The killing centres in the East were working their way through the Jewish population of Poland. Try as they might only a minority of Jews in Warsaw would ultimately avoid this fate.
Further west, Auschwitz, was dealing with victims from the occupied countries of the west and Germany itself. Auschwitz functioned as both a concentration camp and a killing centre. There was usually a ‘selection’ on the ‘ramp’ as soon as the trains arrived, the more able bodied would become prisoners who could be worked to death in the concentration camp side of the facilities. The old, the infirm and the children would go straight to the gas chambers.
Rudolf Vrba was amongst those selected to live and he was doing his best to remember every detail, intending eventually to bear witness. But now only the most terrible incidents would be remembered as remarkable:
In January, 1943, a transport with several hundred inmates from Dutch Jewish mental hospitals arrived after a ghastly twelve day iourney under unspeakable conditions. Some of them were violently mad; some only slightly so; some were the sane who had tried to evade deportation with the aid of a psychiatrist’s report; and the result of it all was a nightmare that not even the most hardened S.S. man present could ever forget.
Apart from its cargo there were two unusual aspects of this transport. In the first place it arrived in daylight because Mr. Eichmann’s time tables were getting over-loaded. Secondly, this was the only time we prisoners were allowed to be in close contact with the victims for any length of time.
For this the S.S. had sound reason. When they opened the waggons, the sight was so revolting that they could not face it. So they whipped in the prisoners to handle some of the dirtiest work that even Auschwitz had witnessed.
In some of the trucks nearly half the occupants were dead or dying, more than I had ever seen. Many obviously had been dead for several days, for the bodies were decomposing and the stench of disintegrating flesh gushed from the open doors.
This, however, was no novelty to me. What appalled me was the state of the living. Some were drooling, imbecilic, live people with dead minds. Some were raving, tearing at their neighbours, even at their own flesh. Some were naked, though the cold was petrifying; and above everything, above the moans ofthe dying or the despairing, the cries of pain, of fear, the sound of wild, frightening, lunatic laughter rose and fell.
Yet amid all this bedlam, there was one spark of splendid, unselfish sanity. Moving among the insane, were nurses, young girls, their uniforms torn and grimey, but their faces calm and their hands never idle. Their medicine bags were still over their shoulders and they had to fight sometimes to keep their feet; but all the time they were working, soothing, bandaging, giving an injection here, an aspirin there. Not one showed the slightest trace of panic.
“Get them out!” roared the S.S. men. “Get them out, you bastards!”
Finally, after great difficulty, all the mentally ill were loaded onto the waiting trucks. Now the SS paused for thought.
The Dutch nurses were kept apart, waiting to travel on to a destination unknown to them, with their patients. Normally such young people would have been selected to go to the concentration camp.
Vrba saw an argument amongst the SS. In charge of the selection that day was Dr Mengele, Auschwitz’s chief ‘Medical officer’.
I saw him shake his head vigorously and hold both his hands up to end all further discussion. One of the S.S. officers shrugged and shouted: “Get the girls aboard! It seems they’ve got to go, too.”
The nurses climbed up after their patients. The lorry engines roared and off they swayed to the gas chambers. For once there had been no selection. For once it had not been necessary.