The Nizkor Project: Remembering the Holocaust (Shoah)

The Dentist of Auschwitz

Chapter 19
Where Do We Go?

We asked the fisherman where we could go to find shelter. He thought a while, scratched his head, and mumbled, "Hmm." Then he directed us to a bakery. "Follow the shore until you come to a house on a hill just off the beach. That's the bakery. No one may be there, but you may find the oven still warm and even some bread." We thanked him and asked him to help those still in the sea. He did not need to be motivated. He had his boat ready to leave. A veil of darkness covered what was left of the Cap Arcona. A ghostlike quiet, broken only by the sound of the surf, hovered about the place where the tragedy of the last twenty-four hours had unfolded. On the shoreline the sea approached and then receded, as if nothing had happened.

As we left the boat I raised my eyes to heaven. "Dear God, my mother and my father and my sister are all dead. Please, God! Let me not mourn my brother too," I pleaded. We moved like shadows along the eerily quiet shore, trying not to be seen. Suddenly we came upon the bodies of two comrades from Fürstengrube. As we continued on, an elderly man came toward us. What if he gave us away?

The man was frightened as well. His eyes widened with each step we took toward him. The sight of ten naked men walking the beach surprised him. "What happened to you?" he asked, and we told him about our ordeal. He hadn't heard a thing, he said. We beseeched him to go and recruit people with boats to save the drowning. But he told us that most people had left the area because of the heavy fighting. "Continue moving along the shore, and you'll come to the bakery," he said, rolling his esses in the North German dialect. Then he walked off, still shaking his head. We hobbled in the deep sand, half frozen, our teeth chattering, and we discovered five more survivors. Finally we saw a faint light. It was the bakery.

Inside twenty more survivors were wrapped in scraps of burlap and rags, sitting piteously around two burning candles. They were talking about who had drowned and who had survived. The conversation was unemotional, as if they were talking about lost objects. I listened, fearing I would hear my brother's name among the dead. I still had some hope, however faint.

The ovens were ice cold. Our biggest concern was being found there and herded into another camp. We had water, and at last we could slake our thirst, but there was not a morsel of food. A few more survivors arrived. Each spoke of the miracle that had saved him. "Your friend Willy must have made it to the shore, but then he died. I saw him lying on the beach," said one. Despite the gnawing hunger, fear of another concentration camp didn't let us rest. A few more survivors trickled in throughout the night. Nearly all who were saved seemed to come to the bakery. Mendele, among the late arrivals, claimed he had seen my brother still on deck when he jumped into the water. Like most of us, he too was rescued by a fisherman.

As daylight began to filter in, a civilian came and ordered us to board two trucks. At first he did not to tell us who he was or why he was here. We feared the worst. When we asked him where he was taking us, he startled us. "We are taking you to a hospital. The British are here." Outside were two open trucks and another German civilian. There was nothing to indicate the previous day's disaster except some debris on the beach. We boarded the trucks, still stark naked. We carried those who were unable to walk. Some still refused to believe that we were free. They suspected another German trick. But there was none of the mustering of the past.

It was six in the morning when we left the bakery. The Cap Arcona lay on one side at a forty-five-degree angle, with part of its hull above the waterline. As the trucks followed along a shore road, we occasionally saw bodies on the beach. Then the two vehicles turned onto a paved highway. Within minutes we saw tanks roll by us painted with white stars. We thought that it was the Soviet star and that the soldiers were Russians. The uniforms and berets of the soldiers, though, convinced us that they were British. We yelled and waved, and they must have thought that we naked men were crazy.

More British tanks passed, and there was more friendly waving. We were swept away by the soldiers' warm-heartedness. Few of us spoke English. We quickly learned the victory sign. They acknowledged us, raising their fingers in a V, which said more than any words could convey. As we came to the center of Neustadt, where two- and three-story houses stood, we strained to cover our private parts.

Finally the two trucks stopped at a red brick building, a German navy hospital. We were led to a large room and shown clean bunk beds with white bedding and real linen sheets. Each of us got a blue nightshirt with a navy insignia on it. The contradiction was inescapable. Yesterday we were still useless parasites. Now we were in such an elite hospital. It was a monumental change for us.

The room was dimly lit. I lay with my eyes glued to the ceiling. So much had happened in the last forty-eight hours that I found it hard to think. If only my brother had survived. My head felt heavy. Resting on the soft, puffy pillow, I fell asleep.

It was noon when I heard voices. I opened my eyes and saw a woman, who was speaking in the distinctive German of the region. The familiar voice of Mendele answered from the bed below. The middle-aged woman had volunteered to care for us. "The doctor ordered special food for you," she said. "It will be ready very soon." Then a nurse came, raised the window shades, and began taking everyone's temperature. I did not feel feverish, but she insisted. She also spoke German. Her orders were to check everyone. Bright sunshine began to flow through the windows, washing the room with light.

At twelve thirty two women carried in a large kettle of real soup, along with bread and butter. "A doctor will be here soon. Until then you should remain in your beds," they said, sounding kind. I had freedom on my mind. Not feeling sick, I didn't need the peace and quiet of the hospital. I itched to see the world. I just wanted to leave. But how could I, without clothes? I looked at Mendele. He was only a boy, much more fit to be seen naked than I was. I did not need to insist. He offered to look for clothes. "I'll scrounge something for you," he said as he left.

I almost gave up hope of seeing him again, but he returned wearing a black tuxedo with tails that was four sizes too big for him. He didn't settle for ordinary clothes. He brought me a German naval officer's uniform with all the insignias, a pair of high laced navy boots, and an officer's hat, belt, and tie. "Where did you find this?" I asked him, surprised.

"Don't ask any questions. Just get dressed. Wait 'til you see what else I have," he said with twinkling eyes. Then he went out and came back pushing a shiny bicycle by its handlebars. "I took it away from a Nazi," he said. I was not surprised. I also felt uncharitable toward the Nazis. The law of survival in the Lodz ghetto and in concentration camps had taught him new rules, which he now followed. It was the law of the jungle.

Many of the released prisoners also wanted to leave, and those who were able walked out with us. I am closing a chapter of my life, I thought. Mendele walked with his head high, proud of this shiny bike, something he probably wanted all his life but never got. Happiness was written on his face. Then, as if in an afterthought, he exclaimed in a sudden burst, "You know what? I saw your brother, Josek."

It was as if he had hit me in the face. Josek alive? How could that be? I took him by his silk tuxedo lapels and shook him. "You saw Josek," I said slowly, looking into his eyes. He looked back at me very seriously. I knew Mendele wouldn't tell me a lie about my brother.

"Honest to God, I saw him," he insisted.

"When did you see him?"

"Just now. I forgot to tell you."

"Are you sure that it was Josek you saw?" I said, not wanting to risk raising a false hope. "What was he wearing?"

"He still had on his camp clothes. I don't know how they survived, but there were about seventy of them. Honestly, I swear by my mother and father that I saw him." I knew it had to be true.

"Mendele! I believe you. Come with me and help me find him." We walked to the center of town, and two more survivors told me that they had also seen my brother. There could be no mistake. I was sure he was alive. I walked up the same hill we had come down two days before with Mendele circling around me on his bike. We saw a group of fifteen of our fellows still wearing their infamous concentration camp outfits. I took a few steps forward, but Mendele was already among them. He found my brother, who was coming toward me estaunded and happy. Under his arm was a Swiss cheese the size of a bicycle wheel.

"Josek! How did you survive?" I demanded to know, as we embraced. It had been a long time since we had cried. All the tears, long held back, came pouring out. We wept like children.

"I followed you with my eyes. When you passed the stern I saw you struggle, and then I closed my eyes. When I opened them again, I saw you being pulled up into the boat. Seventy of us were still on the ship, holding on to the railing. It was dark, and I thought that was it and no one would help us then. But at daybreak, I guess about six o'clock this morning, a boat with English soldiers came alongside and took us off," Josek said, happily exuberant.

One question was always the first thing that a survivor asked another: How did you survive? No two stories were alike. Unfortunately there were few of us to ask those questions. Most of the tenacious, tough, death-defying comrades who miraculously survived years of ghettos and concentration camps, had been devoured by the Baltic Sea. Only a small part of the Cap Arcona was above the water. "No one could possibly be alive out there," I thought.

The Allied soldiers who liberated the area, British and Belgian troops, could not understand how it all had happened. What we told them about the camps seemed so preposterous that they shook their heads in disbelief. It seemed as if they didn't know anything about concentration camps. We were the first inmates that they had stumbled on.

As we were saying our sorrowful good-byes to our dead comrades, those with whom we had endured the worst, a young British lieutenant asked if some of us would come with him and tell his superiors what had happened. Not many of us spoke English. I did a little, though not well. My brother and two others went with the lieutenant and me in an odd-looking car, a jeep. We drove west on the main road, passing hundreds of abandoned cars, trucks, and tanks until we came to a brick building, a former post office. The lieutenant told us that when the German armies pushed to the sea, they had tried to elude capture by leaving their army vehicles behind and switching to civilian vehicles.

We were taken to a major. We still felt apprehensive around authorities, especially the military. That fear continued long after the war. The major was about fifty years old, with a short haircut and a neatly trimmed mustache. He opened a package of cigarettes and offered each of us one. Then he leaned back in his chair and asked in English which one of us spoke his language. I nodded and told him that I spoke a little English. He prepared to take notes. He asked my name and where I was from.

We were concerned about being forced to repatriate to Poland. A rumor that this might happen was circulating at that time. I remembered Max Schmidt's suggestion. "We're from France," I said.

He asked how we got on the Cap Arcona and how it sank. When I told him in my limited English that we saw RAF planes bombing the ship, his chin dropped, and his eyebrows rose in disbelief. Intrigued, he asked more, and then it became apparent that my English was insufficient to fully describe the event. The major called an interpreter. A pretty German girl of about twenty came in and translated his questions into German for me and my answers into English for him. She was visibly moved by the account of our experiences.

The major and lieutenant listened politely. At the end of our interview, the major suggested that we leave the area because of the ongoing fighting. Of course we didn't have transportation. Having seen many abandoned vehicles on the way here, we hoped he would permit us to take one of the cars now littering the roads. He understood the connection. "I can't give you permission," he said, friendly but firm. "There are so many are out there, though. Just take any vehicle you can use. No one will stop you." As for our personal identification, he said, "Your tattoos will sufficiently identify you."

We were excited, and ten of us went to look for the right vehicle. We explored all the cars around, but one car couldn't take us all, so we decided to look for a truck. We searched until we were almost out of town. Then we saw a bus with camouflage war paint. It was a Peugeot, still in good condition. My father had once owned a Peugeot truck. I looked around inside, but the keys were nowhere to be found. It was the perfect vehicle for us, and we wondered what to do. We decided to go into the house and ask the farmer if he had the keys. He claimed that the bus wasn't his, but we thought that he had the keys nonetheless. We were determined to take that bus. When we insisted and threatened him, he went to the bedroom and returned, trembling, with the keys in his hand. He claimed he forgot his wife had put them there.

I started it up and began backing it out onto the narrow street. I had had only limited experience driving a large vehicle, and I soon got into a situation in which I could go neither forward nor backward. The engine stalled. I tried to get it going, but it kept stalling, and I finally gave up. Disappointed, we left that bus standing and went to look for another one.

We must have looked at fifty vehicles without finding a bus like the one we had just left. It was late in the afternoon. We were dulling our hunger with slices of my brother's wheel of Swiss cheese. We searched until we came upon two Italian-made Fiats that looked as if they had just come off the assembly line. The keys were in them, and we decided to take them.

My brother started one, and I the other. We were driving west, as the major had suggested, deeper into the occupied territories. We greeted the soldiers on every Allied vehicle we passed with waves. They looked at us with misgivings, wondering who the bony-faced people in striped suits and shabby German naval uniforms were. The landscape was now free of swastikas. In their place lay the reminders of war: burned-out cars, trucks, and tanks. Among the people walking on the road was a tall, slightly hunched man carrying a bundle on a stick. He was swaying from side to side and lurching forward as if he had been on the road a long time. As we passed him. someone said, "It's Ohlschläger, the SS guard from Fürstengrube." We stopped, and he continued walking calmly toward us. When he came close we asked him if he knew who we were. He acted evasive and answered no.

"Are you not Ohlschläger, the guard from Fürstengrube?"

This convinced him that it would make no sense for him to deny it. "Yes," he said, stuttering, "but I had nothing to do with the camp." We soon became accustomed to hearing this denial. "I just did my duty. I was just a tower guard." This was another excuse we would hear repeatedly. Now Ohlschläger was no longer the brazen SS trooper. He feared us as we had once feared him.

He embodied all evil to us. Our bitterness and anger were difficult to contain. Some said we should kill him. We all wished him death, but no one wanted to be the executioner. He was repeating his defense. "I was just a plain man doing my duty," he said over and over. Our positions had suddenly reversed, and he was helpless. We were unsure what we should do with him. We were intoxicated with our new freedom and found it easy to forgive. But he did not walk away scot-free. We gave him a few well-deserved kicks and slaps, and then we left him. His real punishment, we believed, was the defeat of his Führer's Nazi theory. That should bring him enough disgrace. Later we agonized over why we had not dealt more harshly with him.

As we continued driving, we came to Neu Glassau. By then the sun had set. We had nowhere to go, so we decided to drive by the Schmidts' barn, take the cutoff, and go to their house. In front of their mansion was a circular driveway lined with trees. A few of our former fellow inmates who were still there were astonished to see us. They still wore striped suits, as did most of our party. They told us that they had survived by hiding in and around the barn. Unfortunately some others were not so lucky; they had been discovered and shot. Josef Hermann was also there. He preferred to be called Hermann Josef now. Schmidt, our former Kommandant, was gone.

The elder Schmidts, whom we had not seen before, came out of the house and greeted us. He was a well-to-do farmer, a dapper suntanned man of about fifty. She was a plump, well-mannered lady. Max was their only child, they said. They had one of their pigs slaughtered for dinner that night and asked us politely to stay. Whereas just days ago we were Unmenschen and, like cattle, had slept in and around their barn, now we were suddenly honored guests having dinner in the house of our Kommandant's parents. Had our lives taken this big a turn? No German had treated us like this before. Before dinner they served wine and schnapps. For many of us, this was our first drinking experience in years. By the time the pig was cooked and brought to the table, some of us were half drunk, or at least lightheaded. The table was festive, as if set for a joyous celebration, covered with fine china and crystal.

In this gaiety and frolicking, the time was apparently right for a surprise to be sprung on us. In walked Max Schmidt with a bright, friendly smile on his face, his hair cropped. He came up to each of us sitting around the table to shake hands. To me he stretched out his arms as if I were his closest pal. "Dentist, how nice that you survived. Too bad that Bernadotte wouldn't take you to Sweden."

Although I regarded his advice about Sweden as the best deed of his that I could remember, I asked him how he knew I was not in Sweden. "You were not around when we were returned," I said to him. He let it go by, and I did not pursue it any further.

Here we were, pampered guests in Schmidt's house eating a special meal prepared for us. The former Lagerführer sat at the same table as we did, and we all ate and drank merrily together. "Let's not talk about the past. Forget what has happened. It was a terrible time for all of us," Schmidt said. Then he rolled up the left sleeve of his shirt and showed us a number on his arm, just like the ones that all of us had. I couldn't see whether it was tattooed or painted. That seemed not to upset us. We let everything pass with laughter. The prevailing attitude was one of forgiveness.

Around midnight we all were asleep. When I woke up in the morning I saw sparkling sunshine filtering into a few small windows of the feed storage room where I had slept. Next to me were my brother and Srulek Lipshitz. My head was heavy. Something wasn't right, I knew. Weighing what had happened last night, I became troubled. I thought about Max. In the past five months, having sole command of us, he could have let us go free. Showing us a prisoner's number, to make himself seem like us, was particularly distasteful to me. This number, and the fact that his hair was cut short, convinced me that he was strenuously trying to conceal who he really was and wanted to masquerade as a camp survivor. "We cannot allow this," I thought. I could not stay there another minute.

Ten of us decided to leave immediately. Hermann Josef wanted to come with us. "We ought to turn Max over to the Allies and tell them what role he played in the camps," I said. Hermann agreed that he was not entirely innocent. Max was nowhere to be found, but his parents were there, and so, suddenly, was Gerta. It was obvious to the Schmidts that something had changed since last night. They knew that we were leaving. It was difficult to part from our brethren with whom we had shared life for several years. We had little gasoline left and thought we would stop and ask soldiers for "petrol," as the British called it. As we left we were still talking about how we were manipulated by the Schmidts and how Max's insensitive act was particularly appalling.

Five kilometers to the west we saw an British army depot. We drove in and were immediately stopped at the barrier. We explained in halting English to the two soldiers why we had stopped, but they wouldn't let us see anybody. They claimed that no one there had authority in such matters and suggested that we see British Army Intelligence. Nonetheless, we succeeded in getting a canister of gasoline for each car, twenty liters' worth, and also a box of rations. We stopped at two more depots and were told the same thing. None of the British soldiers seemed to take us seriously--as if they did not care. We were baffled and disappointed by them. Since we were not far from Westphalia, Hermann Josef suggested we stop in Lüdenscheid, where a friend of his still lived, he believed. We changed direction.

Every so often we stopped on the road and ate what the British had given us. These were American rations that included canned beef, chocolate, and powdered milk. At eight in the evening we encountered our first Americans close to the town of Münden, not far from Kassel. The road was filled with jeeps and soldiers, some wearing black armbands with the letters MP. They stopped us and told us to move to the side of the road. "Papers?" one of them asked. Eventually, when they saw our tattooed numbers, we managed to get them to understand that we were former prisoners of concentration camps and did not have any papers. "Where are you going?" they wanted to know.

"We are returning home," Hermann said, which was at least true for him.

"On General Eisenhower's orders, all travel by civilians is prohibited at night," they told us. "You're not allowed to drive between eight at night and seven in the morning." Hermann thought that we should turn back and drive to Lüdenscheid, which he thought might be occupied by the British. So we began turning back. "Wait!" one MP said. "We have a place for you to stay here, overnight." We thanked the "officer" (we called everyone officer at first). Among some houses behind the barrier stood a modern two-story house. We could stay there, the MPs said. They also said that there was still food left inside. Unlike the British, they seemed friendly. It did not take us long to find the essentials: enough bread, eggs, sugar, and real Nescafé coffee. It was the first time in five years we were able to cook for ourselves.

Just before we went to bed, we received a visit from a sergeant. First he seemed keenly interested in our experiences. Then he asked if we would lend him one of our automobiles for a couple of hours. We didn't need it right away, and we readily agreed. "But there isn't much gasoline in the tank," we said. Gasoline was a scarce commodity at the time.

"Don't worry," he said. "I'll bring you back all the gasoline you want." What a wonderful coincidence, we thought. We won't need to worry about gasoline in the morning. There were enough sofas and beds for everyone, and we had a sense of leisure that was hard to comprehend. To lie down in a real bed under a soft, downy comforter was an unexpected luxury.

The following morning we made two cardboard signs that read "Concentration Camp Inmates" to affix to our automobiles. But the sergeant was not there, and we began to worry. One of his squad quietly assured us that he would be back soon. "He is probably at his Fräulein's," the soldier said. The sergeant eventually arrived and signaled that the gasoline was in the trunk. He asked us not to fill our cars there, since that would get him in trouble. We checked, and indeed the cans were full. On the road to Lüdenscheid, we unscrewed one can and began pouring into the tank what we thought was gasoline. It lacked the plop, the odor, and the flow of gasoline. It was ordinary water. We could not believe that a friendly American would swindle us that way.

We were on a busy road in wartime, with some water in the tank, unable to move. For the next hour we tried to stop a passing vehicle until finally a jeep halted with army officers aboard. They gave us a canister of real gasoline. At the same time we learned that Germany had just surrendered. It was May 8. The war in Europe was over.

The engine of our Fiat sputtered and coughed but after a while began to idle. As we drove on toward Lüdenscheid, we once again returned to the British Zone. We arrived at the home of the Happes around midnight. Mr. Happe was stunned to see Hermann and even more so the ten of us with him. In spite of the late hour Frau Happe and served us food, a full meal. We were vigilant and still distrustful of all German people, but the Happes' hospitality was genuine. There must have been more like them. Where were they? Why were they just bystanders?

Lüdenscheid was a picturesque small town untouched by the ravages of the bitter conflict. It was nestled in a region called Sauerland, with lush green meadows and bountiful soil. A small river, the Volme, wound along the main road to the county seat of Hagen. Not a single house there bore the scars of war. With great fanfare, Mr. Happe introduced us to the town elders, the mayor, and the police chief. Lüdenscheid had had a small number of Jews before the war. Only one survived. The mayor, a former Nazi, made every effort to show that he had liked Jews. He said they missed the Jews who had once lived there and urged us to stay. He also promised to help find us housing and jobs. They all showed great respect for Mr. Happe's new friends.

Being the first concentration camp survivors in town made us celebrities. My brother and Srulek still wore their striped suits. I had on the navy uniform from the depot at Neustadt. The mayor offered, and we accepted, a complete set of clothing, furnishings, and an apartment. The cinemas in town issued us free passes for life, as did the dramatic theater. Suddenly everyone was our friend. No one, it seemed, had any role in our persecutions, and they all disclaimed their complicity in the Nazi regime. I could not believe that they had come full circle to see us as human again in just a few days.

Seven of our friends left to return to Poland. My brother and Srulek wanted to stay in Lüdenscheid. I was not yet ready to settle there. Hermann wanted to return to Ahlberg, in Bavaria, to his wife and children. When he asked if I would like to come, I accepted his invitation.

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