The Nizkor Project: Remembering the Holocaust (Shoah)

The Dentist of Auschwitz

Chapter 17
Disaster on the Baltic Sea

On April 27, 1945, Max Schmidt called me aside and in front of the barn gave me a surprising message. "The director of the Swedish Red Cross, Count Folke Bernadotte, will be here tomorrow to take some of you to Sweden," he confided. "But he only wants prisoners who are from the West. He won't know where any of you are from. I won't stand in your way if you tell him you are from somewhere in the West."

"What will happen if I stay?" I asked.

"I don't know. No one can predict what will happen. The Kommandant of Neuengamme, a concentration camp nearby, is in charge of all prisoners here now. I know him, and I don't trust him." Then he added, "You would be safer out of here."

What he said left me gasping. Encouraged, I dared to ask more. "Herr Lagerführer, actually you are still in charge of us. I mean, you could order the guards to let us go, couldn't you?" He did not respond.

After this talk with Schmidt, my fellow prisoners immediately surrounded me. Obviously I could not tell them all that Max had said to me. I did reveal that tomorrow the Red Cross would come to take all Western nationals to Sweden. My brother and I conferred about Schmidt's suggestion, and we both agreed to do as he said. Neither Josek nor I any longer considered Poland our country. We decided to take a chance and hoped our bluff would work. I immediately began to tutor my brother in what I remembered of my limited French. "Josek, when they ask you, 'D'où êtes-vous?' you answer them, 'Je viens de la France.' Should they ask you, 'Quelle ville?' you answer, 'De Bordeaux, monsieur.'" I had picked Bordeaux because of Dr. Lubicz. I remembered that he came from there. We were both awake that night, full of anticipation about what the next day would bring. We tried to envision what Sweden would be like. Could we rebuild our shattered lives there? I wanted to see America, the land of my dreams. After our many disappointments, would this be the last day of captivity?

It was April 28, 1945, and we lay in the clothes we had not removed since we got here. At the first move of the barn doors, we dug ourselves out of the soft straw and went outside and waited. At about nine thirty, as our Lagerführer had predicted, they came. Four white paneled trucks, preceded by a black limousine with a Red Cross flag fluttering from the fender, drove up the lane to the barn and stopped. Three smartly dressed men in Red Cross outfits emerged, and we were immediately ordered by our Lagerführer to assemble.

One of the men carried an elegant baton under his arm, which made me think he must be the count. We waited, as the Lagerführer had ordered us to do, in our customary rows of fives. Before us, we thought, was our long-yearned-for freedom. Finally the "count" spoke in German: "All Western nationals step forward." *

About fifty prisoners, most from France, Holland, and Belgium, stepped out in front of us. I knew most of them well. No Englishmen or Americans were among us; the Norwegians that had been with us in Fürstengrube were all dead. I tugged my brother's jacket, and we both walked out at the same time to stand with the Westerners. Seeing this, many Eastern and Central Europeans followed, doubling the number. Everything went as we had hoped, and we were marched toward the Swedish trucks.

On their canvas tops were huge red crosses. My heart beat loud and fast. I was terrified and overjoyed. I was an imposter stealing a precious reward. We tried to mingle with the real Westerners, so as not to be detected. We were anxious. It was difficult to comprehend that all this was actually happening. Finally the four Swedish drivers lifted the canvases and dropped the truck tailgates and summoned us. "Step up," they said.

Our bluff worked. I cannot describe the feeling. We were free of scourging, beating, and thrashing. Josek and I looked at one another to be sure it was not just an unlikely dream. Afraid that someone would order us back, we wanted to be the first to climb onto the trucks. Mendele had already found the right chum, the freckled, red-haired young Dutchman, Kopelmann.

The trucks drove slowly, in a gentle downward pitch to the sea, swaying on the rough gravel road. Offshore, only about one kilometer away, sat a Swedish freighter, its flags flapping in the light wind. The dinghies moved toward the shore. "We know that not all of you are from the West. Those who are not we cannot take," announced the count. Then he looked around and waited. My brother leaned on my arm. I heard my heart beating and felt my knees about to buckle. What now? The memory of Schmidt's predictions nourished my fears. A minute of silence followed, but it seemed endless. When he got no response, the count came close and looked each of us in the face. My lie covered my face like a mask. My stomach cramped, and a lump grew in my throat. The count kept walking and darting his eyes at each of us, his face expressing his thoughts: Which of you has the audacity? But he was not sure who. Not one was willing to go back to the camp. He grew impatient, and spearing us with his anger, he spoke. "As long as no one is willing to admit it, we will take you all back." Still, no one gave us away, and not one of us talked. Could he not understand why? Could he not understand that one would do anything to be free of this suffering? After years of degradation, dehumanization, after years of living with death, we yearned for freedom.

The three Swedes conferred, and after a while the count spoke again. "For the last time, we warn you. Whoever really is a national of a Western country, step out. The rest please stay back." That got the results they wanted. The real Westerners stepped forward. The rest of us no longer dared.

Only we prisoners and the Swedes were there. Not a single German was present. Even if rescuing the Westerners had been their initial objective, could they not bend a little? I approached the count and pleaded with him. "Can't you take us? We are condemned. Look at the condition of some of these people. If you return us, they will be dead tomorrow."

"I don't have enough room on the ship," he said. Looking at the huge ship, I could hardly believe that it would sink with the addition of a few more passengers.

"It's only a short trip. We will stand on deck. Please take us," I pleaded. I looked at the rest of the Swedes, asking them for help. But this did little to ease their rigidity. If they agreed, they did not say so. They remained unmoved. More desperate inmates, their limbs swollen and their bodies numb, also pleaded with the count. He remained indifferent and just ordered the drivers to take us back. Liberty and freedom were gone; it all seemed like a dream, like a beautiful dream, and we had had such a brief taste of freedom. The Swedes, however polite, lacked mercy. We felt condemned and were bitterly devastated. I never learned who gave us away. Count Bernadotte had reached an agreement with Reichsführer Heinrich Himmler that allowed him to take all prisoners except Germans. To this day I still don't know why he did not take us.

With heavy hearts we had to board the truck that would take us back. It was one o'clock when we returned to Neu Glassau. Schmidt and Hermann were gone. Scharführer Pfeiffer and his guards were now in charge. I tried to talk my way out to the village, but Pfeiffer would not let me go, nor did Gerta come with food. We made a pathetic picture as we lay in a state of lethargy, in an existential emptiness, without hope. Starved, we raided the straw-covered mounds for the few half-frozen potatoes that might sustain us for a few more days.

On May 1 we learned that Hitler had committed suicide. But Kapo Wilhelm still proclaimed, "The war will yet be won!" We knew he meant by the Nazis. Despair shrouded us like a fog. Early on May 2 we were awakened while it was still dark. Gunfire was all around us, but once again we had to leave. I looked at the tools that had saved my life, which I kept hidden in the straw. "You can't help me any longer," I thought. I took the dental gold. "Only this is worth saving." After counting us, Pfeiffer insisted that six prisoners were still missing. But in the rush there was no time for a recount. Several shots filled the barn as we left.

These were the last days of the Reich. Hitler had clearly failed. But the Nazis still carried on the war against the Jews. We dragged ourselves on with our last ounce of strength. After marching for one hour we came to Neustadt and were ordered to turn left toward the Baltic Sea. There we found rafts and a dozen SS men standing by. Although the morning sun had begun to creep over the horizon, a heavy fog obscured our vision. We could see less than nine meters in front of us. Each dinghy took thirty people. We were puzzled. We did not know where we were being taken or what they planned to do with us. We feared the worst. About fifteen minutes later something emerged in the fog. As the dinghy drew closer, we saw the stern of a ship. Painted on its side was its name, Cap Arcona.

We soon heard someone shouting down through a bullhorn: "Are you bringing me more prisoners?"

"Yes," the SS men replied.

"I can't take them. I have over four thousand already on board. I have no more room."

"We are overloaded," another man yelled. "Why don't you try the Thielbek or the Deutschland?"

"Our orders are to bring them to you," the SS men yelled back.

The sailor refused. "I am the captain of this ship, and I will not take them. That is final," he yelled down. The SS men, outranked and outmaneuvered, gave up and took us back to shore. Once there, the SS officer in charge, wearing a spiffy black uniform, stepped onto our dinghy and ordered it back to the ship. The other three dinghies followed. As if sensing the matter was not settled yet, the ship's captain was waiting when we returned. The SS man, his voice threatening, ordered the captain to take us at once. The captain insisted as before that he had no room. The exchange was heated.

Finally the captain softened and asked, "How many have you got?"

"In all about five hundred," the SS man yelled back. "Just take those sixty, and I will send the rest to the Thielbek." This compromise worked.

By then the fog had lifted. We saw a rope ladder come down, and we were ordered to climb up. This was risky. Balancing was difficult. We did not have much strength, and we feared that we would slip off and fall into the sea. But how could we resist? So following on each other's heels, with the rope ladder swaying and shaking, we climbed up, and somehow we made it. We followed a fair-haired, cruel-looking sailor below the deck. The stairs were covered with ornate Persian carpets, and heavy mahogany railings were anchored with shiny brass fittings. Elegant gold brocade tapestry covered the walls. One more level down, we passed a large and elegant Victorian dining room. The richness and the luxury of the Cap Arcona was ironic. We, the Unmenschen, the world's rabble, on this luxurious liner?

We followed the sailor further down and came into a long narrow corridor. Finally he stopped and unlocked a heavy metal door and ordered us to pass through it. Then he slammed the door. We were in a new concentration camp, a room about twenty-one meters long and nine meters wide, normally used to store the ship's provisions. It was barely lit and packed with prisoners from Neuengamme. We were below sea level, and the room had no portholes. A passive silence persisted there. The prisoners from Neuengamme had been there for more than a week. They were delivered to this ship by another boat, the Athens. In the last three days they had only had soup and water. They had no sense of time. Their isolation was so total that they didn't know whether it was night or day when we came aboard.

The Cap Arcona was a luxury liner of the Hamburg-Südamerika Dampfschiffahrts-Gesellschaft. At nearly 28,000 metric tons, it was the largest and most luxurious ship of the line and was nicknamed the Queen of the South Atlantic. Ironically, the Hamburg-Amerika line, the preceding company, had been founded by a Jewish immigrant to Germany. Now the ship was to make new history.

I had hunger pains, but I resisted eating my last piece of bread, which was stuffed in my coat pocket. I lay down, squeezed between my brother and a stranger, and immediately fell asleep. Suddenly I felt a tug and woke up, aware of someone standing over me snatching my last bit of bread. I grabbed his arm, and he jerked it away. "Let go of me," he said in Russian, pushing my hand away. "You have just arrived, and I am here four days." He didn't have my sympathy. I am not sure that I then appreciated what he had gone through.

We were in the darkest gloom. Our morale was lower than at any other time I could remember. Some men were sighing, "This is our end. We won't leave this ship alive." But we were the tough and unyielding, having made it alive this far. This was the last straw for us, I thought. What will be will be. I fell asleep once more.

Suddenly we heard a loud bang, and the ship shook violently. Another and another bang followed in succession. We could hear crowds of people running by our door, shouting: "They torpedoed the ship! Just what we expected." We knew that something dreadful had happened. We found that our door was locked, and no amount of pounding, yelling, and pleading for someone to open it helped. Then another bang resounded, and the floor began tilting under our feet. Soon smoke filled the room. Without fresh air, people coughed incessantly. Shouts rose in the room. "We cannot breathe! We are choking!"

We were close to asphyxiation, but no amount of screaming and pleading helped us. No one seemed to hear us. Even when we succeeded in prying a two-meter plank loose from a shelf and were hitting the door with it, no one answered. In the meantime, the sirens wailed, as we heard bang after bang. We were swaying back and forth like one body. The smoke grew heavier and so did the coughing. Suddenly the light bulb went out. The dark frightened us even more.

Finally, purely by chance, someone unlocked our door, and a wild stampede began. Everyone wanted to escape the smoky room. In this chaos I lost my brother, but we found each other while running wildly through the corridors. "Don't go that way," someone yelled, coming into our path. "You can't get out this way. The stairs are on fire." Others we encountered urged us to come with them. "There is another stairway at this end!" they shouted. We were running hard and getting nowhere. The corridor was quickly filling up with smoke, and men were coughing ceaselessly. "We want to get out of here alive," delirious people shouted. We did not know whom to follow.

It was three floors up to the top deck. We frantically ran through the narrow, slanted corridor, bouncing off oncoming people. We passed the dining room and remembered the stairs from our march down. But they were in flames, and smoke was flowing down the stairway. Nevertheless, my brother and I tried to run up. We went a few steps, but the heavy smoke and flames were impenetrable. They pushed us back. I tried again, and so did others, but again we were pushed back, our hair singed. I retreated and then tried again, and each time I had to return. I made a final desperate attempt. I closed my eyes, and sheltering my head with my arms and hands, I ran as fast as I could up the stairs. That too failed. We were terrified, fearing for our lives. We ran back into the dining room. By then it also was filled with black smoke. We ran, holding on to one another, and saw another corridor leading in a different direction. We followed it and saw daylight coming from one of the men's lavatories. The space was six meters long and three meters wide. An eight-meter shaft extended above this space, and men were lowering ropes. Some people were climbing up, but others were climbing on top of them and pushing them down. No one wanted to die, and panic reigned. Soon even more frightened men crowded the room. When one man managed to stand on another's shoulders, someone else tried to stand on his, until they all fell down.

Finally I tried the rope. Standing on my brother's shoulders, I tried to climb up, but I too was grabbed from behind and pulled down. I failed twice, and then my brother tried his luck. He was also knocked down. I can't recall how many times we tried before I was able to hold on to the rope and climb up to the point where someone from above could grab my hand and pull me up. In this man's grasp I lowered myself back down and helped my brother up. It was not a minute too soon, for the flames reached the lavatory, and others didn't make it. Clouds of dark smoke shot up into the shaft, making further rescues impossible. We heard desperate cries from below.

I looked up into the sky and pondered the reason for our survival. The sun was draped in dark clouds. "Could it be, perhaps, that the prayers of our loved ones convinced you to have mercy on us? God, you often ask us to accept the crazy things around us," I wanted to pray, but my thoughts were too painful, and I was in an emotional turmoil. In this profound chaos, I felt solace in simply being alive.

* In his book The Curtain Falls, Count Bernadotte makes no mention of having been in Neu Glassau. Hence I am not certain that he was one of the three Swedes. See Count Folke Bernadotte, The Curtain Falls, trans. Eric Lewenhaupt (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1945).

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