The Nizkor Project: Remembering the Holocaust (Shoah)

The Dentist of Auschwitz

Chapter 16

Kommandant Schmidt was explicit. "Don't be fooled by the absence of a fence around the barracks. Here the entire area is guarded," he said. It was again evident to us that the Nazi tentacles were everywhere.

Each of us found a bunk. I left my instruments on mine and quickly returned to the Appellplatz. The routine began. "Eins, zwei, drei," and so on we counted. We numbered six hundred by then. We received the usual rations. It seemed as if all the marmalade in Germany was red. Or was it just ours?

The barracks was new and temporary. The water for the washroom came from 2.5-cm pipes, with water dripping from tiny holes. The latrine was a wooden plank suspended over an open pit. "What work are you doing here?" I asked an inmate.

"Je ne parle pas allemand," he answered.

Another inmate turned to me and in broken German said, "Er vesteht kein deutsch, er spricht nur Französisch." He was also French but spoke some German.

Just then someone else turned to me and said, "Pan jest zPolski?" I knew that we could converse in Polish.

I first asked him the question whose answer we all dreaded most. "Are there any gas chambers here?"

"Not here. The Mussulmen are sent to Buchenwald," he said. Then I inquired further. I wanted to know what work they did.

"Have you heard of the German V-rockets? After the Allied bombing destroyed Peenamunde, where they were first built, now we assembled them here, in the Harz mountain caves. At first we worked on the V1, then on the V2, and now," and here he began almost to whisper, "we are beginning to work on the V3. Almost thirty thousand prisoners have died so far here. The engineers are Wernher von Braun, Helmut and Magnus Grottrup, and Arthur Rudolf."

Dora-Mittelbau had several thousand inmates, but for some unexplained reason Max Schmidt kept us separate and under his and his Fürstengrube functionary's strict control. The only contact we had with the other prisoners was at work and in the washrooms.

The next morning the Appell foremen came seeking engineers, draftsmen, electricians, technicians, and machine workers from among us. But soon the familiar roar of airplanes was heard. The sound intensified as they came closer. The foremen exchanged worried looks with Schmidt and decided to halt the process. "Don't you stare up there gleefully," Kapo Karl snapped at us, to assert his allegiance to the new foremen. Nonetheless, our temptation was too great. Looking at the squadron of twenty Allied bombers glittering in the sun like silver doves sent by heaven was irresistible. They promised to us an end to this mad empire. When the planes faded beyond the horizon, the specialists were chosen and marched away.

Those of us remaining followed several foremen along a railroad track. Suddenly we heard the sound of heavy wheels rolling toward us. "Hinlegen!" (Lie down!), an SS man commanded. Then we heard whispers that stirred us all: "V-rockets." I turned my head slightly to one side and saw a huge bullet-shaped object, covered with canvas, pass by us. The mysterious objects shielded from our sight, we were led into a tunnel built into the mountainside. It was nearly dark and freezing inside. Small metal particles lay mixed into the soil. A strong smell of sulfur was everywhere. Above a water tank was a warning in German: "Nicht trinken" (Do not drink). The end of the tunnel was not visible.

As the foremen led us in deeper, we saw prisoners at work benches surrounded with bins that held strange-looking parts. Many gave us the thumb-ups sign. We continued further into the tunnel, and a foreman ordered my brother and me to work with three prisoners already at work there. They looked frail: one of them was barely skin and bones. We asked them what we should do. As soon as the foremen passed, they stopped working and said to us, "Don't do a thing. Just act busy when a German comes by. The Americans are not far away, and it won't be long before they're here." They spoke German to us with a heavy French accent. Besides the sulfur smell, this place also reeked of ammonia. Each breath we took hurt.

When a foreman approached us, the three Frenchmen reached into a bin, picked up a few parts that were already clean, wiped them again, and tossed them into a second bin. We mimicked them for the rest of the day. I wondered how long they had been faking and how we would get away with this charade. Perhaps the foremen did not care any longer either.

On the first Saturday evening, as the sun was gently setting behind our barracks, I heard singing from the nearby Russian camp. Scarlet rays glided above the treetops. The song was a sad and lonely melody, full of the yearning of broken hearts. They sang of their love for their homeland. Now and then a baritone repeated the refrain: "Matushka Rossiya, how do I love thee? I love your mountains, and I love your meadows. I love your sun, and I love your steppes." I stood riveted, my heart bruised. I had no such home to yearn for. I felt like a tree without roots.

On Monday morning a fellow inmate complained about a toothache. I sat him down on my bunk and looked in his mouth. I saw a rotted wisdom tooth. I still had a few ampoules of novocaine, a syringe, and two forceps, and I used these to extract it. By the time I was finished, all the work groups had left. It surprised us that no one came looking for us. I left my instruments spread out on the bunk as an alibi for not being at work. Since no one came to check, not even Adolf Voigt, the former Sanitätsdienstgefreiter, who had come with us from Auschwitz, I had an idea. The next morning after roll call I returned to the barracks and spread my instruments out. I proclaimed myself the barracks dentist.

One day I found Nissen, my Hebrew teacher from Dobra, dead on his bunk, which was not far from mine. He was not a resourceful man. He did not beg or steal to survive. He did what was asked of him. He carried a heavy load all those years without ever complaining. How he had remained alive this long I could not understand. He never asked me for help, and I could not remember having seen him in camp during all this time.

There was ample evidence that the Allies were mounting an all-out attack on the area. They dominated the sky, and a German defense no longer seemed to exist. We were convinced that our freedom was near. The Allies appeared to be just a few kilometers away. But they could as well have been hundreds.

On the morning of April 10, 1945, no one was taken to work. Josef Hermann, on Kommandant Schmidt's orders, kept us in the barracks. Then after a swift count we left Dora. I took along my few dental tools, hoping they would still have their magical powers. After an hour of walking we came to the River Elbe. The snow had melted away, and spring had begun to stir everything to life. Max Schmidt and Josef Hermann waited for us at the river, where several empty flatbed barges stood. The Elbe, an important shipping lane, emptied into the North Sea. It broke our hearts when Hermann told us that we had left just in time: on our heels the Americans liberated Dora-Mittelbau. Our freedom had been very close, but like a shadow, it slipped away from us again. We were extremely depressed. We learned that we were to go to Max Schmidt's family estate. Where it was and why we were going there we did not know. What value could we--weak, dispirited Mussulmen--still have to them?

About sixty of us were loaded on each barge followed by a few Kapos. We were ordered to sit down and stay in one place, so as not to upset the barge's balance. The engines came alive, black smoke rose, and we began to move. The engines huffed and puffed but could only move us slightly faster than the river's current. Bright sunshine filtered through the emerald green waters. The reflection of our tattered clothes shone in the clear waters and faded into the depths. We were a floating concentration camp--perhaps a first.

Along the banks were little houses, their windows lined with flowering plants. An occasional church came into view. Here the people seemed to be peaceful and secure. At times we could smell food cooking. The fact that such life still existed was surprising to us. Not so long ago we were like them: young, old, good, bad. We were happy, sad, foolish, vain, like all people. We were born, lived, and died together. Now we were different, the Unmenschen. No one came close to see who we were. Not even those at the river's edge were curious. I wondered why. Perhaps the unusual no longer seemed so strange. We looked up with disappointment, keeping our disillusioned thoughts to ourselves.

Winter's storms had just given way to springlike weather. The bushes along the shore sprouted fresh buds, and trees were covered with delicate light green leaves. Schmidt, with Josef Hermann on the rear seat of his big BMW motorcycle, rode along the river road, disappearing and reappearing on the bank. As the sun sank lower, cold air streamed across our barges. Later the barges anchored, and a few civilians brought containers of bread for us. This and coffee sustained us for the rest of the way--three and a half days in all. The waters were calmer at night, and only the passing of the barges caused ripples. Silence filled the air.

In the morning gentle breezes rustled the treetops. Allied planes were crisscrossing the skies above us all day. We still hoped at each turn that we would find freedom. As we moved north, the weather turned colder, and we could see more villages and towns. Germany was now nearly cut in two, with only a narrow corridor of land dividing the Americans from the Russians along the Elbe. In the north the British were at the outskirts of Bremen and Hamburg. In the south the French were on the upper Danube. The roads were unusually full, with people streaming west. Women and children and army deserters were fleeing from the advancing Red Army troops. At times we also could spot groups of prisoners like us in gray striped suits guarded by the Waffen SS.

It was cold and rainy, and it felt like winter. The Schleswig Holstein region was one of the few areas still unoccupied by Allies. It was obvious now why Max Schmidt did not leave us in Dora. He decided to keep us captive on his parents' estate, because without us to guard, he would have to defend his dying fatherland. He ought to have known that his war was over. Having been the Kommandant of an Auschwitz camp, he could hardly expect to escape criminal charges if apprehended here. So why he chose to take us to his family estate was a big puzzle.

We were ordered off the barges and told to assemble beside the main road between Hamburg and Kiel. By then we numbered 540 inmates plus the Kapos. Some of us could barely move. My brother and I seriously considered escaping, but we asked ourselves, Where would we go?

As we began marching, the slaughter started again. As before, those unable to keep up were shot and left by the road. By the time we came to the Schmidt estate in a village called Neu Glassau, fifteen more prisoners were dead. We thought that by then the Kapos would end their complicity with the Nazis. They too had to know that they would be held accountable. But many of them, especially Kapo Wilhelm, remained hardened, hating his fellow Jewish inmates as much as ever.

It was late in the day when we came to the edge of Neu Glassau. From there we were led onto a dirt road, and five kilometers later we came to a large, weathered gray barn standing on a gentle incline. Hermann had told us that for the time being we would remain there. While the guards took up watch around us, we slumped down onto the bare, still-frozen ground, exhausted. A short while later Schmidt came up the road and opened the barn doors. Dusk had fallen when three women arrived with real bread, butter, and coffee. One of them was young, tall, and very beautiful. I immediately recognized her. She was Gerta, Max's fiancée. She had often visited Max in Fürstengrube. She wore her long blond hair in heavy braids.

On April 13 we were awakened by a howling Kapo Wilhelm. "The American president is dead. You haven't won the war yet, not until you all krapiert [croak]," he said.

"President Roosevelt dead?" echoed through the barn. We likened the president's death to our major defeat. It set back our hopes. We each had lost a friend. We were shocked and dismayed.

Fräulein Gerta came daily with two helpers, and each time we received one thick slice of bread, butter, and coffee. This was real food, and we remembered now how bread and butter once tasted. We also got potato-turnip soup at night, but since we had been deprived of food for so many years, it only quieted some of our hunger.

Behind the barn were two straw-covered mounds. Young Mendele, intrigued, kept circling them and one day decided to investigate. Keeping an eye on the guards, he walked back and forth in a cat-and-mouse game, as if he was searching for something, until he could sit inconspicuously close to the mounds. Then he casually reached into the straw and found potatoes there. He slowly stuffed his pockets with them and returned to the barn. Then he discovered that they were half frozen. He knew that eating them uncooked would cause him uncontrollable diarrhea. He started a fire using straw from the barn. Unfortunately that's where his success ended, because the guard came and stamped it out.

The emptier my stomach got, the worse my pain and cramping became. I had heard that the village of Neu Glassau did not have a dentist. I was motivated to find food, and I approached Max Schmidt to offer my services to the villagers. "Herr Hauptscharführer, I understand that there are no dentists in Neu Glassau? I still have dental instruments from Fürstengrube. If you permit me to go there, I could help those with dental problems. You know, Herr Lagerführer, that I will not escape," I pleaded.

He paused for a while, thinking over my suggestion. "I have no objection," he said, giving me the name of a family he knew there. "If you tell them that I sent you, they will let you use their house." Then he ordered the head of the guards, Scharführer Pfeiffer, to allow me to leave the barn area.

I found Schmidt's friends' place and knocked. A middle-aged woman came out and looked at me with astonishment. When I explained who I was, gave her the reason for my presence, and told her who had sent me, she invited me into her living room. She was in her midforties. Hard work was mirrored on her face. She knew that her husband was on the eastern front, but she had not heard from him in more than a year and didn't know if he was still alive. The couple was childless.

The woman was quite friendly and asked me many questions. She wanted to know about me and why we were at the Schmidt estate. I answered all of her questions except the last. I thought that responding to that one would be foolhardy and might harm my relations with the Lagerführer. She could not understand it. The Schmidts were known to be honorable people, she said. She put bread and ham before me. It was the first time I had filled my stomach since leaving Fürstengrube in January. Although she told me that she had never believed in Hitler and was not a Nazi, I had the distinct impression that she was not telling me the truth.

From then on, getting enough food for my brother and myself proved to be rather simple. The woman got her neighbors to contribute, and I was able to help some of my friends. Although the nearest dentist was thirteen kilometers away, not a single German came to see me the first week. I reduced my stay in the village, from two hours to one hour a day. One day the woman put a torte before me. The cake had more whipped cream than dough. I had not eaten anything as rich before, and I almost ate the whole cake. Then, for the first time since I had been taken from Dobra, I got sick from overeating.

In the meantime, the Allies were pounding the area with heavy artillery. It seemed as if we were only hours from freedom, but as before, it again slipped away.

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