgrims frequently passing through our village, some walking barefoot, bound for this shrine.

It rained during the night. This was a blessing, for the rain cooled the railcar and us. At four in the morning we still idled. As the sun rose we could see the mountains. Suddenly there was excitement. "Boruch Hashem!" (Thank God), someone yelled, as vats and baskets were moved to our train. I tried to get up, but I was fused into a solid mass of bodies. My legs were cramped, and I couldn't straighten up. It took about an hour before the SS guards opened our wagon door. Understandably, when it opened, pandemonium broke out. Although we got nearly double the usual ration of bread and a ladle of coffee each, we gulped it all down at once. Why keep some for later? It would only cause a struggle.

The results were astonishing. "They want to keep us alive," we all thought. Since the heat was not excessive that day, and the door had been ajar for a while, and our thirst was quenched, as was our hunger, this was the best day of the journey. Then, all too soon, the guards slid the wagon doors shut and slammed their latches. They were ready to take us farther on.

The name of the next station was obscure. After a few more kilometers our transport took a course to the south, where we passed the peaks of Wieliczka. A while later the train stopped again. The rest of the day train men moved our cars from one track to another to let other trains go by. At evening we were about to enter our fourth day of travel. It was anybody's guess as to when and where it would end.

Time had been passing very slowly. I took advantage of the stilled wheels and fell asleep. It must have been past midnight when I heard movement. It was pitch dark. Only an occasional engine whistle broke the loud noise of the wheels. The only other sounds were the groans and moans of my fellow passengers. I looked at Papa's ashen face, and in it I saw thoughts as dark as mine.

It is I who is responsible if you must die, Papa, I thought. It was I who decided to stay in Gutenbrunn rather than accept Zosia's offer. There is no way I can express my regret to you.

The wheels continued: doom and death. I felt broken and afraid of the future. I pitied all the others that didn't know that they too were going to die. Don't you know, my brothers? You too are doomed. The train suddenly sped up as if it were in a hurry. I could not keep my eyes open any longer. The harder I tried, the heavier my lids became. Even when I was asleep, the message "doom and death" sounded with each bump. Oh God! Why are you letting them do this to us? Why are you giving them such an easy victory? Certainly our God wasn't there, or else he hadn't been listening. I dreamed on.

I woke up numb. Fear had dulled my senses. We knew it was night, but no one knew the time. We thought it was two thirty or three o'clock. I lay pressed against my father. I was certain these were my last hours. The train slowed, and the engine whistled. Smoke trickled into our car through the cracks and windows. We thought it was the smell of the locomotives. The train crept on, a centimeter at a time. We were not near a settlement. We did not know where we were. It was strange: we were not near any station either. Why did the trains move so slowly? People near the window said that they could see only bare fields.

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