Few Jews managed to escape from the Warsaw ghetto and go into hiding. The diminishing numbers remaining knew that their time was limited, sooner or later they would be rounded up and sent off in the boxcars ‘to the East’, a journey from which no one was ever heard of again.
Samuel Zylberstein found himself caught in a roundup on the 1st April. For two days he and hundreds of others were crammed into a factory basement near the the Umschlagplatz, the departure point for the trains. There was no food or drink, no sanitary facilities, people sat in their own mess. The children cried out for water.
Finally at around 4pm on 3rd April 1943 they were ordered to run for the trains, running a gauntlet of guards who were lined up to beat them as they went. They waited another hour beside the train as the SS and Ukrainian guards made selections of groups of 50 people – the young and the old, anyone obviously wounded from the beatings. They were taken to one side and shot immediately. Finally the remainder were loaded onto the trains:
They packed 120 people into a boxcar designed for 20 people or 10 horses. The doors were slid shut and sealed, the windows boarded up and covered with barbed wire. We stood crammed inside the closed box, each person glued to the next, forming a single mass. We could not raise our hands or make the slightest movement.
Terrible scenes took place in the cars between people who had been condemned to death, people who had lost their wits. Everyone tried pushing through to the door or window to find a crack, just to get a gulp of air. Some were sobbing, others fainted, but there was no room for them to fall. Their bodies simply stayed in place, pressed between our own.
All desperate cries and sobs were in vain. No help was coming; no help could come. Human feelings disappeared; we were no longer human. The stronger tried to break away to climb over the heads of the others, to win a little space so they could see outside.
Some were shouting, “I have to look outside! I have to see where they’re taking me! I know this road. I’m not going to the gas chamber! I’m going to jump from the train! Live or die by a bullet! No gas for me! It’s the strongest who’ll survive!”
The engines pulled slowly as the train rolled on toward the victims’ doom. The cars were guarded on both sides. Ukrainians were lying on the roof. Sometime during the night people stand- ing by the cracks in the window claimed they were taking us to Treblinka. The prisoners began to panic.
Someone pried up a board and a few people tried to jump from the train, but unfortunately no one managed to escape. The murderers kept the entire route lit with spotlights, so they’d be sure not to miss anyone who attempted to get away. A friend of mine who was in the car asked me to hold his coat while he jumped and then throw the coat after him. I watched him: No sooner had he jumped than he was hit. His coat was riddled by bullets as well.
Every time someone jumped, all the Ukrainians up and down the train started shooting at once. Occasionally the train would stop and start again, leaving behind a trail of corpses.
In the middle of the night they started shooting into the cars through the windows. The lucky ones were hit and killed. They were free. We could no longer stand it – the crowding, the stench, the unbeatable thirst; we were covered with sweat and blood, the blood of our brothers.
We did what we could to gain a little calm during our last hours. Our limbs had grown stiff we cou1dn’t straighten our arms. Our brothers’ blood was on our clothes; we couldn‘t wipe it of and had to use our teeth to tear the garments off one another’s body. Then we stood naked inside the crowded, stinking car. The thirst was indescribable; we tried using our tongues to wet each others lips.
Toward dawn our car became less crowded: about 40 people were already dead, most killed by Ukrainian bullets fired through the walls. We tried to clean up so as not to trample their bodies. Now we were a little more “comfortable,” at least able to sit down on the blood-covered floor, but with every passing kilometer our fear and despair grew.
A panic broke out when we reached Malkinia: “Listenl They’re going to run us straight from the cars to the gas chambers! O God, O God, where are you!”
What they saw through the cracks took the last hope away from those who still had any illusions. People tore their hair, scratched at their faces, and broke their fingernails. That’s what the last minutes are like before a gruesome death in the gas chamber.
But ten men in our car could count themselves happy; ten jews were treated kindly by fate. “Now is the time, comrades,” said Dr. Mantel. “We have a little more room.” Ten young healthy people sat together on the blood-stained floor. They kissed one another, said their farewells, and then swallowed a dose of cyanide.
One minute later nine more bodies were lying in the car. The tenth was not affected; his dose must have been insufficient. Oh, you happy people! You no longer have to suffer, no longer have to bear the terrible hell that we must face. They can poison you with gas and burn you all they want, but you will be numb to the suffering. Everyone envied those nine souls.
Of 120 people locked inside the car, 37 were still alive when the train arrived at the platform.
Zylberstein was to survive the selections for the gas chambers and managed to exist as a labourer in different concentration camps for the remainder of the war. See Words to Outlive Us edited by Michael Grynberg.