While one part of the Nazi state wanted to see all Jews exterminated, another saw them as a potential source of labour to be exploited at will to serve the war effort. So – alongside the camps that were dedicated solely to extermination – there were camps where those who were selected for work could survive, at least for a little while. Yet such were the attitudes to inmates in the concentration camp system that the objective of obtaining labour from them became confused with the objective of working them to death in the most brutal fashion.
Auschwitz was a camp which accommodated both extermination facilities and barracks where thousands were held for use as labour. They were shipped out to surrounding industrial centres. After surviving in Auschwitz for a time on a relatively benign work detail in the stores, Rudolf Vrba was transferred to the army of prisoners who left Auschwitz every day by train for Buna.
After we had waited, crammed together and cramped for half an hour, the train jerked and began to rumble slowly on its way. We were off to Buna and I realised, after what I had seen, that my attitude to Auschwitz would have to change. No longer was it simply a question of surviving. It was a question of surviving today without thinking too much about tomorrow.
The journey must have lasted about two hours, but it seemed endless. Jammed beside me was a man with dysentery, someone who would not survive the day. In a corner another, an arm broken by a kapo’s club, was retching with the pain of it. Even the fit found it difficult to breathe with the stench of sweat and blood and excreta.
At last, however, we dragged to a stop. The doors were whipped open and the kapos fell upon us again, tearing us out of the waggons, lashing at us wildly, working at an insane speed, shouting over and over again: “Faster, you bastards! Fasterl”.
The S.S. were there in force, too, with dogs and guns. They kept glancing at their watches, growling: “Quick . . . we’re late! Get them movingl Get them into line!”
They got us into line and they got us moving. The long line of battered zebras plodded towards Buna to the brisk music of constant blows and sporadic gun fire.
In front of me a man stumbled. A kapo clubbed him and he staggered out of line. Immediately an S.S. man fired at him, missed and brought down the man beside him. Another kapo roared: “Pick up that bloody bodyl This is not a graveyard! Carry it with you.”
The summer sun scorched the back of my neck. The alsatian trotting beside me was panting. A man reeled from the ranks, fell and had the top of his head blown off by an S.S. man who did not even bother to stop as he fired. Farther up the line a man ran wildly into the road and was bowled over by a burst of machine gun fire.
The S.S. were kicking the kapos now and all the time they were shouting: “Faster, you bastards! We’re late! We’re late!”
This, I thought, must be the real hell of Auschwitz. Hell on the double, and an Auschwitz that until then I had managed to avoid; but I was wrong, for it was only a mild form of purgatory, an evil aperitif, so to speak, to prepare us for Buna itself.
I saw the work site ahead; piles of wood, cement mixers, and all the paraphernalia of building. Half-built houses thrust towards the sky and everywhere hundreds ofmen were scurrying, ant-like, driven on by the bellowing of the gangers.
It was a grim vista even from a distance; but as we drew nearer the entire canvas unrolled before me, revealing awful detail.
Men ran and fell, were kicked and shot. Wild-eyed kapos drove their blood-stained path through rucks of prisoners, while S.S. men shot from the hip, like television cowboys, who had strayed somehow into a grotesque, endless horror film; and adding a ghastly note of incongruity to the bedlam were groups of quiet men in impeccable civilian clothes, picking their way through corpses they did not want to see, measuring timbers with bright yellow, folding rules, making neat little notes in black leather books, oblivious to the blood-bath.
Rudolf Vrba learned fast and he forgot very little. He was also a born survivor – he and a friend found work under the protection of one of the civilians at Buna. Of the sixteen hundred men on the train they were the only two who survived the first five weeks of the work detail. This particular episode of his life in Auschwitz is undated in his memoirs.
Eventually he would become one of the few people to escape from Auschwitz, bringing the story of the death camps to the outside world in 1944.