On the 1st of February there had been elation in Sachsenhausen concentration camp, located 22 miles north of Berlin. The news reached the prisoners that the Red Army was just 60 miles east of Berlin. Rumours soon spread that they would soon be liberated, and that it might well happen in the next day or so.
The grim reality proved to be a deep disappointment the following day. Not only were the Nazis preparing to evacuate the whole camp but they were now starting to murder some of their more prominent prisoners. Odd Nansen, a Norwegian political prisoner, was keeping a secret diary in the camp, writing on the 3rd he recalled the events of the 2nd:
From the brightest and wildest optimism we’ve been plunged into gloomy pessimism.
When we got back from the job last night, we were met be the sinister announcement that the camp is to be evacuated. We’re all to start off on a trek. To the great majority the news was thunder from a clear sky, and many still refuse to believe it, such an utterly outrageous impossibility and insanity does it seem.
Forty thousand men on the tramp southward, southwest or west; miserably clad, with nothing to eat – for it can be only Norwegians who have any food to take with them – and in a worse than rickety condition. First we heard it as a rumour, and it penetrated slowly into our consciousness, which refused to accept it. Then it came as an official announcement in the block: “The camp will probably be evacuated”. Wahrscheinlich!
A hope still lingers in the interpretation of that lumpy German word, a little chance that the Russians may be too quick, the possibility of a change of mind with the ensuing counter-order, of which, indeed, we’ve known so many that they can almost be taken as the rule. But in that case there is another dark cloud in our sky, a cloud which has grown darker, blacker and more menacing in the last forty-eight hours. Liquidation! Vernichtung!
It is now being said that over two hundred men, including all the lackeys of the Sonderkommission, were shot last night. They were a frightful gang indeed, and no one laments them. They were the Gestapo’s henchmen among the prisoners. And so that was their reward.
When the truth about the events of the night gradually came out, when we learnt that our friends the Englishmen, John and Jack and Tommy and the rest, we knew them right back in Grini [a Nazi concentration camp in Norway], had in all probability been shot, and the Russian officers and many others, the atmosphere filled with gloom.
Rumour also had it that the coming night would be still worse. Last night many were awakened by shots in the camp. This was what happened: when a party of those who had been taken from the blocks under cover of darkness marched out of the gate and turned to the right, they realised where they were going, broke the ranks and ran into the little park there between the walls. The guards opened fire on them, and they were shot down there in the park. It was the rat—tat of the guards’ tommy-guns which broke the night silence, filling those who lay awake with horror and dread.
The ‘English friends’ that Nansen was referring to were members of a British commando team that had been captured after a sabotage operation to Norway in 1943, Operation Checkmate. They had successfully sunk a German minesweeper and other ships with limpet mines but despite the fact that they had operated in uniform they fell victim to Hitler’s Commando Order when they were captured. They were not treated as Prisoners of War under the Geneva Convention.
In Sachsenhausen they had been forced to march 30 miles a day on cobbled roads, ‘testing’ German Army boots. It later emerged that, when they were led to execution, Temporary Lieutenant John Godwin, RNVR, who had led the team of Commandos and Royal Navy seamen, managed to snatch the pistol of the firing party commander and shoot him dead before being shot down himself.
There were no witnesses to Godwin’s resistance surviving at the end of the war, a fact that meant he could not be eligible for a gallantry medal. Instead he was awarded a ‘Mention In Despatches’. The citation, in The London Gazette, 9 October 1945, read:
“For great gallantry and inspiring example whilst a prisoner of war in German hands in Norway and afterwards at Sachsenhausen, near Oranienburg, Germany, 1942-1945”
On the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz there are numerous press reports from across the world about the way the date is being commemorated. After 70 years there are around 300 survivors left who can speak directly of their experiences. Their testimony is as powerful, and necessary, as ever. See in particular The Guardian, and the Washington Post.
At the time the liberation by Soviet troops did not attract the attention that subsequent discoveries of other concentration camps, by the Americans, British and Canadians, would have. Reports of the first major death camp discovered by the Red Army, Majdanek, had been discounted as probable Soviet exaggerations. Even a report by respected journalist Alexander Werth had not been believed – the scale of the Nazi crimes was “incredible”. It would take the shocking newsreel footage taken at the camps located in Germany before the true horror of what had happened in the Holocaust began to be understood in the wider world.
The first report about Auschwitz-Birkenau appeared in the Soviet newspaper Pravda on the 2nd February 1945. At the time it did not attract much attention. The world already knew about Auschwitz because of the report made by Vrba and Wetzler – although many people could yet comprehend what this report really meant. Now reporter Boris Polevoi was cautious, he did not attempt to assess the number of people murdered here :
It will take weeks of long and careful investigations by special commissions before a full picture of the truly unparalleled German outrages at Auschwitz is established. What is noted here are only the outlines coming from a first glance acquaintanceship with the site of the monstrous outrages of the Hitlerite hangmen.
The name of the town “Auschwitz” has long been a synonym for bloody German atrocities in the lexicon of the peoples of the world. Few of its prisoners escaped the fires of its notorious “ovens.” From behind the wire of its numerous camps only a phantom echo had filtered of the wails from the lips of its thousands of prisoners. Only now, when the troops of the First Ukrainian Front had liberated Auschwitz, was it possible to see with one’s own eyes the entirety of this terrible camp, in which many of its tens of square kilometers of fields were soaked in human blood, and literally fertilized with human ash.
The first thing that strikes one about Auschwitz, and which distinguishes it from other known camps, is its enormous expanse. The territory of the camp occupied tens of square kilometers and in recent years had grown to absorb the towns of Makowice, Babice, and others.
It was an enormous industrial plant, having its own branch facilities, each of which received its own special charge. In one, the processing of the arrivals took place: prisoners were made of those who, before death, could be put to work, while the elderly, the children, and the infirm were sentenced to immediate extermination. In another, a division for those who were so exhausted and worn out as to be barely fit for physical labor, they were assigned the task sorting the clothes of the exterminated, and of sorting their shoes, taking apart uppers, soles, linings.
It is fair to say that all prisoners entering the branches of the industrial plant were to be killed and burned, either by being killed outright or through the many ordeals of confinement.
Around this industrial plant enormous fields and enclosures were established in the Sola and Vistula river valleys. The remains of the prisoners, burned in the “ovens”, had their ash and bones crushed in rolling mills and converted to meal, and this meal went to the fields and enclosures.
Auschwitz! Impartial commissions will establish the precise number of the people killed or tortured to death here. But already we can assert, based on discussions with Poles, that in 1941-1942 and at the beginning of 1943 five to eight trains of people arrived every day, indeed on some days so many came that the station could not handle them.
The people came from the surrounding territories occupied by the Germans, from the USSR, from Poland, from France, Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia. The wagons were tightly packed with people and were always locked. At the station, the Polish railway workers were replaced by a crew from the camp, which included several special railway detachments. The wagons would disappear behind the gates and return empty. In the first four years of the camp’s existence the railway workers did not see a single wagon coming back from the camp carrying people.
Last year, when the Red Army revealed to the world the terrible and abominable secrets of Majdanek, the Germans in Auschwitz began to wipe out the traces of their crimes. They leveled the mounds of the so-called “old” graves in the Eastern part of the camp, tore up and destroyed the traces of the electric conveyor belt, on which hundreds of people were simultaneously electrocuted, their bodies falling onto the slow moving conveyor belt which carried them to the top of the blast furnace where they fell in, were completely burned, their bones converted to meal in the rolling mills, and then sent to the surrounding fields. In retreat were taken the special transportable apparatuses for killing children. The stationary gas chambers in the eastern part of the camp were restructured, even little turrets and other architectural embellishments were added so that they would look like innocent garages.
But even so one can see the traces of the murder of millions of people! From the stories of prisoners, liberated by the Red Army, it is not difficult to make out all that the Germans tried so carefully to conceal. This gigantic industrial plant of death was equipped with the last word in fascist technology and was furnished with all of the instruments of torture which the German monsters could devise.
In the first years of the camp, the Germans maintained only a cottage industry of death: they simply led prisoners to a large open pit, forced them to lie down and shot them in the back of the head. When one layer was full, the next would be forced to lie down head-to-foot on the layer below. And so was filled the second layer, and the third, and the fourth … When the grave was full, to make sure that all of the people were dead, it was raked with submachine gun fire several times, while those for whom there was no room in the grave covered it up. Thus were filled hundreds of enormous pits in the eastern part of the camp, which bore the name of the “old” graves.
The German hangmen, noting the primitiveness of this method of killing, decided to increase the productivity of the industrial plant of death by mechanizing it, leading to the gas chambers, the electric conveyor belt, the construction of the blast furnace for burning bodies and the so-called “ovens.”
But for the prisoners of Auschwitz death itself was not the most terrible thing. The German sadists, before killing their confinees, tormented them with hunger, cold, 18 hour days, and monstrous punishments. They showed me leather-covered steel rods that they used to be beat the confinees. On the handle – the mark of the Krupp factory in Dresden. These articles were produced on an industrial scale. I saw, in facilities in the southern part of the camp, benches with straps on which people were beaten to death. They were covered with zinc so the blood of the victims could be washed off: the hangmen had a care for hygiene! I saw a specially constructed oaken chair, in which people were killed, after having had their backs broken. I saw massive rubber truncheons, all bearing the stamp of the Krupp factory, with which the confinees were beaten about the head and genitals.
I saw thousands of martyrs at Auschwitz – people, so worn out that they swayed like shadows in the wind, people, whose age it was impossible to determine.
The Red Army saved them, and pulled them from hell. They honor the Red Army as the avengers for Auschwitz, for Majdanek, and for all the pain and suffering which the fascist hangmen have brought to the people of Europe.
Startled by the speed of the Soviet advance the Nazis had finally abandoned Auschwitz on the 18th January. Before then most of the prisoners had been forced out into the freezing weather to endure one last murderous ordeal – most would die in the forced death march to other concentration camps in the west.
Left in the camp were still thousands of prisoners who were too ill to move. It is very likely that the SS intended to kill them all off, certainly that seemed to be the intention for the remaining Jews. But the last flight of the Germans had been very abrupt, they had not had time to complete their killings before they left in a panic.
Primo Levi, an inmate of Auschwitz for almost a year, was struck down by Scarlet Fever on 11th January, and had been moved to an isolation ‘ward’. He had watched the Germans disappear and then seen the long columns of German troops retreating westwards past the camp. Then as his strength gradually recovered he found himself caring for the other very sick men in his ward, then he began to gradually explore the unguarded camp:
If it is courageous to face a grave danger with a light heart, Charles and I were courageous that morning. We extended our explorations to the SS camp, immediately outside the electric wire-fence. The camp guards must have left in a great hurry.
On the tables we found plates half-full of a by-now frozen soup which we devoured with an intense pleasure, mugs full of beer, transformed into a yellowish ice, a chess board with an unfinished game. In the dormitories, piles of valuable things.
We loaded ourselves with a bottle of vodka, various medicines, newspapers and magazines and four first-rate eiderdowns, one of which is today in my house in Turin. Cheerful and irresponsible, we carried the fruits of our expedition back to the dormitory, leaving them in Arthur’s care.
Only that evening did we learn what happened perhaps only half an hour later. Some SS men, perhaps dispersed, but still armed, penetrated into the abandoned camp. They found that eighteen Frenchmen had settled in the dining-hall of the SS-Waffe.
They killed them all methodically, with a shot in the nape of the neck, lining up their twisted bodies in the snow on the road; then they left. The eighteen corpses remained exposed until the arrival of the Russians; nobody had the strength to bury them.
But by now there were beds in all the huts occupied by corpses as rigid as wood, whom nobody troubled to remove. The ground was too frozen to dig graves; many bodies were piled up in a trench, but already early on the heap showed out of the hole and was shamefully visible from our window.
Only a wooden wall separated us from the ward of the dysentery patients, where many were dying and many dead. The floor was covered by a layer of frozen excrement. None of the patients had strength enough to climb out of their blankets to search for food, and those who had done it at the beginning had not returned to help their comrades.
In one bed, clasping each other to resist the cold better, there were two Italians. I often heard them talking, but as I spoke only French, for a long time they were not aware of my presence. That day they heard my name by chance, pronounced with an Italian accent by Charles, and from then on they never ceased groaning and imploring.
Naturally I would have liked to have helped them, given the means and the strength, if for no other reason than to stop their crying. In the evening when all the work was finished, conquering my tiredness and disgust, I dragged myself gropingly along the dark, filthy corridor to their ward with a bowl of water and the remainder of our day’s soup.
The result was that from then on, through the thin wall, the whole diarrhoea ward shouted my name day and night with the accents of all the languages of Europe, accompanied by incomprehensible prayers, without my being able to do anything about it. I felt like crying, I could have cursed them.
As the Nazis realised that they would have to start closing down their death camps in the east, prisoners were transferred further west to established concentration camps. Typically these were not extermination camps but concentration camps designed to punish rather than kill all of the inmates. Conditions would change with the new arrivals.
At first trains were used for transferring such prisoners, if none were available then forced marches were used. The conditions on the marches were appalling and often became instruments of torture and death themselves. Although Jews were prominent among their number, many other people were caught up, including the citizens who had been forcibly displaced from Warsaw.
Sachsenhausen had been opened in 1936 for German political prisoners. The regime was harsh, executions were common, as well as deaths from other causes. But the prisoners here saw a step change in conditions with the arrival of the transferees from the east.
Odd Nansen was a political prisoner from Norway, with a relatively privileged position, able to receive occasional food parcels from home. His diary, kept in secret at great risk, covered events in the camp – and he also sought to record the stories of other inmates:
One big transport after another is arriving in camp. From Auschwitz, from other camps in Poland, from camps in Germany, and “evacuated” Jews by thousands from Hungary.
Two thousand six hundred Jews arrived the other day from Budapest. The transport hadn’t taken more than three days. Eighty died on the way, and when they got here they were left standing out in the cold most of the night. Eight died on the parade-ground. None had had a drop of water for three days. Food they had brought from home.
I remember, when the first transport of “evacuees” arrived from Warsaw, we were indignant that women, children and the aged should be dragged off in such transports. Now there aren’t many who react. Children, some under ten years old, are detained as convicts here and in other camps. The women are sent to camps of their own.
The aged are allowed to die here. The process is short, but not painless. It’s terrible to see them. Those who come from Poland, for instance, have nothing to put on but the rags issued here, and it’s the depth of winter. Only a very few have anything on their feet but wooden boards tied on with straps or string.
Of course they get pneumonia, tuberculosis and other illnesses and succumb in hundreds. They totter round for a while, go into the Revier [the camp ‘hospital’ or sickbay] (unless they’re Jews, in which case they’re not admitted) and there the crown is set on the work, especially in the Schonungsblocken [a block within the sickbay area], where they’re treated more like animals than anything else.
If one goes through one of the Schonungsblocken (as I have been doing regularly of late), one keeps on seeing living skeletons. Starving Poles, especially those with Durchfall (diarrhoea) who can’t retain any of the miserable fare they get. Diet? One can only laugh. An unknown concept.
A Jewish builder from Budapest, whom I’ve got to know, and who was on the terrible march from South Serbia to Germany, told me that one of his arms began to swell up and ache. He went to the doctor, who diagnosed periostitis, put the arm in splints and bandaged it, explaining that it was due to under-nourishment and the lack of certain substances in his food. He must eat more, a more nourishing and varied diet-fat for one thing. Merely a gibe; a frigid sneer.
The other evening I was talking to an old Pole in that Schonungsblocken. He was sixty-seven, but looked ninety-seven; bones, sinews and skin apart, I’ll wager his flesh and stomach didn’t weigh five kilos.
That he could hold himself up was a miracle, but obviously a miracle which would soon cease. He had great difficulty in speaking, and he spoke nothing but Polish. An interpreter translated. He was a Polish peasant from the Warsaw district, and had been “evacuated” here, starving and suffering; of the rest of his family, children and wife, he knew nothing. They had lost each other during the “evacuation”.
Now he had Durchfall and couldn’t eat. He had already gone out, was no longer a man, only a poor, suffering, still living creature waiting for peace. There are hundreds and thousands like him, innocent, harmless—suffering human beings.
As well as demolishing the crematoria the Nazis had decided to kill off the men who worked in them, the men employed in the Sonderkommando. These were the men with the grisly job of removing bodies from the Gas chambers and sorting out the personal effects. Records show that a demolition team was chosen from among these existing prisoners on 5th December.
A previous attempt to ‘select’ some of the Sonderkommando in October had resulted in a revolt, when the prisoners had attacked the SS with stones, only to be cut down by machine guns. Unlike new arrivals at Auschwitz these men were fully aware of their intended fate and knew thy had nothing to lose. Now as the SS began one of their final selections, they were taking no chances and those awaiting their fate were surrounded by heavily armed SS guards.
Filip Muller was one of those who narrowly escaped one more time, selected to live a little longer in order to keep just one of the crematoria in operation:
For a start, the three pathologists and their assistants were sent to one side and after them the thirty prisoners, including myself, billeted in crematorium 5. Finally the SS chose a third group of some seventy prisoners who were to form the demolition team.
The rest were told they would be transferred to camp Grossrosen. What happened to them we never learned, but we all realized that their time had come.
Suddenly from out of the ranks of doomed prisoners stepped the young Rabbinical student who had worked in the hair-drying team. He turned to Oberscharfuhrer Muhsfeld and with sublime courage told him to be quiet.
Then he began to speak to the crowd:
‘Brothers!’ he cried, ‘it is God’s unfathomable will that we are to lay down our lives. A cruel and accursed fate has compelled us to take part in the extermination of our people, and now we are ourselves to become dust and ashes. No miracle has happened.
Heaven has sent no avenging bolts of lightning. No rain has fallen strong enough to extinguish the funeral pyres built by the hand of man. We must submit to the inevitable with jewish resignation. It will be the last trial sent to us by heaven. It is not for us to question the reasons, for we are as nothing before Almighty God. Be not afraid of death!
Even if we could, by some chance, save our lives, what use would that be to us now? In vain we would search for our murdered relatives. We should be alone, without a family, without relatives, without friends, without a place we might call our own, condemned to roam the world aimlessly. For us there would be neither rest nor peace of mind until one day we would die in some corner, lonely and forsaken. Therefore, brothers, let us now go to meet death bravely and with dignity!’
The SS did not interrupt him while he spoke. When he had finished there was complete silence among the selected men. The sight of muzzles aimed at them from all sides had convinced them very forcibly of the futility of any resistance and the words they had just heard only underlined the hopelessness of their situation.
Among this desperate crowd of men I recognized Dr Pach, most selfless and devoted of doctors, as well as the two dental mechanics whose job had been to melt down the gold taken from the mouths of the dead. As long as they were in the Sonderkommando they had consciously existed like corpses waiting their turn. And now the time they had dreaded, the hour they had hoped and prayed would pass them by, had come at last.
I, too, felt wretched and depressed for, though so far I had managed to slip through the selection net I knew it could not be long before my turn would come.
Once the gassings had finally ceased, only one crematorium was kept working, burning the corpses of prisoners who had died in the main and auxiliary camps. In the same building behind a wooden partition was the dissecting room where Dr Mengele and his assistants continued with their pseudo-medical experiments.
The 4th King’s Own Scottish Borderers had arrived in France in late October and, in late November, found themselves taking over positions from the Canadians in Holland.
Unusually they found themselves billeted in military barracks which had been captured from the Germans. Peter White was one of the officers who soon discovered more about the history of their new base:
Our billets were mostly in a large incomplete German barracks consisting of pleasant red-brick buildings sprinkled in a pine wood on sandy soil beside a lake. These SS barracks struck us as delightful in their appearance and surroundings. They were modern, spacious, airy and only marred by harsh war-theme mural paintings.
We had not, however, yet seen the whole camp. The beauty and birdsong, the lake and the pinewoods were but a facade to a hidden horror which really staggered us. Vught, we soon found, included a notorious concentration camp.
Pitifully few of the original inhabitants had survived to be liberated and the buildings now housed Dutch Quislings and German civilians bombed out from Aachen.
Tammy, Charles and I strolled over to have a look. When we arrived these new inmates were being stripped and sprinkled with DDT powder to de-louse them. It all looked very. peaceful and orderly.
The same careful planning and construction had been lavished here as in the barracks, but in this case on scientific, modern, chromium-plated torture and methods of lingering and mass death as applied by painstaking Teutonic minds. We walked as in a-daze from one monstrous site to another.
Here were chambers where people were gassed to death, then for experimental variety others where they were locked in and steamed to death. A guard was reported to have said: ‘You can tell when they are dead when the screaming stops,’
Near this was a vivisection room where people were trussed on marble slab operating tables thoughtfully provided with grooves to drain off the blood. Six-inch iron spikes formed a carpet with a possible use we shuddered to think about. Then there were the more orthodox and classical tortures of thumb-screws, racks for stretching and solitary-confinement cells and other horrors we could only guess the use of.
Some of the confinement cells were small brick structures the size of dog-kennels in which the victim was locked doubled—up to fit in.
Outside stood a gibbet with a well-worn noose. Under this structure were two wooden blocks that tapered to a tiny base. The purpose was to string the victim up by the neck precariously balancing on tip-toe on the wobbling blocks. Here we were told the agonised victim might sway for hours until either fatigue or desperation caused the slight movement necessary to topple the blocks and complete the execution.
Beside the gibbet stood a triple crematorium, one unit being mobile. The walls of this building were shelved with little earthenware jars for the ash. This ash lay like thick grey flour all over the floor and on our boots while another pathetic little scattering of it dusted a well-worn metal stretcher which was used for the cremation.
The remains of 13,000 other victims, who had arrived too swiftly for the crematoria to cope, had been buried in a part open lime pit at the door.
We had started to get a clearer idea not only of our enemy, but more important to us, the reason for our presence in Europe. Tammy, Charles and I were far more thoughtful as we returned past the watch towers, electric and barbed-wire fences and ditches which surrounded the camp than we had been on our way in.
We were staggered to think that such monsters could exist to staff and run such a place, yet some news from the front showed that apparently any German unit with a stiffening of SS troops was capable of this. Just down river from our arc of, front, west of the blown rail-bridge, the Canadians whom we were taking over from reported that German troops had herded men women and children into Heusden church and there burned them to death.
Vught had been liberated by the Canadians on the 26th October. Around 500 bodies lay in the grounds, executed earlier that day as the SS sought to close down the camp. Another 500 people were waiting to be executed but were rescued by the unexpectedly swift advance of the 4th Canadian Armor Division.
Vught had served two functions. It had been a transit camp for Jews deported from France, Belgium and Holland, en route to the extermination camps further east. It had also been the main security camp (Schutzhaftlager) for political detainees from Belgium and Holland. Anyone suspected of opposing the Nazis might be sent here – and many died here.
After the Germans finally ended the Warsaw Uprising they deported the entire remaining population and set about razing the city to the ground. A few hundred Poles managed to escape the deportations, choosing to live on in hiding places in the city. Many were Jews who had been hiding from the Nazis since before the end of the Jewish ghetto.
Wladyslaw Szpilman was one such survivor. He had had many narrow escapes since he had played Chopin on Polish Radio as the Nazis invaded Poland and bombed Warsaw in 1939. Until 1942 he had lived with his family in the ghetto – until they were all sent to be murdered in Treblinka. On that occasion he had been plucked from the lines waiting to board the cattle wagons on a whim of a Jewish policeman.
His survival since then had similarly been dependant on luck and a few brave Poles prepared to help him. In despair during the Uprising he had attempted suicide, but the pills he took were too weak.
Wladyslaw Szpilman believed himself to be alone, he had no contact with anyone else in the city:
I was alone: alone not just in a single building or even a single part of a city, but alone in a whole city that only two months ago had had a population of a million and a half and was one of the richer cities of Europe.
It now consisted of the chimneys of burnt-out buildings pointing to the sky, and whatever walls the bombing had spared: a city of rubble and ashes under which the centuries-old culture of my people and the bodies of hundreds of thousands of murdered victims lay buried, rotting in the warmth of these late autumn days and filling the air with a dreadful stench.
People visited the ruins only by day, riff-raff from outside the city furtively slinking about with shovels over their shoulders, scattering through the cellars in search of loot. One of them chose my own ruined home. He mustn’t find me here; no one was to know of my presence. When he came up the stairs and was only two floors below me, I roared in a savage, threatening voice, ‘What’s going on? Get out! Rrraus!’ He shot away like a startled rat: the last of the wretched, a man scared off by the voice of the last poor devil left alive here.
Towards the end of October I was looking down from my attic and saw the Germans picking up one of these packs of hyenas. The thieves tried to talk their way out of trouble. I heard them repeating again and again, ‘From Pruszkow, from Pruszkow,’ and pointing to the west. The soldiers stood four of the men up against the nearest wall and shot them with their revolvers, despite their whimpering pleas for their lives.
They ordered the rest to dig a grave in the garden of one of the villas, bury the bodies and get out. After that even the thieves kept away from this part of the city. I was the only living soul here now.
The first day of November was approaching, and it was beginning to get cold, particularly at night. To keep myself from going mad in my isolation, I decided to lead as disciplined a life as possible. I still had my watch, the pre-war Omega I treasured as the apple of my eye, along with my fountain pen. They were my sole personal possessions. I conscientiously kept the watch wound and drew up a time-table by it.
I lay motionless all day long to conserve what little strength I had left, putting out my hand only once, around midday, to fortify myself with a rusk and a mug of water sparingly portioned out. From early in the morning until I took this meal, as I lay there with my eyes closed, I went over in my mind all the compositions I had ever played, bar by bar.
Later, this mental refresher course turned out to have been useful: when I went back to work I still knew my repertory and had almost all of it in my head, as if I had been practising all through the war.
Then, from my midday meal until dusk, I systematically ran through the contents of all the books I had read, mentally repeating my English vocabulary. I gave myself English lessons, asking myself questions and trying to answer them correctly and at length.
When darkness came I fell asleep. I would wake around one in the morning and go in search of food by the light of matches — I had found a supply of them in the building, in a flat that had not been entirely burnt out.
I looked in cellars and the charred ruins of the flats, finding a little oatmeal here, a few pieces of bread there, some dank flour, water in tubs, buckets and jugs.
I don’t know how many times I passed the charred body on the stairs during these expeditions. He was the sole companion whose presence I need not fear. Once I found an unexpected treasure in a cellar: half a litre of spirits. I decided to save it until the end of the war came.
Italy had a long established Jewish community that was almost completely integrated into society. It was not until late in the Mussolini’s regime that he passed anti-semitic laws. It was only after September 1943, when the Nazis effectively took control of the country, that real persecution began.
The Sonnino family from Genoa managed to evade the arrests and deportations for just over a year. When they were eventually discovered in October 1944 they were almost immediately put on a transport bound directly for Auschwitz.
Piera Sonnino was twenty-two years old when she arrived in Auschwitz with the seven other members of her family:
Night and cold, enter through the window slit of the boxcar when the train stops yet again. We are sunk in a somnolence that has possessed us for hours — as if consciousness had been reduced to the point of forgetting oneself. This stop is lasting a long time, but we aren’t paying attention.
Suddenly an inferno of shouts and whistles explodes outside. It’s as if a thousand dogs were barking in a battle. The doors of the cars are jerked open violently. Beams of light blind us. Soldiers in black and gray uniforms shout incomprehensible words at us. We jump to our feet, terrified. A big truck is maneuvering to approach the freight car. When it stops, the untranslatable orders multiply. A wooden plank is thrown down between the door of the car and the truck.
A soldier orders a woman to move. The plank is a narrow, quivering bridge, but we must cross it. I am among the first, in the group of young women. The old women have withdrawn to the back of the car; one of them has fainted. I have time to glance at the place we’re in while I struggle, with my injured ankle, to get across the plank before the tent roof of the truck onto which we are being loaded is lowered.
Images that last fractions of a second. Images of eternity. In the distance, a long line of little lights, and in the fog immense pylons, like skeletons. A sea of mud, a plain of mud. A freezing, dark, muddy madness. I feel as if I had entered a dimension where nothing is human, that is utterly hostile to everything human, a dimension that has absorbed even its own creators, becoming a cold machine, muddy and dark, fatal and inexorable, topped by a small flame that I see for an instant as in the distance it breaks the darkness, as if the sky were burning: I don’t yet know what it is.
The truck transports us to a large shed. We get out. We wait for the others. We wait for our brothers. Signora Saralvo asks us: “Do you think they will bring the men here, too?” The pregnant woman has her hands on her stomach as if she wished to protect what is in it. Gradually the shed grows crowded.
We are at the center of the nightmare that ten years earlier had sent us its messengers. All Europe is in its power, even if by now its days are numbered.
The hours pass slowly in the shed. A jolt of horror when the door opens and a skeleton enters, eyes bright, wearing a striped uniform that hangs loosely on his incredibly thin body. The men crowd around. The skeleton is holding a bucket. He stops for a few moments, then with slow steps crosses the shed and disappears. Others follow. They are assigned to the camps latrines. Night shift.
One of them stops in front of me. He points to my bandaged ankle and makes a sign to take off the bandage right away. I hesitate because I don’t understand. The word “selection” strikes me among others. The skeleton turns to the men and speaks agitatedly. He speaks in German.
Someone translates. We must immediately remove any sign that might reveal physical impairment. Wounds or illnesses. The selections are becoming more and more severe. The gas chambers and the ovens are functioning non-stop. Anyone who is unable to work is eliminated. I immediately take off the thin paper bandage that binds my ankle. The words seem to come not from the mouth of a man but from the night.
We beg Papa to do the same with his cast. Papa shakes his head. He doesn’t seem to understand what we’re saying. He sinks down among us and remains motionless, eyes closed. Mamma takes his hand and grips it. Roberto, Paolo, Maria Luisa, Bice, and I gather around our parents and Giorgio. We spend the rest of the night like that, and whatever I could say of that time, it wouldn’t make sense translated into words; it would be a thin shadow of that reality. I would be stealing it from myself, from what is mine, desperately mine alone.
Gray fingers at the windows of the shed signaled that dawn had come when the SS burst in. Machine guns raised, they array themselves around us, enclosing us in a circle. Three officers, one of whom wears the insignia of a doctor, order us to stand and line up. As each of us is called, he takes a step forward, and the doctor inspects, examines, tests the arm muscles.
We are divided into three groups: the old, the young men, and the young women. Everything happens rapidly. We don’t even have time to exchange farewells: the group of young women is the first to leave the shed amid a storm of orders shouted in a loud voice.
Not even once can we turn, not a single time, to see Mamma and Papa and our brothers again. We are shoved brutally outside, into the mud that sticks to our shoes, into the freezing air. Signora Saralvo isn’t with us: weeping, she told the doctor she was sick. She was added to the group of the old and the infirm.
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.
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.
Even as German forces retreated in the east and the west, the Nazi extermination camps were as busy as ever. Trains were still being sent from all round Europe, taking Jews to their deaths. On the 4th September 1944 Anne Frank and her family were stuck in a cattle car somewhere in Germany, en route to Auschwitz from the Netherlands.
Inside Auschwitz a small but very significant act of rebellion was taking place. The special squad of prisoners who worked in the gas chambers were smuggling out some pictures of the death camp in action. The ‘Sonderkammando’s duties included sorting out the huge quantities of victims’ property – it is very likely that the camera was acquired in this process.
The pictures were snatched covertly. This was the subsequent account of Alter Fajnzylberg:
[S]omewhere about midway through 1944, we decided to take pictures secretly to record our work… From the very beginning, several prisoners from our Sonderkommando were in on my secret: Szlomo Dragon, his brother Josek Dragon, and Alex, a Greek Jew whose surname I do not remember. Some of us were to guard the person taking the pictures.
In other words, we were to keep a careful watch for the approach of anyone who did not know the secret, and above all for any SS men moving about in the area… We all gathered at the western entrance leading from the outside to the gas-chamber of Crematorium V …
Alex, the Greek Jew, quickly took out his camera, pointed it towards a heap of burning bodies, and pressed the shutter… Another picture was taken from the other side of the building, where women and men were undressing among the trees. They were from a transport that was to be murdered in the gas-chamber of Crematorium V.
The film was smuggled out of the camp in a tube of toothpaste to the Polish Resistance on 4th September, with this message:
Urgent. Send two metal rolls of film for 6×9 as fast as possible. Have possibility of taking photos. Sending you photos of Birkenau showing prisoners sent to gas chambers. One photos shows one of the stakes at which bodies were burned when the crematoria could not manage to burn all the bodies. The bodies in the foreground are waiting to be thrown into the fire. Another picture shows one of the places in the forest where people undress before ‘showering’ – as they were told – and then go to the gas-chambers. Send film roll as fast as you can. Send the enclosed photos to Tell – we think enlargements of the photos can be sent further.
Primo Levi, who was a prisoner elsewhere in Auschwitz-Birkenau, subsequently described the work and fate of the men who found themselves selected to work in the Sonderkommando:
An extreme case of collaboration is represented by the Sonderkommandos of Auschwitz and the other extermination camps. Here one hesitates to speak of privilege: whoever belonged to this group was privileged only to the extent that — but at what cost — he had enough to eat for a few months, certainly not because he could be envied.
With this duly vague definition, ‘Special Squad’, the SS referred to the group of prisoners who were entrusted with the running of the crematoria. It was their task to maintain order among the new arrivals (often completely unaware of the destiny awaiting them) who must be sent into the gas chambers; to extract the corpses from the chambers, pull gold teeth from jaws, cut the women’s hair, sort and classify clothes, shoes, and the contents of the luggage; transport the bodies to the crematoria and oversee the opera- tion of the ovens; extract and eliminate the ashes.
The Special Squad in Auschwitz numbered, depending on the moment, from seven hundred to one thousand active members. These Special Squads did not escape everyone else’s fate; on the contrary, the SS exerted the greatest diligence to prevent any man who had been part of it from surviving and telling.
Twelve squads succeeded each other in Auschwitz; each one remained operative for a few months, then it was suppressed, each time with a different trick to head off possible resistance, and as its initiation the next squad burnt the corpses of its predecessors.
The Special Squads, since they were bearers of a horrendous secret, were kept rigorously apart from the other prisoners and the outside world.
Nevertheless, as is known to anyone who had gone through similar experiences, no barrier is ever without a flaw: information, possibly incomplete or distorted, has a tremendous power of penetration, and something always does filter through.
Concerning these squads, vague and mangled rumours already circulated among us during our imprisonment, and were confirmed afterwards by the other sources mentioned before, but the intrinsic horror of this human condition has imposed a sort of reserve on all the testimony; so even today it is difficult to conjure up an image of ‘what it meant’ to be forced to exercise this trade for months.
It has been testified that a large amount of alcohol was put at the disposal of those wretches and that they were in a permanent state of complete debasement and prostration.
One of them declared: ‘Doing this work, one either goes crazy the first day or gets accustomed to it.’ Another, though: ‘Certainly, I could have killed myself or got myself killed; but I wanted to survive, to avenge myself and bear witness. You mustn’t think that we are monsters; we are the same as you, only much more unhappy.’