Yom Kippur – Dr Mengele selects young boys for gassing

The Auschwitz II-Birkenau main guard house and rail entrance.
The Auschwitz II-Birkenau main guard house and rail entrance.

In the summer of 1944 approximately three thousand boys and aged between fourteen and sixteen were kept in a separate part of the camp at Auschwitz, not being used for forced labour. They were separated from their families when they arrived at the ramp after getting off the trains.

On September 17 1944: the Jewish festival of Rosh HaShanah began at sunset. On that day 1000 of the Jewish boys kept in Auschwitz were selected for the gas chambers. There was then a break while a number of transports arriving from Theresienstadt were dealt with.

On September 26 1944, Yom Kippur began at sunset – and this was the excuse for another ‘selection’. Joseph Zalman Kleinman described the process that followed during the trial of Adolf Eichman. He was fourteen years old in 1944, he and his brother had been separated from their father, mother and younger sister when they arrived at Auschwitz – they never saw them again:

What happened on Yom Kippur?

A. There were about two thousand youths left. We thought that perhaps that would be the end of the matter. Then, the day before Yom Kippur – I remember – in the morning the news spread around that they were going to distribute an additional ration of bread. Usually they would hand out a quarter or a fifth of a loaf of bread; that day they brought to our hut a ration of a quarter, a third of a loaf of bread, together with additions of cheese and other items. There had never been anything like that in Auschwitz. We were very glad that we would be able to fast the next day.

Q. That means, you thought that you would be able to eat more on the eve of Yom Kippur in order to fast the following day?

A. Yes. All day the boys spoke about this sudden generosity. And we were happy that we would be able to fast the following day. But we still did not know what was in store for us that day. During the afternoon, roughly at three o’clock, suddenly there was an order for a curfew. There was shouting in the street. We had hardly managed to get inside the barracks when a new order was given – all the boys were to go to the football field. There was a football field in the camp which evidently was intended for the Gypsies who had previously been in this camp and who were put to death a few weeks before. Each hut commander brought his boys to the football field.

A lot was happening there. The chief official, all the camp officials, every Kapo and the hut commanders were assembled on the field and arranged us in groups of hundreds. Someone started the rumour that they were going to take us to gather the potato harvest from the environs of Auschwitz. They formed us into groups – we were two thousand youths. Suddenly a shudder passed over the entire ground as if we had been struck by a electric shock. The “Angel of Death” appeared.

Josef Mengele
Josef Mengele

Q. Who was that?

A. Dr. Mengele appeared, riding his bicycle; someone approached him, took the bicycle from him and placed it near the hut. I was standing near the road with my group. Dr. Mengele folded his hands behind his back, he was tight- lipped as usual, he went onto the field, lifted his hand so that his gaze could take in the entire field. Then his glance fell on a small boy, about fifteen years old, possibly fourteen, something like that, who was standing not far from me in the front row; he was a boy from the Lodz Ghetto, I remember his face very well, he was blond, thin and very sunburnt. His face was covered in freckles. He stood in the front row, Mengele came up to him and asked him: “How old are you?” The boy was shaking and said: “I am eighteen years old.” I saw immediately that Dr. Mengele was very angry and he began shouting: “I’ll show you!” Then he started shouting: Bring me a hammer, nails and a “Leiste” – a sort of narrow plank.

Somebody ran off right away and we stood there, looking at him in absolute silence. The silence of death prevailed on the field; he was standing in the middle and all of us were looking at him. Meanwhile this man came back with the tools, and as soon as he approached, Dr. Mengele went up to one of the boys, standing in the front row; he had a round face and looked fine. Dr. Mengele went up to him, grabbed him by the shoulder and took him to the goal-post on the football field. There were two goal-posts for a game of football. He led him by the shoulder, and the man with the tools walked with him. He stood him against one of the goal- posts and gave orders to knock this plank in at a height above the boy’s head so that he formed a kind of inverted “L.” And then Dr. Mengele gave orders for the first group to pass underneath this plank. The first group began walking in single file.

Q. Did he say what was going to happen to you?

A. He did not have to tell us any longer – we understood.

Q. What did you understand?

A. We already understood that the smaller ones, whose height did not reach the plank, were destined to die.

Q. Did you think there could also be another explanation?

A. No, no, there was no other explanation; it was one hundred per cent clear to everyone why this was being done. All of us began stretching ourselves, each one wanted to be another centimetre higher, another half-centimetre. I also tried to stretch myself a little but I soon gave up in despair, for I saw that even boys taller than I was, failed to reach the required height – their heads did not touch the plank.

Presiding Judge: That means that all of them passed under the plank?

Witness Kleinman: Yes. All of them passed through in single file. And each one whose head did not touch this plank went to the other side of the field, together with the little ones who were doomed to die.

Attorney General: Did your brother succeed in touching the plank?

Witness Kleinman: Yes. My brother was standing next to me. In general I was so preoccupied with myself that I scarcely worried about him, for he was one of the taller boys – he was sixteen years old; by chance, that was his sixteenth birthday.

Q. Did he manage to touch the plank?

A. Yes. I stood there in total despair. I thought to myself “My life is ending here.” Suddenly my brother whispered to me, saying: “Don’t you want to live? Do something!” I woke up, as from a dream, and began searching for a way of saving myself. My mind worked rapidly. Suddenly I caught sight of pebbles scattered around me. I thought that perhaps I could be saved in this way. We were all standing in line, at attention. I bent down without being noticed and seized some handfuls of pebbles. I untied the laces of my shoes and began stuffing pebbles into my shoes. I was wearing shoes which were larger than my size. I filled my shoes with pebbles under my heels and I gained two centimetres. I thought that, perhaps, this would be sufficient.

Meanwhile I felt that I was unable to remain standing at attention with the pebbles in my shoes. It wasn’t easy. I told my brother I was going to throw the stones away. My brother said to me: “Don’t throw them away, I’ll give you something.” He gave me a hat. I tore the hat into two pieces and I began inserting the rags made from the hat into my shoes, so that it would be softer for me.

Q. Perhaps we could make it briefer, Mr. Kleinman. Did you pass the test?

Presiding Judge: But, nevertheless, let us hear how he got through.

Witness Kleinman: I stood for ten minutes with the stones and the rags inside my shoes. I thought that perhaps I might reach the required height. Meanwhile all the boys went on passing that spot. Two would reach the necessary height and two would not. I stood where I was. Ultimately my brother looked at me and said: “That is not high enough.” Then I began to fear, perhaps I would fail because of nervousness lest, when I began walking, they would realize that I had something in my shoes. I asked my brother and someone else, who could look around better, that they should estimate what my height was. Both of them said that I had no chance of reaching the desired height.

So I then began looking around for a way to escape and get to the taller ones who had already passed the plank, the selection. They were drawn up in ranks of hundreds, on the opposite side, and the shorter ones who had not reached the plank and the required height were lined up on the other side of the field. The shorter ones were trying to force their way into the second group. I also stole my way into the taller ones. For a short while I thought that I had already saved myself. Then one other boy tried to steal into the group of the taller ones.

Dr. Mengele noticed what was happening. He began shouting at the guards and at the Kapos: “What are do doing here – sabotage?” And he gave orders for the whole group to pass once again under the plank. On the way to the plank I again got away to the place where I had formerly been standing. There was a narrow passage, guards walked in front of each one and another behind; nevertheless I stole into my former group.

Attorney General: Those who passed under the plank?

Witness Kleinman: No, the ones who had not yet passed through. I thought it was worthwhile to live even for half- an-hour under an illusion. From there, a quarter of an hour later, I again stole my way into the taller ones – nobody noticed me. Thus the selection ended. About one thousand out of the two thousand did not reach the required height.

Q. What happened to them?

A. When this selection of the thousand ended, the thousand who reached the required height, that was not enough for Dr. Mengele. He examined our bodies. We had to undress to the waist.

Q. My question is: What happened to those who did not reach the required height?

A. Those who did not reach the required height were locked into Huts 25 and 26. Darkness was falling.

Q. What happened to them eventually?

A. They kept them locked up in the two huts until two days after Yom Kippur.

Q. And after that, what happened?

A. They were transferred to the gas chambers – they were exterminated in the gas chambers. There were a thousand of us who remained. Then we knew that this was the system.

Q. Did you see any connection between Yom Kippur and this method of selection?

A. We gained the impression that Mengele wanted to show us – there it was written in the prayer “He causes his flock to pass beneath his rod” – and he wanted to show the Jews of Auschwitz that he was the one who was causing us to pass, and no-one else.

Presiding Judge: Was Dr. Mengele so well-informed in such matters?

Witness Kleinman: Apparently he was well-informed in such matters, for there had never been such a selection in Auschwitz.

Attorney General: Did he want to prove that he was causing his flock to pass under his rod?

A. Yes. In this way one thousand boys remained. We realized that this was a method of exterminating on Festival days.

Read the whole of the evidence of Joseph Zalman Kleinman at the Trial of Adolf Eichmann

Jewish twins kept alive to be used in Mengele's medical experiments. These children were liberated from Auschwitz by the Red Army in January 1945.
Jewish twins kept alive to be used in Mengele’s medical experiments. These children were liberated from Auschwitz by the Red Army in January 1945.

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