The Nizkor Project: Remembering the Holocaust (Shoah)

The Dentist of Auschwitz

Chapter 15
The Death March

At eight in the morning on January 11, 1945, we were each given half a kilo of bread, two squares of margarine, and a generous portion of marmalade. The guards searched each barracks and destroyed whatever they thought had any value.

It was a dry and cold day. The snow blew around, and some of the roads were partly covered. We were arranged in fives, as usual, yet for some reason we were kept standing in one place. "We are waiting to meet up with Buna and the other camps around here," Hermann said. Finally, near midnight, we were separated into units of one hundred and left Fürstengrube. One SS guard with a rifle marched about every ten meters beside us. My brother and I were in the second row. Srulek Lipshitz, the electrician, and Willy and Viky Engel were with us. The Kapos and the much-feared Oberkapo Wilhelm Henkel were just ahead of us. The sound of our boots echoed loudly in the silent night. Many military vehicles were passing us, also headed west.

Suddenly we heard a loud bang, as if a firecracker had exploded. We were puzzled. A few minutes later we passed an inmate lying dead on the road with blood trickling from his head. We had found the source of the noise. Soon Josef Hermann came along the lines with a warning: "The guards will shoot anyone who doesn't keep up with us." A few minutes later someone staggered and fell. We looked on in horror as a guard shot him. Before long so many lay dead on the road that we had to walk carefully to avoid stepping on the bodies. At about four o'clock in the morning we came to another group of inmates. They came from Buna.

It was still dark when we were ordered to stop at a big farm. The barn was open, and we were told that we would stay there the rest of the night. My brother and I dug ourselves into the straw; my dental tools lay beside me. My eyes shut, and I quickly fell asleep. When it was barely daylight the Kapos flung their whips and yelled, "Eintreten!" The guards seemed to be in a big hurry. We took our positions in the same rows and left without being counted. Then we learned that we were going to Gleiwitz, a city about seventy kilometers further on.

It had snowed overnight. The snow was heavier and more difficult to walk in. Our shoes got wet, and our feet froze. There were more inmate executions along the road. In the light of day we could clearly see that those who had barely begun to fall behind were shot and left on the snowy road. The killers were not embarrassed. It was routine now. At midday we were ordered to stop at the side of the road. Though the sun shone brightly above us, it failed to bring warmth to our line of half frozen, hungry nomads. I had saved a few scraps of bread and ate them in very small bites. After nearly three more hours of walking I felt weak. Everything looked fuzzy, and my knees buckled. "Josek, I can't," I remember saying to my brother as I weaved and staggered. He gripped me by my arm and asked Willy, who was on my other side, also to hold on to me. The three of us slowed down, and we kept falling back until we were in the very last row.

The other inmates recognized me. "It's Bronek, the dentist. He'll be next." I was barely dragging my feet, and my head bobbed up and down. Three guards were behind us. Though fully aware of the consequences and though I tried hard, I stopped thinking about what threatened me. I just wanted to be left on the ground to rest.

"Berek," my brother kept encouraging me, "move." Josek and Willy practically carried me. "Berek, it isn't far. We'll stop behind this hill," Josek urged me on in panic. But we did not stop there, and then I really felt defeated. My brother unfolded the blanket that I had carried away from Fürstengrube and draped it around my shoulders.

"Just leave me," I begged him and Willy. But they kept holding on to me, insisting that we would surely stop at the next farm.

Suddenly Schmidt came by us on his motorcycle. "Was ist los mit dem Zahnarzt?" (What is wrong with the dentist?), he asked.

"He is too weak to walk anymore, Herr Lagerführer," my brother answered him.

"Hold on, dentist, I'll send the Lagerältester over," I heard him say as he sped away. A short time later he came back with Josef Hermann on the rear seat, and I soon felt something being pushed into my mouth. It was vodka. Although it burned my mouth and throat, I swallowed it and took a few more sips. Suddenly I felt my legs grow stronger, and this enabled me to walk until we stopped at the next farm. There I sank to the snowy ground.

"Stand up and wait a few more minutes until we're counted," my brother said. That, I sensed, was my salvation, but it was too big an effort for my buckling legs. Josek helped me up and wedged me between a wagon and its wheel that were next to us. With that support I got through the roll call, and then we got food for the first time since leaving Fürstengrube. We were to stay overnight in the barn.

I remember someone shaking me. I opened my eyes, and my brother was staring at me. "Get out, or they'll kill you," he said, tugging on me. At first I didn't know where I was. In my hazy memory I recalled the previous day. I couldn't believe that I was still alive and was petrified at having to march yet another day. But feeling remarkably stronger, as if new life had been breathed into me during the night, I left the barn.

Several inmates were missing. The guard's bayonets jabbed deep down into the piles of straw. "Raus!" they yelled, to scare them out. Soon three prisoners covered in straw emerged and were kicked into the lines. More threats followed, and when no others emerged from the straw, Pfeiffer yelled a warning: "I'll give you one more chance before I burn down the barn." That failed to bring them out. We counted and found that twelve were still missing.

That morning we got bread, butter, and coffee and left without the twelve escapees. Pfeiffer did not burn the barn down as he had threatened. That was the largest group of inmates I knew of ever to escape. It was another frosty day, and as we moved out the killing began again. It seemed as if we were on a unrelenting pilgrimage of death. At the next settlement was an old stone church with a slate roof and copper spires. In front of it were large heaps of snow. The guards grinned at pretty girls who watched us being dragged through their town. To them we probably did not look human. Outside the town one sign read twenty-eight kilometers to Gleiwitz. We hoped this death march would finally end there. Schmidt, with Josef Hermann behind him on the motorcycle, kept circling us. At noon we stopped to rest. The fields looked peaceful buried under deep snow. Because this region was now swarming with Waffen SS troops, we wondered if the twelve inmates who escaped earlier could elude them. Knowing how far we had still to go, Josek kept checking on me.

When we neared Gleiwitz, it was already dark. There the foundries, mills, and railroads were still intact. Some smokestacks emitted heavy, dark soot. We were led through the center of the town amid a large convoy of military vehicles, which passed us. Eventually we came to a large group of prisoners, who were enclosed behind an eight-meter-high wire fence covered with an iron roof that was normally used to store coal. Two railroad tracks ran to the inside. The prisoners came from the Deutsche Werke, an iron foundry outside Gleiwitz. Some inmates from Fürstengrube had arrived before us. The remnants of coal were everywhere. We each received a bit of bread, coffee, and a small sausage. We remained there through the night.

Early the next morning we were ordered to board open cars ordinarily used to transport cattle. It was an inescapable irony. In the August heat we were driven in closed cars. The cars were about two and a half meters high and about five and a half meters from front to rear. A guard was posted at each end. Only forty of us fitted into one car, but by pushing and shoving, the guards got another twenty people in. I clutched my bag against my body with barely enough room to stand. "Wie viele Stücke hast Du?" (How many pieces have you got?), a Croatian guard asked a Ukrainian guard. They could not communicate well. Counting and recounting, they finally agreed. Then the locomotives started up, and with whistles blaring they began to move us west, away from possible liberation, deeper into Germany.

At first the cars moved slowly, bouncing and swaying. One locomotive pulled, and another pushed, as the many wagons snaked up and around the town. It had snowed again, and the skies were still heavy with winter clouds. Soon a couple of tin cans appeared, and the prisoners lowered them down with twine to scoop up some snow. "Don't eat the snow, because you'll be more thirsty," Dr. Seidel cautioned. But the thirst prevailed, and no one heeded his warning. The cans went down and came back up with snow, and everybody devoured it. My brother found enough room to lower himself and sit down. Suddenly he jumped up, for someone was urinating on him. We even lacked a pail in our car.

At night our thirst increased. After a while the locomotive slowed and pushed onto a dead track. By then one prisoner was dead, and another was close to death. A guard ordered them thrown off the cars. Then he went by the cars and asked how many more were dead. "There is no room for half dead," the Unterscharführer said. "Throw them out." Soon they were hurled out and fell to the ground with a thud. Those near death died. The men who had died while we were moving were piled up and tossed off the wagons at each stop. Sometimes we could see bodies flying out of the cars while we were moving. We were often shuttled between stations to let the priority trains move by. Then came the tugging backward and forward, after which we stopped on a track leading to nowhere. We thought that this trip would only end when all of us died.

Light snow began to fall, and then it became heavier and snowed throughout the night. The snow melted on the blankets we had carried with us, and the water froze and turned them stiff. We had not been given food or water all day, and despite Dr. Seidel's warning everyone took his turn at the snow.

As the trains slowed on the third day, Dr. Grosh, who was in our wagon, began to behave very strangely. He climbed on top of others and yelled, "Let me go to my wife and daughter. They need me now!" I urged him to calm down, but he was unstoppable and wrestled free. He had gone insane. The turmoil got an SS sergeant's attention. He came over and fired a shot at Dr. Grosh. He slumped back into the wagon dead. His body was flung out of the car. I hoped his wife and daughter would never learn of his tragic ending. Josek must have had the same thought. "Papa was lucky to have died when he did. He would never have survived this trip," he said. So many prisoners were dead by then that we had much more room in the cars.

There were two Greek Jews from Salonika on our wagon. Since none of the rest of us spoke Greek, they huddled together, strangers among us. Though the cold of the open wagons was freezing us to our very souls, there was one advantage over the closed cars. Here the smell of human waste dissipated, and we could discard the excrement.

We hadn't received food in two days. Our mouths were dry with a searing thirst. Finally, at about nine at night, each of us got 250 grams of bread and a ladle of ersatz coffee. Our train stopped again. This had become routine. Our transport halted at least four times each twenty-four hours. Dr. Seidel was now among the dead.

Before dawn we came to Buchenwald. "Jedem das seine" (To each his own), a sign above the gate proclaimed. Although the sarcasm was hard to comprehend, it hardly mattered. We no longer saw such words as an affront to our lost dignity. We hoped that this tortuous trip was at an end, even if we were to go into another camp.

We were kept in the cars another night. Then at midmorning the gates opened, and we were ordered to leave the cars and enter the camp. After the many days on the train, we could hardly walk. The guards were impatient and pushed the weak with rifle butts, as if they were shoveling coal.

Buchenwald seemed very disorganized. The inmates did not look much better than we did. Their faces were dull and gray and matched the dark stripes of their prison clothes. We were led into a huge unheated hall. We were given the usual soup of turnips with bits of potatoes in it. The food and close quarters warmed us up. The ugly structure outside the windows reminded us of Birkenau's gas chambers. Overhead, the Allies were more active here, but they had not yet dropped a single bomb.

It was rumored that in a few days we would be transferred to a satellite camp of Buchenwald, called Dora-Mittelbau. It was a terrible camp, the Buchenwald inmates said. We left Buchenwald and marched for four hours. We passed a few German towns, including the city of Blankenburg, and then we went east. Here, too, with the war near an end, the German people seemed not to be affected by our condition as we marched past them. Hauptscharführer Max Schmidt, Lagerältester Josef Hermann, and all Fürstengrube guards and Kapos came with us. After ten more kilometers we came to Dora-Mittelbau. It was like other camps, only this one stood among trees without a fence around it.

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