Escape From Hell: The True Story of the Auschwitz Protocol 9781789209433

A shocking account of Nazi genocide and the inhuman conditions in Auschwitz, but equally shocking is the initial disbeli

269 43 31MB

English Pages 292 [288] Year 2007

Report DMCA / Copyright


Polecaj historie

Escape From Hell: The True Story of the Auschwitz Protocol

Table of contents :
1 Just for Work
2 Work – German Style
3 An Exalted Visit
4 An Even More Exalted Visit
5 The Ceremonial
6 A More or Less Normal Evening
7 Two Thousand Metres of Track
8 To Die – or to Perish?
9 ‘In the Name of Reichsführer SS’
10 Danger: Live Ammunition!
11 Two against a Regiment
12 Death Lives on the Other Side
13 ‘Did You See It with Your Own Eyes?’
14 ‘But What about the Postcards?’
15 There are Limits to Human Imagination
Appendix I: Photographs and Documents
Appendix II: Auschwitz Protocol (Vrba-Wetzler Report)

Citation preview

Escape from Hell

To my dear wife, in most sincere gratitude – without her I would not have been able to re-live the terrible crime that we experienced together … Fred

WETZLER-pi-xii-CMH4.qxd:Layout 1


5:07 PM

Page iii

Escape from Hell The True Story of the Auschwitz Protocol

Alfred Wetzler

Edited by Péter Várnai-Wetzler, University of Cambridge, Translated from the Slovak by Ewald Osers

Berghahn Books New York • Oxford

First published in English in 2007 by Berghahn Books © 2007, 2020 Eta Wetzler First paperback edition published in 2020 © English translation: Ewald Osers 2006 Ewald Osers has asserted his moral rights as the translator. This book was written in 1963 under the pseudonym Jozef Lánik that Alfred Wetzler used in the Slovak resistance movement. The first edition appeared in Slovak (Čo Dante nevidel) in 1964 Osveta, Bratislava. This book has been published with the assistance of The European Jewish Publication Society SLOLIA, Slovak Literary Agency Central Association of Jewish Religious Communities in Slovakia The Auschwitz Protocol is printed with permission of the Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum, NY. All rights reserved. Except for the quotation of short passages for the purposes of criticism and review, no part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or any information storage and retrieval system now known or to be invented, without written permission of the publisher. Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data Wetzler, Alfréd, 1918-1988. Escape from Auschwitz / Alfred Wetzler ; translated from the Slovak by Ewald Osers. p. cm. ISBN 1-84545-183-X (hbk. : alk. paper) 1. Wetzler, Alfréd, 1918-1988. 2. Auschwitz (Concentration camp) 3. World War, 19391945--Concentration camps--Poland. 4. World War, 1939-1945--Prisoners and prisons, German. 5. Concentration camp escapes--Poland--Oswiecim. 6. Concentration camp inmates--Poland--Oswiecim--Biography. 7. World War, 1939-1945--Personal narratives, Jewish. I. Title. D805.5.A96W47 2006 940.53'18092--dc22 [B] 2006019696

British Library Cataloguing in Publication Data A catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library Printed in the United States on acid-free paper ISBN 978-1-84545-183-7 hardback ISBN 978-1-78920-792-7 paperback ISBN 978-1-78920-943-3 ebook






1 Just for Work


2 Work – German Style


3 An Exalted Visit


4 An Even More Exalted Visit


5 The Ceremonial


6 A More or Less Normal Evening


7 Two Thousand Metres of Track


8 To Die – or to Perish?


9 ‘In the Name of Reichsführer SS’


10 Danger: Live Ammunition!


11 Two against a Regiment


12 Death Lives on the Other Side


13 ‘Did You See It with Your Own Eyes?’


14 ‘But What about the Postcards?’


15 There are Limits to Human Imagination


Appendix I: Photographs and Documents


Appendix II: Auschwitz Protocol (Vrba-Wetzler Report) 233


Alfred Wetzler was a true hero. His escape from Auschwitz, and the report he helped compile, telling for the first time the truth about the camp as a place of mass murder, led directly to saving the lives of 120,000 Jews: the Jews of Budapest who were about to be deported to their deaths. No other single act in the Second World War saved so many Jews from the fate that Hitler and the SS had determined for them. This book tells Wetzler’s story. It introduces us to the realities of Auschwitz and to the drama of his escape. It contains fascinating material about his fellow-escapee, Rudolf Vrba. Neither man knew at the time, or even in later years, just how effective their report had been, as the catalyst for saving so many lives. It was on 4 July 1944, almost three months after these two Slovak Jews – inmates of Auschwitz since the summer of 1942 – made their escape, that a short, graphic report reached the Foreign Office in London, revealing that the ‘unknown destination in the East’, to which so many hundreds of thousands of Jews had already been deported, was the SS-run camp of Auschwitz-Birkenau. The report sent to London that day was a telegraphic summary of the report to which Wetzler had made such a significant contribution, detailing the nature and extent of mass murder at Auschwitz during the previous two years. An annex to the report, written by two later escapees, Czeslaw Mordowicz and Arnost Rosin, revealed that the Jews of Hungary, who for the previous three months had been deported to an ‘unknown destination’ on a daily basis, were being gassed at Auschwitz at a previously unheard of rate of 12,000 a day. As soon as the head of the Jewish Agency, Dr Chaim Weizmann, learned the true nature of Auschwitz, and that deportations were still taking place to it from Hungary, he went to the Foreign Office to see the British Foreign Secretary, Anthony Eden, together with Moshe Shertok, the Jewish Agency leader in charge of diplomatic contacts and initiatives. The meeting took place on 6 July 1944. Eden immediately passed on both their horrific news, and their urgent requests, to the British Prime Minister, Winston Churchill. Among their requests, Weizmann and Shertok appealed to the Allies to bomb the railway lines leading from Budapest to Auschwitz, along which it was suddenly clear, from what Wetzler and his fellow-escapees had revealed, several hundred thousand Hungarian Jews had been and were still being deported to their deaths. Churchill’s response was immediate,

viii Foreword

and positive: ‘Get anything out of the Air Force you can,’ he wrote to Eden, ‘and invoke me if necessary’. Ironically, Churchill’s emphatic instruction did not need to be carried out. Three days after his endorsement of the bombing of the railway lines, the deportation of Jews from Hungary to Auschwitz was halted. It was the Hungarian Regent, Admiral Horthy, who called for an end to the deportations. When Horthy told the senior SS officer in Budapest, General Wiessenmayer, that the deportations must stop, Wiessenmayer was indignant; but the SS had neither the men nor the political power to continue the deportations without Hungarian Government support. The cause of Horthy’s decisive intervention to halt the deportations was an American daylight bombing raid on Budapest on 2 July. This raid had nothing to do with the appeal to bomb the railway lines; it was part of the existing pattern of bombing German fuel depots and railway yards. But the American bombing raid had gone wrong, as many did, and several government buildings in Budapest, and the private homes of several senior Hungarian government officials, had been hit. By complete chance, these buildings and homes included some that had been listed in a telegram sent from Switzerland to the Foreign Office in London by a British diplomat, Elizabeth Wiskemann, who – deliberately without using a code – had suggested bombing specific buildings in Budapest in order to force the Hungarian government to stop the deportation of Jews to Auschwitz. In her open telegram, which was read as she intended by the Hungarian intelligence service, she gave the location of government buildings involved in organizing the deportations, including the police and railway ministries without whom the deportations could not take place, and also the home addresses of Hungarian government officials involved. When the Hungarian intelligence services read this telegram they concluded that the American air raid of 2 July was a deliberate answer to it, and that it was a warning – which clearly could be repeated – to halt the deportations. Neither General Wiessenmayer, nor Adolf Eichmann, who was then in Budapest and about to begin the deportation of all 120,000 Jews that lived there – the last surviving Hungarian Jewish community – had any option but to defer to the Hungarian government’s demand, and the deportations ceased. Although Alfred Wetzler did not know it, his courageous escape proved a life-saving one for a whole community. Wetzler had been a central figure in one of the most remarkable acts of saving lives in the Second World War. The publication of his book enables his remarkable and inspiring story to become known in full for the first time to the English-speaking public, and is a tribute to his memory. Sir Martin Gilbert 21 February 2007


Escape from Hell, Alfred Wetzler’s personal story, straddles the line between memoir and literature, in many ways like Eli Wiesel’s much heralded Night. Like Night it evokes reality powerfully and poignantly, even if at times it adheres less strictly to the form of a conventional historical narrative. Yet the heart of the story is based on historical fact, not fiction. Unlike most memoirs, which are written in the first person, this book is written in the third person. The two main protagonists of the escape Alfred Wetzler and Rudolf Vrba (Walter Rosenberg) are referred to as Karol and Val, respectively. They are written about like characters in a reportage or novel albeit not with distance, but with intimacy. Throughout the book Wetzler includes a great deal of dialogue, which is considered problematic in a memoir, since rarely can a witness remember the exact words that were said at the time. Moreover, Wetzler includes scenes and dialogue from situations that he did not directly witness. For example, he reconstructs events among the staff members at the heart of the Auschwitz-Birkenau camp, while he and Vrba were hiding and waiting to begin making their way to Slovakia. Wetzler obviously did not hear what was said or observe the frenzied reactions of the camp staff in their offices. At best he could have learned of these things after the war from survivors, or he may have used his knowledge of the men involved to fill in the gaps. The descriptions of several scenes in the book differ from those previously presented in the scholarly literature, in particular, Wetzler’s account of the compilation of the report about Auschwitz and the people present when he and Vrba recounted their information. Still, many people Wetzler mentions and scenes he relates correspond very closely to the known historical record. Wetzler writes about people like the notorious physicians Mengele, Clauberg, Thilo, Wirths and Schumann. He mentions Karl Prufer, chief engineer of Topf and Sons (the makers of the gas chambers and crematoria at Auschwitz Birkenau), as well as the brutal SS Hauptscharführer Otto Moll, chief of the crematoria at Birkenau. Frequently he refers to the cruel Johann Schwarzhuber, who he calls Hans, the commander of Birkenau. At the other end of the spectrum he writes about Mala Zimetbaum, a member of the Auschwitz resistance who was hanged. Many aspects of the

x Introduction

description of his and Vrba’s escape not only ring true, they reverberate. The first stage of the escape itself, the secreting of the pair under a woodpile on the outer perimeter of the camp, the spreading of Russian tobacco previously soaked in gasoline to deter the guard-dogs from discovering the two men, and the three day wait until the Nazis called off their manhunt, all match other accounts. By describing the cramped space in which they hid and the tension they felt until they were able to begin their journey to Slovakia, Wetzler draws the reader close to what the men must have experienced, thought and felt. Wetzler is a master at evoking the universe of Auschwitz, especially his and Vrba’s harrowing flight to Slovakia. The day-by-day account of the tremendous difficulties the pair faced after the Nazis had called off their search of the camp and its surroundings is both riveting and heart wrenching. Wetzler makes it clear that alone, neither man would have made it to Slovakia, but together, each leaning on the other, they were able to attain their goal. The timely help they received from Poles and Slovaks, who endangered themselves to help, cannot cancel out the barbarism the pair faced in Auschwitz-Birkenau or the desperate risk of their escape, but Wetzler’s descriptions of aid remind readers that even in the worst of times and situations, a handful of righteous people emerged. Wetzler and Vrba’s report, later appended by the information provided by two additional escapees, Czeslaw Mordowicz and Arnost Rosin, has come to be known as the Auschwitz Protocols. Wetzler and Vrba, as well as the members of the Auschwitz-Birkenau underground who helped arrange their escape and who provided them with many of the details about the camp, hoped that once the report about the mass systematic murder and inhuman regime at Auschwitz-Birkenau was made public, the Allies would intervene to destroy the machinery of death. Those like the intrepid Rabbi Michael Dov Weissmandel of the semi-underground rescue organization, the Working Group, who received the report in Slovakia and forwarded the information it contained to the ‘free world’, also believed the protocols would lead to immediate action to destroy the murder apparatus. But this did not happen. Nevertheless the Auschwitz Protocols, which reached the ‘free world’ through various paths, did make a considerable impression. Arriving in Žilina on 25 April, 1944, some 18 days after the start of their escape, Wetzler and Vrba met with Ervin Steiner a representative of the Slovak Jewish leadership. Immediately thereafter Steiner contacted Oscar Krasnansky of the Bratislava based Jewish Center, the Slovak Jewish Council. Krasnansky managed to reach Žilina and at Steiner’s house Wetzler and Vrba told the Jewish leaders about

Introduction xi

Auschwitz, moving them profoundly. Separately, Wetzler and Vrba then wrote up their accounts, which were combined in a 60 page document a few days later. It was copied several times over, translated from Slovak to German and Hungarian, and distributed to members of the Slovak Jewish Council, the Papal Nuncio in Slovakia, Monsignor Giuseppe Burzio (who then sent it to the Vatican), and to the Budapest Relief and Rescue Committee. The last was particularly important because the report contained information about preparations in Auschwitz-Birkenau for the imminent arrival and slaughter of Hungarian Jewry. The Relief and Rescue Committee, which had just begun negotiations with the SS about rescuing Hungarian Jews, apparently did not widely disseminate the information contained in the protocols. Even today, their actions concerning the report remain a matter of controversy among scholars, survivors and lay people. Rabbi Weissmandel sent out an abbreviated version of the report to his contacts in Switzerland, early in May, but the information did not arrive. On 16 May, just after the deportations from Hungary began, he tried again, adding a plea to bomb the rail lines leading to AuschwitzBirkenau. This time, Recha and Isaac Sternbuch of the Swiss-based Vaad Hahatzalah received it and began its dissemination. The full text of the protocols, delivered by a courier dispatched by Weissmandel’s Working Group, reached Switzerland only on 13 June, 1944. It was delivered into the hands of the representative of the Czechoslovak Government in Exile, Dr Jaromir Kopecky. Gerhard Riegner of the World Jewish Congress then sent it to allied representatives in Bern: Elizabeth Wiskemann of the British legation, Allen Dulles head of U.S. intelligence in Switzerland and Roswell McClelland of the American legation. On 18 June, the BBC broadcast segments of the report. In Switzerland itself, a press campaign ensued, urging that aid be given to Jews endangered by the Nazi occupation. The results of all of this activity are not easy to pin down. Rescue initiatives were already underway in Hungary when the protocols reached the ‘free world’, yet it is quite likely that the report gave additional impetus to those efforts. The report probably had much to do with the appeal of 30 June, 1944, to the Hungarian Regent, Admiral Miklós Horthy, by the King of Sweden, Gustav, to save the remaining Jews of Hungary. This appeal was likely to have played an important role in Horthy’s decision to stop the deportations from Hungary and offer to allow several thousand Jews to leave Hungary. The Horthy Offer, as it is known, in turn played a central role in subsequent rescue activities in Hungary. The information contained in the protocols almost certainly spurred on the International Committee of the Red Cross, which, on 4 July, 1944, made a written protest about Hungari-

xii Introduction

an crimes against Hungarian Jewry and offered to supervise the distribution of food and medicine to the deportees. Horthy responded to their letter by making the International Red Cross responsible for the welfare of the remaining Jews of Budapest, which in turn became a linchpin in further rescue efforts. The request first made by Rabbi Weissmandel to bomb AuschwitzBirkenau and the rail lines leading to it, did not fall on deaf ears. Both Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt ordered that the matter be explored, but for purposes of rescue neither the camp nor the rail line was ever bombed. Although the issue is sensitive and tortuous, it is important to understand that the bombing was being considered around the time of the Normandy landings, when all of the effort of the Western Allies was focused intensely on the largest and most complicated military operation ever carried out up to that time. The bombing of the camp’s murder facilities was deemed very problematic, and given the Allies’ stated policy that nothing should detract from the war effort and that the best way to help the Jews was to win the war, the mere existence of difficulties in what was considered to be a non-military issue most likely precluded efforts to try to solve them. What remains clear, however, is that the Allies’ desire to rescue Jews was never commensurate to the Nazis’ desire to murder them. It is equally clear that the Auschwitz Protocols made an indelible impression on those who read them and contributed to the rescue of many thousands of Jews, especially in Budapest. Wetzler’s memoir, evoking the suffering, death and life in the shadow of the camp, allows readers to approach the unprecedented horror that was Auschwitz-Birkenau. His writing casts light on the desperate courage of the members of the underground, making it plain for all to see. Shining vibrantly through the pages of the memoir is the tenacity and valor of two young men, who sought to inform the world about the greatest outrage ever committed by humans against their fellow humans. The mixed consequences of their bloodcurdling message demonstrate the complex realities of a world in the throes of a cataclysmic war and the Holocaust, and the fundamental powerlessness of the Jews to stop the carnage. Robert Rozett Director of the Yad Vashem Libraries Jerusalem 2006

Chapter 1

Just for Work

Easter, April 1942 One thousand nine hundred and forty-two according to the Gregorian calendar, five thousand seven hundred and two according to the Jewish calendar, a few million years according to the Earth and space scientists. The sun is shining from a blue sky, a strong intoxicating scent is rising from the furrows. The earth is fragrant, the grass is fragrant. Now and then a light breeze rustles reassuringly. It is saturated with the hot smell of soil, grass, resin and the flowering trees. Everywhere else the sun is shining from a blue sky, except here, where it is dark. Darkness has entered into the eyes and souls of hundreds of people who are standing in a column, listening to a speech they had not heard before, to words that would rob them of their native piece of sky, their fields and meadows, the smell of their earth, their farmsteads, their wives, their sisters, their children, their mothers, their grandmothers and their grandfathers. ‘… you are leaving for work’ – the deputy commandant of the Sered camp continues, a bent man with awkward movements and purple veins under his watery eyes – ‘and you’ll find that everything’s ready for you there. No need for any panic. After all, we are treating you decently, as is only proper, and it’ll be the same when you get there. Nothing to be afraid of. Every one of you will do his own thing – a cobbler will mend shoes, a doctor will treat patients, everybody will work in his own field. For your work you’ll be given board and lodging, as well as pay so you can buy yourself whatever you may need. And you’ll be happily together there. You’ll do your labour stint and in six months, or at the latest in a year, you’ll be going back home.’ His words sound unconvincing, there is something like ill-concealed derision in them. ‘I hope this is clear to you. You’re in good health, aren’t you? So don’t be afraid of work! Now and again one of us will come and visit you to see how you’re doing …’ A Škoda car pulls up at the main gate. Above its right headlight is a two-barred white cross on a blue background. It is honking continually.

2 Escape from Hell

The double-bent man quickly glances towards the gate and hurriedly repeats that neither he nor anyone else has anything against them. Then he turns to the men of the Hlinka Guard. There are eighteen of them, in black uniforms and polished jackboots, young men of unmilitary bearing, looking downright ridiculous as they try to stand to attention. You can’t hear what he says to them. A moment later they run across to the people. ‘Left turn! By the left, quick march!’ they yell. The air fills with shouting and cursing. The Hlinka Guards run about, fiercely gesticulating. In their shouts, their commands and movements there is unconcealed joy: they are shouting orders, they are in charge, and with their commands they have got hundreds of people moving. They are intoxicated with a sense of power as if with drink. A movement runs through the crowd of Jews; they bend down, quickly take up their luggage, the column moves off wearily. In their hands, on their shoulders or on their backs there is the oddest collection of baggage – big and small cases of all colours, leather and vulcanite cases, rucksacks, attaché cases and bags tied up with straps and string. ‘Get a move on’, the Hlinka Guards shout and the human crowd winds its way across fields and meadows. ‘Karol, isn’t this rather heavy?’ the teacher Wagner asks his former pupil. Wagner is an elderly person, in his fifties, but he tries to march firmly, upright and to preserve some dignity and at least an appearance of calm even in these circumstances. ‘Karol …’ ‘It’s heavy,’ Karol replies. He is a short, lithe, lively young man with a fine down on his trusting face. ‘It’s heavy, but I’ll manage.’ He speaks as convincingly as he can. He has no baggage of his own, so he is helping his teacher to carry his heavy cane suitcase. They are almost at the end of the column. Karol is afraid to change his load from one hand to the other, he is afraid of stopping; in front you can do that, but not at the back. The Guards are waving their truncheons, running about, yelling. ‘Get on with it! Faster! Look lively!’ ‘Step out! You’ll have plenty of time to sit once you get there!’ Has their village been flooded or burnt down so that everybody is fleeing with whatever they were able to pick up in a hurry, to escape disaster? No, this is a different kind of crowd, with shouting behind it and all around it. ‘Come on, get a move on! You’ll be better off there than here.’ They walk on for three kilometres, then they stop by the railway line, a good way beyond the station. They drop their baggage on the ground,

Just for Work 3

they sit down on it, they take off sweaters, pullovers, jackets, the older men also remove winter coats. The long column is irritable, but here and there some encouraging words are heard. Karol is sitting by his teacher Wagner on his wicker case. The teacher sits bolt upright, he breathes heavily, wheezing a little, and his high forehead glistens with sweat; Karol is rubbing his bruised hands. Ahead of the crowd, over to the right, stands a long goods train, its trucks open on both sides. Over to the left, by the station building, stand a few railwaymen, three or four gendarmes, leaning against the railing, smoking, drinking beer, and gazing sadly on the crowd. Suddenly some Hlinka Guards come running out of the waiting room. They surround the crowd, yelling and swearing. Two civilians with the double-barred cross on their sleeves shout from the distance: ‘On your feet! Get up!’ The crowd gets to their feet and into formation. ‘Forty at a time – is that clear? You’ll be called, each of you. Anyone falling short of forty or exceeding forty gets one across his mug!’ They call out the names, they separate the first forty and take them to the first truck. The forty march up a broad ramp into the truck. Forty, and another forty. ‘Come along, Laco, you’re not going to discover anything,’ Karol says to his friend and once more picks up the wicker case. Laco, twenty years old, an only son, is a few months younger than Karol. He is a little confused and frightened, he is looking about him, then he picks up his suitcase and sack and follows the teacher and Karol to the last truck. On its right-hand corner there is a newly painted large numeral – XVI. On its left corner are some old labels, now covered up. ‘Oi, what are you doing buggering about there?’ a Guard yells at Karol. ‘Just wondering where you are taking us for free.’ ‘Shut your trap, you lousy whipper-snapper!’ At the last truck, too, they call out people’s numbers, names and surnames, for the third time in the same order, and push them into the waggon. Three Hlinka Guards are fussing over the list. Someone had just run out of the truck, shouting ‘Present’. ‘Bastards! Out! Again!’ ‘Six hundred and one …’ ‘Here!’ ‘Six hundred and two …’ ‘Here!’ ‘Six hundred and three …’ ‘Yes.’ ‘No “Yes”, you arsehole. You call out “Here”.’ ‘Six hundred and three …’

4 Escape from Hell

‘Here!’ ‘Shit!’ ‘Beg pardon?’ ‘Six hundred and thirty-four!’ ‘That’s me, Doctor Vojte˘ ch Zimmer …’ The Guardsman scowls at him, his face turns red, but no words come out. With his pencil he points at the door. Dr Zimmer steps on the boarding ramp last. On his sleeve he has a white armband with a red cross. A gendarme helps him into the truck, then hands him a bucket of water. Zimmer takes it carefully, making sure not a drop is spilled. The floor of the truck is newly scrubbed, there is a smell of excrement, hay, horses, ammonia and soda water. ‘The farm is all loaded up. Only the hay is missing,’ someone says by the door. The doors on the right side of the trucks are noisily shut, padlocks are hung on them and for a while they struggle with them. Across the front door they put an iron bar. Everyone rushes to the front opening. ‘Hey, they’re looking for some Laco. His dad’s outside.’ Laco can’t push his way through to the front, he only raises his hand above his head. His father flings a twisted and corded-up blanket into the truck. ‘Laco, you stay with Karol, you look after each other, share everything, keep together. Mum didn’t want to come, she was afraid …’ ‘No more speeches! Stand clear of the train!’ Karol and Laco stand on tiptoe, supporting themselves on the backs of those in front of them, but they don’t see anything. After a while they go angrily and sadly back to the corner which they had bagged for themselves and their teacher. Laco undoes the blanket and finds in it two packets of triangular cheese, two tins of canned food and some ginger biscuits. ‘Aren’t you hungry, Karol? I’ve some meat too, some Easter meat.’ ‘Don’t worry, we won’t let it spoil.’ Laco puts everything in his duffle bag, folds the blanket and puts it on the floor. ‘Why not sit down?’ he says to the teacher and the teacher sits down. Laco then takes hold of Karol’s hand and drags him to the front opening. They manage to squeeze through to a spot from where they can see at least a narrow slice of life out there in the sun. By the station building and along the stores stands a huge multitude of people, getting bigger by the minute. There are many festively dressed women in starched peasant skirts. It is a holiday and they have hastened here from church and from their homes; each is holding a parcel in her arms. They are all nodding their heads, waving handkerchiefs and cloths, blowing kisses, wringing their hands. Those in the truck,

Just for Work 5

pressed against the iron bar and groaning under the pressure of those behind them, call out: ‘See you soon! See you soon, dears!’ See you soon … See their parents, their brothers and sisters, their girlfriends and boyfriends, known and unknown. All those standing out there, waiting for the moment of parting. See you soon – consoling those outside and themselves. From behind the last warehouse a group of old people appears, along with children, and boldly take up position in front. On the left side of their jackets they are wearing yellow six-pointed stars. After a while they wave to the rail trucks, shyly, with hands half-raised. ‘Let’s go … that’s enough for me,’ whispers Laco. And louder he adds: ‘These people are turning this into a spectacle – as if we were going to cross the Atlantic.’ They drag themselves back to their corner and sit down on the blanket next to the teacher. Karol draws his knees up to his chin, supports himself on them with his elbows and buries his face in his hands. Why is he here? Why not in the street he has known for twenty years? Irenka, Irenka my love, tell me why, why? Everything is so confused. He sits up, they all sit up – from outside comes the shrill sound of a whistle. The crowds that had been standing by the station and the warehouses begin to run towards the train. ‘Stop them! Stop them, you incompetents!’ someone shouts angrily outside. The Guardsmen quickly form a line, a wall of rifles held in front of them, they stop the people and yell, but the onslaught is too fierce and a lot of women and children get as far as the trucks. ‘Stand clear of the train, you lousy vermin!’ Parcel after parcel lands in the truck: medallions, kerchiefs, purses, photographs. ‘See you soon! All the best! Write home!’ Three Guardsmen, kicking and using their rifle-butts, force their way through to truck XVI. From somewhere on the side a gendarme joins them, shouting at the people, ‘Do show some sense, after all …’ and inconspicuously he throws a few packets of cigarettes into the waggon. One of the Guardsmen is fencing with his bayonet fixed, another just yells and a third takes up position by the door in order to slide it shut. ‘Ask them where we are off to,’ the teacher Wagner calls out from his corner. ‘Surely they can tell us now.’

6 Escape from Hell

The door of truck XVI is noisily shut. The clank of a padlock, a click and the rattling of the door. The ringing of the metal is painful to the ears. ‘Where are we going to?’ calls out a shrill voice. ‘You’re going somewhere to work, bloody hell. And be quiet now. So you want to shit yourself with fright?’ Karol, Laco and the teacher are crouching in the corner. The teacher would like to say something encouraging, something wise, but he can’t manage it: all that he has seen and heard while they were being driven to the station and all that he is now seeing and hearing in the train fails to make sense; it defies logic and custom. Laco silently gazes at Karol, his big inquisitive eyes are sad and full of uncertainty. Karol is covering his eyes, there is hammering behind his temples, he is breathing heavily and he is blocking his ears with his thumbs. … work and toil till you are sore / you have done it all before. Yes, it all started rather oddly: some Blackshirts ran out into the street, they all had to go back indoors, there were orders, instructions, prohibitions, lists, labels, penalties … but that was not really the beginning, surely he had lived before … Yes, that was a beautiful morning, he had carefully covered his old textbooks in new blue paper, he had walked along breathing deeply, filling his chest, straightening up, he would have liked to be a head taller … That morning he had, for the first time, gone to the first form of the grammar school. The headmaster had addressed them, ceremoniously and earnestly as though they were adults; a significant step in your lives, if you work hard you will, after eight years, be able to go in to higher education (and all the one hundred and ten took this literally) you’ll be able to go to university, you’ll become professors, doctors … It was in his fifth year, they’d been in Brno for an athletics event … he took the same street for one more year to the same big, severe building … then his father said: he couldn’t manage any longer, that he’d have to go to work, and so he went to work. He began in a timber store. Oh what a cold winter that was, the planks were like ice, but he held out. With his first wages he had run straight home, with a chuckle he’d flung the envelope with the money on the table, he’d boasted in front of his brothers, he’d waved the envelope with the money under their noses. But that wasn’t all, some of his first earnings they’d kept back, and his mother, saddened, had given him ten crowns, so now, he told his brothers laughingly, you can have some money for the cinema; and they’d laughed with him, teased him about why he didn’t get married, they’d seen him in the park with Irenka. Yes, Irenka, Karolko, they’d thought up names for each other but in the end they came back to the original ones. For hours on end they’d walked together in the park, not saying a lot, rather thinking how they could

Just for Work 7

bring their faces closer together. Then came the first kiss, but they didn’t promise one another anything, only not to go out with another girl, nor you either … and then they would meet secretly, she’d write letters to him; not long ago she’d written her last letter and given him her last kiss, everything had ended so suddenly, or not ended really, only here in this truck. What an invention a railway truck was! There’s a war on and it’s spring and throughout the world there are good people about. They were off to work. Everything would be ready for them there: accommodation, food, everything. He’ll be with his brothers, perhaps not straight away, but he’ll find them all right, and living together with them would be good. And he’ll meet other people as well. After all, he has worked before, done heavy work, work doesn’t frighten him any longer. He is young, in good health, he’ll make money, somehow he’ll keep himself. Plenty of people are at work all over the world, some even send a lot of money home. The war won’t go on forever. Maybe the Guardsmen had lied to them. Maybe they’ll be there more than six months or a year, but after the war he’ll surely come home, along with his brothers. That’s what he’d solemnly promised his mother. And if things there were very bad, then he’d run away. Run away … But where to? To whom? Home, of course, to his native town. Where else? If things were going to be very bad, he’d run away home. But where are they going to? Where are they being taken? Why haven’t they been told? Where will he be working? In a factory? On the roads? In the mines? Or as a bricklayer? Maybe in a timber yard. What will it be like? And how are they going to house them all? And why were they transporting them in goods waggons? And why did they lock the waggons if they were taking them to work? No doubt they take a lot of people there and they are afraid they might run away on the journey. There’ll be some reason. ‘Ready!’ There was a note of relief in that voice, as though the speaker was glad he’d at last got rid of this unpleasant task. A long and piercing whistle. In front the engine is puffing and hissing, the truck jerks forward and back, and the train is moving. The people in the truck fall silent for a moment and turn rigid. ‘Let me go!’ ‘Hang on, I’ll open the door.’ There is shoving and pushing, a confusion of voices and a rush to the little window and to the long narrow crack between the side of the truck and the door behind where, people known and unknown slip by, things known and unknown of the small town of Sered. ‘Look, just look at those kids, poor things, running alongside the train! Waving and shouting something. Look at them running!’

8 Escape from Hell

Because they all want to see, no one actually sees. A moment later the train turns into a bend, then into another, and by the time the track has straightened out, a gentle undulation of a ploughed field conceals the station and the town. The Jews tear themselves away from the door and settle down. Through the barred window comes the weak light of the April sun. The wheels click in a regular rhythm on the rail joints. Karol sits thoughtfully in his corner. His thoughts are in turmoil: one interweaves with another, incomplete thoughts die away, making room for new ones, equally confused ones, uncertain and worrying ones. Every click of the wheels on the rails hits the brain, disturbs his chaotic thoughts and brings up fresh ones. At times he is back home in his street, he knows all the people there – who knows what they are up to right now? At times he is in his parents’ house, his last few days with his mum and dad, at times he is with Irenka, parting, and then they met five more times, not knowing if this was their last time together, their last kiss, her last letter, thank you for it, and at times he is at the end of this incomprehensible journey, far away in a strange world that he is unable to picture in detail. My good, infinitely good mother. What’s she doing now? Probably sitting, as she was at the moment when they picked me up – sitting there, crying, her prayer-book in her lap, at the table on which stands a mug of white coffee and some unfinished matzos. The rooms are in a muddle. Father is standing by the corded-up baggage, manfully biting back his tears. But mother, that good and infinitely gentle mother, is unable to control herself. What would she be doing at this moment? Surely still sitting there, sad and suffering, waiting for more shouts and noisy battering on the kitchen door. She is full of grief, but she has no fear – she no longer has anything to lose. They are both old, maybe they’ll leave them alone. Yes, surely they’ll leave them alone; at their age they’re not going to be dragged into an alien world. Mother has rheumatism, swollen legs, bandaged and painful, but she bears her heavy lot patiently. No doubt she is now sitting in her chair, her feet up on a little stool, thinking of the three sons they had taken from her. ‘Dear people, don’t take our last one away! There’s no one else left.’ ‘Don’t make such a fuss! He’s not leaving for ever, he’ll be coming back.’ Yes, he’ll be coming back, he’ll see them again, he’ll live with them again. From his jacket he draws an envelope with a few family photographs. His mum picked them herself. On one his mother is by herself: he holds this longest in his hand. It was taken two years ago, when she was sixty. She gazes ahead steadily, calmly, with a gentle

Just for Work 9

smile: I brought you up the best way I knew how. Karol gently strokes the snapshot, his fingers shaking a little. Suddenly he feels a strange shiver down his spine. That snapshot … was that to be a keepsake? No, he’ll see her again, he’ll see those good, wise, solicitous and understanding eyes while they are still alive. He still had to thank her for those wakeful nights, for her superhuman care and attention and for all her self-denial – for him especially, the youngest, to whom she gave most of the little they had lately. He replaces the photograph in the envelope. That is the sum total of his belongings. He has nothing else, but he has everything because in the envelope is his loving, solicitous mother. The sun is setting, dusk enters the truck. The monotonous click of the rails, which at first had reminded them of their depressing situation, has now become strangely calming, allowing syllables and whole words to be read into it: fear not – all will be well – we’ll come back – Mum … His mother, no doubt, has been grieving since the moment they tore him away from her. That was three days ago. She wept because she now had no one left. Because she was not able to give him any money, nor any warm clothes in case he had to stay there over the winter. If only they’d let her keep her youngest. She was crying for him and for his brothers who hadn’t written yet. Was that why she had brought them up? For whom? She had practically choked with a fit of crying when he had freed himself from their hands and rushed to her to embrace her fiercely and kiss her … ‘My boy! My last little boy!’ she had cried in terrible grief and he had felt as if someone were carving his heart out of his body. ‘Don’t be afraid, Mum. I’ll come back. Don’t cry and don’t worry. I’ll certainly come back. I’ll come back and then I’ll stay with you always.’ ‘Don’t take him away from me! We’ve no one else left.’ *** There’s a war on and it’s spring and throughout the world there are good people about. The train rattles through a landscape they cannot see from the trucks. And they’re off to work. Tears are running down his cheeks. For three days in the camp he had been brave: he wanted to be strong, he fought off all emotion, he suppressed all doubts and uncertainty within himself. But at this moment something has given inside him, snapped, his tears are falling on the back of his hand and on the envelope which he has again pulled out of his pocket. At his side he hears Laco’s voice, quiet and solicitous. ‘Don’t you want to eat something?’ Laco asks.

10 Escape from Hell

‘Not now, thank you. I’ll stretch my legs a little.’ He gets up, pushes his shoulders forwards and back, bends at his waist and leans against the side of the truck. He lights a cigarette and calms down a little. He looks at the people, at the opened parcels in their laps and on the smelly floor. They eat slowly and only small helpings to make their supplies last as long as possible. The teacher Wagner offers Laco some tea. Laco passes it on to Karol. ‘Thanks,’ says Karol and drinks. The air in the truck is heavy, stuffy and pungent with smoke. From the door, where they go to urinate, comes an unpleasant smell. By now even the nearby faces are lost in the dark. The silence is broken by coughing, the darkness is dispelled by the flames of matches. Someone up front has lit a candle and placed it on a large army trunk. They have been on this silent journey for five hours now: they still don’t know where they’re going. You’ll-come-back … go-ing-to-work … the wheels are monotonously hammering. That constant hammering has a soporific effect, but they cannot fall asleep. Suddenly the rhythm slows down, there is movement in the truck, many get to their feet and someone says: ‘Probably waiting for the green light.’ The train stops and everybody tries to push to the door. ‘Where are we?’ several voices ask simultaneously, asking no one in particular. ‘Should have brought some clairvoyant with you,’ says the stocky taximan, Robert, standing close to the door. ‘Probably a station. I can see some lights and there are trains in front of us,’ someone says by the little window. Two railwaymen with lamps are running along the truck. Out in front someone strikes the wheels with a hammer. From further back, from behind truck No. XVI, comes the clank of iron. ‘Ask where we are,’ says Laco. ‘Yessir, order understood,’ replies Robert. ‘Someone’s just coming along, looks like he might be chatty. A railwayman.’ Everybody falls silent, so they can hear his answer. ‘We’re attaching ten trucks,’ says an elderly voice. ‘Maybe with food?’ Robert asks na¨ıvely. ‘No, son, not with food,’ the elderly voice says into the crack by the door. ‘And where are we?’ ‘In Žilina.’ The railwayman moves on, the tapping on the wheels gets closer. ‘Some Guardsmen approaching,’ Robert announces.

Just for Work 11

A moment later they hear a sharp commanding voice outside: ‘Get a move on, all you lot, have you all got two left hands? In twenty minutes I want to be rid of this train.’ ‘Don’t pester us,’ the railwayman answers boldly. ‘A man might easily let go of his hammer.’ The man with the bold voice sharply and angrily strikes the wheel of truck XVI. And again. As he passes along the waggon they can hear him cursing. ‘Idiot with gold braid! … On his sleeve a Slovak cross and in his head – shit!’ A moment later ten trucks bump into the standing train, the buffers ring out. Again a railwayman’s whistle and a long, piercing reply from the engine. The train is moving again. The clanking of the wheels accelerates and after a while they again monotonously sing out: all-willbe-well … no-fear … don’t-be-afraid … we’ll-be-back … my-good mother … my mum … Mother is sitting at the table, her swollen rheumatic legs, bandaged in flannel, on a little stool. On her lap lies a prayer-book. On the table is a mug of white coffee and some pieces of matzos. Dad is sitting facing her. In the corner by the stove a tied-up rucksack. Mother is sitting there, sobbing, crying incessantly. The room she is in is as dark as this sixteenth waggon. The room is in a muddle, but it smells of cleanliness. In the waggon there is a smell of excrement, soda water and urine, in the waggon that’s taking him to his brothers. The train enters a bend, climbs into the hills, slows down, speeds up again and eventually travels at a steady pace. Cold seeps into the truck, those inside huddle into blankets and protect their hips and knees. Through the vertical crack by the door you can see snow-covered fields and dark patches of woodland. The train is struggling up a narrow valley between the mountains. ‘What’s the time?’ ‘Better ask the guy who relieved you of your watch.’ ‘I should have had an ordinary one – it would have stopped by now.’ ‘What d’you want to know the exact time for? Why, I ask you? No one here has a date. Or if so, the young lady will have to excuse him.’ ‘If you don’t stop at once, I’ll make you,’ Robert shouts. ‘If you’re bored, get out your prayer-books, or play cards. A chap can’t even quietly reflect here.’ ‘Why not pull the emergency break and get off?’ Robert’s thin voice suggests. ‘Tell them you want to join the Guards, they were looking for a trumpeter. Or tell them that you’re nervous … that they forgot to give you a sick ticket.’ Some of them can’t stop themselves laughing. ‘I say, what’s the use of these arguments? No point in bickering or laughing. For that kind of thing God will punish us. Thou shalt not

12 Escape from Hell

blaspheme or speak ill of thy neighbour. The Almighty will not forget us,’ comes a serious voice from a corner, where a second candle is now burning down. Silence falls again, unbroken by anyone for a good hour. Karol is leaning with his back against the side of the truck and with his side against Laco as he snoozes. This way they are warmer. He is awakened by the noise of voices and the slowing down of the clank of the wheels. The train comes to a halt. ‘Well now, you cleverdicks. God forgot to send us back home,’ Robert announced in a shrill voice. ‘I think we’re at the frontier.’ Outside the trucks there are resolute footsteps, the click of heels on the sleepers and on the gravel. Outside is deep darkness. There are voices outside, several men running along the train, a whistle sounds in front. Karol clearly hears the sound of heavy army boots outside the truck. The padlock squeaks and clicks, the door creaks. Suddenly all the truck doors are open. ‘Alles raus! Los!’ Beside every truck stand men in uniform.

Chapter 2

Work – German Style

Dense fog lies low over the ground. The shouting and running figures are barely visible in the light of two bulbs – one up front by the engine and the other at the far end of the train. Outside truck XVI stand two men in rubber coats holding sub-machine-guns. A moment later a third man stops by them: he is wearing a long leather coat; on his belt is a holster with a heavy army pistol. A few steps from them stand two Hlinka Guards. ‘Niemand ist drin?’ shouts the tall man in the leather coat and shines a torch into truck XVI. There is no one in the truck. They are all standing outside. They are shivering with cold and stare in amazement at the shouting armed men. What does it all mean? Surely they had been told they were going somewhere in Poland. Hopefully they won’t be left to the mercy of these shouting men in uniforms. How is this possible? Where have they been taken to? The guards hand a large envelope to the man in the leather coat. He shines his torch on it and mutters something incomprehensible. ‘Also los!’ yells the man in the leather coat. ‘We’re going to count you, each man will respond and then get back into the truck!’ His voice is sharp and dry, like shots fired from his mouth. The guards step aside, light up and talk to each other. This no longer concerns them. They have done their bit. ‘Also los!’ ‘Six hundred and one, Alexander Vrbovský!’ ‘Here.’ Shivering, the man walks back to the truck. Numbers and names ring out, one man after another shuffles back to the truck. ‘Faster’, the German snaps out. ‘D’you want me to kick your arses up into the truck? … Six hundred and thirty, Mikuláš Wagner!’ ‘I’m here …’ ‘Six hundred and thirty-four, Vojtech Zimmer.’ ‘Here …’ The list is correct. The man in the leather coat lights a cigarette and with the envelope under his arm walks to the front.

14 Escape from Hell

At the door of truck XVI there is a crush again. In the hurly-burly someone kicks over the bucket of water. Dr Zimmer sadly shows the bucket to one of the rubber-coated men, he wants to address him, but Robert anticipates him: ‘Mr Soldier,’ Robert says, ‘may we go and fill the bucket? We can hear water running up front.’ The short man in uniform snatches his sub-machine-gun from his shoulder, swings his arms and strikes the bucket with the stock of his gun. The bucket leaps up, its edge hitting Robert’s knee. ‘Idiot!’ Robert exclaims angrily. ‘Herr Soldat, Wasser, nur Wasser bitte,’ the elderly doctor pleads. The short man slings his sub-machine-gun over his shoulder again and walks off, waving his pocket torch. From below the embankment two men with white overalls over their uniforms are approaching. They stop by the door. ‘Please, where are we going?’ the doctor asks anxiously. ‘Very far?’ His armband with the red cross slips off his sleeve. One of the men hands it back to him and silently walks back to the embankment. The other looks at the worried faces inside the truck. ‘We’re just soldiers, we don’t know much,’ he says softly. ‘You are at Zwardon and we heard someone say that in three hours you’ll be at your destination.’ He moves off, following his colleague. From the fog emerges the short man with the sub-machine-gun over his shoulder. He stops outside truck XVI, for a moment he looks at the people inside. When he makes out the figure of the old doctor, he says: ‘You wanted water, didn’t you? Not far ahead there are some rocks. Haven’t you got a Moses with you who might strike them with a stick? … Mind your heads!’ The square through which they have been able to see a piece of a tired, unfriendly world is slammed shut. The heavy padlock clicks. Just then noise and shouting come from the ten trucks behind them: a shrill voice, women’s voices and the stamping of feet. ‘Women!’ Robert says in surprise. ‘So they hitched women up to us in Žilina.’ They could hear numbers and names being called out, cajolements and curses. ‘Faster, fair ladies!’ … ‘Get a move on, you cows!’ … ‘Your behinds too heavy for you?’ Then the sharp voice of the tall German: ‘Correct. Four hundred and forty-three. Gefreiter, run to the front! The train can leave now!’ Now it is midnight and they are moving off. The train slowly climbs into the mountains. The air is getting chillier; from the right blows a cold wind. Three more hours, Karol reflects. In three hours they will be at their destination, the soldier had said. What kind of destination? A factory?

Work – German Style 15

A mine? And will the Germans there be as … as horrible? And are these women being dragged along with us to be put to work? Where will we live? In a building, in a castle, in a barracks, or in an abandoned monastery? For a while the train continues to labour uphill, but then it runs downhill fast and without heavy puffing. The wheels are again clicking and spelling out words at regular intervals, on and on. The noise of the wheels on the track, their hammering and knocking, the clash of the buffers and the whistles – everything is suddenly more depressing and more hopeless. We’re-off-to-work. There’s-a-war-on-now-but-we’ll-re-turn-home. All-will-be-well-and-we’ll-be-home-by-the-winter … But perhaps this isn’t so. Perhaps these are just vain hopes. What if the rails are hammering out something else? The train is hurrying on; now it is making up for the time it lost climbing into the mountains. The trucks are jumping about on the joints and in the bends. Karol stands up quickly. While he was sitting down he felt that the wheels and that whole mass of steel, iron and timber was laughing at him spitefully, that it was playing with him as with a helpless figure, shaking him, rocking his innards, his feet and his hands, flinging his head from side to side. He moves to the crack by the door. The truck is full of smoke – even people who’ve never smoked before are smoking. Karol’s eyes are smarting, he coughs along with the others. All are on their feet now, some jump about to dispel the cold. Some are drinking warm tea or coffee. Would you like some? Go on, have a sip. Others again are drinking quietly, furtively, for who knows how long the journey is going to last. We’re moving faster now, maybe we’ll get there in less than three hours, Karol reflects, standing in the corner, leaning against the side of the truck. But what did an hour sooner or later matter? No, I’m not going to think about this any longer, however it turns out … only to get out of this darkness and cold … maybe it won’t be so cold there, after all it may even be spring there already. He turns, back to the engine; yes, this is better. Have a drink, Karol, thank you, and he passes the empty cup of the Thermos to the teacher. He lights another cigarette. Don’t smoke so much, you’ll have a headache, Laco whispers to him. It’s only my fifth, no fear, I’ll be all right in the fresh air … Mum, I’m already a long way from you, but no matter how far I’ll be, I’ll come back, only don’t cry, don’t worry, be brave, people will help you, Irenka will visit you, she’s not afraid, I thank you in advance, my sweet Irenka, I thank you in advance, and don’t be angry that I didn’t say goodbye properly, forgive me, I’d never been to a funeral before … No, standing like this isn’t any better either. He stubs out his cigarette and sits down

16 Escape from Hell

on the blanket, now overcome by fatigue. He hears the teacher’s question flying around the truck: dear people, how much longer do you think we’ll have to travel yet? No one answers. Two hours later the engine emits a shrill whistle. The wheels, now braking, screech unpleasantly, the train slows down and finally comes to a halt. There’s not a light to be seen anywhere, and there’s a penetrating chill and thick fog. Is this journey’s end? ‘If only this was it,’ says Laco. ‘My bones are killing me. I’ve never longed as much for a bed. A bed and water. If only …’ Along the entire train you can hear the footfall of jackboots and army boots, the growling of dogs and human voices. Karol pushes his way through to Robert, catching his elbow. ‘We’ll stay together, all right? Keep together?’ ‘Sure, we’ll be a gang …’ Robert replies reassuringly. The truck doors all open almost simultaneously. From inside truck XVI someone is shining a torch on the ground outside. Four men are standing there in long greatcoats, with dogs on leashes – large German shepherds with bristling fur and tongues hanging out. ‘I’ll teach you lights! Switch it off, dammit!’ one of them yells. ‘Alles raus! Los!’ comes a command. Less than five minutes later they are standing in front of their trucks and, terrified, gazing into the dark fog. Is this just another stop? This is a plain, there’s no embankment, maybe this is the end of the journey. Strange people emerge from the fog, people they had not seen before. Thin, emaciated shadows, frightful shades of skeletons in striped rags, with striped berets on their shaven heads and wooden clogs on their feet. Their terrified, sunken eyes are gleaming darkly: Karol, amazed, sees in their depths something like a distasteful eagerness and shy sadness, the kind that mentally ill people have in their lucid moments. Convicts, it occurs to him, but he immediately rejects the idea because in the expression and the silent mechanical behaviour of these people there is something else, something incomprehensible and undefinable that arouses in him sympathy and anguish. Who are these people? Where have they come from? And what is the meaning of the triangles with the letters ‘P’ and ‘F’ on their striped jackets? The fog is pierced by the light of pocket torches and all round them there are men in uniform with restless angry dogs on leashes. ‘Where are we? Friends, where are we?’ The striped ones keep silent. Didn’t they hear or don’t they understand? ‘Fall in! Columns of five!’ comes a command. ‘Ask no questions, everything will be explained to you. Everything will be given you.’

Work – German Style 17

They don’t see the man who is shouting. Shuffling and bumping into each other, they somehow manage to form one hundred and twenty-six rows of five. One hundred and twenty-six rows and four men at the back: the teacher, Karol, Laco and Dr Zimmer. Numbers tally. Once more … one hundred, two hundred, three hundred, four hundred, five hundred, six hundred, ten, twenty, thirty and four. ‘Correct?’ ‘Finished!’ shouts one with a dog at the back. ‘Align the columns and keep them tidy! By the left, quick march!’ Karol looks to his sides and back. He sees those strange figures in their striped rags, until now fairly apathetic, jump up into the trucks without awaiting orders, but he can’t see how avidly they pounce on the packs in which they suspect food. The last ten trucks with the women are hidden by the dark and the fog, no voices and no noise come from them. The armed men in their grey uniforms open the front three trucks, which contain most of the baggage neatly marked with the names of the owners. ‘Keep moving, keep moving,’ the Germans yell at the long column. ‘Anyone falling behind won’t send greetings home tomorrow!’ Neither the teacher, nor Karol, nor Laco sense a sinister, terrible meaning behind this warning. Why are they treating us so roughly, wonders Karol. Why are they moving us at night and in the cold? Couldn’t they have taken us all the way to our destination? Or leave us in the trucks until morning? Probably not. Evidently they’re running late, something urgent has come up somewhere and they want to assign us to our work as soon as it’s daylight, tired and short of sleep as we are. Never mind, it’s up to us to overcome these things and hold out. Unfeeling people! After all, we aren’t going to work for you forever! For a long time they march through the frosty darkness. Maybe it’s a clear, moonlit night, but on the ground there’s impenetrable fog and the going is rough – every few moments someone stumbles or falls. Are they actually walking on a road or across fields? ‘Halt! Close up, dress by the right! Los!’ Again they count them. ‘Quick march!’ After another hour the darkness lightens and the fog begins to lift. At last they see long lines of lights in the distance, the dark outlines of long, low buildings and strange, tall towers with concrete pillars. And a few minutes later a wire fence and a large iron gate with large iron letters in an arc above it: ARBEIT MACHT FREI!

18 Escape from Hell

‘What does it mean, Karol?’ Laco asks in astonishment. ‘Some kind of German slogan about work. Work liberates, work makes you free, work creates freedom … something like that. Don’t worry your head about it.’ ‘Classical German, is it?’ ‘Maybe. Or maybe quite modern German,’ the teacher Wagner says absentmindedly. They pass through the gate with its large iron letters which, it seems, wish to emphasise that work here will be as hard as iron. But even at this moment nobody is troubled by the thought of work, nor is anyone scared by the notice on the tall, barbed-wire fence, which warns: ‘Danger! Keep clear!’ Nearly all their faces reflect relief: the end of their march, arrived at last … finally we’ll know where we stand, where we’ll work, how we’ll be accommodated. They make them halt in the vast courtyard, where their numbers and names are once more read out from the list. Patiently and in a disciplined manner they respond, forming columns of five in the order they were called. ‘The first one hundred can go!’ commands the man who checked the list – clearly an officer. Twenty columns of five enter the end building. The rest stare at two rows of brick-built huts, at the tall watch-towers, at the wire fence and at the dog handlers in their grey uniforms, who, with their restless dogs, look even more frightening than the emaciated people in their striped garb, who are moving about everywhere at the ‘regulation’ distance. ‘What are those collar flashes?’ asks Laco, pointing to the dog handlers. But Karol doesn’t hear him, he is scared and confused by the large number of dismal huts with their small windows, by the strangest people he has ever seen, in their tattered and patched striped rags and their clogs, looking as though they had been embraced by some unforgiving tuberculosis. He looks at the tall wire fence with its many lamps alight on concrete posts, at the tall watch-towers at regular intervals and the shouting men with their dogs. Nothing of this reality matches the ideas he had formed of this strange environment. He has never heard or read about anything like this. ‘What are those collar flashes?’ Laco repeats his question. ‘For heaven’s sake,’ Robert the taximan snaps, ‘Can’t you see the SS? The death’s heads?’ ‘SS?’ Laco repeats in amazement. A tall, elegant SS man mixes with the last columns of five. Alertly he looks at their faces, puts his stick under his arm, pulls his gloves on, lifts some of the men’s chins, scrutinises everyone from head to toe and, in a friendly voice, asks some questions.

Work – German Style 19

‘What are you?’ he asks Robert. ‘A driver and motor mechanic,’ Robert replies curtly. ‘And you?’ ‘A sales assistant, sir.’ ‘And you?’ ‘A locksmith.’ ‘And you?’ ‘A tailor – I had some very good customers, sir …’ ‘Any watchmakers among you?’ ‘Yes,’ several hands go up. ‘A tradesman’s worth his weight in gold,’ the SS man remarks cheerfully. ‘Excellent. Just the kind of people we need.’ ‘What about you?’ he asks Karol. ‘I have no trade, I was … a student.’ ‘Ah, and you’re a doctor, aren’t you?’ he says to the elderly Zimmer. And then he adds: ‘Very good. There are some splendid people amongst you.’ He touches his cap with his stick, goodbye, and with a rolling gait he makes for the entrance. From the long brick building a hundred naked people emerge. Shorn from head to toe, they clutch in their arms their striped rags and wooden clogs and, urged on by the SS men, they run and hop as if stepping on nails. It strikes Karol that these are the first hundred. They are strange and unreal, like creatures from some primitive, fantastic world, rushing somewhere for a little warmth. They enter the beer hall of the neighbouring building, leaving behind them the stench of some smelly liquid they had been sprayed with. ‘My God,’ the teacher Wagner breathes, horrified. ‘They are … they are going to dress us in those convicts’ clothes.’ ‘Next hundred,’ commands the SS man with the wart on his face. The unease that had seized Karol at the sight of the naked, shorn people running about with their striped rags and wooden clogs in their arms is not getting any less. Why are they putting us into these hideous clothes? Why are they shaving our heads? And why are all the Germans armed, why do they have those dogs, and why do they shout and swear so disgustingly? And what’s the meaning of those numbers on the jackets of those emaciated people moving around us? Did they come here for work too? And what kind of work is it that makes them look so frightful, that has drained their features of everything that makes a man a man? For what kind of work have they dragged us here? But maybe those people are … well, people who are as a punishment kept in such unhealthy work. After all, that slim SS man in the smart uniform hinted to us that we’d be assigned various tasks. An SS man!

20 Escape from Hell

… Whoever heard anything good about SS men? Where have they brought us? To do what work? Dear mum, don’t cry, don’t be afraid … Thousands of thoughts that are worrying him conjure up visions before him, a thousand questions spring to his mind, but not one of them is answered. He is snatched from his reverie by the voice of the SS man with the wart: ‘Get a move on! Faster, you arseholes! Los!’ The teacher takes Karol by the hand. It is cold and sticky, as if all human warmth had left it. ‘Let’s go,’ the teacher says in a resigned voice. ‘Let’s go. We can’t change anything here.’ In a long room there is a line of tables behind which men in striped rags stand or sit. They look at the new arrivals with cold indifference, with the lifeless eyes of a sphinx amidst worthless sand. ‘All valuables to be handed over!’ the SS man with the wart snarls. ‘Everything. That clear?’ Chains, medallions, watches, cigarette cases, rings and bracelets tinkle at the first table. ‘I got this from my mother, Mr … Commander,’ Laco says imploringly, holding his little medallion with his mother’s photograph. ‘You can buy another after the war. Hand it over. Next one!’ The striped ones pick out the watches from the pile and lay them out on a blanket spread next to a wide and deep crate into which they throw all the other valuables. At the second table they enter people’s personal data in a card index: occupation, employment, education. The card index then goes to the next table: exact address of last place of residence, whom you will write letters to, where you have relatives. It’s a large card index, doublesided, room for everything – colour of hair, eyes, condition of teeth, gold, platinum, others, past diseases. By the last table stands a weighing machine, but you have to take your clothes off, your shoes, your underwear, it’s got to be the nett weight. After weighing, they measure everyone’s height. You have to hang on to your card. In the next room they look at the bottom right corner of the card, at the number there. Accordingly they arrange some metal numbers, dipped in Chinese ink, allegedly disinfected, and mercilessly stamp it below your collar-bone. There are two small rags ready, with the same number as on the index card and below the collar-bone: you’ll sew those on later … now you’ll go to the small shower room, come along, don’t be embarrassed, we’ve got to cut your hair, don’t want to get any crabs, do you? Wait a moment, spray you a little more – and you’re out now, where the striped ones toss you a striped top, striped trousers, a couple of clogs, no you can’t choose, you can change them with each other later – and that’s the end of the perfect, precise line. Not quite –

Work – German Style 21

you still have to go into the beer hall, where you’ll get underpants, a shirt, two torn rags, but you put them on quickly because it’s very cold in the beer hall. ‘Alles raus! Fall in!’ Armed SS men, dogs, phantoms in striped clothes, their number now increased by six hundred and thirty-four from Slovakia, moving among dismal huts, watch-towers and barbed wire everywhere – into what kind of world have we come? muses Karol. Parcels and baggage have remained at the station where the train halted. So they’ve robbed us of everything we had. They’ve taken our clothes and given us numbers. What use are numbers to us? To make sure we don’t run away? Maybe that’s why they shaved our heads and put us into these hideous rags. Didn’t they look ridiculous, the teacher and the short elderly doctor now without his arm band. Even Laco, yes all of us are like that now, but no, we’re not like those who stood by the train or those moving around us here. So what are we like? And what’s the work we’re supposed to do – shorn, numbered and in convicts’ garb? What do they have in mind for us? ‘What’s your number?’ Laco asks Karol. He is pale, he suffers from the cold, he keeps blowing his nose. ‘Mine’s 29163,’ Laco continues. ‘And yours?’ ‘Where for heaven’s sake have we got to?’ mutters Karol. Who cares about numbers, he thinks, I’d rather know where we are. He looks at his piece of rag. ‘Mine’s one less than yours – 29162,’ he announces. *** An hour later, shortly after the slim, smartly dressed SS man had repeatedly urged them to remember their number and after he had, about sixty times, practised with them the command ‘Mützen ab!’, standing to attention and smartly bringing their caps down to their legs, they performed this salute before a senior officer with elegant spectacles – well, some kind of officer, who the hell knows their rank badges. He’s come accompanied by several others, probably also officers or NCOs. He receives his report with a motionless face and for an incredibly long period stands silent and rigid. At last he walks down the ranks, looking sharply right and left as if examining the quality of an article that he was about to take over. They all look at him, holding their breath, expecting a fateful answer to their hundreds of tormenting questions. Eventually he stops, puts his hand under the flap of his greatcoat and without any preamble says:

22 Escape from Hell

‘Forget your names. They’re a burden. A name can be rude or ridiculous, but a number is always serious and accurate. You’ve become numbers. That clear?’ He speaks very abruptly but clearly, and his features are still motionless and impenetrably cold … ‘Under your agreement you’ve come here to work,’ he continues. ‘You’ve come here to work and not to some health spa. You’ll have noticed that already, I guess. It’ll be better for you if you understand everything correctly from the start. You are in a German concentration camp and you’ll acquaint yourself with all regulations as soon as possible. You’re intelligent people, aren’t you? We believe we’ll get on well together. But remember one thing: if you’re not disciplined we’ll be severe and perhaps even unbearable. The Reich loves order. It’s based on order and it will stand on order for a thousand years.’ He makes a meaningful pause. The silence at that moment almost tears their nerves. Karol seems to go rigid, he feels as if he is falling into the ground. That is probably how a person feels when life drains out of him. ‘D’you need an interpreter?’ the officer’s voice cuts into the silence. They look at him with horror in their faces and keep silent. ‘Very wise of you – after all, you didn’t come here to hold debates,’ he says. ‘Any questions?’ ‘No questions,’ he says a moment later. ‘That’s how it should be. Even questions are a burden. Get it? Too many questions means disorder. It’s always been a rule – and now even more so – that he who asks no questions doesn’t get his face pushed in. Here, you will only answer.’ Again he walks down the ranks, adjusts his spectacles, returns to where he stood before and says: ‘The Germans have one outstanding characteristic: if it is in their power, they prevent evil. To save you asking unnecessary questions, I’ll tell you where you are. You were assigned to the Auschwitz concentration camp. This is Auschwitz, clear? A small sample of German order and German goodwill. I don’t know what saints you pray to, but heaven save you from provoking this German goodwill. Perhaps I haven’t told you everything you wish to know, but you’ll be wiser tomorrow. You’ll go to a neighbouring camp, there isn’t enough room here at present.’ He turns to the slim elegant SS man and commands: ‘Abführen!’ ‘Right turn! Quick march! One, two …’ ‘Los! Los! Faster! Anyone slow won’t get there!’ Karol, Laco, the teacher and the doctor march in the last row. So this is Auschwitz, Karol reflects. From a shadowy depth the name of this small Polish town comes back to him, a place of which (or rather of

Work – German Style 23

somewhere near it) they had already heard back home. And what he has just heard arouses in him a sense of despair and fear. They are in Auschwitz! And where are they off to now? Ah yes, not enough room, so they’re taking them to a neighbouring camp. Maybe a bigger camp. ‘Faster, up there in front! Dammit, faster! You’re not here for convalescence. Faster, or I’ll make you run!’ Up front someone squeals under a blow from a rifle-butt, canes and whips whistle, dogs bark and their handlers shout. They’re speeding up their step. The bumpy road is covered in stones, broken tiles, cinders, clay and earth and their feet time and again sink into the morass. The trenches along the road are full of dirty, greasy water that smells of urine and in some places stinks unbearably. Under their feet squelches the greasy, smelly quagmire. Karol catches Laco’s arm and with a movement of his chin points to the trench on the right-hand side. Laco only just overcomes his faintness, his eyes seem glued up and fail to penetrate the fog that has descended again. He wipes them with his sleeve and looks at the ditch again. For a moment he stiffens and turns pale with horror. God almighty, human heads! Four disfigured and ghostly human heads in the slimy dirty water. And a little way on there are more disfigured ghostly heads and with them clots of congealed blood. Laco is terrified, in his eyes is boundless fear. Get away! Away from here! As quickly as possible. God almighty, away from here! ‘Los! Los! Here you’ll do everything at the double. Los!’ After about four kilometres their march ends behind the gate of a low, long, brick-built cookhouse. To the right, not far from the cookhouse, are three dark huts and all around, far and wide, nothing, only the inhospitable plain, sparsely grown with bushes. In the door of the cookhouse stand two striped ones. ‘Four men here!’ they shout in Polish. ‘Four men here for tea! Quick!’ No one understands. One of the cooks waves his arms excitedly. ‘Four men here!’ he shouts again, raising four fingers. Four of them run over to the cookhouse. There are two barrels by the door, steam rises from both of them. Karol and Robert stretch their faces out to catch the warmth. Four at a time, they drink tea from large dirty and chipped mugs, a disgusting liquid. While they are still drinking they hear a prolonged ring of metal. Karol looks sideways and sees a length of rail suspended from a wooden wheel. A stocky young man in a white apron, under which his striped trousers are visible, is beating the rail with a metal hammer.

24 Escape from Hell

From two huts figures spill out in untidy uniforms and striped rags. They make for the cookhouse in groups. ‘Where are you from?’ some of them ask. Karol hears French, German and Polish. ‘From Slovakia.’ ‘Where? Well, you’re the first ones from there. We’ll have a fine Babel here!’ The first ones? Shocked, Karol looks at Laco and the teacher and then turns to Robert. Then a sense of profound and painful disappointment grips him. Where, then, are those who left Slovakia before them? Where have they dragged his brothers? Sadly he looks around himself, as if searching for a face that could advise him. No point in asking, if none have come from Slovakia yet, maybe it’s better that way, Karol thinks after a while and calms down a little. His brothers are probably somewhere else, in better conditions than at this frightful place. ‘And where are you from?’ he hears the teacher ask. ‘From France. Have you got anything to eat?’ ‘They took all our things. But they’ll return them to us and then you shall be our guests,’ the teacher sincerely promises. ‘Idiot! Brr!’ says the slight Frenchman with a sneer. Little groups form around the Frenchmen. The teacher, Karol, Laco and Robert join them. Their naïve questions astonish the two Frenchmen. ‘How long have you been here?’ somebody asks them in French. ‘Two weeks. Before that we spent six months in Drancy … A pity, there it was like a holiday. Cigarettes, wine …’ ‘How many of you came here?’ ‘One thousand one hundred and twelve. Now we are half that number.’ ‘They let the rest go?’ ‘Yes,’ answers the Frenchman and points his thumb to the sky. ‘To the Himalayas.’ ‘I’m sorry,’ the teacher says, offended. ‘I meant my question seriously.’ The Frenchman taps his mate on the arm, let’s go, he wags his head left and right, he says something in jargon: they only understand an odd word here and there, a transport of idiots, of Hottentots. The group is dispersing, the teacher is dragging Karol and Laco over to a clump of figures in tattered uniforms. When they had seen them running out of their huts a moment earlier, nothing special about them had caught their eyes. But now they see SU in large letters on their

Work – German Style 25

backs. The teacher pricks up his ears and then leans to Karol and Laco, whispering: ‘Russian prisoners. Russian soldiers.’ They are well-built, young, in army greatcoats, with army winter headgear on their heads, all of them in their early twenties. They speak slowly and deliberately and their gestures are similarly slow. ‘Cigarettes, papirosy niet?’ one of them slaps the teacher on his shoulder. Wagner regretfully shakes his head. ‘How did you get here?’ he asks them. It took a while for the Russian to understand the question. ‘War, puffpuff,’ he explains. ‘Then four’ – he shows on his fingers – ‘and then Minsk and Vitebsk. And there the Germans took …’ With his arms he explains an encirclement. On his greatcoat there is a small rectangle R-11212. The rectangle is caked with mud, the figure 2 could equally well be an 8. ‘So you’ve been here six months?’ Wagner shows six fingers and then, with his index finger describing a large circle, he indicates the area of the concentration camp. ‘Da, da, all winter.’ ‘And how many of you came?’ The Russian’s features cloud with grief, he sighs and walks away. ‘It’s thought there were twelve thousand of them,’ says a man from a nearby group. ‘Twelve thousand! And now they are hardly four hundred.’ ‘What work do you do here?’ Robert asks the talkative Frenchman – Pinkus from Warsaw. That was how he had introduced himself: I am Pinkus, I lived in Warsaw for a long time, after that in Paris. By origin I’m supposed to be a Roman … maybe – along with such people as Romulus, Remus, Augustus, Flavius, but this means nothing to you, I can see that you are simpletons. I’ve lived in big cities, especially in Paris they knew me very well, yes, they knew me very well there. Not only the women – the police too. There I lived among elegant society. From shareholders upward.’ ‘You can tell us all that some other time. Now tell us what you are doing here,’ Robert repeats his question. ‘With our hands nothing. Or rather … nothing much. Now and again we pick up the corpses, we get supper and a wage and …’ ‘Corpses? What corpses?’ Laco exclaims and Karol spontaneously catches the teacher’s hand. ‘More or less normal corpses,’ Pinkus replies with a grin. ‘If you were to kick the bucket, we’d pick you up too. And don’t let me forget: in the evening we get our wages and hey presto off to the bar. Once it was the

26 Escape from Hell

Moulin Rouge, but whatever your cash will stand …’ He twists strangely, whistles, snaps his fingers as if calling a waiter and ends by doing a belly-dance. ‘Toujours l’amour, mon cher ami, ma chère amie, ha-ha-ha, you idiots, you’ll soon see … ha-ha-ha … travailler … travailler … ha-ha.’ He walks over to the ditch, urinates into it and then runs over to the hut where the others are already falling in. The prisoners had fallen in already. The SS men divide them into thirties and forties and march off with them to somewhere behind the camp. A little while later some fifteen people join them, they form ranks and they are led out of the gate. *** ‘Hey, you’re not afraid of them, are you? They can no longer do you any harm,’ calls out an SS man with a strangely elongated horse-shaped head. He is sitting on a big dusty tree trunk and watches Karol and Laco with amusement. He has narrow, evil eyes like poisonous holes and a split lower lip. ‘Los! Lift them up!’ a second SS man with a rough neck shouts angrily. Karol and Laco once more get hold of the corpse that had slipped from their hands and with an effort put it on top of a small cart. In the surrounding morass others pick up the corpses of Soviet prisoners of war, drag them to the narrow-gauge track and put them on small trucks. ‘At last! In future I would advise you to load them first time and not deposit them first. This isn’t glass,’ the SS man with the horse’s head reminds them. ‘God in heaven, even in my dreams I would not have believed that we would be doing this kind of work,’ Laco laments softly. His pale face reflects revulsion, disgust and self-pity. ‘Ugh, such stupid faces,’ the rough-neck SS man says contemptuously and turns away. ‘A few hours of moving the Bolshevik corpses and they’ve become idiots. Los! To the kolkhoz!’ The trucks with the corpses of the prisoners are pushed outside the fence to a big trench. With their eyes shut they tip them over and immediately return. The trench is deep – a dozen corpses are like a drop into a huge reservoir. All around them is empty wasteland with stinking morass. Only here and there do a trunk and a gnarled bush stick up from the ground. Right at the back, beyond the trench, are two crosses and a stone base that, at some time, clearly carried a saint. To the left of the track groups of

Work – German Style 27

prisoners are drying out a large quagmire. They are bringing soil over on litters, wheelbarrows and in dishes. The swamp is deep, everything is swallowed up in it – as they have already observed, even human bodies. Over to the right, some distance away, groups of girls in striped shirts and coats, but mostly in the discarded army uniforms of dead Soviet prisoners, are picking up tiles, others are scraping the mortar off them and stacking the clean tiles in large piles. There are a great many tiles about and the SS men do not trouble to deny that this is all that has remained of a few Polish villages. Work is stopped for lunch. At the command of the SS man with the long horse’s head they all step up to the kettle in which soup is brought from the camp. It is thin and without fat: at the top float three or four pieces of potato stalks, at the bottom are three or four pieces of some strange carrot and even stranger beet, in the whole kettle there are no more than six or eight potatoes. Robert looks in disgust at the dark liquid in the battered bowl, the corners of his mouth curling up. ‘These slops we’re supposed to eat? After this kind of work? You eat this mess yourselves!’ he screams like a man possessed and flings the bowl at the SS man’s feet. The SS man’s elongated horse’s head gets longer still with astonishment. He looks down at his jackboots and snaps: ‘Come here, you swine! Bend down and lick my jackboots! Come here and lick!’ Robert breathes fast, nervously crumples his beret, for a few seconds he looks intently at the SS man, then he furiously steps out. Karol and the teacher catch his arm but Robert violently frees himself. ‘Bend down, then!’ ‘You first, you pig!’, Robert yells in German. ‘After you, you brown pig! Just watch me bending down …’ The SS man sharply kicks him in the chest. Robert goes down and when he tries to get up, Laco cries out because the SS man is already holding his revolver in his hand and fires twice. Robert folds up strangely and remains lying on the ground, twisted. The SS man regards him for a moment, then he turns him over with his foot to make sure he has hit him properly. ‘Schwein, jüdisches!’ he yells and walks off. ‘He shouldn’t have done that, he really shouldn’t,’ the doctor laments, bending over Robert. ‘Such a … tragedy.’ ‘And what should he have done? What should he have done since … he wasn’t as shit-scared as us,’ says a short double-bent person in front. ‘Nothing,’ the doctor says unhappily. ‘He shouldn’t have done anything …’

28 Escape from Hell

After work they count every little group separately, at the gate they wait for the last one, they add them up together and then once more in front of the huts. Correct, six hundred and thirty-four. Then they stand for nearly two hours and wait. Behind the formation lies Robert and another two whom the man with the horse’s head had cold-bloodedly shot because they had refused to carry the corpses. Correct, six hundred and thirty-one plus three. At attention and with their caps in their hands they listen to the voice of the tall, dry SS man, apparently the boss: ‘We shall watch the way you work,’ he tells them. ‘Whoever deserves it, will get an increased ration. Any rebels will be rubbed out. Kindly remember: will be rubbed out.’ He looks to his side, where a prisoner in a black uniform is standing, a man with oddly pointed and prominent ears and with narrow lips, on a rag he has a black triangle, RD and a four-digit number. ‘This will be the leader of your hut,’ he introduces him. ‘He’s had years of experience from Flossenburg. Apart from telling you everything about order and discipline here, he will ask one little thing of you – obedience. Unconditional obedience. That is Law Number One here and its infringement is punished. And the punishment as a rule is death. That one there’ – he points with his stick to the nearby Pinkus – ‘is his deputy. He’ll bully you to perform the necessary services in your hut. Understood?’ ‘Yes,’ the older ones in front respond. ‘It’s also clear at the back?’ ‘Yes,’ they all answer. The teacher, who has spent all day pouring earth from a small tin mug into a huge smelly morass, is exhausted from standing. Karol and Laco lean against him from both sides, realizing that this is the only way of keeping him on his feet. But they too are tired and cold. All that they have seen during the day – the sight of hundreds of disfigured motionless bodies with dried blood on their faces, chests and hands, bodies which seemed to be kept together only by their uniforms, the huge and unbearably stinking trench into which they had thrown them, Robert’s death and that of the other two who were now lying behind the formation – all that has marked their features and the expression in their eyes with an incomprehensible change. The tall, dry SS man is still speaking. Surprisingly, he is no longer threatening. He has turned to promises. Many lift up their heads and regard him from sad eyes: after this kind of day any reassuring word is welcome. ‘You’re going to build fine houses here, cultural facilities and canteens,’ the SS man continues. ‘And then your families will be

Work – German Style 29

brought here and you’ll all be together again. Yes, we want you to be together. It won’t be long, after all the war isn’t going to continue forever. You’ll also be going elsewhere, where it’s more beautiful, better and healthier than here, or perhaps even home, because the goodwill of the leaders of the Reich is infinite. You’ll be here for a year at the most.’ He looks in the direction where he believes east to be, the eastern front and the advancing fascist troops, and he adds convincingly: ‘No, not a year. Six months at the most. Or even less! …’ Then he turns to the slim, elegant SS man, who’d been standing next to him all the time: ‘Dismiss them!’ Quickly he walks away. ‘… shun! Eyes right!’ A moment later: ‘To your barracks, dismiss!’ In the barracks it is damp and cold. The dormitories have brick partitions, each accommodates fifteen people: five at the bottom on the floor, and five each on the middle and upper tiers. ‘Heads must be in front’, shouts Pinkus. ‘In front, understood? So you can have your mugs pushed in if you commit an offence.’ ‘Aren’t you two elegant!’ Pinkus shouts at Karol and Laco. With a clear expression of disgust Karol looks at his hand and wipes it on his trouser leg. ‘Pinkus isn’t a prophet,’ the Warsaw Parisian continues shouting, ‘but believe him when he says he’ll outlast you!’ No one takes any notice of him. Those who had shifted the corpses receive an extra piece of bread and two spoonfuls of jam. The bread is sour, half-baked and the jam is not sweet. They only eat a little, with revulsion and distaste. The teacher, Karol, Laco and two others are half-lying and crouching on the bottom bunk. Laco is shivering with cold and the teacher is looking for a little human warmth, leaning on Karol. The earth is damp, there is a draught from the door, from the leaky roof and the small barred window. Pinkus walks along the aisles, on each bunk he looks for five heads, he makes observations, gives advice, talks of the future and then hands over to the barrack boss. Amidst deep silence the prisoner in the black uniform begins to speak. ‘I am Albert Hemele, a German from the Reich, I’ve been in this concentration camp for eight years, I’m an artist by profession, I’m a good person, I like reasonable people, but woe betide anyone who annoys me. We’ll live here in harmony. Every one of us wants to live long enough to enjoy freedom again, but there must be order and this interpreter here,’ – he points to his ox-leather whip – ‘will explain to anyone what order means. Well, that’s all for today.’ ‘Those two have found one another,’ Karol says softly to Laco. ‘They must have been real bastards even back home.’

30 Escape from Hell

‘Pinkus said that in two weeks there’ll be ten times as many of us here,’ the teacher says. ‘Perhaps things will then get a little easier for us. They can’t possibly keep us like this.’ ‘They can,’ says Karol, thinking of the three dead outside the hut. ‘Certainly things will get easier,’ the teacher reassures himself. ‘With more of us here we’ll have to work less. You’ll see, things will get easier.’ Two weeks later Karol remembered these words. The number of inmates in the camp really had increased, but by then he no longer slept on the same bunk as the teacher. One evening he’d been brought in dead, from the Vistula. He’d been totally exhausted, so the SS men had pushed him into the morass.

Chapter 3

An Exalted Visit

A small steamroller moves slowly along the main road. The prisoners are throwing earth, clay, slag, broken tiles, leaves and branches under its front and rear rollers, any rubbish that they could collect nearby to level out the road. For the second day running there is an air of tidying up in the camp. Everyone everywhere is cleaning, sweeping, tidying. The huts are scrubbed both inside and out, windows, doors and door-handles are washed. The ground is being levelled, rags, broken bits, rusty iron, tin, broken glass and other rubbish is being picked up. They move the earth in their jackets, worn like aprons, in their hands, in metal bowls, in wheelbarrows and panniers, in carts and trailers drawn by horses or by themselves. Water from the trenches is ladled up in mugs, bowls and leaky buckets and is then poured on the dry ground. Some of them, the experienced handymen, are repairing roofs, replacing windows, whitewashing the huts, others at the far end of the camp are lifting concrete posts, planting them in the ground, trampling the soil down around them, unwinding reels of wire, straightening it out and attaching it in several strands to the concrete posts. Everything in the camp is in an unusual state of order, but people are still milling around, creating the impression that they are lifting something, carrying it somewhere and straightening it out. Of the former Polish villages Zasola, Babice, Klucznikowce, Rajsko, Brzescze, Bor and Brzezinka, all burnt down and levelled with the ground, there is no trace left. Archaeologists might perhaps still determine the boundaries of the seven villages whose fate was sealed in Berlin at the end of 1939 in order that this terrible camp might be established at the confluence of the Vistula and Sola rivers in May 1940, on an area of forty square kilometres, according to the precise plan of SSOberstandartenführer and Inspector of Police von Bach-Wiegand. And now this strange town stands here, ringed with watch-towers, wire, SS men and dogs, a great unknown for any cartographical institution. Moving about in it are tens of thousands of emaciated people, translucent shadows with numbers and triangles on their striped and stripeless togs.

32 Escape from Hell

Apart from the fact that the camp has grown and that more and more people die in it, nothing has changed. Everything is still approximate, customary or adequate, as the terms are inside that wire cage. The people have lost their names and become numbers. Life is not life, nor is death what it normally is. The huts are not accommodation and the clothes aren’t clothes. The food has a taste of washing-up water. The water that does not assuage thirst or fertilise the soil, but is infected with typhus and kills. Day doesn’t begin with morning nor end with evening and night provides no rest. Work is a nonsensical, torturing progress, it doesn’t make life easier, but it serves the death of others and brings one’s own closer. This second Saturday in March 1943 there is an unusual, relaxed working atmosphere about. The SS men are standing some distance away from the work teams and only rarely pay any attention to them. They are all unbelievably quiet, inattentive and indifferent. No expletives are heard, nothing from their usual vocabulary, no ‘Los, los, dalli dalli’, no Bolschewiken, Sauen, Schweinehunde, Parasiten, Banditen, Arschlöcher, Plutokraten, Scheisse. No cracking of whips, no barking of dogs, no creaking of bones, no flowing of blood. The prisoners know that the Reichsführer SS-Heinrich Himmler is due to visit the camp. The head of the SS is reputed to be keen on cleanliness, hence the general tidying up. This gives rise to all kinds of reflections: Himmler is said to favour a humane treatment of prisoners, hence today’s incredible meekness of the SS men. This thought makes some of them raise their heads, as if they believed that the arrival of the Reichsführer SS would really mark a permanent improvement in their unbearable living conditions. The recent arrivals have even higher hopes and actually give voice to them: ‘Who knows, maybe they are totally unaware in Berlin of how these dogs are treating us.’ And those who have been there for some time speculate that Himmler might be accompanied by some international commission. Karol has been working for a couple of days with Bubo, a short, thick-set young man from the Planierungskommando, whose kapo (or leader) is Pavel, a quiet, deliberate and very kind-hearted man. They are working slowly: they more or less just pretend to be working and keep moving around the steamroller with their shovels. Now and then they look about them warily, for that quiet heralds nothing good, but when they are not being watched they move behind the steamroller and stand about for a while. ‘If anyone had told me after eleven days that we’d still be here after eleven months and that we’d be bending iron rods by the crematoriums …’ says Bubo. He doesn’t complete his thought, but as always he is amazed that he is still around. The two had come to the camp together and had become friends when Laco disappeared from Karol’s life.

An Exalted Visit 33

‘True, nearly a year, damn them!’ Karol continues. ‘When they drove us here the sun was shining back home as it does today and we had not an inkling of what lay ahead for us here. Such a long time, and we’re still alive, we’re still moving! And the strangest thing is that we haven’t gone insane yet.’ He peers out under the steamroller and adds angrily: ‘Better move, that swine’s coming here!’ They start throwing earth under the broad roller. The tin roof over the bulky machine trembles and issues unpleasant creaky sounds. ‘Now then, you dandies, got bones in your bellies? Find it hard to bend down?’ Stephan shouts at them from afar. He stops by them and adds: ‘Work boring you?’ Stephan is the kapo of another group. However, because his team has not gone down to the Vistula today but is sweeping outside the huts, Stephan busies himself all over the place, bullying people, acting as a self-appointed whipper-in. Everybody hates him because he is brutal, insidious and dangerous. He is fond of exaggerating and provoking, and the old prisoners avoid him, they could easily picture him in an SS uniform. From the group of Dutch prisoners working at the ditch by the road Pavel walks over and says very harshly: ‘You haven’t got tired yet working that lug-hole of yours? I am the kapo of this group and it strikes me that they’re working quite nicely. And besides … they aren’t here to work. Not one of them is here to work. If you don’t understand us we can tell you again – in German.’ Stephan overlooks the affront and snaps: ‘OK, take their side! It’ll be interesting to see who takes your side when your turn comes.’ ‘And you think your turn won’t come as well?’ Pavel replies calmly. ‘Otherwise you wouldn’t be such a swine. I assure you … you too will fly out of the chimney unless something happens by then. They’ve more or less liquidated the Davids, next they’ll finish off the Štefans and Pavels and then, quite certainly, it’ll be the turn of the Stephans written with ph. You can be sure of that.’ Stephan’s features are distorted by suppressed fury. Even in these desperate surroundings Stephan is very vain, intolerant of criticism or contradiction, he mitigates his unhappiness by increasing that of others. At first he thought that this business with the Jews, Baptists, Communists, gypsies and all those for whom Rosenberg and Hitler had assigned, in the New Europe, a place in the cages amidst the Auschwitz swamps, would come to an end. He was convinced that the Poles who agreed with a Europe of pure blood would not be exterminated, but would indeed be assigned to some lesser services. That was why he had wooed the SS men by word and deed and, more than once, had indicated

34 Escape from Hell

to them that he would be glad to learn from them their unique way of dealing with prisoners, if only they gave him a chance. To bring that chance about more rapidly, he betrayed his Polish mother and became a Volksdeutscher. Štefan became Stephan, willing to put on a German uniform and even, if necessary, go to the eastern front to shoot Russians – if only they’d let him. He kowtowed to the SS men and was afraid of the Poles, especially of the older prisoners, among whom was Pavel. He was afraid of something that was in Pavel and outside him. He knew that Pavel was a Communist, he’d heard something about his activity in Poznan and he suspected that he was working in the local organisation. He’d surmised that for a number of months and wanted to find out more, but he failed to get through to the people with whom Pavel met. ‘Just let them get to me and they’ll soon find out where they are,’ Stephan says angrily and walks away. He hates Pavel also because he is very popular among the inmates. ‘They know that even without you,’ says Pavel. He follows him and says a few more words to him. ‘That man still doesn’t know where he is,’ Karol remarks. ‘Turned his back on the Poles and the Germans don’t want him,’ adds Bubo. Pavel’s deputy, Wladek, a rather stocky, solidly built young man with a broad face and a very direct look, walks among the little groups and mutters ceaselessly: ‘Los, los, let’s not fall asleep.’ He approaches Karol and Bubo and with a smile exclaims: ‘Los, los, kiss my arse, amen.’ Now and again he waves his arms sharply, for the benefit of the SS who are standing nearby. The prisoners around him obediently come to life, swing their empty or half-full shovels a little faster, and only just stop themselves from laughing as Wladek ceaselessly rattles on: ‘Los, los, keep working! The Reich needs it and it’s all a big S ending in a small t, amen.’ Today prisoners from all the workplaces are on the road and along it. Frenchmen from the last transport from the camps at Drancy and Pithiviers, Dutchmen from Westerborg and Amersforte, people from Trieste and Narva, from Vienna, from the Hague, from Italy and Norway, from Belgium and Lithuania – all of them ‘resettlers’ for eastern Europe, Slovaks and Czechs who’ve come ‘only for work’, people from major and minor prisons, ‘resettlers’ from existing and liquidated ghettos, because ‘there was no longer any work for them there’ or because ‘the regions were struck by epidemics’. There are Germans and Austrians here from Flossenburg, Buchenwald, GrossRosen, all those who were in camps for a long time and could now be useful elsewhere with their experience; and finally some Soviet prisoners of war who were hoping that some international rights might

An Exalted Visit 35

apply to them and the thousands of gypsies who’d been driven here recently from all corners of Europe but who weren’t told a thing. Karol looks doubtfully at the sleepy movements all round him. There are a lot of new faces about and a great many high numbers affixed to shirts. In their own hut they already had numbers above 106,000. From their transport – he’d worked it out with Bubo that day – there were only eight left. Would any of the new arrivals understand, or believe, how things were here a mere six months ago? His gaze stops in the right-hand corner of the camp: a little way away, maybe two hundred metres further to the right, is a huge, deep trench. Ceaselessly, thick, heavy smoke and hissing steam are rising from it, gas and fire and the stench of burning flesh, mixed with the smell of burning alcohol, oil, fat and benzene. Almost continually the sound of firing comes from the trench, screams, implorings, shrieks and prayers – and the crack of wood. Only three months previously they had filled the trench up, trampled the soil down, rolled it and more recently planted it with grass. On the slight elevations of tens of thousands of corpses now lay a rough layer of rolled soil, a full stop after primitive interment with insufficient technical equipment for a murder machine. Now it is time for technology and speed. Henceforward the dead are to be buried with exemplary hygiene: they will be cremated in four hygienic crematoriums. Bubo describes a circle with his shovel in front of the steamroller and says: ‘So, how shall we do it? We should move it away quickly because we won’t be working there much longer.’ ‘I don’t know yet. Tell you on Monday. For the time being it’s got to be left outside, we can’t take it indoors. Don’t worry, it won’t get spoiled.’ Karol has to ask Pavel again whether to leave the sketch of the crematorium where it is or whether to take it elsewhere. The sketch is buried. It’s on parchment in a metal tube; nothing can happen to it for the time being. Pavel doesn’t wish to let anyone else into the secret, not even Bubo. Yes, he’ll ask Pavel, he is the best informed of the situation outside. Wladek emerges from underneath the roller, shielding a burning cigarette in his hand. ‘Finish it,’ he offers it to Karol. Karol takes two puffs, then he stubs it out and puts it into his pocket. ‘You could have finished it, I’ve got a whole one left,’ says Bubo, who always has a cigarette. Bubo doesn’t smoke. Suddenly they both look to their left, to the neighbouring cage, the women’s camp. The SS women, who until a moment earlier had been quietly and, as it seemed, peacefully moving around the huts, are now

36 Escape from Hell

standing by the open doors, shouting at the tops of their voices: ‘Alles raus. Quick, you lousy swine,’ kicking and hitting the women prisoners as they pour out of the huts. A moment later the spaces between the huts are filled with striped coats, blouses and skirts. Karol frowns. A selection? Today? Surely Dr Thilo makes his selections on Mondays or Thursdays? Today is Saturday and there’s never been a selection on a Saturday. ‘That’s probably in honour of Himmler, he wants a spring-clean,’ Bubo remarks sadly. ‘Ah, the day when we can make a selection …’ A tall Dutchman from a group strolling along the trench by the road stops in front of them. Awkwardly holding a shovel in his hands, he begins in a perfect mixture of Dutch, Flemish and German, to ask what is happening to those women and when he receives no reply he asks where he might buy some cigarettes. Wladek is angry but he is also amused – the Dutchman is still too naïve, he’d only come from quarantine the day before. ‘You have some guilders?’ Wladek asks with slight irony, continuing to watch the women’s cage. ‘If so, you’re all right. I think that the Herr Reichsführer will personally bring some cigarettes for you Dutch lot. Does he know the brand you like?’ The Dutchman senses the irony, but nevertheless explains that back home they’d taken his deposit book and given him a receipt, in exchange for which he’d receive guilders here to buy a few luxuries. The Dutchman’s naïveté arouses pity and disappointment in Karol: these people have come here a year after them, and throughout that year they had heard nothing of what was going on in Poland. Bubo pulls out a cigarette and puts it into the Dutchman’s pocket, now he is not smoking – not yet, until the evening – and with a gesture of his hand drives him back to the road. ‘God knows if they’re naïve or stupid,’ Wladek remarks angrily. ‘Others, when they get here, ask about this or that, but this lot … This chap is clearly so simple he would light up even in front of Kaduk. From the road leading from the main camp comes the rattle of two motorcars. A few officers, accompanied by other ranks, walk towards the steamroller. ‘Get a move on!’ Wladek shouts at the Dutchmen. ‘Get a move on,’ he shouts in all directions, but loudest in that of the motorcade. ‘Los, los, this isn’t a convalescence spa!’ The Dutchman who wanted to buy cigarettes again comes running over to Wladek. ‘Will we be able to speak to some of the German dignitaries?’ he asks. ‘Back home they promised me,’ he explains quite seriously, ‘that I’d be employed here as a pharmacologist, and I’d like to remind them of it.’

An Exalted Visit 37

Wladek is very angry by now, he is red in the face. ‘Go away!’ he shouts in Polish. ‘Go away, you fool! This is Dr Thilo, don’t you understand? And he doesn’t give two hoots whether he dispatches a pharmacologist from this world or a churchwarden.’ And he roughly pushes the Dutchman away, who stammers in surprise: ‘I’m sorry … I …’ ‘At times I feel sorry for them and at others I feel like kicking their arses,’ says Wladek. ‘Idiots! Believing the Germans and still believing them here and treating you as a liar!’ He quickly walks ahead, shouting out at some people: ‘Get on with it, you’re not here for your enjoyment!’ When he returns to the steamroller he says softly: ‘Uwaga, uwaga, watch out, the swine are approaching …’ Karol, Buba and the other older prisoners begin to move faster. The new ones understand. After a short while comes the command: ‘Mützen ab!’ The prisoners snatch their caps from their heads and, standing to attention, watch the approaching party of SS men. Walking in front is SS-Obersturmführer Thilo, doctor of medicine, lanky and lithe like a willow wand. He has an easy, springy walk, he seems to show no interest whatever in the prisoners, but looks straight ahead with cold eyes. Among the older prisoners it is rumoured that he is the son of the Berlin chief of police and that he got his higher degree thanks to the influence of an uncle. He looks rather debauched and physically weak, but in this setting his strength is insuperable: with a movement of his eyes or a finger he can kill as many people as he chooses. He usually wears his cap pulled down to his eyebrows, and is always immaculately clean and neat – never the slightest stain on his deerskin gloves, his jackboots shining like black glass. Dr Thilo stops and pushes his stick into the rolled road surface. ‘Firm enough,’ he says. ‘This will do.’ Two officers concur, yes, at last it’s good now, before you couldn’t even walk here. And they follow Thilo, who is making for the women’s camp. ‘It’s true then,’ Wladek hisses spitefully. ‘The Herr Doktor is having a selection. Wish as many bite the dust in Berlin as he will select here today!’ Inside the cage, behind the wire fence, the woman Rapportführer Drechsler – the toothy police bitch, as the Ukrainians call her – has begun to shout. Maybe she once had gentle facial features, a soft feminine profile, a quiet voice and a sympathetic heart. Now she has none of these. She looks as if she had served ten years in a much frequented house of ill repute and now wished to get her own back against all women who had led more respectable lives. Running around her, shouting, are rank-and-file SS women, as well as the

38 Escape from Hell

Unter-scharführers Stiewitz and Palitzsch. She glowers at them because she always feels irritated when those two come to assist her in what is her sphere. ‘Line up! Get them to line up’, she yells at the SS women. ‘Get a move on, you damned cows, the Herr Doktor is here already!’ From the steamroller there is a good view of the women prisoners lined up outside their huts (a line along both sides of the road) and of Dr Thilo with his entourage. It is a double line: in front, the strongest prisoners, behind them the SS women and men, standing legs apart. With arms raised they could touch one another. With a frosty gleam in their eyes they watch the cruel spectacle. They watch Dr Thilo as he stops a while at each hut and with a bony finger pulls a few women out from the striped crowd. They then push and drive them into three huts emptied for these candidates of death. Those selected scream, in desperate defiance throw themselves to the ground, digging their fingers into the hard earth, getting up and throwing themselves against the striped and uniformed wall on the edge of the road, they kick, bite and spit, their faces disfigured by grimaces of sudden insanity. In front of Hut 6 the line breaks. Stiewitz and some SS men only just manage to close the gap, pushing back those women who had allowed the living wall to come apart among the condemned. Dr Thilo works very fast, without emotion. ‘I’m still strong, doctor! I …’ ‘Los, Schwein! Los, to the right!’ Drechsler shouts. ‘I still want to work! …’ ‘I’ll work well …’ ‘I’m in good health, look …’ ‘Ugh, cover up that filth!’ ‘We’re fit, Frau Rapportführer!’ ‘All right, all right, we’re assigning you to work.’ That is what they call a visit. But technically and scientifically it is a selection. Two or three hours of infinite madness. It only needs the movement of a finger and you no longer exist. Dr Thilo moves an eye, decides that you’re weak, lifts his finger and someone by his side shouts: ‘To the right, los’ … Helpless insects. One finger is enough. Dr Thilo calmly continues his work. By his side stand the toothy Drechsler and now also Palitzsch and Stiewitz. Two secretaries next to Drechsler pull back the women’s sleeves, dictate the numbers of those eliminated, two more write them down. The numbers are also recorded by Katka, the chief secretary, a tall young girl with very pale cheeks and deep-set eyes. Katka trembles, at times closes her eyes, grits her teeth and turns her head away in order not to see what she

An Exalted Visit 39

has just written down and so that Drechsler should not see the weakness that is overcoming her. She enters one number after another, her hand trembles and her chest under her striped jacket heaves sharply. In a few hours these numbers will be written off for good. At times she feels Drechsler’s hot breath on her. Then she summons up all her strength, forces herself to be calm and enters the numbers with a steady hand, legibly, large. But when Drechsler starts shouting or using her whip on one of the condemned women, the pencil in Katka’s hand does not touch the paper at all. She has missed about a dozen numbers. Twelve women will have to be got out of the three huts of death. During all that time Dr Thilo only once raises his head. ‘I had expected better order here,’ he remarks coldly to Drechsler. Thilo doesn’t like the line which broke in two places. From behind his back comes the rattle of rifles and sub-machine-guns and the barking of dogs. Some fifty women have slipped through the gaps and are running towards the gate, towards the wire fence that is charged with death during selection. Some fall on the road or by it, others hang on the wire in strangely twisted positions, others yet are running back to the line-up under a hail of fire. ‘Two more huts, I believe?’ Dr Thilo asks. ‘Damned noisy today.’ He lights a cigarette and walks over to the last but one hut. ‘Doctor, I am in quite good health …’ ‘Frau Lagerführerin …’ ‘Pane doktorze …’ ‘Je ne suis pas …’ At last the road is empty. The striped ones and the uniformed ones have gone, Drechsler, two officers, Stiewitz and Palitzsch, escort Thilo to the gate. There they talk for a while, Dr Thilo watches the work parties of the men, scattered inside and outside the cages. Along the road and all around the same command is heard: ‘Los, alles antreten!’ The kapos and their deputies fall in their groups and the SS men, without much shouting but with suspicious haste, march them to the men’s cage. At the gate they are counted: number correct, stand by the huts, in order, again correct. They stand in front of their huts, rigid. In the women’s camp there has been a general selection, they have been unexpectedly chased from their work, the sub-machine-gunners are manning the watch-towers by the wire fence, Himmler is supposed to be coming tomorrow, Dr Thilo has not gone yet, why are they being driven into their cage so suddenly? ‘May God punish him, hope he doesn’t come to us!’ Wladek angrily mutters.

40 Escape from Hell

Karol, Bubo, Pavel and the rest who are standing in front watch Dr Thilo’s party. Through the columns of five in front of the huts there is a movement like the wind sweeping through a field of corn. A nervous rustle arises, a coughing, but the doctor isn’t stopping at any of the huts. At the far end of the cage he inspects the pipes, the sewers, the latrines, the washroom. He nods his head approvingly. ‘In order,’ Dr Thilo says. ‘I believe the Reichsführer will be satisfied. And he’s right, gentlemen, hygiene is very important in a … where so many people die of infections. One of us might catch it quite easily.’ With a sense of relief the inmates watch Dr Thilo move on to different parts of the camp. There, in front of new, as yet uninhabited, huts he explains something with his hands and the group of SS officers very politely nod their agreement. After all, SS-Obersturmführer Dr Thilo is a senior officer, a doctor, an expert, and backing him in Berlin there is someone with direct access to Himmler. Such people can only have wonderful ideas. Using his hands, convincing his audience and now and again stopping for a moment, Dr Thilo and the group get to the cars on the main road. There Dr Thilo touches his cap with one finger and without another word steps into the first Mercedes. *** From three huts in the women’s camp comes banging, screaming, crying, moaning, kicking of doors and the laughter of insane people. Men with sub-machine-guns are patrolling near the huts. ‘Block leader!’ Drechsler shouts outside Hut 25. By now neither Palitzsch nor Stiewitz is present, she herself has to implement the final order of SS-Obersturmführer Dr Thilo. In Hut 25 is the ‘field hospital’, the collection point of the half-alive, the final station in life. Dr Thilo does not go there, she herself must decide about the ‘field hospital’. ‘Block leader!’ Running out of Hut 25 is Cilka, who is pale with sore, bluish lips and a scar from a whip above the left corner of her mouth. She’s been here for a year, she came with the first transport. She is not quite eighteen. ‘Where are you gallivanting, you cow?’ Drechsler screams at her and her entire body shakes. ‘What numbers in your block?’ Katka quietly sneaks behind Drechsler’s back and winks at Cilka. ‘In all … six hundred and twenty-five,’ Cilka stammers. ‘Sure?’ Drechsler drawls. ‘Six hundred and twenty-five,’ Cilka repeats firmly. ‘Then make it six hundred! I give you an hour to bring me their cards. Six hundred, you hear?’

An Exalted Visit 41

Drechsler turns and bumps into Katka. ‘What are you doing here, silly goose?’ she hisses at Katka, but doesn’t wait for an answer. With short, resolute steps she walks away to the gate. Katka looks questioningly at Cilka. They are both upset. Before them is a task that would earn them death if Drechsler found out. How are they going to move them away from here? Katka reflects. On foot or by car? Either way they will call out their names once more according to the cards and the list. Those twelve or fifteen could have got into the line-up by mistake amidst that chaos; out of fear they could have walked in the wrong direction. ‘How many are there in the hut?’ Katka asks. ‘Six hundred and forty-five,’ Cilka replies. ‘And your lot, you included?’ ‘Seven. That means thirty-eight have to be picked out …’ ‘Please hurry. None of them must know of any other. Move them into one corner, pull out their cards … and bring those six hundred along in an hour. Do be careful!’ There are more than eleven thousand inmates in the women’s camp. Of these, one thousand one hundred are housed in three huts and six hundred in Hut 25. For all except those in these four huts the visit has ended and an ordinary evening has begun. Only three of them have enjoyed a flash of joy amidst this gale of madness – three who, with the help of others, have succeeded for nearly a year in hiding their mothers, just as they hid them today from the merciless finger of Dr Thilo. The evening after the visit is sad. Most of them experience the same profound hopelessness as any other day. This used to be the palliasse of Lujza, the one over there of Marianka, Esta, Charlotta, Magda and Jeannette, Nina, Irena and … Together they lost hope and together, in small amounts, they found it again. And they are no longer with us, they’re gone, dear God, perhaps this was the last … A week ago, three weeks ago, a month ago they’d been standing just like this by the palliasses from which Dr Thilo had driven out Judith and Anna, Ruth and Hedwig, Lucy and Anastasia – tens, hundreds, thousands whose names they had taken away and later, also, their lives. In these three huts in the women’s camp there is, at times, quiet and at others frightful screaming and hammering. With their bare hands they beat the walls and the door, the iron bars on the windows, their hands blue, swollen and torn, their skin in tatters, bleeding. They gnaw their fingers and their lips, they scratch themselves till they bleed, they disfigure their shorn heads, they tear off their striped rags and with hysterical laughter inspect their emaciated bodies. One, another and a

42 Escape from Hell

third scream as if they’d spotted a fire. They run to the door, the rest follow them, with hands raised they run as though from a burning house, they all press to the door in an insane and furious rush, as if someone had opened the door and it was only up to them to regain their freedom for a short while. Those in front shriek with pain, some fall down, but the pressure from behind continues. Their strength ebbs away, this is no longer pressure but some frantic shoving and scratching – the iron bar on the outside of the door does not yield by as much as a hair’s breadth. Exhausted, they drop to the floor, one on top of another, some fall asleep, others rave and shout in their sleep. And those who have remained on their palliasses stare ahead with insane eyes: thank God, soon their sufferings will be at an end. A few clean their dresses, smooth out their straw palliasses; time to have a rest, after all, they will be moved to another camp. In Hut 25 there is relative quiet. Six hundred cards have already been sorted out. All the inmates long for Monday. After all, they are still healthy, there’ll be a visit on Monday, on Monday they will obviously be set free to work … Certainly they’ll be set free, why else would they have tidied up the camp? The evening after a visit is always very sad, very hopeless and inconsolable, and such all-embracing despair and hopelessness cannot even be lifted by soup, bread and blood sausage, by lunch or supper which today they are serving straight away. An hour after midnight fifteen lorries with tarpaulins drive into the women’s camp without much noise. They stop outside the three huts. A young SS man quietly explains: get ready for transport, you’ll be getting bread and margarine, yes, you can take your blankets with you, you’re going to Bochnia, things will be a lot better there. In the sixteenth vehicle are armed SS men, its powerful headlights light up the road and the rear of the last, fully occupied, lorry.

Chapter 4

An Even More Exalted Visit

A protracted metallic din wakes the camp, even though it is still an hour until sunrise. Bubo, standing by the small barred window of Hut 7, calls Karol. ‘Coming,’ says Karol, stepping to the window. The notorious Hut 7 is surrounded by a two-metre wall; the only access is through a heavy gate. Entry is prohibited to unauthorised persons, everybody gives Hut 7 a wide berth, even the SS men. Inside the hut there are six hundred and in the yard outside, between the walls, in puddles and urine, another six hundred unfit for work, sorted out from the other huts. On the orders of the chief SS doctor Hut 7 is sometimes emptied as often as twice a week. But the hut never stands empty for long, it soon gets filled again with skeletal figures marked by hunger, lice, the teeth of the guard dogs, by whips, cudgels and a variety of diseases for which even the latest medical science has no names. The days of anyone shoved into Hut 7 are numbered; the only way he can get out is by an illegal swap for a really dead prisoner. This happens rarely, but it does happen provided the switching of cards in the registry comes off. ‘Today it’s as quiet here as the grave,’ Bubo says hoarsely to Karol. The gate of Hut 7 had closed behind him. Bubo is sleepy, his eyes are half-closed, swollen, his cheeks are as white as chalk. ‘Today they probably won’t even let a work squad out. After such silence the Reich will no doubt show us its teeth again. You’ll see, they’ve probably thought up some filthy new plan.’ ‘They’ve shown us plenty already, the devil take them!’ Karol sadly replies. ‘Time for us to do something to them. Who knows, maybe we’ll get at all their throats one day.’ Karol realises he has used strong words. Instinctively he looks up. He feels that something very evil, heavy and oppressive is hanging in the air, something that might envelop them at any moment. Since this morning he has had a feeling of impending disaster, or, more accurately, these thoughts have been going through his head ever since the great clean-up in the camp began. The crematoriums are now finished. Two of them are in operation, today or tomorrow they could

44 Escape from Hell

easily exterminate the whole camp. Maybe the SS-Reichsführer Himmler was coming here personally for something of the kind. He surely wouldn’t be coming in order to dissolve the camp or make life easier for the ‘parasites’, ‘bandits’, ‘plutocrats’, ‘Bolsheviks’, ‘the most dangerous enemies of the German Reich’ or of the ‘pure blood’ that was to rule the whole world. ‘And what can you do to them?’ Bubo asks after a while. ‘Apart from escape, there’s no God to help you. You’d probably feel better if you knocked one of them down or had a go at Himmler’s bald head. Within the twinkling of an eye you’ll be pushing up the daisies. True, it’s better to croak with the knowledge that at least you’ve tried to do something, that you were not a meek, obedient lamb. But a fellow wants to live! I want to live very much because I haven’t lived yet, damn their German God.’ He has worked six months on the crematoriums that were finished two days ago. He knows very well what they were built for. Like Karol, he fears the new day: it stands to reason that nothing good is to be expected from the chief of the SS machinery. He’d worked very hard on the construction of the crematorium, bending iron rods. They had been the first to start and the last to finish. Most recently they had even worked under electric light – construction had to be completed on schedule – but he had held out. There had been some civilians working with them, whom the Germans had hired in the neighbouring villages. Bubo often remembered a Pole from Porąbka, who’d brought him bread, margarine, cigarettes, matches, potatoes, all sorts of things. He had brought anything that he received on ration as a citizen of the Government-General employed in an important economic sector and what, in addition, he got in exchange for valuables that, with the help of the inmates, he had managed to smuggle out of the camp. More than once he would not eat himself so that Bubo and others could have an extra piece of bread, a crumb that meant a great deal in the camp because it kept a man on his feet even in the most unbearable conditions. The man from Porąbka and his friends were now working at the Buna factory, laying the foundations of a plant several kilometres long, where the Hitlerites were going to manufacture petrol and rubber. Would they meet again? He would recognise him among a crowd of thousands, that generous, unselfish Pole with a strange friendly and sympathetic face and with kind human eyes. Certainly he would recognise him. They are joined on the road by Marek, a quiet, brittle person with a smooth, hard peasant’s face. Marek comes from a backwoods village in Subcarpathian Ruthenia, he has been in the camp for eight months and for the past four he has worked with Karol in the morgue. Without a word he looks around himself.

An Even More Exalted Visit 45

The huts, the roads and the vast open space are almost stunningly clean and tidy: the morass has disappeared under the sand, all rubbish has been rolled into the soil. There is no trace of yesterday anywhere. The spring sun shines brightly and in its warm light everything looks somehow softer and more delicate. What happened yesterday, the day before yesterday or a month ago, what has happened here since the autumn of 1941 is no longer true: nothing is left to be seen or sensed of that incredible, shocking phase of killing. They enter the morgue. Bubo is trembling. Karol seems to duck for a moment and Marek wedges the dry fingers of his veined hands together as if in prayer. In the morgue (in German the Leichenhalle) they always painfully feel their own helplessness and nothingness. The Leichenhalle is a wooden hut, a spacious shed: each day they bring the corpses here from the huts. For the past two months they have also brought them on handcarts and on waggons from the work squads building the crematoriums. Of the four hundred working there, at least eighty are in the Leichenhalle halfway through the day. The deadline demanded it. And here, in the Leichenhalle, they put them down according to their strict instructions – head by feet, feet by head. In the huts they are subtracted, here they are added. The sums have to tally: a corpse could be in a hut or in the morgue, but the grand total had to be absolutely correct, not a single pair of feet and not a single head must be missing. ‘I saw you, so I thought I’d come over for a few words,’ Val’s voice surprises them behind their backs. He is a young man with a high forehead, a broad nose and a broad chin. ‘It won’t be a Sunday chat, but we can have a smoke,’ he adds and fishes some cigarettes out of his lining. Karol frowns – he doesn’t like Val taking risks again merely for the pleasure of a little sharp French tobacco. For the past seven months Val has been working at the ramp where the transports arrive. The two come from the same town and they would have preferred to work in the same group. But you can’t choose here. At least it’s some consolation that they can meet every other day. ‘You come like a ghost,’ says Karol. He doesn’t want to reprimand him. ‘And like a ghost I’d like to disappear from here,’ Val answers. When they’ve smoked a shared cigarette to the end Val leaves them again. ‘I’ve seen you … that’s enough. It would have been a pity to get one’s face pushed in. So if we’re not going out, I’ll come in the early evening. Don’t overexert yourselves!’ Val is eighteen and a half. He’s tried several times to bring his friends something from the ramp, but twice it ended badly for him. The first

46 Escape from Hell

time he got twenty-five with a stick, the second time twenty-five with a whip. That beating and whipping enlarged his vocabulary to such an extent that one might think he had travelled entire continents in search of invectives. There are not many corpses today, things have been quiet in the camp for the past two days. The day before yesterday, before midnight, they carried three hundred and sixty away. There is only room for two hundred in the hut, the rest they had to stack behind the morgue – Karol, Marek and two others who join them at night to make up a squad, the Leichenkommando, the corpse squad. It’s exhausting and tricky work because they have to check the blurred numbers on the disfigured forearms of the victims against the numbers on the cards. They pile the corpses up softly, carefully, sometimes up to two metres high. They do this with their faces averted and Marek never once fails to quote something from the Bible or at least to say: ‘Jesus Christ, did you on the Cross suffer also for the Germans?’ Today there are not many corpses, only forty, most of them died on their palliasses. Marek covers them with cement bags. In the corner stands a jug with chlorine and a smaller one with water. Bubo is standing by the open door, watching the gate. Three SS men are standing there. One of them, with a tin shield on his chest, marking him out as a member of the camp police, is throwing his arms about and shouting. His voice carries all the way to them: ‘Blocksperre! Everybody into the huts! Blocksperre! Los! …’ ‘There we go,’ says Karol with slight excitement. ‘They’ve changed the programme,’ Bubo mutters uneasily. ‘Wonder what it’ll lead to …’ From under the hut Val appears, spitting and cursing. He produces two cigarettes from under his coat, hands them to Marek and says: ‘Herr Himmler doesn’t want to see the misery he has caused. Or else they’re preparing something we haven’t had here before. Fifty of us are to go out, I’m sure I’ll be among them. Have these,’ he produces two more cigarettes, slaps Karol on the shoulder and runs back to his hut. ‘You go too,’ Karol says to Bubo. ‘You go, we’ll stay here.’ He glances at Marek, who nods. ‘Yes, we can stay here, at Hut 7, where we belong. We won’t be missing.’ ‘I hope we’ll see each other again,’ says Bubo, drops his head and hurries to Hut 16. Marek fixes the door of the hut with wire so that they can see the road clearly through the crack. Then he picks up six tiles which are lying by the hut and sets them down next to one another a short way from the door. Karol lights up, takes two or three puffs and passes the cigarette to Marek. That man never stands still, he thinks about Marek,

An Even More Exalted Visit 47

always has to be doing something. They had brought Marek here with his wife and three children. They killed his wife and children immediately on arrival, but Marek didn’t crack up or change. He lives, as it were, aloof from pain and grief. He doesn’t curse, he doesn’t rant, he doesn’t dream of revenge or retribution. Mostly he just prays, not only for himself and his dear ones, but also for all anger to disappear from the world as soon as possible. He is a strange person, never asks for anything, and whenever he can he helps those weaker than himself. Simultaneously with a faint noise of cars on the road comes Marek’s voice from the crack by the door: ‘They’re here … they’re here, the bastards!’ The rays of the sun gleam on the bodywork of the latest luxury models on the main road. Three … five … seven … twelve cars. They all turn to the right, nearer to the crematoriums. In the cage by the gate is a sixteen-man band with a conductor. It has just started playing the ‘Entry of the Gladiators’. On the road outside the crematoriums stand fifty striped ones from the squad that works on the ramp. Val is among them. *** Senior SS dignitaries step out of the cars – local ones and unfamiliar ones, as well as a few civilians. Val hisses under his breath: ‘Bastards, whoresons! Snakeshits! Turds! May you get leprosy, malaria, typhus, cancer and, for good measure, a stroke as well!’ The SS men and the civilians straighten up and line up by the road and intently look at the fifth car, from which Reichsführer Heinrich Himmler alights. He alights slowly, calmly, and the men on the road with Knight’s Crosses under their chins and decorations on their chests respectfully form a semicircle. Himmler slowly wipes his spectacles, shades his eyes with his hand so as not to be blinded by the sun, which by now stands quite high, and, like a general on a battlefield, looks about him. This is the third time he has been on this battlefield, where there are only victories and where only the enemies die. Today he has a chance of convincing himself that his instructions have been observed, that the camp has grown exactly as planned by him so death here will be quicker and more large-scale. He smiles and graciously nods towards all who, standing to attention, are impatiently waiting to be noticed by him, to be smiled at by him, for their faces to be fixed in his memory. With an elegant motion he pulls out a handkerchief and wipes his sweaty forehead. Then he nods his head: that is an acknowledgement, the supreme acknowledgement from the allpowerful chief of the SS, and the men in uniform and the civilians

48 Escape from Hell

standing before him take it as that, straighten up even more, and with a bow of their heads thank him for his appreciation. ‘Splendid and ingenious,’ Himmler remarks appreciatively, looking at the double-wire fence, the watch-towers with their swivel mountings for weapons and at the deep trenches. Jawohl, everything quiet, clean and in order. Thoroughly German. SS-Obersturmbannführer Rudolf Franz Hoess, the commandant of this huge complex of camps, begins to scratch something on the road surface with his stick. Hoess explains. Himmler looks at the drawing on the ground and nods. Abruptly he starts, pushes his sleeve up and looks at his watch. ‘Obersturmbannführer,’ he says to Hoess reprovingly, ‘it’s two minutes past ten.’ Hoess freezes to attention and worriedly looks at the road. Yes, it’s two minutes past ten, but everything is in best order. From the road in front comes the noise of a long column of lorries. They leave behind them a grey trail of dust. The vehicles move fast, with regular spaces between them. *** From the wooden mortuary Karol and Marek have a good view of the people in the open lorries. ‘Good Lord, it’s a transport,’ Karol desperately grumbles. ‘That swine from the Reich is getting a treat today. So that’s what he’s come for. Look at those poor blighters …’ *** The column has stopped. Himmler watches with interest as the rear flap of the first vehicle is let down and a long broad ramp is attached with rails on its sides to allow people to get down more easily. Rankand-file SS men and NCOs gently support them and take their arms, helping them down the slope to the ground. Calmly and smoothly, without haste or shouting or swearing, with an encouraging word or smile that suppresses any mistrust among the people, they empty one vehicle after another. They are carefully clutching their luggage and the interpreter and transport leader, who has arrived with them, explains and indicates where it should be put down. Old women, old men, grandchildren and adults carry their cases, rucksacks, bags, parcels, handcarts, a sewing machine and a wall clock to the ditch beside the road and, as they walk away, turn their heads once more to memorise the spot where they left their belongings.

An Even More Exalted Visit 49

‘Why don’t you reassure them, commander?’ Himmler reprimands SS-Obersturmbannführer Hoess. ‘Can’t you see they’re worried about their things?’ Hoess claps his hands to attract attention and in a friendly tone calls out: ‘Don’t worry about your baggage, good people. No one except yourselves will be allowed to touch it. As you’ve put it down, so, in a little while, you’ll take it with you to your huts.’ On the road they’ve formed columns of five – women and men together, old men and old women with their grandchildren. Out front a boy of three begins to cry. His mother tries to quieten him, she talks to him and caresses him, but the little boy keeps crying, with tears like peas rolling down his cheeks. ‘Isn’t this fine young man sick?’ Himmler asks. ‘Shouldn’t he be seen by the doctor?’ ‘No, he’s not sick at all … sir,’ his mother replies with a grateful smile. ‘Then everything’s all right,’ Himmler smiles. And those nearby think that perhaps everything is all right, even though they view the wire fence and the watch-towers with some disquiet. But soon they overcome their anxiety. There are no dogs to be seen, no sub-machine-guns are rattling, the SS men look peace-loving. Where they had come from, the SS had been very different – hitting, hanging, shooting. Maybe the little boy was crying because the uniforms reminded him of these things. And, of course, there is music playing, everything is clean, there are a great many huts around, and the people standing along the road do not look evil, except for their strange clothes. ‘Slow and steady,’ Himmler reminds a bulky SS man who has so awkwardly supported an old woman that she nearly fell from the ramp. ‘Slow and steady, we don’t want any accidents. We’ve got all the time in the world.’ *** ‘The devil take them, along with their mothers!’ Karol again growls by the crack. ‘In bright daylight – and they’re getting away with it! Just look at those poor wretches! Quiet like lambs in a pen. Christ should strike them one after another! Those old women must be a terrible danger to the Reich! I think this is the thirtieth vehicle …’ ‘Sit down, Karol, have a fag,’ Marek tries to calm him and drags him away from the crack by the door.

50 Escape from Hell

*** The interpreter patiently explains to the people from the last vehicles that their baggage has to be left by the edge of the road, neatly in a row, but first of all they must have a bath and a change of clothes. They’ll pick up their baggage later when they move into their huts. ‘Any questions?’ Where are we? All eyes ask. They look at the striped ones by the roadside, but these are silent – they look to their sides, to the ground, or at the SS men. A single word could be death. They remain silent. They are all exceedingly curious, everyone in the crowd has some problem, but no one asks any questions, no one wants to hold up proceedings, they would all like to get their bath behind them and their change of clothes, so that at last they can settle down in one of the huts. And so two hundred and forty columns of five – women and children in front – at Hoess’s command move off silently down to the washrooms over which square chimneys are towering. Behind this long and unsteadily stumbling crowd a military vehicle marked with a red cross moves slowly. It turns behind a low hedge, where two SS men with black flashes get out. Medical orderlies. ‘Alles in Ordnung? Das ist alles?’ Himmler asks the commander who has accompanied the column of vehicles. ‘No, Herr Reichsführer, this isn’t everything, this is only one-half’, replies SS-Oberscharführer Moll, the commandant of the crematorium, a man with a strangely ruddy face, standing stiffly to attention. ‘They’re bringing the rest along this evening.’ ‘Also los, we can begin,’ Himmler calls out drily. He produces a short, coarse cigar, which Hoess servilely lights for him. ‘We can begin,’ Himmler repeats and briskly steps up to the brick buildings. Those in his entourage follow him at a respectful distance. Some of them unbutton their collars because the sun beats down on them. ‘Got a wonderful spring here,’ Himmler says to Hoess up front. And with obvious impatience he asks: ‘Does it take long for them to undress?’ For a while they chat outside the building, then, at a signal from Moll, they enter. They take turns at a little window in the upper part of the steel door – Himmler, professors of medicine from Berlin, Hamburg, Münster and representatives of various firms, Hoess and officers from the Waffen-SS high command and from the staff of the camp commandant. ‘Why are the women in their underwear?’ Himmler asks Moll, laughing. ‘You know, Herr Reichsführer, these are orthodox …’ Moll answers, permitting himself a smile.

An Even More Exalted Visit 51

‘I see …’ The people in the chambers stand body to body and are terrified. The two medical orderlies unload green tins from their vehicle. On the grassy hill that masks the roof of the chambers they put on gas masks. Then they open the flaps of the ventilating shafts, break the patent lid of the cans and into the opening empty the crystals of greenish-purple colour. Himmler glances at his watch and from that moment onwards, for the next ten minutes, he doesn’t tear his eyes away from the window in the door. The people who not so long ago worried about their baggage, who a few minutes earlier accepted the attentive services of the SS men, turn rigid and look up to where tiny crystals drop out from shower-heads. A gas quickly issues from the crystals, they inhale it now, a sharp, poisonous substance. Himmler, his eyes glued to the window, eagerly watches as the people behind the steel door are progressively seized by spasms, as they wring their hands, tear their hair, turn rigid. The gas rises up, the children twist longer in terminal spasms. The SS officers, engineers, technicians and scientists curiously watch Himmler, trying to read from his round face, now red with excitement, whether he is satisfied. Inside all movement has ceased. Himmler turns and almost shouts: ‘Famos! Famos! Sensational! Grossartig, genial!’ With a little envy they all look at Herr Prüfer, the chief engineer of the firm Topf und Söhne in Erfurt, who had designed and installed these ‘washrooms’. Prüfer turns his face to Himmler, as if this recognition belonged to him alone, bows a little and says: ‘The firm Topf und Söhne will be immensely happy, Herr Reichsführer, that it has, at least in a small measure, contributed to the realisation of your inspired plans.’ Himmler warms up: ‘No such modesty, my dear fellow. You accomplished more than a good division in the field. This is a complete reversal of strategy. A complete reversal, gentlemen! This …’ he points to the empty green can that Moll has meanwhile brought along – ‘this …’ ‘Zyklon B, Herr Reichsführer,’ Herr Faust helps him out tactfully. He is the engineer of the firm Degesch, which produced those miraculous little crystals. ‘Yes, this Zyklon B, gentlemen, will remain a major milestone in the historic struggle of the men of the SS against the lesser races. A few cans for six or seven thousand units. I believe the Führer will be very satisfied.’ He glances once more through the little window and, leaving the building, he says to Hoess:

52 Escape from Hell

‘Very soon we’ll be sending you a lot of material – Russians, Poles, Czechs, Yugoslavs, Italians, a great many Greeks and also some Northerners … I am sure that with this Zyklon, you’ll quickly get rid of them, my dear Hoess.’ ‘Very quickly, Herr Reichsführer,’ Hoess agrees with a smile. ‘You were good enough to convince yourself … one thousand and two hundred in less than ten minutes. Of course the cremation time will have to be added …’ A short distance from the building they just left Himmler suddenly stops, looks around him and smiles: ‘I really must congratulate you,’ he says, turning to Hoess. ‘The way you’ve kept everything secret. After all, these were people from a mere thirty kilometres away and yet they suspected nothing. It’s almost funny how they believed … that this was really a shower room. Excellent! Excellent, my dear Hoess.’ ‘You do not wish to have a look at the second building, Herr Reichsführer?’ Hoess asks. ‘It has a bigger capacity and also a basement.’ ‘Well, just a quick look then, seeing that we are here,’ Himmler graciously agrees. They walk down the well-rolled road. The drivers with the empty limousines creep along noiselessly after them. Before all of them rises the vision of the blossoming Thousand Year Reich: large estates in eastern Europe, worked by obedient slaves, villas and palaces, gardens, parks, forests, roads across the vast subjected foreign land, gold and bank accounts in every provincial capital. ‘That idea with the inscriptions … shower room … that’s very good,’ Himmler says to his entourage on both his sides. The head of the firm of Degesch, Max Faust, hastens over to him and Himmler continues: ‘It’s up there in four languages, isn’t it? Have it made in another four, so everyone can read it. And don’t forget the soap trays … More soap and towels. These details, my dear engineer, are very important. They increase confidence and make our work easier. Let’s not forget about these things in the next project and, of course, we need to enlarge the facilities.’ ‘That’s right, that’s an excellent observation, Herr Reichsführer …’ Max Faust agrees. ‘See that it’s done.’ After a short pause Franz Rudolf Hoess plucks up his courage and in a wheedling tone says to Himmler: ‘Herr Reichsführer, my wife and I would be enormously honoured if you accepted our invitation for a small refreshment at our … temporary home. My wife asks you very much …’

An Even More Exalted Visit 53

‘Courteous and educated men must not deny a lady any wish, isn’t that so, Hoess? Very well, a little rest won’t hurt.’ As the cars turn off towards Hoess’s villa, one hundred and fifty prisoners, the Sonderkommando, march out of the men’s camp. The ventilators in the gas chambers are switched on, the gas is dispersing, fresh air is streaming in. The corpses have to be carried out to the furnaces, the gas chambers have to be emptied, everything’s got to be ready in five hours, just as it was an hour and a half ago. The one hundred and fifty are now loading the last piece of baggage on the trucks, they’ll drive with it to the Auschwitz warehouses, where it will be sorted through. *** ‘Why did we remain in this terrible hut?’ Karol asks angrily. ‘Corpses behind us, corpses in front of us, why the devil do we have to watch this! We are worse and more naïve than those Dutchmen. We deserve to have our ears boxed.’ ‘I guess we’ll bear it once more,’ says Marek. ‘We’ll hang on till dusk. Maybe Blocksperre is called off even before that. Then we’ll move.’ From his stubs in a tin box Marek fishes out a hard cigarette. He calms down a little. The March sun now stands low in the sky, its last rays licking the flat plain. An hour later the one hundred and fifty inmates of the Sonderkommando come out of the crematorium, line up on the road and with tired steps march into the cage. All traces have been perfectly removed. Fifty are again standing in two rows by the ditch, facing the road. Not far from the crematoriums the limousines move in a tidy line. Reichsführer Himmler, the commandant of the Auschwitz camps, Hoess, the engineers, technicians and scientists from Berlin, Hamburg and Münster are again watching the SS men as, with gentle smiles, a few friendly words and supportive arms they are helping the people down the long, wide ramps from twenty-eight trucks. A moment later Himmler questions the NCO who had escorted this second transport: ‘Alles in Ordnung?’ The gangly young man in field uniform blinks his eyes and with evident fear explains that two vehicles developed a defect, they’ll be here very soon, would the Herr Reichsführer graciously forgive this shortcoming. For the first time in his life the young NCO stands face to face with the most powerful man of the Waffen-SS, damned bad luck that he can’t report the faultless completion of his task. ‘They’ll be here

54 Escape from Hell

any moment,’ he declares with evident regret in his face. ‘It happened ten kilometres from here. It irks me very much, Herr General, Herr Reichsführer …’ ‘That’s enough, young man,’ says Himmler with a forgiving smile. He glances at Hoess. ‘Surely we needn’t wait for those two vehicles. They won’t get lost.’ He laughs loudly. Hoess obediently laughs with him. On the way to the crematorium Himmler says to Prüfer: ‘Engineer, we’re going to have a consultation, small numbers, in my office in a few days. Work out for me how many persons are needed to operate the gas chambers, or actually the crematoriums, over five hours, twenty-four hours, over a year. Make two calculations, one for the existing crematoriums, the other … well, for a greater capacity. I believe that such a mandatory directive would make our work easier. You understand: we would know how quickly we’ll be able to liquidate the smaller camps and how many of our SS men could be usefully employed elsewhere. And such a balance sheet would also greatly help the Reich Resettlement Office.’ Hoess says obsequiously: ‘If you’ll permit me a small observation, Herr Reichsführer … I have thought of all that. The numbers will be very surprising. We won’t be here for many more years …’ ‘Very well, get your data together, we’ll discuss it in detail in Berlin,’ Himmler concludes the conversation. Although Blocksperre hasn’t been called off yet, the inmates emerge from their huts. A moment later soup is brought from the cookhouse, with bread and goat’s cheese, just one small wheel. They have to eat the soup quickly in front of the hut because the gong will be sounding any minute now. Karol and Marek have had their soup inside the hut; now they have come out and have stopped near the cookhouse, where they are joined by Bubo. Val has also come back, there will be no sorting until tomorrow. From the distance comes the sound of motor vehicles. Surely they are not again … No, these are only the two missing vehicles from the second transport. The vehicles turn into the camp and stop by the cookhouse. Young boys jump out from them. One hundred and twenty, saved from Zyklon B by an inexplicable breakdown not far from the camp. They are shy, frightened, in rags and hungry. It is dark by now and in the light of the lamps they are unable to visualise the environment in which they find themselves. They aren’t part of the camp establishment yet, but the cookhouse chief generously sends them a hundred litres of soup and one hundred and twenty helpings of bread. Karol, Marek, Bubo and Val, who is constantly cursing, are joined now by Wladek, who sadly regards the young Poles as they greedily eat their watery soup and bread.

An Even More Exalted Visit 55

Wladek turns his face away. He’s hiding his tears, tears of infinite unhappiness. Karol reassuringly puts his hand on his shoulder. He knows that Wladek used to live in Cracow. He frequently went into the ghetto from which they brought two transports – or really one transport in two parts – to the camp today. The ghetto used to be enclosed and guarded, but Wladek managed to get in through sewers and canals, bringing with him bread, cigarettes, soap and all kinds of rags. Today they have been brought here forcibly, they are here and are unaware that they’ve escaped their death by a hair’s breadth. ‘This is all?’ asks a young man from Cracow, barely sixteen years old, after finishing his soup. ‘There’s some … baked carrot to come,’ says one of the old inmates who is hanging about in the hope of getting something for himself. Wladek pounces on him sharply: ‘Shut your dirty trap,’ he shouts, shaking him violently. ‘Shut your trap if you want to eat with it tomorrow!’ Karol pulls him away, trying to calm him and to end the quarrel by a soothing word, when the argument is cut short by a loud metallic noise. According to the camp regulations this is the beginning of evening, evening at long last, and people are beginning to return to their huts. The clanging marks the beginning of Lagerruhe, camp quiet, a murderous quiet. Once more electricity is flowing through the wire fence, above the fence and outside the huts the lights come on, above the gates they switch on their powerful searchlights. It is Lagerruhe, but flames are leaping from the chimneys, fed by the bodies of over two thousand people from Cracow. All around is a damp, silent night. In the small room of the leader of Hut 4, the Pole Jup (who is known for the fact that he always has a suitable medicine or bandage handy for an inmate), Pavel is scrabbling about in some papers. These are short reports and mini-reports, accounts and mini-accounts from reliable persons from different parts of the camp, telegraphically recording events of the day or of the past few days. In Hut 9 they cannot compile these documents about transports, selections, murders, the construction of the camp, because Stephan is there and several other very curious pairs of eyes. And Jup, popular among the inmates, serious and silent, never displays any curiosity; at this moment he is hanging about the door to his room to make sure no one disturbs Pavel unexpectedly. On about the fifteenth line Pavel writes down the date and the number – two thousand, Cracow ghetto. To the sum he adds seventy: over seventy days they moved twenty thousand seven hundred and seventy-nine corpses. Then he adds another line of coded text: two

56 Escape from Hell

crematoriums completed, two more planned for construction by the end of three months. Then he glances at a slip of paper he’d received through an intermediary from the interpreter Mala, a Jewish girl from Belgium. Mala is employed on the SS staff and there overheard the news that a transport of two thousand eight hundred ‘units’ had been dispatched from Athens. In very small writing she had also noted down on the slip of paper that authorisation had come through from Berlin for SS-Brigadeführer Professor Carl Clauberg to have at his disposal Hut 10 in the Auschwitz core camp for his experiments with the sterilisation of women. He rolls up all these pieces of paper into a thin tube that he places into a small pocket under his lining. He reaches Hut 9 just in time to catch Karol and Marek as they get ready to go to the mortuary. Outside the little room of the block leader he offers them two cigarettes. ‘Luckily we’re not going to kill ourselves with work today,’ says Karol. ‘There are very few corpses there today.’ ‘Yes, today we’ll have a very quiet night shift,’ Pavel agrees. ‘As long as you don’t mind that these corpses are no longer burnt in the “small” Auschwitz crematorium, but in the new large one just round the corner.’ He turns because he feels a stranger behind him. There is an ironic sneer in the corners of Stephan’s mouth and his eyes smile with evil, as though these three had asserted the opposite of what he caught them with. But suddenly he gets nervous, he does not know if he should walk past them and out of the hut, or stand his ground, or go back to the palliasses. Pavel clearly senses his embarrassment and laughs at him. Stephan flares up, made bold by his fury. ‘You three and some more of you always have your heads together – don’t forget you could easily lose them!’ Pavel continues to smile at him contemptuously. ‘You … you rebels!’ Stephan explodes. Pavel steps up close to him, his smile has vanished from his features. He catches him by his jacket under his neck and fiercely shakes him. ‘In case it ever occurs to you to speak of our heads to the Nazis,’ he says to him very quietly but firmly, ‘remember that we too have mouths.’ ‘I haven’t done anything, you don’t have anything on me.’ ‘Then we’ll invent it. You know how readily they believe. Piss off, back into your hut!’ Stephan is choking with fury, but as soon as Pavel lets go of him he moves off to the palliasses, his head hanging. On his way he kicks a tin mug across the floor with a curse.

An Even More Exalted Visit 57

At two o’clock in the morning, when Karol and Marek return to Hut 9, the roar of the ovens abruptly falls silent and the flames from the chimneys gradually die down. But from the camp’s main road comes a different roar: fifteen plus one lorries are returning from Bochnia. In Bochnia there was no room. It is a damp night, but no longer a silent one. From the watch-towers and from the sixteenth lorry with its crew of SS men comes the rattle of machine-guns and sub-machine-guns. They keep on rattling until one thousand one hundred half-crazed, halfconscious women prisoners have all been driven into the gas chamber. Six weeks later Pavel is again in the small room in Hut 4. From a slip of paper he has received from Mala he copies out: ‘Rudolf Franz Hoess received from the Führer the Military Cross for Merit First Class with Swords. The same decoration also went to SS-Hauptscharführer Otto Moll, chief of the crematoriums in Brzezinki.’

Chapter 5

The Ceremonial

It is early evening, cloudy and damp. The working day is over. In all the cages, separated from one another by wire fences, the prisoners have been standing for more than three hours beside their huts. In one of the cages they stand in front of the first huts, the cookhouse and around it, all the way to the iron gate. There are more than ten thousand standing like this. They shuffle their feet, they hope, they rub their hands together. ‘Los, los, ihr Schweinehunde, los!’ Those in front form ranks of five. ‘Mützen ab! Parademarsch! Parade – kein Invalidenmarsch!’ Past five little tables – past the first and the fifth – the first columns of five march in two streams, in military step, arms bent at the elbows. ‘Eyes left!’ ‘Eyes right!’ The shaven heads turn left and right, towards the five little tables. But most of the eyes are fixed beyond, higher, into the void. Behind them further columns of five form up. The others still stamp their feet, jump up and down, shaking themselves. It is very cold, a white hoarfrost, sharp as needles, is coming down. SS men, NCOs and dog-handlers line the snowy road. They stand close together, as far as Hut 20. More than a hundred ranks have passed the five little tables from both sides. Now they are approaching the grey-uniformed lines. Initially at a faster marching pace, then at a canter and finally at a run; they run and shout. They are running for their lives. From both sides whips, cudgels, sticks and rifle-butts hail down on the inmates’ backs and shoulders. ‘Los, los, dalli, dalli, you lousy shits!’ ‘Los, los, you lousy louts, los …’ They are running desperately and mindlessly, like a herd of animals from a bushfire. Only to get away from the blows! Those on the outside protect their heads with their arms. Now and again there is a fearful death cry. It can be heard even above this insane shouting and stampeding and it is not drowned even by the ceaseless barking of the excited dogs.

The Ceremonial 59

The road is only six metres wide. They stumble and push towards the middle. They dodge and duck. A few succeed in slipping through the SS line, jumping across the ditch by the road and running towards the huts. Three SS men are about to run after them, but there is no need because the sub-machine-guns open up from the watch-towers and at this short range their bodies are easy targets as they get to within the forbidden proximity of the wire fence. ‘Auf der Flucht erschossen’, shot while trying to escape, is what will be entered in the top right corner of the card called Totenmeldung and in the registry it will be entered in the Hauptbuch. Order is all-important. ‘Los, los, dalli, dalli … you Bolshevik curs!’ More than a hundred metres of the road are jammed full. The snow on the surface is trodden down, hard and slippery. They are running mindlessly, body to body, there’s no room for overtaking, there’s no room for getting out of the way. In front of Hut 12 a terrible shriek cuts through the roar and the stampede. A man crashes out as though cut down, his brain spills from his open skull. About fifteen others fall on top of him, blocking the road. They try to get up so as not to be trampled in the crush. But the screaming and roaring crowd rolls on, the men jump over the fallen or step on them, then they stumble and fall, and the pile of shrieking and groaning bodies grows. ‘On your feet, you lazy swine, los!’ Many meanwhile have succeeded in passing the blockage. Some have thrown their clogs away, others have lost them – anyway, you can run better without them. The snow does not chill, the snow burns like fierce fire. More than five thousand have pushed through the SS cordon and are now standing by the huts as spectators, but in ranks of five, either wearing their clogs or barefoot. Some two thousand are still scattered along the road, the rest stand by the gate, stamping their feet, jumping up and down, getting ready for their Parademarsch. They blow on the tips of their fingers and warm their frozen ears. Those who are not yet in columns of five, fling their arms about, hop from one foot to another even faster, rub their palms and the backs of their hands, rub their elbows against their waists. They have been standing there for over four hours and long for nothing more fervently than to be at the end of the line, far from the blows, from the SS men and the ceaselessly barking dogs. ‘Go, man, bite the dog!’ Man has become a dog, but the dog has not become a human. The German shepherd understands the command, his fur bristles, he barks. He is well trained. Furiously he tugs at the leash. The leash gives and the dogs pounce on legs, jump up at the prisoners, scratch and bite – mainly the striped ones, they provoke them most, they have been

60 Escape from Hell

trained to attack them. Hot tongues and sharp teeth are bared from frothy snouts. The prisoners in their striped garb back away in alarm. ‘Ha-ha-ha, splendid, boy, keep going!’ the SS men noisily encourage the dogs. One of the inmates, who only just managed to snatch his hand away from the slobbering mouth, bumps into his neighbour who knocks down yet another. They fall in front and on the side and in falling bring others down with them. ‘Ha-ha-ha! One, two, three, six, nine. Volltreffer! Ha-ha-ha!’ Two years ago they were more modest: they had their fun with just one individual. The entertainment came to nothing if the victim died. It was more interesting if the inmate begged for his life. Today there is no time for just one individual. The Reich has great tasks ahead of it and the Reichsführer SS has set forth great targets. Where would they be if they handled those bastards singly? The word ‘Gross’ which they stuck on to ‘Deutschland’ reflects greatness, a gigantic scale. Everything the Reichsführer, the Reichs-Sicherheits-Hauptamt, the Geheime Staatspolizei and the Reichsanwalt are doing for the purity of the German race is great, gigantic, enormous. Profits, looting, arresting, murdering and torching. ‘Los, los, you overgrown curs!’ This kind of entertainment does not arise often. They do not always have that many prisoners available. The Führer and the Reichsführer amuse themselves in Berchtesgaden, on Lake Constance and in Garmisch-Partenkirchen: on a huge map they rub out entire nations. But these people had been sent by the Reich to Auschwitz, where the command is assembling those nationalities, at least in part. And surely they, too, rank-and-file members of the Waffen-SS, are entitled to some fun, to some rubbing out? They are angry because lately their duty hours have been extended. Eighteen, or even twenty-four, hours on their feet, a short rest and more duty. The scale of it begins to exhaust them. The food is getting worse and worse, cigarette rations have been cut. Everything for the fighting front – that is the rule. In spite of everything it is still better to be here than at the front. On the front even members of the master race are being killed. Here the race holds out, here it survives. ‘Dalli, dalli, los, your God’s forsaken you, he’s forgotten you! Ha-ha-ha.’ When they put on their uniform with the markings of the élite units they were already superbly trained and perfectly drilled. That was how they came to be here. And gradually even those who had not put on the SS uniform voluntarily became insensitive too. Fanaticism, drill and stinking spirits degenerate. Now it was being handed out in greater quantity. Booze is all-powerful, it kills the worm in the conscience, it banishes melancholy, it maintains robust strength, courage and blind obedience to crime.

The Ceremonial 61

‘Dalli, dalli, los! You’re not here on prick parade!’ ‘Los, los, Jehovah’s waiting for you up front!’ Without iron discipline there is no victory, as the Führer and Reichsführer SS well know. And today they are the Goliaths, because there are so many of them and in their hands they have whips and sticks, rifles and sub-machine-guns, and angry German shepherds on leashes. Two SS men, one from each side, hold out their cudgels horizontally, about forty centimetres from the ground. No one manages to jump over them. They try to duck under them and the blows continue to hail down on them. And even above that terrible shouting you can clearly hear the cracking of ribs, shoulder blades, arms, legs, spines and skulls. It is incredible how tough human life can be, how quickly a person, even with a broken arm, a dislocated foot, a broken head and bitten by dogs, will do what is asked of him when over him hangs the cudgel waved by the goodwill of the Reich. ‘Hey, Hans, look at that beanpole,’ pants one of the dog-handlers to his colleague across the road. ‘That strongman annoys me – I’m going to get him.’ The Dutchman, a head taller than those around him, catches hold of the rifle-butt that is about to descend on him. He tries to stop it with both his hands, to snatch it sideways and to escape. But Hans swings his rifle with mounted bayonet. The Dutchman folds up and falls by his feet. The German shepherd on its leash snarls eagerly. Hans releases it, but after a while he says: ‘Good boy, but don’t trouble. He’s practically done for already.’ A long piercing whistle comes from the locomotive. A moment later a whistle sounds from the gate. ‘SS … forward!’ the commandant’s order rings out over the loudspeaker. The tumult abruptly falls silent, you can only hear whimpering, moaning and gasping. The prisoners who have just been running along the road are now walking. Those by the gate have stopped jumping about. The SS men adjust their collars and caps, tighten their belts and straighten their tunics, shaking snow and blood off their jackboots. ‘That’s enough, boys, that’s enough for today,’ they calm their dogs. A few of them continue to kick the prisoners. ‘Auf wiedersehen, you shit!’ The prisoners do not get out of their way or jump aside. Go on, kick me, son of a bitch. They walk slowly, breathing heavily. They hold their heads and backs, they stumble. Some are spitting blood. The NCOs and the dog-handlers walk quickly through the gate. Some turn aside towards the four brick buildings, others make for the SS

62 Escape from Hell

barracks. The rest go to the ramp, where an engine whistled a little while back. Silence falls on the road and the open space. Between the twenty-six huts stand neat columns of five. This is the final stop after what they proudly call the Ceremonial. ‘One hundred and sixty-four thousand two hundred and two!’ ‘Here!’ ‘Forty-eight thousand six hundred and thirteen!’ ‘Here!’ ‘One hundred and three thousand four hundred and one!’ ‘Here!’ In front of each hut they once more check the complements. They call out the numbers, one after another. Strictly according to the record cards. When someone doesn’t answer, they put the card aside. The inmate of that number is lying somewhere on the road, in the ditch, or behind a hut, rigid, dead. But the number must not be omitted: they’ve got to bring the corpse, the numbers must tally. The Reich stands and falls by iron order. Groups of nine detach themselves in front of the huts: the dead have to be brought along, put down where they stood that morning, added to the roll call. The Reich mustn’t lose a single person. Greatness requires mathematical accuracy. Without it the foundations of the Thousand Year’s Reich of the absolutely pure race could not be laid. The prisoner with the record cards of those missing, together with his eight companions, turn over the strangely twisted bodies, carefully checking their numbers. This one’s from their hut – that one is not. Yes, this is one of ours. Two men get hold of the corpse’s arms and two of his legs, they fling him over their shoulders, it is better this way, at least they do not see him. And they hurry back to their hut. He is not lost, he is here, the complement is full. ‘A dead man doesn’t feel anything,’ the SS men had instructed them when they picked up a corpse for the first time. Again they go to the place where the brown hurricane had raged. They bend down, verify the number on the clothing, which is bloodstained and in tatters. They verify the number on the forearm, they turn the cold bodies over, let them drop back like pieces of wood, pick them up and carry them away. They are working skilfully and fast, because people are standing in front of their huts and dying on their feet. The longer it takes them to complete the numbers, the longer the others will stand and the more of them will pass out. Seven hours have passed since they were driven from their work into the cages.

The Ceremonial 63

No one is left standing on the hard-trodden road, all numbers have been carried off. The swirling snow settles on clogs, berets, all kinds of rags, mugs, tin dishes, field flasks, wooden and tin spoons, on genuine and false teeth. It covers congealed blood. But fear still hangs over this cage, because some Blockführers find that their establishment figures don’t tally. So the crowd continues to stand at attention, waiting. About twelve thousand columns of five on an area that, ploughed and planted, would easily feed a small town. ‘Correct?’ Blockführer Lausmann asks outside Hut 9. He is as lean as a greyhound, he has large strong hands and from under his lower lip three yellowish teeth protrude. ‘Yes,’ answers Karol, the record-keeper of the hut, handing him the notebook. Lausmann casts a cursory glance at the entries and then, with disgust, crumples up the notebook Lausmann’s behaviour confuses Karol. The hut leader Kozlowski, who is standing next to Karol, also raises his eyebrows in surprise. They have not experienced Lausmann like this. He always used to count in front and behind, counting the living and the dead, subtracting the dead from the living, four times, five times, carefully and accurately, never failing to remark that in a hut he is responsible for goddam accuracy and anyone upsetting that accuracy will be sent to hell. Lausmann has sent many to hell already. Not so long ago he had thirty inmates buried up to their chests and then, along with a few other SS men, rode their horses over them until their heads were a shapeless mass. Now he is silent. Karol and Kozlowski stiffen up: Lausmann is unpredictable, irascible and very malicious. At this moment he looks as if something is consuming him. ‘Scheisse das Ganze,’ he suddenly explodes. ‘Everything’s shit, bloody shit!’ His mouth is distorted into a bitter hideous grimace. ‘Scheisse! Allegedly for the fatherland! Damned eastern front!’ And he spits again. Karol opens his eyes wide and Kozlowski is not sure how to act. Lausmann pulls a wallet from his pocket, takes out a photograph and shows it to Kozlowski. Lausmann’s son has been killed in action. His only son. He was twenty-one. An innocent youngster. Lausmann is even paler than usual and very downhearted. At that moment everything is a huge heap of shit to him, everything revolts him. ‘Everything’s a heap of shit,’ he says drily. ‘Including the Heldentod, the hero’s death. Look what a fine fellow he was!’ Kozlowski and Karol look at the photograph. Fair hair, an elongated face, a sharp nose, evil, cruel eyes and a cynical smile on his lips. In uniform.

64 Escape from Hell

‘Same kind of greyhound as his dad. A pure-blood copy,’ Wladek, who has quietly joined them, mutters in Polish. Kozlowski looks at him in alarm and Wladek immediately adds in German: ‘Yes, yes, a handsome fellow. A girl’s dream. He must be driving the women crazy.’ ‘His mother saw herself in him,’ says Lausmann. ‘My God, when Ilse learns about this she’ll go mad. That damned eastern front!’ SS-Obersturmführer Hans Schwarzhuber, the commandant of the Brzezinki camp, is standing by the gate with two officers of his staff. Schwarzhuber is tall and slim with hard lines on his thin face. His movements are quick and vigorous, when walking he bears the upper part of his body slightly forward. It is known in the camp that he claims to come from a Bavarian aristocratic family, but there is no ‘von’ in his personal papers. It is two years since he took over the BrzezinkiBirkenau camp. Since then the camp has received the label of ‘model camp’ and Schwarzhuber has the opportunity of instructing visiting parties from Buchenwald, Dachau, Bergen-Belsen, Mauthausen, Ravensbrück, Flossenburg, Natzweiler and also Sachsenhausen, where he began his career as a Blockführer. He glances at five snow-covered little tables, placed in a row some twenty metres in front of the gate, not far from the bandstand. After a while he moves towards them. He stops at each table and taps it with his riding crop. ‘They’re tame now, more or less tame,’ he says gutturally, his face remaining impenetrably cold. He quickly walks back to the gate and again looks at the little tables. Sitting motionless at these little tables are five men, their heads hanging. Two of them are in striped rags and three in civvies. They had tried to escape. Their escape was stopped short by a hail of bullets from behind. As a warning and deterrent more than ten thousand prisoners had to march past and salute those five. As a warning and deterrent another fifty thousand were kept standing in the other cages. Seven hours and a few minutes have passed since the wailing of the sirens announced the escape of the five. The camp commandant Hans Schwarzhuber turns about and walks away. A thick-set staff officer hurries after him. SS-Oberscharführer Palitzsch steps up to one of the tables. But the checking of numbers continues. More than twelve thousand columns of five are still standing in the gigantic complex of camps, extending over forty square kilometres, separated by roads and flat ground, intersected by deep trenches and by a web of lesser ditches and canals. A huge stage of sixty thousand

The Ceremonial 65

inmates in sixty cages between hundreds of timber and brick huts and multiple wire fences three to four metres high. One of the inmates had once worked it out on a Sunday: thirteen kilometres of ditches and canals, sixteen kilometres of wire fence, three thousand concrete posts and six hundred and twenty huts surrounded by two hundred and fifty watch-towers manned by crack marksmen with machine-guns and sub-machine-guns. But there could easily be more. More than twelve thousand columns of five are standing on their feet because in front of five of the huts they are still counting. Reports on the complement of twenty-one huts have already been taken by SS men to the commandant’s little table; at the moment he is represented by SSOberscharführer Palitzsch, a handsome Nordic face that could belong in any Nazi film. *** The crowd pants and groans. The fit ones support the exhausted ones, they all shiver with cold, they cannot wait for the counting to end. For today’s count they cannot just stand where they wished. They had to line up according to the numbers of their registration cards. Hardly anyone knows the person next to him. Except for those who arrived two or three days ago they do not differ much from one another. Their natural characteristics have been wiped out by hunger, disease, sleeplessness and the horror of death in a thousand forms. They are all lice-infested, dehydrated and emaciated, their faces are dark purple. Their eye-sockets are sunken, their eyes are glassy without a gleam of life. They breathe wheezingly, with a rattle, they cough, they spit blood, there is hardly a tremor of life in them. Tatters stick out from their clogs or slippers, but from many of them nothing sticks out except thin, angular, bluish bones under thin grey skin. Their feet are trying at all costs to maintain the flicker of life above ground. From the angular bones hang torn and blood-stained trousers and jackets, with some kind of triangles on them and, let us not forget, numbers. A dozen kinds of togs – civilian, striped, military. On the backs of the military tunics are, now scarcely legible, the white letters KG – Kriegsgefangener, prisoner of war. Military gear is now also worn by Russian civilian prisoners, it is thicker and warmer. There are only a few Russian prisoners of war left. Out of an original twelve thousand. The rest are lying on the ground. Striped rags, numbers and faces almost unidentifiable. They are lying there in ‘columns of ten’, head by feet, feet by head. Five heads and five pairs of feet in each row. Order requires accuracy. This way the total can be counted more easily, the chance of an error is minimal. They lie there with mouths open, like

66 Escape from Hell

wax figures, rigid, barefoot – evidently they had better footwear than many of those who have survived today’s work and ceremonial. Their pockets are turned inside out, the lining ripped out, the dead no longer need it and it would be a shame to waste any piece of material that might warm a half-alive body. Mouths open or fiercely closed, features distorted by a terminal spasm, mostly toothless, around their mouths a black sediment from burnt bread or a piece of coal, lips mostly blue or purple. Some still have their stomachs heaving in irregular fits. Some rows are down to four men. Now and again someone’s legs give way under him and he collapses. It is a hard fall, a ringing impact of bones on hard, frozen ground. They help him get up, they support him, sometimes they feel him freezing in their grip. When he can no longer stand even with their help, and if life still flickers in him, they carry him to the hut and lean him up against the wall. When he has ‘stopped breathing’, they lay him down at the back of the hut by the others, head to feet or feet to head. And those who have carried him there remark, as laymen: ‘I think he’s stopped breathing.’ No one any longer determines whether death is definitive, biological. ‘Canada are coming back!’ The news of ‘Canada’ returning spreads through the cage like wildfire. Like a weak electrical current running through everyone, arousing everyone’s attention. Heads are turned towards the road and the gate. ‘Maybe this murderous standing about will now end,’ says Pavel, mainly to reassure the others because he does not believe it himself. Down the main road outside the wire fence walks a group of prisoners. At the gate they are halted and counted from both sides. Oberscharführer Palitzsch watches the counting, nods his handsome face: correct, thirty rows of five makes one hundred and fifty, that is the number who went out and that is the number who have come back. Now for a body search. They search them and after a while report to Palitzsch: ‘In order. Nothing on them.’ Since midday they have been working at the railway ramp. They go there every day, they and another one hundred and fifty. They empty the goods trucks, nearly always the same number, but never fewer than thirty. As soon as the SS have marched the live cargo to the chambers they collect their baggage. The people who got out of the trucks will not need it again. The ‘Canada’ squad today is more tired than usual. These one hundred and fifty were at the ramp and in the warehouses all night long and since midday today they have emptied two trainloads. They walk along the road heavily, with a sense of shame and vague guilt they look at their feet. Their striped clothes are clean, on their feet are leather sandals. Their faces are relatively full, they eat more than their ration. Their work brings them into contact with luggage, with plenitude – that

The Ceremonial 67

is why the other inmates call them ‘Canada’. ‘Canada’ is also what they call Hut 20, where they sleep. The name has become so well established that even the SS men use it now. ‘Pull back the guard chain!’ suddenly rings out the sharp voice of Oberscharführer Palitzsch and a slight wave runs through ten thousand heads in the cage. There is a protracted hoarse sigh of relief. Pull back the chain … That means that the numbers tally everywhere. Envious glances are turned away from the well-nourished ‘Canada’, devil take those idiots who forgot to include those five at the little tables, the main thing is that it is all over. In a while they will get bread. They will eat and then they will be able to shuffle, move their arms and legs, warm their stiff bodies and later slip under their blankets. All round there is noise, stamping of feet and confusion, the cages next door are emptying, the numbers are entering their huts. This is a full stop after what is called a nochmals Appell, this time with the addition of a ceremonial. But this full stop does not apply to the cage where today’s ceremonial took place. The prisoners nearly freeze in amazement. ‘Zulage’, they hear Palitzsch command. An encore. ‘Another hour! The whole section! Everybody! You can take it as a requiem mass for those five. But you’d be wiser to take it as a warning!’ Another hour … The disagreeable chopped voice hits the crowd like a monstrous hammer-blow. A dark muttering, groaning and sobbing fills the air. Another sixty minutes. A cold wind is whistling across the yard, snow swirls, the cold gets into their bones. ‘Bloody swine! Filthy murderers!’ Wladek thunders outside Hut 9. ‘Cholera on all of them!’ ‘Amen to that,’ Karol adds. The external guards have been called off, only those by the wire fence, close to the inhabited cages, remain. One minute, two, three … it seems that those sixty minutes will pass in heightened suffering, but without special incidents, really quite normally. In front of every hut a few more prisoners will freeze to death, bleed to death, some will be carried to the huts and propped up against the walls, some will be laid along those already there, head to feet, feet to head. It seems that Death itself has got tired and can do no more than regroup the columns of five in the cage, the columns drilled by ‘the best men of the Germanic race, the strong and vital top stratum of the German people, the finest selected human material of the absolutely pure race’. But this is not so. Thirty dog-handlers are marching to the gate, leading their German shepherds on the leash. They are led by SSUnterscharführer Hänecke, a short man with a massive chest, a puffed face and a strangely low brow. From the gate he shouts:

68 Escape from Hell

‘Sonderkommando! Sonderkommando!’ The Sonderkommando are a special squad. They are all special, but this one is the most special of the lot. The prisoners making up this squad sleep in their clothes in case they are called out. They must always be prepared. They run out of Hut 13. Quickly and without a word they form up and in thirty ranks they march out to the gate. Their steps are heavy and hard. They are tall, massive, and strong. That is how the Germans picked them and how, at least for the time being, they want to keep them. They receive more soup, more bread and more jam than the rest. They are also allowed to smoke. Their workplace is also near, some two hundred steps from the gate. They work under a roof in the warm. From the washhouses they collect the rigid, puffed, purple corpses and fling them into the boilers. Just now there are one thousand five hundred rigid Dutchmen in the washhouses. They arrived in the afternoon: grandfathers and grandmothers, sons, daughters, grandsons and granddaughters, sisters and brothers-in-law. Not even rare experts were kept back. They were all driven under the showers, crammed into two hundred and twenty square metres, body against body, and a rain of hydrogen cyanide crystals was released over them. One thousand five hundred at least now arrive by each train, twice a day. The ‘chemists’ and ‘mathematicians’ on Himmler’s staff have calculated that a nation of several millions can, within a relatively short time, be accommodated on a few square metres under the Auschwitz showers. And from there to five crematoriums with fifty-two furnaces. In each of these all bodily remains can disappear in twenty minutes. Two million four hundred thousand in a year. The special squad is accompanied by a reinforced guard. Thirty men of the pure race with thirty pure-breed German shepherd dogs. These thirty with their dogs form a chain around the crematorium in which this most special squad ‘works’. Today they will be there until dawn, but when they leave, the gas chamber will once more be a credible shower-room equipped with notices in several languages. *** On ten thousand people in the cage there now descends a heavy depression, a despondency that robs the body and soul of everything that might enable them to preserve some kind of thought, keep some hope, create the most modest illusions. Where can they turn their gaze? Where can they look and not see this unutterable misfortune, this menace and death? Whosoever’s face you look at, you see yourself and the things that have been worked out and calculated with scientific

The Ceremonial 69

precision, to ensure that you should no longer exist, so that in the evening they could add you to the numbers and then finally deduct. Where can they look? At the concrete posts, those white spectres that rock from side to side, that come close to you and return again? At their ends, curved towards the inside of the cages to look like gallows? At the dense belts of double wires through which death flows? Or above the wires at the tall wooden posts that carry the watch-towers? At the gleaming metal of the machine-guns and sub-machine-guns mounted on revolving stands, ready to fire? On the people standing around here? Not far from you someone has collapsed, you hear his heavy fall, two men carry him off, you turn your eyes away. So what can one look at? The huge bulb that lights up the whole road between the huts? Or the searchlight on the tall main watch-tower, which, at regular intervals, floodlights all the cages and roads? Or the thousands of little lights that shine and blink on the fence, close to one another? All this, however, all the lights dissolve completely if you look towards the northeast. From the four chimneys, one after another or simultaneously, blinding flames shoot up with a terrible hiss and roar. These fiery tongues, whose bluish or greenish beginnings are hardly seen, leap up and sink down just as though someone were pulling them down or pushing them up. They shoot up fiercely, at times very high, as if they were trying to burn someone up there. They leap up, roaring and hissing: their sound swallows everything, penetrates everywhere, even into the men in the cages where weak life still trembles and flickers. The flames are blinding, they wail and roar, they conjure up terrible visions. You close your eyes, but the flashes are demoniacally strong and fierce. They pass through your closed lids and for a moment you feel them burning. You can turn away, you can look somewhere else, you can retreat a few steps, but you are always under them, under those four fiery mass murderers. Is this possible? Can this be the truth? No, this cannot be true, this is just a bad dream. I am not here, I am somewhere else, far away, I see nothing there, hardly anything, there are no posts, no huts, no wire, there is just a space with nothing in it, not even people, only a vast emptiness. From the first minute of the Zulage Karol made himself think of something else. Not even with Pavel at his side, with no one and nothing, is it possible to dispel one’s harrowing and desperate thoughts. ‘Qu’est ce que ça?’ he hears Saul’s voice behind him, the voice of the Greek who had arrived only forty hours ago. He had brought some Greek halva with him, figs and long tough cigarettes. Only as far as the ramp, however. Into the camp he brought only his sinewy hands, his calluses, two gold teeth and malaria. Back home he was a

70 Escape from Hell

longshoreman; when they assembled them in the Salonika ghetto a fortnight ago, the German authorities assured them that all one thousand eight hundred of them would go to England in exchange for interned German prisoners. That was why Saul and others of the eighty, whom they kept back for work, keep asking everybody in the hut whether the English Channel is far from here. They referred him to a Dutch professor of geography. When he gets no answer Saul thinks that his question was not understood. He asks again, indicating the columns of fire with his head. ‘Omnes eodem cogimur,’ says Stanislaw calmly. He is the sole survivor of the last-but-one transport of Polish Baptists. He always stands like a statue. The Poles call him Charon. Saul repeats his query persistently and someone answers: ‘These are … saunas.’ ‘Saunas?’ Wladek angrily turns to the men behind him: ‘If you don’t stop I’ll push someone’s face in! Don’t confuse the poor blighter, in a few days he’ll know everything. You weren’t any wiser yourselves!’ Stanislaw does not acknowledge any obedience, discipline or laws beyond those of the Baptists. He fishes out half a cigarette, lights it, smokes a few puffs and hands it to Saul. Saul inhales deeply, he wants to return the cigarette, but Stanislaw waves it away. ‘Merci, merci,’ says the pleasant Greek and happily finishes the stub. Then he turns to Wladek and slowly forms his words in German: ‘And where did those people go a little while ago?’ He means the Sonderkommando, that most special of squads. Wladek considers a moment, then he replies slowly: ‘Those people … well, you keep out of their way, don’t have anything to do with them, they work in secret stores … they are closely guarded.’ From behind the hut, somewhere near the latrines, comes the sound of a shot. Again someone’s nerves gave way, again a bullet stopped someone on his way to the wire. The flames hiss and roar. To Karol all these sounds are a provocative ghostly noise. Here we are, here we reign! Not bullets, gallows, dogs, hunger, dysentery, phlegmones, inoculated typhus, malaria, cancer, injected phenol, X-rays and Claubert B, not narcotic mescaline in the coffee and countless other drugs – no, here we hold sway, we the insatiable chimneys. Oh yes, today you are still holding sway, a powerful inner voice speaks up in Karol. And certainly you will still be holding sway tomorrow and the day after. But some day someone will extinguish you, some day someone will reduce you to dust. Perhaps we won’t be here

The Ceremonial 71

any more. But neither will you: no brown ones with German shepherds and monocles, no men with pure blood, the best blood of the Nordic race. Is that going to happen? Certainly, it is going to happen. Oh, to live to see it! Albeit wrecked, without hands, without feet, no matter how – only to live to see that moment with seeing eyes! Minutes crumble into a thousand moments and every moment lasts infinitely long. The flames burst out, lighting up the low cloud and casting blood-red flashes on the crowd in the cage. They are as good as finished: it is an incomprehensible miracle that they are still standing, but they are standing, leaning on one another and sometimes nodding off. They realise that sitting down means freezing to death. But even so, a few are kneeling or sitting down. Now and again life flares up in them, they stand up and begin to stretch their bony fingers. They warm up a little and then sit down again resignedly. Those standing close their eyes or put their fingers in their ears. But it is impossible to escape the roaring and hissing of the fiery hyenas – the sound enters their bodies, permeates their whole being. It roars and hisses in their bodies even when the chimneys fall silent for a moment, when the flames die down, only to burst out again with a terrible wailing towards the leaden clouds. During such a brief pause Karol hears a new sound – the sharp and protracted whistle of a railway engine. ‘Oh God!’ ‘God, not again!’ ‘Christ, will these sons of bitches never stop?’ ‘Quiet! Quiet!,’ Wladek says wearily and with a strange expression on his face looks at Saul. ‘I’m telling you, for God’s sake, not a word!’ The whistle of the engine is now quite close, thirty trucks are evidently standing on the dead track alongside the main line. Wladek pulls himself together, he no longer supports himself on Saul and his eyes are feverish. ‘Is there no God or devil who’d stop them at long last? Tell me, who’s going to stop them? And when?’ He twists his head and with feverish eyes gazes upward, at the blood-red low cloud. ‘If you’re up there, God, stop them! Prove to us that you’re there! You created the world, a little good and a lot of swinish evil, and you don’t know how to stop this lot! Stop them! Now! At once!’ ‘Enough,’ Pavel tries to calm him down. He catches hold of his arm and vigorously shakes it. ‘That’s enough, Wladek. Things are going badly for them if they’re in such a hurry. Very badly.’ ‘Qu’est ce que ça?’ asks Saul. ‘Catharsis, complete catharsis,’ mutters Wladek. ‘Omnes eodem cogimur,’ says Stanislaw coolly.

72 Escape from Hell

‘Well, go there if you’re so eager,’ Wladek hisses at Stanislaw. ‘You fool, you don’t know anything, always only cogimur, cogimur …’ SS men are waiting by the gate, one hundred and fifty young men from Hut 20 are marching towards them in perfect columns of five. Together they move on to the ramp. An hour later, or an hour and a half, another thirty trucks have been cleared and perhaps they will make the entire transport march straight to the chambers under the showers. Only the luggage is left behind. As well as food, shoes, clothes, blankets, toys and instruments, the heavy luggage is still in the trucks, and outside the gas chambers they strip off their rings, bracelets, medallions, diamonds, clips, necklaces, ear drops, pins, brooches, platinum, gold and silver watches, powder compacts, pens, bangles, cigarette cases, gold coins and foreign banknotes. The footwear, clothes, blankets, toys, instruments and underwear are sorted through in the warehouses and sent to the Reich – contributions to the Winterhilfe, the winter relief drive. They tear off the labels because these will be donations from generous, influential and unselfish functionaries of the Nazi Party. Jewellery – but not all – will go to the SS Central Economic Office in Berlin under an escort of genuine Germanic men. ‘I’d love to be all-powerful, all-ruling, just for a while,’ Wladek says with his eyes closed. The lines about his mouth are even harder. ‘D’you know what I’d do? You don’t know anything,’ he says angrily. ‘You’re not interested in anything except warmth, your bellies, or when this standing about will end. So I’ll tell you. I’d quarter the lot of them, I’d carve them up crosswise and drop them into salted urine pits. That would be my revenge. Now you know. That’s what I’d do.’ Those who’d been dozing nearby, leaning against their neighbours, raise their heads and come to life. Pavel remarks: ‘Waste of salt and acid. Maybe also of the urine which would be more useful on the fields. I’d let them croak in what they thought up for us. Vain speculations, though, nothing more terrible …’ ‘Sonderkommando! Sonderkommando!’ rings out from the gate. Within a brief twenty seconds a further one hundred and fifty of that most special squad stand on the road in front of Hut 13. Almost simultaneously comes another command, the one most eagerly awaited: ‘Everybody into the huts!’ Sixty-five minutes of agonizing trance and agonizing cramps are at an end. The doors of twenty-six huts open abruptly. It has stopped snowing, it is getting colder. In the open doors of the huts the cold collides with the stuffy warmer air, and the figures entering the huts are swallowed

The Ceremonial 73

up in the dense grey mist. Eventually even the prisoners from the cage, where today’s ceremonial raged, are back in their huts. Except that from Hut 13 there are three hundred missing and from Hut 20 one hundred and fifty. Outside the five remain at the little tables, as well as hundreds in ‘columns of ten’, head by feet and feet by head. That March evening in the year one thousand nine hundred and forty-four too many froze to death in the standing crowd and against the walls of the huts. It was not a rock-splitting frost. Maybe the meteorologists recorded a mere fifteen degrees, perhaps even less. But in Auschwitz, the place that was not on the map, people perished even at minus ten. Mercury is not a yardstick when there’s little blood. In the twenty-six huts of Cage B-II D a more or less normal evening begins. Full stop after what was called Zulage.

Chapter 6

A More or Less Normal Evening

All round it is midnight, but in Cage B-II D evening is only just beginning. In Hut 9 everybody is in their place: they lounge on the bunks, on the two rows of bunks along the walls. The space between the two rows is divided into two narrow aisles by a narrow bread oven about twenty metres long. Two prisoners on day duty, called here the Stuben chiefs, are handing out the bread rations in the aisles. When the bread is issued, everyone has to be at his place, no one is allowed to move from one place to another, no one is allowed to hold his hand out twice. ‘A bit faster!’ the Hut leader calls to the Stuben chiefs and slams the door behind him. He sleeps separately. Karol is dragging himself down the left-hand aisle in a stupor. He is tired, he supports himself, he sits down on the last lower bunk, where Kaczmarek, the night duty man, sleeps. Kaczmarek sleeps during the day, at night he sees to order and makes sure no one crosses the threshold of the door, which is brightly lit up from outside during the forbidden hours. He is a weak man and clearly would not last much longer if he had to work outdoors. Karol sinks his elbows into his thighs and buries his face in his hands. He pushes his thumbs into his ears, he closes his eyes, but the images come back irresistibly. The bones of the prisoners crack, exhausted or dead they collapse, they stand up and sink down, they sit and freeze, the German shepherds bark and the SS men yell shamelessly. All this he sees clearly before him, he hears it, senses it and survives it because there is still life in him, because he is still alive. You have seen worse, you have got to hold out, it cannot last much longer and you cannot change what has happened. Yes, words are poor consolation. I know you mean well, Pavel. The five men sitting by the gate are no longer alive. Five of the old inmates, with surprisingly low numbers. Hans was dragged here from Holland, where he had come as a refugee from Germany with his whole family. Heini worked in a chemical factory of the Hermann Göring Werke near Berlin: they accused him of having told some provocateurs about their production of powerful poisons. Mietek was picked up in a

A More or Less Normal Evening 75

raid in Poznan because near that town a bridge went up with an army transport going to the eastern front. In that raid they rounded up a thousand secondary schoolboys. Daniel was brought here from the camp at Pithiviers, where he had been interned on suspicion of having distributed anti-Nazi leaflets in an important aircraft plant. And Fero, a timber industry trainee from Dobšiná was brought here from somewhere in southern Germany. He had been discovered in the autumn of 1942 in a truck with scrap intended for Switzerland. Five of the old inmates – and they are no longer alive. Their combined age was not even a hundred and forty. Only that morning he had spoken to Fero. He had been a quiet, cheerful lad, but he was troubled by anxieties. Did you think it over carefully, Fero? Was there some flaw in your plan? I do not really know the man. I am afraid he gets their backs up. Surely you must understand: if he leaves with five he must come back with five. Do not try to dissuade us. Everything is agreed, thought through. Let’s go … Death shall not stop me. So he went. The five of them went: Fero, Heini, Mietek, Hans and Daniel. An SS man saw them, a Slovak German or a German Slovak from Dobšiná, Fero’s classmate. From the gate he had waved back to Karol, he was that confident, totally confident. He was sure a classmate would not betray him. Be strong, my love, my only one, Fero had written to his girl cousin on a piece of paper he had handed over to Karol. We’ll see each other again, only don’t give yourself away by anything. They will help you. I embrace and kiss you a thousand times. Your only one. Hang on!!! More than seventeen hours had passed since they parted. And about eight hours since the alarm siren had announced the escape of the five men. Karol bites his upper lip, he pushes his fingers into his ears. But he does not stop the film running before his eyes. The images do not disappear. Fero in the bed outside the gate, Fero waving. The siren, the shouting of the SS men, the barking of the dogs. The ceremonial with the five little tables. At one of them was Fero. Fero, don’t you exist any more? Good Lord, you’re no longer here! Nor are Heini, Mietek, Hans or Daniel. Only that son of a bitch SS man from Dobšiná is still here – for each one of you he received four days and two hundred and eighty-eight minutes time off, three weeks home leave and nomination for promotion. Why on earth didn’t you believe that he was a provocateur? That he’d betray you? That he’d do anything to climb up another rung on the ladder of the murderers? Why?

76 Escape from Hell

Karol shakes violently. And those who came here with him – Robert, Laco, the teacher and Bubo (six months ago they dragged them and a lot of others off to Warsaw, allegedly to clear rubble) – or those who came here a month ago, a week ego, the day before yesterday or yesterday, or those now lying in front of the huts – weren’t they people too? Kilometre-long crowds of them, hundreds of trains and thousands of lorries. They too are no longer with us. And out there by the gate there are just five. Yes, no more than five, but he had lived close to them. Together they had chased death away in unprecedented shapes, together they had writhed with hunger and ducked under blows; they had been here for a year or more, and there are not many of them left. To those thirty times one hundred thousand, five were added today. Yes, and hundreds of others. But the death of those five is especially hard to bear because it means the end of the hope that the world will get to know everything about these terrible sufferings here. The world … Is it possible that it does not know about them yet? Surely people find out about any little factory hidden away in some distant land? Is it possible that the world is unaware of this monstrous complex of enterprises, where the brown ones, with mathematical precision, scientific expertise and total mechanisation, are murdering thousands of humans every day? Can this be kept secret? You are reflecting in vain, tormenting yourself in vain. You are not going to think up anything right now or ensure that even a single scream or sigh escapes out into the world from this cage, a cage surrounded by a deadly fence and by deadly watch-towers, guarded by two-legged and four-legged dogs. Could one ever escape? So what is the point … Karol gets up, he is shaking again, he wipes his forehead and his eyelids. He opens his eyes and blinks. In the middle of the hut, under two weak light bulbs, stands a skeletal figure. His head is turned up towards the lamps, his hands are clenched on his emaciated chest, his fingers interlocked. He is praying. He bows three times, again raises his head and whispers wishes or perhaps curses. They have already handed out the bread. Nothing else, just bread. Three hundred grammes after such a day! The usual twenty or thirty grammes of margarine were not issued today. To teach them a lesson. Karol watches the people on the bunks. Small piece by small piece they break the bread and chew it. The bread breaks, crumbles: not even with horse dung does it keep. A man near him holds back his tears: the lower crust is missing from his helping. The one next to him hides his piece under his palliasse and holds his hand on the spot where he’s hidden it; it is not long till the morning, tomorrow will not be such a long day, tomorrow he will have a whole helping of bread.

A More or Less Normal Evening 77

Another looks doubtfully at his piece – eat it now or keep it? Another has already eaten his ration, he now swallows his saliva, looking enviously at those who are still munching. Saul has not learnt yet to appreciate the value of bread; with his hands and head he indicates to someone that he could have his piece in exchange for a cigarette. As soon as he has done so he receives three cigarettes. That is the going rate of exchange. But they should not do their transaction inside the hut: the one with the cigarettes might … in the end he could lose his cigarettes as well. Bread … Every evening you receive it with trembling hands. You take it eagerly and make sure that there is no bit of crust missing from your piece. Bread is all-powerful; bread keeps the dying little flame of life inside you burning. You eat ten or twenty grammes of bread, the little flame flickers more strongly inside you, your eyes get a little clearer and, for a while at least, a little more warmth flows through your veins. You pick up a crumb of bread from a puddle or from dung, unhesitatingly you’ll pull it out from a dead man’s pocket. You pull it out boldly and without a twinge of conscience because you know full well that he would do the same. He knew the value of bread and long ago forgave you your action in advance. Heršek, the Stuben chief, stops by Karol. ‘There are forty-one helpings left,’ he whispers and his eyes gleam strangely. Forty-one helpings of bread. Forty-one!’ ‘Surely there are only thirty-three lying outside …?’ ‘Boris in the store supplied two extra helpings …’ For a moment they look at one another. ‘Go to bed, Heršek! We’ll sort it out in the morning. Now leave me alone and go to bed!’ Heršek mutters something and shrugs. ‘I’m telling you: go to bed! Now! I want to be alone.’ Heršek moves away, but still he mutters something. From the age of sixteen he worked in Warsaw as a horse-cab driver. Now he is twentyfive. He grew up without a father or mother, he went to school for two or three years, never learnt anything, does not know why and later he had no time. He has been behind these Nazi wires for four years. Many have already lain down, but others are still hanging about the long bread oven. It is now cooled down, but even so many are laying or hanging on it all kinds of clothing and rags. They are all much the same, but there are puttees, scarves, handkerchiefs, ear muffs, towels, gloves and bandages. These rags and pieces of cloth are very valuable: they protect against the cold, they ease the pain of scratches and often cover larger wounds. So they stand by them, not letting them out of

78 Escape from Hell

their sight, They turn them over, smooth them out on the cold oven which creates an illusion of warmth and after a while they carry them off, cold and damp, to hide them under their palliasses. They weigh those palliasses down with forty or perhaps even fifty kilos. No one weighs more than that. Karol, leaning against a bunk, watches three prisoners under the big lamp. They warm themselves, they breathe deep, they take off their shirts and directly under the light search for typhus-carrying lice and kill them. Hideous things, how many have I got in my armpit? ‘Want to?’ he hears Heršek’s voice again. Heršek is offering him a cigarette. Karol slowly turns it in his fingers to soften it. A Greek cigarette. He moistens his lips with his tongue but finally puts the cigarette away. ‘Thanks, Heršek,’ he says gratefully. ‘Thank you. Go and lie down. I’m all right … I’ll light up when everyone’s asleep.’ On his way to his bunk Heršek says towards both sides: ‘Lie down, chaps. Time to go to sleep. Who’ll wake you in the morning?’ Most of them are lying already, panting and snoring, restlessly tossing and turning and calling out in their sleep. But those with dysentery cannot sleep. By some miracle somebody has fished out a cinder from the bread oven and now they are warming a piece of crust on it, firmly believing the story that a burnt crust can stop the shits. ‘Go to sleep,’ Kaczmarek urges them. ‘You can’t cheat your diarrhoea nor your sleep.’ But he knows very well that they will not go until the cinder has completely cooled. ‘You’d better lie down too,’ he says to Karol, who is again sitting on his bunk. ‘Reveille is at four in the morning. Show some sense and get some sleep.’ Before the war Kaczmarek was a town clerk and climbed up to the post of a council member. He was well respected. He had buried his wife in the mountains near Sosnowiec, where she had been hiding out for a year along with their daughter. Now he is here, together with his daughter, who walks past twice a day with the textile squad. Esther is seventeen. She is beautiful even without her hair and in tattered rags and he can never wait for the moment when he can see her through the wire fence, or see her again in the evening when she returns with her squad to the women’s camp. Kaczmarek has walked down both aisles. Karol is still sitting on his bunk. ‘What made you choose my bunk? Oh, good heavens, there’s a stench here again as from a hundred polecats!’ From the far end of the hut a stench spreads mixed with the smell of chlorine. There’s a big pot there and all round it writhing prisoners,

A More or Less Normal Evening 79

barefoot, some of them without underpants. Those with dysentery, almost translucent skeletons. They twist up and down, they groan, they curse their misfortune. They shake with malaria or typhus, some of them stay close to the pot so they don’t have to return to it. They come to the pot with bread in their hands, they sit on the pot with bread in their hands so no one can pull it out from under their palliasses while they’re not there. They sit on the pot and sadly gaze on their bread. What use will it be to me? And who will twist it out of my hand when I croak? But they hold on to it firmly, after all it is bread and they have heard a lot of miraculous tales. Maybe they will get up in the morning and things will be better. Maybe. But when they go to the pot for the tenth time, they drag themselves like lepers, they totter, they mutter, they explode into hysterical crying or laughter, they fantasise and in their dull eyes sits cold death. Some argue by the pot, drive one another away, some manage to exclaim: ‘Help me! Save me!’ There is boundless despair and bold rebellion in these exclamations and all the men in the hut understand them, no matter in what language. The hours of these people are already numbered, reflects Karol and rubs his eyes with his knuckles. In the morning, when the fog disperses, there will again be several hanging on the wires, twisted and burnt. If they manage to get that far. Why look at this infinite misery when you cannot help anyone? You can lead him away from the pot, help him sit down on it again, chase someone else away, but all this is useless. Dysentery is powerful, it leaves you only the skin on your bones. In spite of the cold, revoltingly large flies bite you and so does the stench. Karol is sitting in the area of the strongest stench. He gets up and totters to his bunk. ‘Murderers!’ he hears an exclamation in French from the corner of the hut. ‘Murde …’ He runs over to the twisted figure on the floor. Kaczmarek comes running along as well. They lay the Frenchman, a professor of mathematics, on his bunk. He grins quietly and whispers hoarsely: ‘Pourquoi, pourquoi, pour …’ ‘Another,’ Kaczmarek says dryly. ‘We’re wasting our time! By the thousand and then by one.’ He covers the Frenchman with his blanket and says to Karol: ‘Let’s go. Nothing better than sleep. This one’s beyond our help. Let’s go.’ Karol takes his shoes off, lights up and climbs on the middle bunk. Below him is Pavel, above him is Wladek. Clothed, he stretches out and puts his right hand on his heart. Something is fiercely gripping him, crushing him, he feels that his heart might burst any moment. Then this crushing embrace ceases and he exhales nosily.

80 Escape from Hell

‘Der einzige Weg von hier ist durch den Kamin, durch den Kamin’, he repeats to himself the words of the murderers. The only way out from here is through the chimney. Is there really no other way – only through the chimney? Must he really perish here when he has not yet begun to live? Is there really no other way? Angrily he crushes his cigarette stub between his fingers and lies down on his stomach, his hands folded under his head. With a dull headache he lies like that until morning.

Chapter 7

Two Thousand Metres of Track

A cold, metallic ring is heard in all cages simultaneously and thus magnified penetrates into half-asleep brains. It is day again, another day of meaningless work and even more meaningless dying. Just the beginning of the day, a cold, raw morning. Morning – regardless of when the evening ended, when night began. Time to put on your trousers, jackets, rags, slippers, berets, straighten out the half-empty straw palliasses, throw the blankets on them, straighten them out from one side and then from the other – in less than thirty seconds everything is ready. At half past four or sometimes even earlier the inmates already run around the huts, warming their stiff bodies, then they stand and wait, wait and stand. ‘Damn them, another morning!’ Karol curses. But this morning is a little different. Yesterday was different too. In the huts many are lying even after the waking call. There is an unusual quiet in Hut 9. The men are twisted under their blankets, they turn restlessly, some mumble unintelligible words in their half-sleep. ‘Oi, get up, you lot! Are you deaf? Get up! …’ Juzek, the Stuben chief, walks along the aisles and bangs the palliasses with a clog. Get up, he calls, this won’t do any good, somebody might come in, so get up now. Yes, it’s bloody morning again already.’ Karol sits down on his palliasse. His eyes are bloodshot, they itch and burn. He looks about himself uncomprehendingly. Why are the chaps still in bed? Ah yes, yesterday there was a ceremonial, yesterday the brown butchers had a field day. He rubs his eyes with his knuckles, puts on his slippers and sleepily walks over to the Stuben chief. ‘One of you stand by the door and let them be for a little while,’ Karol says. For a moment Juzek looks into his eyes hesitantly. He feels like reminding him of a morning a year back, when, as a new arrival, he had not got up with the gong and this had cost him three teeth. But he just shrugs and says: ‘I don’t mind. But if someone comes in, we’ll all pay for it. Including those who’re still sleeping.’

82 Escape from Hell

‘One of you stand by the door and watch out,’ Karol repeats. ‘Every minute of sleep is good. As it is, half of them will drop out from the squads today. Heršek, you go!’ Karol realises that a lookout at the door won’t be much good if some SS man really bursts into the hut. There is dense fog outside, you cannot see three steps in front of you. But maybe nobody will come and even a few extra minutes of sleep will help the men. Suddenly he smiles coldly and Juzek has the impression that Karol is laughing at his own thoughts. But will this extra sleep really help them? Karol wonders. Who has yet been helped by a stolen minute’s sleep? Everything’s worth a shit, the men here are all cripples, there is no help for them, nothing can help us here unless a miracle provides us with extra grub, soap, warm clothing and medicines, and if it sweeps all SS men into the deepest hell. ‘But if this goes against the grain,’ Karol adds thoughtfully, ‘then drive them out. I don’t want to get you into trouble.’ He shoves his towel under his jacket and leaves the hut. The fog is so thick that the more distant lights cannot be seen at all. He goes to the latrine, then to the washroom and from there to the locksmiths’ hut immediately opposite. He bends down, yes, everything is as it should be, the key is in its place. Quietly he opens the door of the hut, he leans on the doorframe and gazes into the cold fog in the direction from which Pavel should emerge at any moment. Twenty minutes have passed since the striking of the rail gong and Juzek in Hut 9 is getting desperate because not all the bunks are empty yet. ‘Antek, give me a hand,’ Juzek asks. ‘It’s just as if the devil was having us on this morning.’ The two snatch the blankets off the sleepers, pinch them or pull their hands and legs, they beg, they command, they swear, they shake their heads. ‘Idiots, anyone wishing to live to see the evening, get on your feet, something’s happened on the road! Schwarzhuber is shouting.’ This lie makes some of them move on their palliasses, the men curse and jump up. ‘Oi, you two there!’ Marcel shouts shrilly at the young men who are standing by the door, dressed, waiting for some crust of something or other. ‘Over here! Give us a hand!’ Marcel, Heršek and the other two manage to chase a dysentery sufferer away from the pot. Then Marcel and Heršek carefully lift the pot by its handles and carry it out by the back door. Juzek immediately slams the door shut. The front door is wide open because in the pot things moved about and the whole hut is filled with a heavy acrid stench. Juzek now holds his pale hand on the bolt, his back against the door which has to be

Two Thousand Metres of Track 83

guarded every morning because just outside is forbidden territory. He looks at the dysentery sufferers running about in alarm. ‘My God, the pot’s gone!’ cries a man with a longish face, holding up his pants with one hand and hanging on to the oven with the other. ‘Help – my guts are running out of me!’ shouts an elderly man with scabs on his forehead. With both hands he holds his underpants at his knees and presses his legs together as, following some of the others, he hops out of the hut to the latrine. ‘Rise and shine! Rise and shine!’ Antek repeats endlessly to those who have not yet moved from their palliasses. With an odd piece of wood he strikes the posts of the bunks. These must be new men, he thinks to himself, who have found yesterday too much for them. Juzek finally hears some banging on the door. He pulls back the bolt and Marcel, Heršek and the other two enter with the emptied pot into which they have put a shovelful of chlorine outside. Juzek again leans against the door while Marek walks over to Antek to help him get the remaining sleepers on their feet. ‘Get up, you hung-over lot,’ Marcel shouts shrilly. pulling the sleepers by their feet. ‘Get up or you’ll get the whole hut into the shit! Bloody hell, they don’t even budge!’ Marcel is tall and slender, he is thirty-three. Under his hardened features and deep wrinkles you can still see that he used to be handsome. He had been dragged here from Paris, together with his wife, who managed at the last moment to send their three-year-old daughter to relatives in the south, in unoccupied France. Marcel, a qualified fitter, had worked, before his detention, in the young workers’ movement and had been fond of singing. But now he has a thin, squeaky and hoarse voice. Six months back he had been a guinea-pig of the chief camp doctor. His partial castration, however, had affected not only his vocal chords, but also his teeth and his general nervous condition. Before the eyes of his friends Marcel had changed into something he had never been, something he would never have become under normal circumstances. The man Marcel is pulling by his leg does not move at all. Antek bends over his dark purple face and whistles. He snatches the blanket off him, gets hold of the prisoner’s shoulders and sits him up on the bunk. His purple head falls sideways and Antek looks at Marcel with embarrassment and pity. ‘He’s gone,’ says Antek and Marcel sadly nods. They walk from bunk to bunk, they jerk people’s hands and legs, their heads and shoulders, they peer into their closed or staring eyes, into their spasm-distorted faces. Those who did not get up died during the short night or in the morning – some quietly, others in painful spasms. Marcel again calls the two young men and along with Heršek,

84 Escape from Hell

Antek and Juzek they carry the dead out of the hut, laying them down outside by the others, head by feet, feet by heads and return to the hut. ‘And now everybody out!’ Marcel shouts and the prisoners obediently spill out of the hut. Antek and Heršek straighten out the bunks on one side and Marcel on the other, they look into corners and under palliasses and bunks, and finally they sweep up all the rubbish. Now Kaczmarek can safely also open the back door so the draught carries away the pungent stench and the musty smell of mould. ‘When all this comes to an end one day …’ Juzek begins a` propos of nothing. Marcel, who is sorting out ‘totally unnecessary’ treasures on the bread oven, things he has found under the palliasses of the dead, looks up and says: ‘Don’t talk nonsense! When this comes to an end we will long have turned into fine cauliflower. Did you know that ashes are an excellent fertiliser?’ ‘What will be when this comes to an end?’Antek asks curiously and Marcel stops his ears with his fingers. He knows all about Juzek’s plans of revenge. Someone here has nicknamed Juzek the Avenger, because he devotes every moment when he is capable of sober reflection to seeking the most cruel vengeance. ‘What will you do, then, when it comes to an end?’ Antek asks again. Marcel tears his fingers away from his ears and explodes angrily: ‘He’ll do bugger-all … if indeed this ever does come to an end and he’s still alive. These swine will run off in all directions, they’ll hide, they’ll take new names, they’ll grow moustaches and beards, while Juzek finds himself a good wife who’ll see to it that he forgets everything.’ ‘You’re a Frenchman, you don’t bloody understand,’ Juzek says calmly. ‘But I’m a Pole and that should be enough for you. They burnt and devastated my country. Maybe I’m no expert on wines and cognacs, on snails and women, and God knows what else you had over there until they took it away from you along with your Maginot Line, but I am a Pole and I know what I’ll do when this comes to an end. I’ll cut them up, whip them, tear them apart, crush them and if they ask me to hang them I’ll hang them upside down as if I’d been doing it all my life. Christ Almighty, I hope the world hasn’t got so bad that there won’t be anyone to try those bastards. If I thought they’d get away scot free, I’d hang myself on the wire straight away.’ Juzek’s face has turned a little darker; a hard, determined expression has appeared in his eyes under his fair eyebrows. Heršek watches Marcel curiously and Antek nods his heads in approval. A little colour has gone into his pale features and his heart is beating more vigorously in his tubercular chest.

Two Thousand Metres of Track 85

‘Maybe you’re right,’ Marcel says to Juzek after a moment’s silence. ‘But to me it sometimes seems as if all this will never end.’ ‘It will end, all right, it’ll certainly end,’ replies Juzek. ‘And those of us who survive will have to be pretty ruthless.’ ‘How could they ever be ruthless enough?’ says Marcel. ‘Take, for instance, that swine, our Blockführer. He’s killed at least two hundred people. Now suppose this butchery stops one day and they say to you: Here you are, Juzek take your Blockführer and have fun with him. So you string him up on some branch or pour rat poison into him and he croaks, but you won’t be satisfied because that swine only had one life and not two hundred. He’s croaked, but he still owes you one hundred and ninety-nine lives. So how can you be ruthless enough towards him? How? You can string him up on that branch two hundred times, you can pour two hundred doses of poison into him, but still he’ll die only once because he’s had only one life. Better not think about it.’ Juzek looks doubtful. Something inside him rebels and wants him to shout ‘Fuck your theories’, but he doesn’t do so because he suddenly realises with some surprise that Marcel has uttered a piece of the truth. Antek feels that Juzek has been cornered. Until now he has always agreed with him, but Marcel’s words have awakened some doubts in him too; at this moment he feels that the Frenchman with the high forehead and his ridiculous squeaky voice has trapped him and mercilessly robbed him of something that was feeding his strength and hopes. Heršek stops washing the stone floor, gets up and says: ‘To me all this talk seems pointless. Any moment we can breathe our last and there you go thinking up nonsense. About ruthlessness. About justice. I for one don’t know what justice is and what it looks like. No one’s ever shown it to me. Back home I always heard: God of righteousness. And that was no damn use. So stop this talk. Talk won’t cut through the wires. Don’t you think they’ll croak anyway? The fighting front’s no concentration camp. Now the Blockführer’s son has bought it. And once the front gets closer, there won’t be so many of them remaining for us …’ ‘By the time the front gets closer we won’t be here any more,’ says Antek. He can’t imagine himself ever regaining his freedom. Heršek and Antek crouch down to finish washing the stone floor. Marcel and Juzek step outside the hut. What will it be like when the front does get close? *** The road and the area between the huts are bustling with traffic. Thousands of people collide in the fog, streaming hither and thither. Marcel and Juzek go to the penultimate hut, where there is a concrete

86 Escape from Hell

latrine. Two double rows of holes, two hundred and forty in all, and all are engaged. From one end to the other people mill about, impatiently waiting for a spot to become available. Those with dysentery sit there a long time, afraid to get up in case it takes them again. The others curse them, tug at their hands: get up, you’re not passing anything, you’re just screaming as if someone were flaying you. But the dysentery sufferers don’t get up, they wail, with eyes popping out they groan and the others curse them even more. Every morning at least ten thousand people are taking turns here. Marcel and Juzek eventually manage to push their way into the washroom. At each tap with only a trickle of water stand four or five persons. They quickly wash their necks at least, because a dirty neck is practically an invitation to be beaten. Many don’t get to the taps at all. Because it is late and they are afraid they will miss their mouthful of weak, smelly, but warm tea, they push their hand into the tin trough and scoop up some of the dirty, spat-in water in their hollow hand in order at least to freshen up their neck and wash the sleep from their eyes. The water supply runs only a few centimetres below ground and the water is therefore ice-cold; it is bad water, dangerous and typhus-infected. But prior to spring 1943 there was no washroom at all; water was only in the ditches and near the Vistula – and for a few lucky ones in the kitchen. Now there is a washroom and Dr Thilo says: ‘The Reich looks after your dirty necks’, while killing dozens of clean and healthy necks with his phenol injections. ‘Let’s go, tea may be ready,’ says Juzek. Just before the issue of tea and the counting parade the area between the huts and the road is one huge market place. Men are running about mindlessly, stopping one another, demanding and offering, looking for something that might help them bear this new day more easily or cheat death by another long day. Items traded are rags of all sizes, pieces of lining, gauze and sticking plaster, string, spoons, small dishes, tin knives, wooden spoons, pieces of soap, burnt cinders, lighter flints set in pieces of wood, field flasks, belts and straps. Some are exchanging slippers. A labyrinth of trading – nothing for nothing, something for something. Only bread and cigarettes have any real value. In and beyond the ditches by the huts groups of all sizes are milling about and streams of people are continuously pushing their way through them. German, Dutch, French, Czech, Slovak, Serb and Polish intermingle into an incomprehensible noise and this ever louder noise no longer resembles human voices at all. Only a few stand by the walls of the huts, apathetically looking at the ground or up into the fog, above which no doubt there is a cold, cloudless sky.

Two Thousand Metres of Track 87

Juzek and Marcel are on their way back to Hut 9 when a drawn-out ‘Tea’ is heard from the cookhouse. The call seems to have made the chaos even worse. Everybody rushes in every direction, people collide, return to where they have come from, again change direction, seeming to look for something, kicking the frozen ground, evidently not finding anything useful. They flail their arms about, utter incomprehensible words, disappointed that today will bring nothing more than yesterday did. ‘Out of the way!’ a deep voice rings out in front of Hut 9. ‘Out of our way or we’ll spill the cream!’ Emerging from the cookhouse are Heršek with Antek and two youngsters. Carefully they carry the enormous cauldron, anxious not to spill a single drop. Steam rises from the cauldron so you can scarcely see them. The moment they put the cauldron down, it is surrounded by eager and hungry faces. Hundreds of inmates stare at the rising steam, push forward closer, the hot steam warms them, they lick their dry lips and swallow with empty mouths. Tea, weak but teasingly fragrant tea, nothing more, just tea. The men get their tea in tin mugs, in glass and tin bottles, they drink it, they wash with it, they rinse their mouths, they moisten pieces of rag in it and rub off the dirt between their fingers (scabies is a nasty disease, coming under the unforgiving finger of Doctors Mengele, Thilo, Wirths and Schumann). From quite close comes a long burst of sub-machine-gun fire. These bursts remind everybody that the eyes on the watch-towers see even through fog and that every breach of an order is punished by death. Bottles and tins under their thin coats, they form up in columns of five on the road and between the huts. The second phase of the morning begins: standing and waiting for the dog-handlers. Marcel and Juzek walk over to the group where Kolka is standing silently. With his sad coffee-coloured eyes he attentively looks into the faces of those around him: yes, they are the ones, he knows them, even though they are almost alike, differing only in height and in the number of their abrasions, swellings and scabies on their hands and cheeks. He knows, but nevertheless feels some fear. He’s had that feeling for the past few mornings, a fear that he might be dragged into some other group, where things are perhaps even worse, where he might find all his threads broken, all his connections severed. He does not feel relieved until the final word of command, when stiff legs begin to stamp the frozen ground again. ‘Los, los, fall in!’ finally comes the command from the gate and this command of the SS men is repeated by the block leaders, the kapos and their deputies.

88 Escape from Hell

‘Call this columns of five, you shits?’ shouts Blockführer Lausmann and spits in disgust. ‘No longer in mourning,’ remarks Marcel. ‘He stinks like a gin still,’ says Wladek. ‘Evidently drowned his grief.’ ‘Should have drowned himself at the same time – in the Vistula,’ adds Juzek. The fog has lifted a little, visibility is now about twenty paces. Karol leans on the corner of Hut 9 and looks at the sky. The milky cover is now noticeably higher – it looks as if the fog might disperse shortly. Pavel comes round the other corner, stops by Karol and says: ‘It’s getting warmer. Going to snow.’ ‘Yes, I think so too,’ says Karol and looks at Pavel. ‘Have you spoken to Wladek?’ he asks. ‘Not yet,’ Pavel answers. ‘D’you still need …?’ ‘Everything’s divided up. I’m going empty.’ Pavel walks over to Wladek who is still assembling his Planierungskommando. He needs one hundred and fifty prisoners, but every day at least a hundred more are insistently offering themselves. They all want to work on a squad where Pavel is the kapo and Wladek the unterkapo. The Planierungskommando works not too far outside, everybody gets his soup there, now and again they can lean against the stone slabs or hide in the shed among a pile of timber. Also the leaders of the squad only shout, but do not beat them. Naturally the stronger and more ruthless ones push through to Wladek: here we are, look at us, with us you won’t have any problems or unpleasantness, we’ll work well for you. But Wladek sees every morning only the weakest, the sick and the elderly, and of course those who have been here longest. He has already got a hundred prisoners in columns of five, Marcel and Heršek are helping him to get the rest in formation. ‘Leave one place free,’ Pavel whispers to Wladek. Karol has gone into the hut. He is reassured: it will snow today, they will be able to move more freely. The brown ones no doubt will be more confident today and therefore softer and more flexible. Having yesterday and the day before given this camp a blood-letting, they will stay drunk for a while from the horrors they unleashed. From under his palliasse he pulls out his helping of bread, breaks off half of it and starts chewing it. He does not hear the footsteps behind him, he only feels a hand on his shoulder – Kolka’s. ‘Vsyo budet horosho, everything will be fine,’ Kolka says to him in his dark voice. ‘Are you going?’ ‘I’m going,’ Karol says, getting up. ‘Why wouldn’t I be going …?’ Kolka gazes into his eyes for a moment, then he smiles slightly and says:

Two Thousand Metres of Track 89

‘Nothing to be afraid of. Fear is a terrible enemy. Fear obscures reason, undermines your will, your strength. You’re a proper guy …’ Karol sees before him Kolka’s tall square forehead, his wide coffeecoloured eyes, his straight nose, his elongated face with his markedly emasculated cheeks. What would he have looked like before he came to this hell? Karol wonders. He was very strong, very supple and clearly also very deliberate. He did not like unnecessary chatting, he did not like arguing, perhaps he liked solitude. He is always very serious, somehow painfully thoughtful. Sometimes hours will pass before he utters a single sentence. ‘You mustn’t be afraid,’ Kolka’s dark voice reassures him. ‘Everything will work out all right. All will end well. The Germans lost ten divisions at Kiev and our troops are moving on … Bessarabia, Lvov. The Poles are also sending good news from outside. All will be well, Karol …’ Kolka has already fought the Nazis. He was taken prisoner by them near Vitebsk in the autumn of 1941. He is convinced that he will fight them again and that he will be helped by many of his friends who are now here with him inside those death-carrying wires. Karol smiles, he is grateful for Kolka’s encouraging words. He smiles at him again; after all, a grateful smile is all he can give his friend at this moment. But not so – Karol holds out his hand with a piece of bread: ‘Have a bite, Kolka. I ate my fill in the cookhouse a little while ago. You know, I have a …’ ‘… friend there,’ Kolka completes the sentence for him. ‘That’s very interesting, I was in there for a whole hour, eating, but I didn’t see you.’ They both laugh at their lie. Kolka breaks off a piece of bread and leaves the hut. Karol today is almost painfully unnerved by his loneliness. He walks over to the back door, where Kaczmarek is scrubbing the floor by the threshold with a damp rag, as well as, for the third time, the ring left where the pot stood. The door is open, the fog has lifted, you can now see the wire fence, the road and the second fence behind it. Now and then Kaczmarek looks out and listens: sometimes the textile squad in which his daughter Esther works comes out about this time. ‘They won’t come until the fog’s lifted completely,’ says Karol and Kaczmarek gets up. Adamek appears in the door, out of breath, in a hurry. ‘Today I’ll manage to get to the textile girls,’ he said quickly. ‘Got anything for her?’ Kaczmarek nods, runs over to his palliasse and returns with some bread, with almost a full ration wrapped in a piece of rag and tied up with string.

90 Escape from Hell

‘Looks like a nice day,’ says Adamek and stows the package in his rucksack. He isn’t nineteen yet, but for nearly five years has lived here, guarded, intended for death. Since he was fourteen he had been pushed around between prisons and ghettos, for months he slept in warehouses, breweries and sewers. He is pale, lanky, but surprisingly lively – not a day passes without him getting something for somebody or at least acting as an intermediary. ‘It’ll be fine today,’ he repeats, looking at Karol. ‘Looks like we might get snow. Anyway … hope to see you in good health this evening.’ Adamek leaves, almost at a run – he never just walks, he is always in a hurry. Karol says hello to Kaczmarek and moves towards the front door, towards Antek and Juzek, who’ve just come in with buckets of water. ‘Antek,’ Karol says quickly. ‘I’m getting out today. The notebook is ready, you can report the numbers to the registry and the cookhouse. The dead have already been subtracted, they just need carrying away. Otherwise everything is in order. And … see that Heršek gives a helping of bread to Kaczmarek.’ When the Planierungskommando has formed up he calls Kozlowski to the side. He informs him that he’s going out with a group, he has got something to find and if he is lucky he won’t forget him either. Kozlowski uneasily bites his lower lip. ‘I can feel in my bones that we’ll be paying for your outings in the penal squad.’ Karol sees fear and dislike in Kozlowski’s face: clearly he is annoyed that he cannot forbid Karol these excursions. Karol has been here longer, Kozlowski reflects, I can’t pester him too much or I’d have all the old-timers against me. And I don’t have too much trouble with my hut. ‘Go then, but be careful,’ he adds grumpily. ‘It would be a shame to get into trouble for some stupidity.’ The dog-handlers and sergeants are already outside the gate and the officers whose duty it is to assign the men to squads are standing by the gate. The bandsmen are tuning their instruments, a moment later they start playing familiar marches. Wladek waves his arm to Karol to indicate the place in the first column of five in the third lot of fifty. ‘We’ll be off in a moment, the textile girls are off already,’ someone calls out from behind. They all turn round. Coming from the women’s camp are a thousand strange figures that don’t look like women at all. Most of them are elderly, sick and weak, with shrivelled breasts, utterly weakened by labour, because not so long ago they worked like the men, building roads and huts, carrying heavy boxes in the warehouses, pulling carts,

Two Thousand Metres of Track 91

carrying corpses from the squads to the morgue and onto lorries. The younger ones, marching to the tunes of a lively march, are forewomen, tailors or other qualified workers, but the whole procession with its striped rags, linen sacks, and army uniforms looks more like a group of figures from some frightful mystery play. In the ‘Mexico’ sector they work in threes, sitting down, looking at one another out of the corner of their eyes, a little surprised and ashamed, knitting without interest, primitively, as in a factory. Maybe in a few days they won’t even be able to sit. ‘Baukomnando I,’ – construction squad – the SS men by the gate shouts. Twice fifty prisoners, four SS men and four dogs to every fifty men. ‘Baukommando II. Twice fifty men!’ ‘Dachdeckerkommando’ – roofing squad. ‘Strassenbaukommando!’ – road works squad. ‘Holzhof!’ – timber yard. ‘Königsgraben!’ – king’s ditch. ‘Fischteiche!’ – fish ponds. ‘Kanalisierung!’ – sewerage. ‘Strafkommando!’ – penal squad. Four times fifty, each fifty accompanied by six SS men and six dogs. ‘And get a move on! Or else we’ll help you with our bayonets.’ The penal squad consists of convicts: they may have smuggled love letters, smoked, shirked work, urinated behind the huts, made rebellious remarks, complained about the food, stolen things in the warehouse. They have been sentenced to service in the penal squad for three months, six months or a whole year. Or even indefinitely. They are not allowed to leave their huts, strangers must not approach them. Punishment within punishment. ‘Effektenkammer!’ – property room. ‘Bekleidungskammer!’ – clothes room. ‘DAW!’ – motor works. Four times fifty, for every fifty there are four SS men and two dogs, altogether two hundred prisoners, sixteen SS men, eight dogs. It is extremely hard work in the huge workshops, where they take apart machines earmarked for scrap, but most of them go there gladly. They work among wrecked motor vehicles, aircraft, motorbikes, ambulances, tractors and boats. They are quite happy there. What gives them especial satisfaction are the trucks and trailers full of ruined German mechanisms: they arrive from the eastern front every night and the more that arrive the happier the prisoners are. Here and there they even find some stale bread. ‘Wirtschaftskommando!’ – economic squad.

92 Escape from Hell

Four SS men by the gate tick off the names on their lists, six check the columns of five. Some forty squads walk out of this cage every day into the triangle between the Vistula and the Sola. The Planierungskommando, the ground-levelling squad, is now well ahead, almost at the gate. A fat officer from Schwarzhuber’s staff looks into the work schedule that is held by Tadek, a tall, good-looking young man with a low, square forehead, a prisoner working in the central registry. It seems something isn’t tallying. ‘What now? Damn the bastards!’ Wladek bursts out. ‘Nothing, calm yourself,’ Pavel answers him. ‘We’ll find out in a moment.’ The officer at last raises his head and calls out: ‘Los, kapo, you take three hundred today!’ ‘They’re all outside by now,’ Pavel replies calmly, looking at Tadek. ‘Where would I find them?’ ‘By the cookhouse,’ says an SS man. ‘Dutchmen like flies. I want to see you here with them now!’ Pavel and Wladek walk over to the cookhouse, where some Dutchmen in civvies are hanging about. Tadek and two SS men follow them. Tadek slightly speeds up his step and when he is level with Pavel he whispers: ‘Came during the night. One thousand five hundred. One hundred and sixty are left.’ Pavel understands: one thousand three hundred and forty are cremated already. But those one hundred and sixty, although they have already been robbed, are not yet accepted or registered, they have not yet been given numbers or had their heads shaved, been disinfected or redressed. Normal, decent, civilian clothes, a normal, civilian sight. They are freezing, shocked and frightened, they are tired after their long journey. Without a word Pavel arranges them into columns of five and Wladek, shouting, circles around them. Because they immediately break rank, he pushes them back into their places. Offended and angry, they protest that they haven’t come here to be treated like cattle. ‘Behave like humans and you’ll hear in a moment what we want from you,’ Pavel now also shouts at them. ‘They are Schweinehunde and not humans,’ the SS officer yells and Pavel can tell that he is losing his patience. ‘Why don’t you push their faces in?’ At last they stand in formation, frowning and irritable. The last two columns of five are being detached, ten Dutchmen too many, they will stay in the camp. Wladek steps up to the front rank, grips the man at the end by the arm, pulls him forward and shouts at the rest to start marching. But the man, with an oval face and greying hair on his

Two Thousand Metres of Track 93

temples, twists free, stands sideways to the column and, halfchallengingly and half-imploringly, turns towards the SS officer: ‘Help me, sir, don’t permit just any hooligan to treat me so brutally.’ Wladek gets angry, this damned Dutchman does not realise at all where he is, on his first day he acts mulish and the whole squad will pay for it. He seizes him fiercely and puts him along the four in the front rank. ‘Who d’you think you are?’ the Dutchman says, outraged. ‘How dare you? I’m a doctor and …’ ‘A doctor!’ remarks the fat SS man. ‘Now there’s a surprise! So you’re a doctor. Get a move on then, you scumbag, or you’ll be a patient like none you’ve ever seen before!’ The band is playing by the gate, the conductor sways slightly in the rhythm of the march. The Planierungskommando, three hundred men with a reinforced guard, pass through the gate in columns of five. Between the band and the gate five prisoners are sitting on five little tables, their heads strangely hanging down, for deterrence, a little reminder that this will be the end of anyone attempting to escape from this wire-fenced world that the Reich has created for the inferior races. Karol shakes with anger, then suddenly a sense of hopelessness and despair grips him. He quickly turns away. ‘Los, los, it’ll soon be evening,’ he hears the short dog-handler near him. Of the three hundred prisoners in the Planierungskommando, one hundred are sent to the ‘Mexico’ sector and two hundred to the railway ramps. By the ramp Pavel runs over to an SS man who waved to him. Pavel nods, yes, I understand, everything is clear. Rails lie on the ground, fifty prisoners in striped garb and one hundred and fifty Dutchmen in civvies will shovel gravel and push it under the sleepers. ‘Kapo,’ an SS-NCO calls out sharply. ‘Your men will work here, not gaze at the clouds. And if these Dutchmen want to philosophise you kick their arses!’ Pavel talks to Wladek for a while, the SS man has the impression that he is passing on his instructions to his second-in-command. ‘The track will run from the ramp to the crematoriums,’ Pavel says. ‘Got to be ready within a month. Those sons of a bitch, want to kill more quickly still.’ Pavel looks at the Dutchmen and at his old friends in their striped garb. Let’s go, he shouts so the SS man should hear him, you’re going to work or you’ll get your arses kicked. The older men immediately pick up their tools and start shovelling and spreading the gravel, but the Dutch stand there, confused. The handles of the shovels are rough and coarse and the gravel is too heavy, surely they have not come here for

94 Escape from Hell

this kind of work, back home they did very different jobs, this was downright deception, they have been cheated, they would certainly complain. ‘Complain?’ roars the SS-NCO and jumps to the tall handsome Dutchman with spectacles. ‘Let’s hear then what you have on your noble mind!’ The SS-NCO, a short man with narrow shoulders and childlike curious eyes, began by shouting, but now ends quite meekly and quietly, with a serious face. The tall man with the glasses is immediately joined by several other Dutchmen, who all now begin to pour out their complaints. The SS man stops them with a sharp gesture. ‘Don’t all speak at once! Let this athlete speak!’ Pavel stands only about half a step behind the SS man, but signals the Dutchman to keep quiet and start working quickly, but the Dutchman now relates, in a single breath, all that has happened to them on the way from Holland to here. ‘There’s been some mistake, sir … Or if it wasn’t a mistake, then we were simply cheated. Back home they promised us that you’d employ us here in some shop or warehouse. If I may explain, I am a diamond cutter, I’ve never worked with a shovel. I request therefore that you employ me accordingly …’ The SS man listens seriously, nods, then he bends down and when he straightens up he has a shovel in his hand. ‘Have you finished with your complaints?’ he asks softly. ‘This’ll do for the moment,’ says the Dutchman. ‘I’ll tell the rest directly to your commandant.’ The SS man’s arm describes a rapid circle and the flat side of the shovel crashed down on the Dutchman’s skull. The tall handsome man collapses to the ground without the slightest moan and the rest step back, stunned. ‘Los, Schweinehunde, pick up your shovels,’ the SS man roars. ‘You had time back home for your speeches. Here you will work!’ The dog-handlers come running up, curious, with sub-machine-guns shouldered. The Dutch duck, pick up wheelbarrows and shovels and, as there aren’t enough tools about, snatch them from one another. Pavel watches them for a while, then he asks the SS man if he should send to B-III for rakes, picks and shovels. ‘Send ten men,’ the SS man commands, adding: ‘Explain to them that if they take too long they’ll get their faces pushed in as well.’ Pavel chooses ten men, Karol among them. For an instant he calls him aside. ‘Be very careful,’ he says to him softly. ‘Maybe you won’t succeed straight away … I think it might be better if you stay here and Adamek sends someone else instead of you.’

Two Thousand Metres of Track 95

Snow begins to fall. Heavily, with small flakes, the snow creates a flickering whitish curtain and quickly covers their footmarks. From the ‘Mexico’ sector comes the roar and rattle of lorries. The prisoners are unloading hut sections and panels from the lorries and trailers. They carry them over to the stacks from which, in virtually no time, new huts will be erected. A few men are deepening trenches and ditches, unwinding barbed wire from drums and stretching it between tall concrete pillars. ‘Val hasn’t been here yet?’ Karol asks Adamek. ‘No. You staying here?’ ‘Yes, but someone else will have to go back. They’re building the track … from the ramps to the crematoriums.’ Adamek, a lively but pale young man, is lost in the snowy mist. He reports to the SS man that men have come from the ramp for tools for the construction of some railway line. He issues them with iron rakes, picks and shovels, he catches some Greek, come along and help them carry, then he quickly chases them away. On the edge of visibility Bolek and another prisoner are lugging panels from the lorry and stand them up against the stack of hut sections. Adamek and Karol take a few steps forward. The SS men are sitting behind the tool shed, sheltered from the wind, one of them is smoking while the other is rustling with a paper in which he has some rusks. Immediately behind the three huts where the textile squad is working, is a vast area with hut sections and panels stacked up high. They walk past this pile of timber to a spot where they see a large brown knot mark on the bottom section. This is the spot, Karol says to himself, so long as no SS man drifts over here. The two climb on to the pile and restack six sidewall units that differ in no way, either in dimension or thickness, from the sections for the rear and front walls of the huts. They all look the same, but this is a special pile. Everywhere else identical wall units are stacked upon one another, the same sections, the same doorframes, but this is a mixed pile. Underneath six sidewall units, which they have now pushed aside, are only frames and between them an empty space all the way to the frozen ground. Down there a short passage has been dug out, leading into the trench under the nearest stack of hut sections. ‘Look out for Val, I’m going down,’ Adamek says softly. Adamek quickly climbs into the opening and Karol looks into the swirling snow. A moment later he hears a familiar tune being whistled. Cautiously he replies. Val emerges from the snowy mist and Karol, lying on top of the timber stack, raises his head over the edge to help Val up. A moment later Val is down with Adamek, they dig out some earth from the passage and pile it along the bottom frames. Today they cannot carry it out because the ground is covered with snow. After a while Val

96 Escape from Hell

whispers: ‘That’ll do, the passage is already a metre and a half long and eighty centimetres wide,’ and with Karol’s help they climb out of the ditch, one after another. Adamek immediately goes off to find out from Bolek where the SS men are. After a few minutes he returns with a knapsack. Those two, he reports, are still sitting behind the shed and another two are in front, some one hundred metres away, at the far end of this huge timber stack for hut construction. The female SS are in the textile huts, the unloaded vehicles with their trailers have left to load more panels and sections. Val says: ‘I’ve brought some calcium and some tablets. We’ll put them in, only it would be nice to wrap them up.’ Karol produces a piece of lining from his jacket, puts the medicines in it and firmly ties up the parcel. Adamek and Bolek are by now on the woodpile. ‘Adamek’s brought a torch and some underwear,’ Karol says to Val. ‘Aren’t we rich!’ Val replies with a quiet smile. From his pocket Adamek produces two small metal tubes and something like a firelighter. He lowers it all into the opening. ‘More riches!’ he says. ‘So long as it helps,’ Karol replies, a little uncertainly. They chose this hiding place after a lot of consideration, because of all possible places it seemed to them the most convenient, the most inconspicuous and the safest. Four times they have used a snowfall or fog to work in this primitive hideout. Adamek, Bolek and Val bring the most necessary things, piece by piece, out of the cages. An army pack in the slippery hole beneath the nearest pile of sections is virtually full. In it are Dutch socks and underpants, shirts, Swiss glucose, a cigarette lighter ‘made in Auschwitz’, a German razor in a leather pouch, vitamins, a torch, two packets of margarine, well-wrapped French cigarettes and those metal tubes. Yes, these all-important metal tubes. Karol shakes so violently that Val catches him by the arm and solicitously asks: ‘Hell, I hope you haven’t caught something! Let’s see your eyes!’ ‘No, I’m all right,’ Karol replies wearily. ‘Only I’ve just remembered that we still don’t have that parchment paper or the carbon.’ Quietly and with intervals during which they look out and listen to make sure no one’s approaching, they replace the sections exactly as they were before. Three from one side, level with the second tier, and three on the outside. Once more they check that all the edges are accurately on top of each other, then they climb down from the stack. A little excitedly, Karol says to Val:

Two Thousand Metres of Track 97

‘If anything comes up, or if anything is needed, I’ll let you know. And if we don’t see each other, or if I’ve been unable to send word to you, then on Friday … Go now and be very careful!’ ‘And you,’ Val replies, smiling encouragingly. ‘So long, then, I’m off to the Krankenbau, I’m supposed to bring them some bandages and reports.’ Val moves along the timber store, while Karol and Adamek have quietly gone behind the shed, where they shovel snow into the ditch until the gong is sounded. All noise stops as if on command. The men rush to the shed, where two barrels of soup have appeared – seventy litres, of which sixty-five litres are water and five kilograms of some substance to thicken it. Peanuts, beetroot, mangolds, wild cabbage and, in each barrel, about ten potatoes. There is not much steam rising from the barrels, the soup has gone cold on the way from the cookhouse. Bolek ladles out quickly. He gives everyone a fair helping, but for Karol he ladles up from the bottom, so he should get something of the thicker stuff. The prisoners stand all round, eagerly swallowing the dirty liquid. They hurry, because there are not enough dishes and those who haven’t eaten yet are watching them nervously. Karol passes his dish and wooden spoon to Adamek, leans against the panels and starts chewing a crust of bread, the entire top crust, that he’d taken with him in the morning. Adamek eats very slowly, sometimes he holds the soup in his mouth for a while to get warm. Karol watches him with interest. What an amazing chap this young Adamek is! The things he has already done for his friends! And the stuff he has taken out to the Polish workers whom he meets from time to time! He is not yet nineteen, he would be a sad loss, he should stop for a while, but he takes risks almost every day. The organisation has saddled him with difficult tasks. A gong concludes the midday break. No one complains, there has been soup for everyone. Two Greeks jump forward to the barrels, some of the thicker stuff always clings to the sides. Adamek scours his dish and spoon with snow and again starts shovelling snow with Karol. It has turned darker, the light snow has changed into a blizzard, a wind has sprung up, whistling, hissing and rattling along the ends of the timbers. ‘They won’t keep us here in the murk,’ Karol says. ‘Bound to chase us indoors.’ Ten minutes later they all stop in a frozen stance and with half-open mouths as they hear the shrill wailing of the alarm siren. Many don’t know what it means, but Karol and Adamek look at each other, their eyes feverish. ‘If someone’s vamoosed he’s chosen his time right,’ remarks Adamek. ‘Blizzard and darkness, the devil wouldn’t find his track.’

98 Escape from Hell

‘Alles antreten! Everybody fall in!’ an SS man commands angrily. They stand there in columns of five, the dog-handlers around them. One SS man counts them, it tallies, fifty and fifty makes a hundred, ‘none of our lot’s done a runner.’ An hour later they are all back in their cages, the numbers agree. ‘In die Baracken! Los!’ yells the SS man in charge. Karol swiftly runs to the ‘Canada’ hut. He returns to Hut 9 with a piece of soap and five cigarettes. Kozlowski doesn’t smoke, but the frightened silly ass can get something for them in return.

Chapter 8

To Die – or to Perish?

It is April 1944, after Easter. To die – or to perish? A nonsensical question, but Karol knows that this nonsensical world brings forth only nonsensical life, nonsensical questions and nonsensical answers so it can dull people, undermine their willpower and break them piece by piece. There is exactly ten minutes to go to the usual wake-up call, the fierce hammering on a piece of rusty rail track outside the cookhouse. A cold wind blows from the west. It turns into twisters between the huts, in spiral swirls it raises the dusting of snow and carries it from one spot to another. Today, surprisingly, there is no fog lying over the concentration camp, the sky is cloudless, clear, cold and full of stars. The snow glistens in the harsh beam of the searchlights and in the lights on the concrete posts and in the heavier gusts suggests yellowish tails of gigantic, fantastic beasts, rising skywards and being lost in the darkness. Karol in one cage and Val in another have scarcely closed their eyes since midnight. Most of the time Karol just dozed, but it was a dozing without any relief, with half-open eyes and almost full consciousness. For a good two hours he was frightened by things, incidents and experiences that had accompanied his journey from home into this world of unimaginable horror. Now and again he jerked and only just stopped himself from exclaiming in surprise and terror. Before his half-opened eyes figures emerged with whom he had arrived here and who were no longer alive. Some stayed with him for a while and spoke to him, others just flashed past. He saw terrible visions that evoked infinite fear and total apathy, hysterical laughter, tears, curses and pleas in this endless mass lunacy. All these frightening visions came to him with full sound: he heard the sharp breaking of bones, the shouting of the SS men, the barking of infuriated dogs, the crack of whips, the cries of the tortured, salvoes of machine-guns and the frightful wailing with which blinding flashes shoot up from the chimneys. There is no escaping these images. He sees them clearly even if he shuts his eyes, time and again forcing

100 Escape from Hell

himself to sleep. But although he is nervously and physically exhausted, he cannot fall asleep because Death parades in front of him in an endless procession. The murderers wake him in German and the murdered in Slovak, Czech, Polish, Russian, Serb, French, Dutch and Yiddish. Cries are reaching him from Hut 7, from the ditches and trenches, from the railway trucks and from the ramp, from the roads leading to the gas chambers, from the workplaces, from below the gallows, from the misty horizon and even from beneath his feet, where under a thin layer of earth lie the remains of victims that have not been collected. These frightening pictures and sounds exhaust him to such a degree that in moments of despair and anxiety he doubts that he’ll succeed in escaping from the embrace of death which hangs over the forty square kilometres of the Auschwitz swamps. Val has been covering a piece of paper with doodles, without aim or purpose, but eventually he catches himself changing and correcting some of the lines on his paper – the presumed track of their escape. In the end he falls into an uneasy sleep. A short while later, however, he wakes up again and picks up the paper in order to change something. This way will be better, he thinks to himself, I must tell Karol about it. Then he starts to reflect on those changes in their route and doesn’t fall asleep again. He can’t decide unambiguously on their advantages or disadvantages. Amidst the shuffle and cursing, amidst the usual noise after reveille, Karol calms down a little. He goes outside, deeply breathes the fresh air and then makes for the half-empty washroom. ‘This isn’t water but liquid ice,’ says Vasil. He has his neck under the tap and scrubs it vigorously with both hands. It feels as if it’s not going to be so cold today. Karol rinses his mouth. Vasil asks quietly: ‘Everything in its place?’ ‘Everything, sir – except two men.’ Karol smiles, but Vasil can see that it’s a forced smile. ‘Nerves?’ Vasil asks softly. ‘If you lose your nerve, chum, everything will have been in vain.’ He is silent for a moment, then he adds: ‘During the night I wondered if we’ll see each other again. What do you think?’ ‘We will, Vasil, quite certainly we will … if you’re careful and your luck doesn’t abandon you,’ Karol says clearly, folding his towel. Vasil slaps his shoulder in a fatherly way. ‘That’s right. If you’re convinced we’ll see each other again, that we must see each other again, everything will be OK. Better go now … and don’t hang about longer than necessary with anyone today. With no one, including yourself. Understand? Where possible, think ahead. All the best … and see you some time …’

To Die – or to Perish 101

For a long time he walks about in the biting morning air. After an hour the wind abates. It is a pale morning, the bustle has started in front of the huts and on the road. Weary columns of five are returning from their shift at the ramp or in the crematoriums: exhaustion and dull pain show in their sunken eyes – that night they removed two thousand Belgians and Dutchmen. As soon as the Sonderkommando and the ‘Canada’ squad have passed, a Dutch band starts playing by the gate. The columns in front have started to move: they are being counted, everything tallies, three times fifty and eight dog-handlers, next lot, get a move on, straighten out, faster … Planierungskommando, yes, three hundred prisoners, move off! Wladek is in front, in the first rank of five. Pavel walks alongside the last rank of five. He turns back once more and embraces Karol with a pensive glance as he stands outside Hut 9. Karol nods sadly, hang on, dear Pavel, all of you hang on, we’ll meet again, quite certainly we’ll meet again, but not here, somewhere far from this ruinous fiery oven, far from death. Pavel’s squad passes through the gate and at the moment when Pavel is lost to sight Karol is gripped by a deep sense of pain over the loss of something bigger and more significant than what a mere friend can mean. He’d felt a similar emptiness two years before, back home, when one by one his brothers had vanished from his life and, later, when they had forcibly torn him away from his mother – except that then, that emptiness had been filled with grief, a grief that was shared by all those whose nearest and dearest had been taken away. But this is something different. Pavel had disappeared beyond the gate and he felt that with Pavel a substantial part of himself had gone, that he’d become weaker and more vulnerable, just as though Pavel had carried off with him some protective shell in which the core of his life had sheltered. He entered his hut and flung himself on his bunk. How long has he waited for the moment that – provided his luck held – would bring this longed-for day! How often has he encountered death here, and how often has death come so close to him, yet despite its ruinous strength it has failed to destroy him, because his life, rebelliously resisting within him, had been saved by thousands of the most unexpected and most surprising accidents. And of course Pavel, Vasil and others had risked everything to save at least something. Three months previously Karol had been given thirty blows of the whip. If Pavel had not hidden him in his Planierungskommando, his road levelling squad, for two or three weeks, Lausmann’s lot would have certainly eliminated him from the world. Pavel and Vasil, Kolka and Adamek appeared before him like a wall at the very moment when, with icy sweat on his forehead, he’d believed that this was the end, that he’d leave this place not as a

102 Escape from Hell

fugitive, but as a slave, as a handful of soot through one of the monstrous crematorium chimneys. Two long years he’s been waiting for this moment: now its immediacy fills him both with terror and joy; it excites him and robs him of the cool judgement with which he’s prepared for it. Pavel, Vasil, Adamek, Filip and Bolek know that he is preparing to escape. And when. In many discussions with them he’s convinced them that he doesn’t want to escape merely to save his own skin, but to be a messenger for all these enfeebled creatures milling around under the smoking chimneys. Thus they focused all their efforts on the preparation of this day. How has it been possible for him to live to see it amidst all this appalling killing? How is it that he is one of that handful that have survived from the nearly two hundred thousand they put to work in these cages? Initially it was an endless string of accidental happenings, the most unexpected happenings, tiny grains of good fortune amidst this vast misfortune. Later, of course, there will still be big and small moments of good luck, but chiefly they'd resulted from the actions of Pavel, Vasil, Kolka, Adamek, Bolek, Honza, Pepan and Filip – men who’d taken a large number of risks on the instruction of an organisation that he doesn’t really know, into which he hasn’t penetrated, but whose wisdom and hands he relies on when matters are at their worst. How much he wishes to know them all at this moment. How much he wishes to assure them: dear friends, we won’t forget anything, we’ll do everything to make sure the world learns that within these wire fences the Nazis are systematically exterminating entire nations. This is the seventh day of April and it, too, has twenty-four times sixty minutes. At which minute will they be slipping into their hideout? Will they succeed today? How can they be sure that in their case that elaborate and almost scientifically developed system of catching fugitives will fail? Val … what are you doing now? Are you nervous, Val, finding no tranquillity anywhere? Or are you calm and sure of everything? Down there, under the timber, we have bread and cigarettes, medicines and a razor, a torch and shirts and, of course, two metal tubes that we’ll have to guard like the apple of our eye. If we succeed, Val, then this very day the siren will blare and they’ll look for us. They’ll look for us and … Karol is gripped by an exciting thought. They’d been helped by friends to get hold of various necessary items without which they couldn’t even have contemplated escape. But what help will they be this evening, tomorrow, or the next day, when they themselves will be glued to their columns of five and when hundreds of SS men with German shepherd dogs will turn the entire neighbourhood over inch by inch?

To Die – or to Perish 103

He wipes his sweaty forehead and, filled with the strangest thoughts, leaves the hut. The sky is clear, only here and there a few white clouds are sailing. Is there life up there? The ideas I get! Up there, surely, there’s nothing except the smoke that’s been rising from those accursed chimneys for two long months. Up there is emptiness – blue, black or grey emptiness – but down here on earth there are people with a conscience who quite certainly haven’t heard of this world of the disinherited, as well as people who may have heard but do not believe it. There are many of them, many more than the murderers, and the conscience of these brave people has to be aroused as quickly as possible. White clouds are sailing across the sky. Effortlessly and swiftly they are flying to the south, to the frontier of his native land, maybe even above the route along which they’ll escape. How pleasant, in his thoughts, to leap up to the white puffy clouds and sail safely home on them! How pleasant it would be to look down from that safe height at the wrecked chimneys and ovens, the concrete pillars and the guard towers, on waving white flags and on a crowd of people sitting in judgement over the bloodthirsty murderers. How pleasant it would be to shout down, with all his might, rejoice, people, this is the end of fascism! Rejoice, but never forgive nor forget! Excited by these visions, he returns to the hut. A glance at Kozlowski’s little room brings him down to earth again. Yes, in there is the card index; I must fish out my damned index card, I must destroy it, a small fire and it will be gone. From Kozlowski’s box he pulls out his card and goes back to his palliasse. Kaczmarek is asleep and the Stuben team are carrying the dead out of the hut. With a bitter smile he turns the card over and starts to read. Name and surname … yes, that used to be my name, ‘eingeliefert am 13. April 1942’, admitted on 13 April 1942, correct, nationality Slovak, yes, occupation, yes, speaks several languages, they might have added Polish and a little Russian; teeth, gold or platinum, none, now I’m even without my own, eyes, who knows what colour they are now, height, that wouldn’t have changed, special marks, did anyone have special marks when they came here? Now I have the most special marks of all, the marks of a living corpse, under my collar bone and on my forearm. Special marks … address of next of kin, even that they want, the swine … He crumples up the card, burns it and index card S-29162 no longer exists. Another moment has passed. Just think ahead, think ahead! He blows the ash away, then he picks up the Meldebuch, the report book, and enters in it the establishment after deduction of the dead. Next he goes to the central registry, where they confirm the numbers. When he returns to the hut he sits down for a moment by the Stuben staff who have by now carried the corpses to the Leichenhalle.

104 Escape from Hell

‘Watch out, one of the buggers is coming,’ suddenly warns Marcel, who’s the lookout by the door. Karol runs to the door. He finds himself eye to eye with a sturdy SS man with ginger hair and a tin tablet on his chest. He freezes to attention. The Lagerpolizei man listens, bored, to his report: ‘Block 9, establishment three hundred and nine thousand, present six, everything correct, checked by prisoner number …’ ‘Stop this nonsense, scumbag,’ shouts the SS man and cursorily glances at the Stuben staff who are standing in the narrow aisle between the bunks, their berets off by their legs. ‘Watch out for me by the door, you swine, I’m going to have a nap. If anyone calls me, wake me. If anyone catches me here, you’re all for the high jump!’ He walks into Kozlowski’s little room, pulls off his metal plate and flops down on the bunk. ‘That’s enough to give me the shits,’ Marcel whispers. ‘Comes to have a nap among the stinking bandits and Bolsheviks!’ ‘They’re able to sleep. Wish they’d sleep for a thousand years,’ remarks Karol. ‘Many are beginning to get tame,’ suggests Antek. ‘Because they’ve been given a proper about-turn at the front.’ ‘And the secret weapon that’ll decide everything is still only in Goebbels’s unwashed gob,’ adds Marcel. ‘You scumbags! Wake me at twelve!’ comes the SS man’s voice from Kozlowski’s room. Karol delightedly makes a round of the huts; today you can organise, look for comforts, today the palliasses won’t be shaken, today they won’t be searching for hidden skeletons, the Lagerpolizei is snoring away in Hut 9, we are to wake him at twelve. ‘That’s a joke,’ the Lagerpolizei’s action is commented on among the ‘Canada’ squad. ‘When he wakes up, send him to us, he’ll get a few cigarettes. We wish him pleasant dreams.’ ‘No doubt he’d be delighted to know that,’ Karol says, already in the door. On the road Vasil slowly sweeps the dirt and with his shovel throws it into the ditch. Karol looks at the large IL in a red circle on his shovel; people with that sign mustn’t leave the cage. He walks past him without a word, as if he didn’t know him, which Vasil makes easier for him by deliberately turning away and starting to knock the dented shovel straight with a stone. Thinking of Vasil he walks all the way behind the last hut, where he sees before him a scene he hadn’t witnessed for a couple of years. Immediately beyond the road is the women’s cage and in it a selection is in progress. The width of the road is blocked by their line-

To Die – or to Perish 105

up, with women prisoners at short intervals bursting through it and jumping over the ditch. A slippery ditch, only about eighty centimetres wide. As each running woman approaches the jumping-off point, the prisoners in their striped garb or military gear shut their eyes, terrified. Drechsler, the police woman, has thought up a cruel game, a health check-up, as she calls it. Those who clear the ditch are healthy, fit and still capable of work, those who fail are weak, incapable and destined for the ‘field hospital’. The women realise that clearing this obstacle will decide whether they live or very shortly die and, because of this extreme nervous stress, nearly all of them stumble and fall. Only a few get safely across this insignificant ditch. Some have kicked off their clogs, others are tearing their tight skirts open. ‘Clumsy cow,’ yells Drechsler and two SS women, shouting, grab the woman who had fallen just before the ditch and now, on her knees, wrings her hands in hysterical wailing. ‘Piss off from the line-up. You’ll go to the field hospital! Next!’ Those whose strength is drained by their fear for their life, as well as those who have landed inside the ditch, have to move to one side, to a bunch of SS women. Now and again one of them slips away and runs over to Drechsler. Frau Rapportführerin, I’m in good health, still able to work, the hospital is for the sick, let me have another go, I’ll jump across that ditch. Drechsler pushes them away with her hands, kicks them, yells: ‘Move away, you cows, don’t you touch me, get a move on, next woman, blubbering swine, don’t complain so much, you’ll rest up there and come back to work!’ Karol returns to Hut 8 along the other huts. He feels very sick. The sight of that scene in the women’s cage has again released his sense of hopelessness. I have destroyed my index card, but I am still inside this killing complex and I will be inside it even when I am in my hideout on the ‘Mexico’ sector and even afterwards, when I am escaping. How wide is the icy, bony embrace of death? How long is the reach of death? What space does it occupy? Oh God, how extensive is it already when they are dragging people in here from nearly all parts of Europe? Kacmarek stands in the door of Hut 9, as a rule he does not get up until midday. He hands Karol a few postcards. ‘Still snoring?’ asks Karol, indicating Kozlowski’s little room. ‘Dead to the world,’ answers Kaczmarek. ‘We won’t wake him until the gong.’ Thoughtfully Karol turns the postcards over in his hands. The deportees from the various transports write them, have to write them, on the direct orders of the political section in the camp, for the needs of Oranienburg, for concealment, propaganda and denial. Mostly they are written neatly and comprehensibly – and always in block letters.

106 Escape from Hell

‘I am well,’ Karol reads on one of them. ‘We arrived yesterday morning. Marion and Miriam joined the women. We’ll meet them on Sunday. Perhaps they’ll shortly assign me to work in the hospital. The journey was long and difficult. Thought of you a lot. Hope we soon see one another. Best regards to your family. Your devoted friend.’ On the other side of the postcard is the address and the sender: Mr Heinrich Harsten, physician in the Koch Hospital Amsterdam, Van Dyk Strasse MUDr Ludwig van Cohen Birkenau bei Neuberun Oberschlesien

Marion and Miriam are no longer alive. And soon there will be no Ludwig, perhaps a capable doctor of medicine with dreams of a great future as a scientist. After some time all the writers of these brief postcards will go up the chimney, while somewhere in Holland and in other countries these postcards with the block letters will arrive six months after their death … I lack nothing, don’t worry about me, we’ll meet again … tell our friends … Karol slips the cards into his pocket, I’ll carry them out myself and I’ll keep the last one. They are a small piece of evidence. But then he rejects the idea: surely we have far more important documents in the metal tubes, the postcards are an unimportant complication, they won’t convince anybody. He returns them to Kaczmarek and tells him to take them to the registry in the afternoon. A moment later the gong is struck and Antek wakes the SS man. The ginger-haired man comes out of the little room and Karol shouts ‘… shun!’ but the Lagerpolizei man waves his hand, yawns and says: ‘Hope nobody looked for me. Yes or no will do!’ ‘Everything’s in best order,’ Karol replies. ‘OK. At ease! Anyway you stand here as if you’d shat your trousers.’ And he slams the door behind him. Outside, soup is being issued. ‘They’re in a great hurry with that rail track,’ remarks Juzek, who’s come in also with Kozlowski’s helping. ‘From today the block leaders will go there as well. To supervise and to slavedrive.’ Karol sits on his bunk, he does not listen to Juzek or Marcel. Before his eyes is still the Drechsler woman with her hideous grin, the excited SS women, the female prisoners in their striped or military garb, stumbling, crying, begging … and Kaczmarek with the postcards, Ludwig van Cohen from Amsterdam, Marion and Miriam have joined

To Die – or to Perish 107

the women … Dammit, why didn’t I keep that card? Why didn’t I keep them all? Why did I return them to Kaczmarek? Heršek brings him his soup, but Karol shakes his head, you eat it for me, don’t know what the matter is with me, but I’m not hungry at all. What’s the time really? Instead of from Heršek, his answer comes from the suspended rail. It rings out like every other day, but to Karol it seems different. It seems to him that its sound, provocative and warning, scoffing and serious, rises to an unusually high note, suggesting the wailing of the alarm siren. Slightly excited, he gets up from his bunk and to everyone’s surprise says: ‘I’m going out, chaps, in here it’s enough to drive you round the bend.’ ‘You’ve only just discovered that?’ asks Antek. Everything’s all right, I must go now, he thinks. I should have kept that postcard from van Cohen, now I should disappear, but … Juzek and Heršek are here, Marcel and Kaczmarek and Antek, all of them unbelievably good people in this terrible hell, they don’t suspect that at this evening’s roll call they will stand hours on end because of me – suffer and stand and perhaps even die. How can I say goodbye to them? ‘Got to chase up some medications,’ he says in a strangely coloured voice. ‘I’ll be back in a couple of hours. So long, chaps.’ He stops outside the door, although he didn’t intend to. I’m acting very stupidly, he tells himself, they’re looking at me, wondering if I’ve gone round the bend, surely I must somehow say goodbye to them. ‘Have a smoke,’ he says hoarsely and throws them two cigarettes. ‘Back in two hours.’ At the moment when Val, standing to attention, explains to the SS man by the gate to Cage B-II A that he has to take the cards of the transferred prisoners to B-II D, Karol makes his report by the gate of Cage B-II D: ‘Prisoner number 29162 reports his departure for the hospital.’ Inside the box are two SS men. It’s shift change-over just now: one of them hangs his greatcoat on the hanger, the other gets ready to leave. But he bends down once more over his notebook and says: ‘I’ll enter this one. You buzz off, but don’t you confuse the hospital with the women.’ The other roars with laughter, jumps on his bike and makes for the SS barracks. Karol turns left, but after a few steps he taps his forehead as if he’d forgotten something, angrily shakes his head and walks back again. By the guard box he tries to walk calmly, not too fast and not too lazily, but even so he has to avert his face from the gate as a hot wave of excitement courses through his body. Val is already out there, in front,

108 Escape from Hell

by the crossroads, making for the ‘Mexico’ area and the pile of stacked hut sections, approaching it from the side where no one is working. He comes towards him to within a few steps, but he does not speak to him, they still have to cover at least a hundred metres. I should have taken that damned postcard … I’ll kick that little stone and if I hit the boulder by the side of the road, they’ll leave us alone and all will end well. But he does not kick the little stone because he is suddenly afraid – no need to provoke fate. Suppose he did not hit that boulder, it is too far anyway and so is our hideout under the panels, a lot of things could happen before we get there. Val is already by the stacked timbers. A few more steps, now he stops, looks around and climbs up. Karol follows him immediately. Lying on top of the timbers are already Adamek and Bolek, silently they nod a greeting and at once start to slip one section after another aside, swiftly but cautiously. Val and Karol creep to the space between the removed sections and let themselves down into their hideout. They are pale, but their eyes, fixed at their two helpers, have a feverish gleam. In that brief glance Adamek and Bolek see everything: gratitude for their help, words of farewell, hang on, boys and trust us, the world will learn about everything, only look after yourselves and hang on until some righteous people get here to destroy the gas chambers and furnaces and to punish the murderers. The two pale faces then disappear in the shadows of the hideout, as Adamek and Bolek swiftly move the sections back, three on one side and three on the other. Six timber sections with notches are once more interlocked, everything is as it should be, there is a continuous stack of timbers on top again. With tobacco scattered on it and petrol sprinkled on it, their hideout is well camouflaged. ‘Bon voyage,’ says Adamek, bent over the timber roofing and Val and Karol are aware that his voice sounds broken. ‘We’ll scatter some more on it from outside,’ Bolek says, ‘to make sure those beasts don’t sniff you out. And you’d better sprinkle a little more inside.’ Bolek and Adamek have jumped down. All is clear, on this side of the section depository there is not a soul to be seen. Adamek scatters some more tobacco on the ground by the hideout, but then he frowns, there isn’t enough tobacco, he will have to chase up some more in the evening. ‘There’s some petrol left in the guard hut, we’ll sprinkle some more around in the evening. Let’s go.’ Karol and Val hear their slow, retreating footsteps, along with some whistling, a sad, drawn-out and unconvincing Mama son tanto felice. For a moment Karol squeezes Val’s hand and looks into his feverish eyes. We’re finally in our hideout, finally out of sight of the watchtowers and the searching SS men, but all around us death still holds

To Die – or to Perish 109

sway and there’s no certainty that we’ll evade its bony hand. But we’ve also something behind us. Slowly they begin to take their boots off. They wrap their feet in rags and pull on large socks. Round their waists they tie belts made from torn sailcloth, under them they place their clothing. They press themselves to the wall and to one another and look at the wooden roof above their heads. Are we going to lift it or the brown-shirted ones? Will we go to freedom through it or to the little tables by the gate?

Chapter 9

‘In the Name of the Reichsführer SS’

They try to fall asleep and thereby escape from anything that arouses faintheartedness. They have spent the past thirty days in extreme nervous tension, brains continuously alert, overtaxed, exhausted. The realisation that they must not forget anything, that everything they do must allow for accidental occurrences, has driven them close to lunacy. How can you rule out accidental occurrences? While they were outside, preparing for their escape, they were able to exploit accidental occurrences and make them serve their purpose. But now in their hideout they are entirely passive. All they can do is wait. How can they make sure that they are not, entirely by accident, discovered? That the smell of tobacco, petrol and diesel does not evaporate? Or that someone decides to take this gigantic stack of hut sections apart? There are a thousand possible accidents, any one of which would lead the SS men to them. They force themselves not to think of anything. But in this dark, damp, cold and tight hideout they can neither sleep nor stop thinking. Within a few hours the alarm siren will start wailing. The infuriated death’s-head men will turn the whole camp upside down. If they do not find them today they will spread out over the whole neighbourhood and death will have a thousand eyes and a thousand murderous claws. Those claws have already swept many from their escape into bunkers, under the gallows and onto the little tables by the gate. Will they evade them? Schwarzhuber will probably mobilise all SS garrisons between the camp and the frontier, possibly with hundreds of trained dogs and their handlers beyond the territory of the concentration camp. So many have been brought back from fleeing for their lives! Perhaps they will track them down too. Oh no, they won’t track us down! We will steal across the mountains and through the night and we’ll get home and … What will we actually do when we get home, whom will we take into our confidence, whom will we make stand up to the danger that has already destroyed millions and is waiting for further millions? Well, naturally, people with a conscience. Somehow they will make sure that the frightful news gets out into the world, that this horrible Nazi deception

‘In the Name of the Reichsführer SS’ 111

does not remain concealed. After that, maybe, the Germans will dissolve the concentration camps. Or rather, planes will come and smash the watch-towers, the SS barracks and the crematoriums. Surely humanity has not disappeared yet – Nazis have not exterminated it because they cannot exterminate something they do not know, something that exists apart from them. Yes, that is what is going to happen. They will save the lives of tens of thousands of people in the cages and further hundreds of thousands who are destined shortly to be deported there. And maybe millions for whom they want to construct further gas chambers and further furnaces. Is this how it is going to be? Or will it be different? Their thoughts fly about crazily in their narrow hideout, but the seconds are chained together. Suppose they are discovered after all? Suppose the dogs smell them out? In the name of the Reichsführer SS … the gallows … two little tables … the ceremonial … Karol slowly pulls out the razor from under the panel. Maybe they’ll find us, but they won’t interrogate us. Maybe they’ll get us, but we won’t see their joy. We’ll certainly get two of them first. Through the chimney … The only way out from here is through the chimney … Is there really no other way? That cannot be right. There is another way and they have just embarked on it. It leads through the night and over the mountains. It will take seven days and seven nights, maybe longer, but at its end there are people with a conscience. They reassure one another by touch and glance. Karol looks at Val’s wristwatch and jerks as if he had discovered something he had not expected. Whatever made them get phosphorescent watches? Why the devil did they choose just these? The hands and numerals with their cool light remind them that time drags infinitely slowly. Like a hundredeyed predator preparing to leap out from the dark, ready to kill, thinks Karol. What crazy watches had they got hold of? Karol turns his watch over, dial downward, and catches Val’s hand. Yes, we’re both in our hideout. We’re still alive and we’ll continue to be alive if they don’t catch us this evening. And we’ll stay here for a long time, eighty or nearly eighty hours. Four thousand eight hundred minutes. Two hundred and eighty-eight thousand seconds. Followed by hours and hours of escaping. Probably seven or eight days. But at the end of the journey we’ll eat our fill, have a bath and rid ourselves of our lice. And then we’ll dress and – no, no! First we’ll tell about what we’ve experienced and seen here, from the first moment until our escape. Only then will we eat, bathe and put on – civilian clothes. The minutes are dragging with infinite slowness. Each of them holds thousands of visions of the terrible dangers that will lurk at every one

112 Escape from Hell

of their steps. In their imagination they run faster, they stop, they run on bent double, all round them grenades explode, bullets whistle, SS men shout and dogs bay. They cross the frontier … Familiar villages and towns, their native language … To someone – and Karol cannot clearly visualise that someone – they submit the camp plan and tell them about it … You’ve got to act quickly … Can’t you understand what we’re telling you? You have to act quickly. They bring people in by the thousand each day, by the thousand, don’t you understand? Oh God, how can you not understand? Four, do you understand? Four goods trains each day. Between six and eight thousand people a day. Those rooms look like washrooms … washrooms with showers. But instead of water they scatter Zyklon, small crystals of poison gas. The crystals sublimate, the people choke and then they are burnt. They burn them to ashes. Then they clean out the chambers, air them and drive the next lot in … Don’t you understand? The minutes drag on slowly, but their thoughts race madly. Inside the timber hideout silence reigns as in a grave. In both their minds a sequence of terrible visions flashes up, some of them two years old, some one year and some quite recent. But all are equally fresh, equally terrible and incomprehensible. Twenty-four months. Six days less than two years. Each day has twentyfour hours and every hour, and indeed every moment, is laid waste by death. What a strange place this is, where people are not born but still it grows, even though people only die in it. How many people have died here over those two years? The quantity of gas they use for killing would go into an armful. You could weigh the gold and the jewellery and the clothes which they have stolen here, or even the ashes and the bones and the hair left by the victims. But how could you weigh or count up the suffering that has taken place here and that still awaits others? How many have they tortured to death, shot, hanged, poisoned, killed with phenol, killed with injections of cancer, typhus, malaria, by electric current or asphyxiation? Altogether three million,* possibly more … Vsio budet horosho … Yes, Kolka, but people are still dying, more and more are dying each day and there’s no one to stop this dying. Dozens of attempted escapes have ended on the gallows, in the concrete bunkers or at the little tables by the gate. How many ceremonials have they witnessed, around the living and the dead? How many have ended that way? * The author believed this number to be the true estimate of the people who died in AuschwitzBirkenau between 1942 and 1944. Nevertheless, he gave a ‘careful estimate’ of 1,765,000 in the Vrba-Wetzler report in 1944. However, it is not possible today to obtain an accurate estimate of this figure as the retreating German army destroyed the majority of documents and other evidence. A number of authoritative estimates exists today for these gruesome statistics, ranging from one million to a few million people in total.

‘In the Name of the Reichsführer SS’ 113

‘In the name of the Reichsführer SS you are sentenced to death …’ Under one noose stood a former major in the Polish army, under the other a tailor’s assistant. Both from Cracow. Up to the last moment they stood calmly, motionless, and their pride and courage positively stunned Schwarzhuber. The Lagerführer had hoped to see them break with fear, but they stood there with contemptuous smiles and as calmly as if there was not a noose hanging over them and that terrible theatre all round. Not a sign of fear, not a hint of weakness or despair. They stood there unbowed and their amazing pride and burning hatred aroused amazement and admiration among the prisoners, who were meant to be deterred by their death. Their cool and frightening calm evidently sprang from their knowledge that they had done all they could, that they had attempted to escape. When the executioners stepped up to them, they spat in disgust and silently looked at each other. On the platform in that amphitheatre with its audience of more than ten thousand prisoners, just before their legs gave and their feet dropped, they shouted into the tense chilly silence: ‘Niech żyje Polska!’ – Long live Poland. For trying to escape to life – death. In the name of the Reichsführer SS. *** They shiver with cold. The rags they sit on and the clothes they are wearing are wet through. They have only been in their hideout for four hours. When will the siren wail? In an hour? In two hours? ‘Avenge us! …’ A month previously, exactly a month, on the eighth of March, they began, at dusk, to drive the deportees from their huts, the deportees who had arrived from Terezín six months before. They had been in the camp exactly six months. ‘SB – Sonderbehandlung, special treatment! Six months!’ Six months was what was written on the delivery note of that transport. They had lived separately, entire families. They had their own civilian clothes, they were not driven out to work, for six months they hung about in Cage B-II B. They wrote postcards, they received greetings and parcels – rusks, biscuits, brown and white bread, jam and medications, cigarettes and toys. They never saw most of these parcels. They were eaten by the SS men and the swine. They gave them their special treatment. They did not drive them or hit them. But in the end, from dusk till nearly morning, they drove them under the Zyklon showers. Those who tried to slip out from the crowd were cut down by bursts of machine-gun fire and many went insane on that short road, barely four hundred metres long. And then, all day long, until late evening, hissing flames shot out from the chimneys.

114 Escape from Hell

Amidst the heart-rending shouts, one was clearly heard: ‘Avenge us!’ Yes, we’ll avenge you. There’s nothing we want more than revenge. But how can such endless streams of people into the gas be avenged? Where would you find a just measure for revenge? Well yes, there is the just measure of death for death. But death is only an instant, perhaps the most painless and most unexpected instant. A full stop after suffering. But how do you avenge torturing grief and unimaginable suffering? How indeed? When you have saved your life, will you torture too? Will you live in order to perform prolonged and frightful torture and then slow and frightful death? No, you could not live like that. But equally you could not live on this earth along with the murderers. So what will you do to them? Of course, you will have your revenge. Somehow or other you will have your revenge. You must have your revenge. Those who have never been inside this vast tomb of the living will have to permit you your revenge, if they are in the least interested in your picking up your life and your faith in justice. But those millions and those tens of thousands that are still to come before this frightful dance of death comes to an end – you will not bring those back to life. You cannot wipe out or make good the pain they have experienced. That pain was frightful and the world will be more beautiful when people begin to regard it as their pain also. Three million people in one place! Will they understand? Will they believe? The two in the hideout suddenly stiffen, they listen, the monstrous visions vanish. An indistinct noise can be heard in the hideout. Not far from them the work squads are forming up – the textile squad, the Planierungskommando, the construction squad, the road-making squad. Karol reaches for Val’s hand. It is ice-cold. They can go on sitting there for a while, they do not have to creep into their hole yet. Soon the band will start up and then … What will happen then? To the sound of stirring military music the squads march into the cages. ‘One, two … one, two … left, right … dress by the right!’ ‘Los, dalli, dalli, faster! Get a move on, you scumbags!’ ‘Dress by the right! … Caps off! Eyes right! …’ The band plays for more than an hour and it takes the different squads that long to return to their cages. The squads are checked against the lists – they tally. At the gate the guards are just changing. In the hut by the gate to sector B-II D one name is not ticked in the control book. ‘You’re one short,’ says the SS man who is taking over. His eyes narrow into slits. ‘You’ve still got one man outside.’ ‘Nonsense,’ says the other. ‘I forgot to check him in.’ Calmly he enters ‘14.00 hours’ into the column ‘arrival’ … and deletes the whole line.

‘In the Name of the Reichsführer SS’ 115

Roll call starts in all cages. SS-Obersturmführer Hans Schwarzhuber, the commandant of Brzezinki, sitting at a little table, receives the SS men’s reports on the numbers in the individual huts, compares them and checks them off on the list from central registry. The chief clerk, the prisoner Kazek, always neat and clean-shaven – a former bank clerk, used to numbers and very accurate – stands a little distance from him, as if something wasn’t clear. ‘Tallies, tallies, tallies,’ from one hut after another. ‘So what about Hut 9?’ Schwarzhuber calls impatiently. ‘Expect me to count them myself?’ At Hut 9 they cannot get it right. Confused, Antek runs along the columns with his notebook – he cannot find Karol. Finally he hands the notebook to Kozlowski. The two count again and again, but they are still one short. The block leader is so frightened that in his excitement he does not even realise that it is Karol who is missing. But Lausmann, who is responsible for order in Hut 9, has noticed that the clerk is not in his place. He curses angrily and shouts orders in all directions. ‘Hut 9 clerk!’ they are calling throughout the section. Silence. No one speaks up. Lausmann waits a little longer and then, his face all white, runs over to Schwarzhuber, clicks his heels and pants breathlessly: ‘Herr Lagerführer, beg to report that one prisoner is missing in the hut.’ ‘What d’you mean: missing? Idiot! Can’t you count?’ ‘The clerk … prisoner number …’ Lausmann stammers. SS-Unterscharführer Oswald Kaduk runs over to the guard hut and returns a moment later: ‘Everybody checked in, got to be here.’ ‘Go look for him then, you fool,’ Schwarzhuber hisses at Lausmann. No sooner has a humbled Lausmann disappeared than another SS man comes running up from the other side, stops at the regulation distance in front of Schwarzhuber, clicks his heels and reports: ‘Herr Lagerführer, beg to report that on Sector B-II AS, at the quarantine hut, one prisoner is missing …’ Schwarzhuber turns red in the face. ‘What … even in the quarantine hut? Damned idiots!’ He roughly grabs the SS man by his shoulder, turns him round and chases him away. ‘I want to hear that no one’s missing! I’ll send you to the bunker, every one of you, halfwits! If you can’t count, I’ll dress you in these rags, give you each a number, and hey presto nobody will be missing!’ He nearly chokes with anger. He was about to go on leave. The armies at the front are letting blood and are retreating. At these difficult moments everybody tries to get home to make arrangements for the event that they must not mention aloud. And it is unlikely that in Oranienburg they would authorise leave for a commandant whose prisoners are escaping. Indeed, it is almost certain

116 Escape from Hell

they will reject his application and, instead of Bavaria, he will find himself at some hopelessly disintegrating front. Schwarzhuber is now joined by his adjutant, SS-Unterscharführer Heinrich Bischoff. ‘We’ve got it,’ he says. ‘Numbers 29162 and 44070, Slovaks.’ He hands Schwarzhuber two cards from the central registry: ‘Slovak Jews.’ ‘Cards! … You’ve really rediscovered America, haven’t you? How am I to work with such idiots? Cards!’ He runs to the shed by the gate, grabs a pistol with a long barrel, loads an alarm cartridge and fires. The rocket leaves a long green trail behind it. At its culmination point it bursts and spreads a bright light. The siren! No other siren has such a terrible wailing note. As if thousands of packs of wolves had come together in absolute silence to produce a howl that would make the air vibrate and freeze the blood in your veins. The siren screams so penetratingly that even the SS men put their fingers into their ears. Its wailing can be heard in a twenty-kilometre radius. It wails for a whole ten minutes, it is three times switched on full. And during that ten minutes the news flies from hut to hut, from cage to cage – another two have escaped. As many times before, tens of thousands of prisoners are again standing, suffering, waiting. Jackboots stamp on the main road, dogs bark. One thousand two hundred SS men have poured out of their barracks for the hunt: they will comb the whole neighbourhood inch by inch and throw a wide ring around the camp. In Cage B-II D, where Karol had been accommodated, and in Cage B-II A, Val’s cage, everyone is nervously looking towards the gate. Will they catch them? Will they drag them back alive or dead? And when will they bring them? Today? Tomorrow? How long will they have to stand there? And how many of them will die by the time they bring those two back, and how many afterwards, during the ‘ceremonial’? While the wailing of the siren has set a whole regiment of ruthless killers in motion, Schwarzhuber, Bischoff and Kaduk have run over to Cage B-II A. Now they are returning to Cage B-II D. Evidently they have not found anything, they look angry and Schwarzhuber gesticulates furiously. His face has gone slightly grey and his upper body is inclined forward even more than usual. He is very nervous and does not attempt to conceal the fact from his staff who accompany him. He stops outside Hut 9 and snaps: ‘Who saw that swine today? Who knows where he was today or where he’s gone?’ The mechanism functions quickly and reliably in every situation. Even before Schwarzhuber has stopped a wooden whipping-stool has been placed in front of the hut.

‘In the Name of the Reichsführer SS’ 117

The prisoners keep silent and it seems as if they are absent-mindedly staring at something above Schwarzhuber’s head. Schwarzhuber casts a quick glance at the whipping-stool, then at the prisoners. Speaking so fast he can barely be understood, he says: ‘That’s obvious, no one’s seen him! Or perhaps you didn’t recognise him?’ His features twist into a cruel grimace. ‘You’ll pay … for your blind eyes. And you’ll talk, you idiots, till your tongue overheats! Put the block leader on the stool!’ Kozlowski gets twenty-five lashes. After every blow his body tightens and bends unnaturally. He screams with pain, but in these screams the name of the clerk is not mentioned, nor those of people who might have seen him today or yesterday. He knows nothing at all about Karol. ‘Haven’t remembered his name yet?’ asks Schwarzhuber. Kozlowski, crouching by the side of the columns, whines and Schwarzhuber silences him with a furious glance. ‘Evidently you haven’t.’ He falls silent, digs his teeth into his upper lip and adds in a hoarse voice: ‘Just remember one thing, you Bolshevik swine: until today you’ve enjoyed paradise, a feeding trough that you wallowed in, thinking only of grub. From now on there’ll be a different regime.’ He looks at Kozlowski, who has groaned again, turns away and says over his shoulder: ‘Give him another ten, the swine. Let him scream at least if he won’t talk! Everybody else – crouch!’ He turns and briskly walks to the gate. Bischoff and Kaduk follow him in silence. In front of Hut 9, three hundred and eighty-five prisoners are crouching, only Lausmann is left. Dusk has fallen. Lunacy has spread like a plague. Spread all over the neighbourhood they turn every corner over. They search in all huts, stores, washrooms, latrines and sheds, they turn all the cages upside down. They work systematically, on the principle of narrowing circles, with the dogs in the middle. Area after area is included in the circle, with nothing remaining unnoticed, with nothing remaining unsniffed by the dogs. Every so often Schwarzhuber runs into one of those circles, cursing and threatening: ‘You’ll find me those two within two hours,’ he shouts, ‘or you’re all be going to the Russian front!’ ‘Oi, Bischoff! …’ SS-Unterscharführer Bischoff runs over to Schwarzhuber and, standing to attention, hears his command: ‘I hold you responsible for those bastards to be found!’ ‘Jawohl, Herr Lagerführer!’ Schwarzhuber hastens back to his office. From a dark cupboard he takes out a bottle of vodka, takes a gulp and walks to the window. Outside he sees the nervous hustle and bustle of the SS men and now and again he catches a swearword or excited barking. Two old lags, he

118 Escape from Hell

thinks to himself uneasily and lights a cigarette. Two who have seen a lot and who know a lot. At the thought that the search might be unsuccessful and he would have to report the escape of the two men to his superiors he feels a chill running down his back. He returns to the table, takes another swig and suddenly feels confident again. Outside there are one thousand two hundred men and dozens of dogs. A whole regiment of able young men against two starved nobodies. The outer limits of the camp are sealed off by a close chain of guards and inside this vast bowl every square metre is being searched. They won’t get away, they must not and cannot get away. He is not going to have his leave ruined because of those shits. And that would be the best scenario. A worse one could be reduction to the ranks and the eastern front. This depressing vision has brought him to the door. There he stops for a moment, then he takes down his sub-machine-gun from a hook by the cupboard, slings it over his shoulder, steps out and joins the searchers. ‘Do anything you like – only stop them!’ he commands in his dry voice. ‘Whoever catches them gets two weeks’ leave!’ The faces of the shivering prisoners, standing amidst this mad confusion, reflect anxiety, fear and just a spark of hope. On another day many of them would have been carried away by now, to the walls of the huts. But today, at least this evening, they stand up astonishingly well. They are living with Karol and Val. The common suspense and the fear about the fate of the fugitives keeps the striped wall together and Lausmann, as he walks down the road, himself freezing, has a feeling that he himself is a prisoner of that vast mass of bodies. ‘Let’s hope we don’t stand here like the saints on the bridge – and in vain. If I’m not careful I’ll wet my pants and catch a super cold,’ Bolek says with a grin, standing in front of Hut 14. ‘We’ll stand here a good while and then we’ll march round the little tables or the gallows,’ suggests Adamek. ‘How d’you think this will end?’ Adamek’s voice is clear, those around him sense that he is convinced of the opposite. They start talking and Adamek is glad that at least they aren’t thinking of bread or the freezing cold. ‘They won’t catch them now,’ someone remarks. ‘If they haven’t caught them by now, then …’ ‘Maybe they’re already interrogating them. Many have tried and nearly all of them were caught.’ ‘They wouldn’t still be searching for them,’ Adamek says convincingly. ‘I don’t believe they’ll catch them. Bloody hell, what’s this coming to us?’

‘In the Name of the Reichsführer SS’ 119

With a roar a motorbike comes out of Cage B-II A, a 500 cc Zündap. Behind the handlebars, in person, is the deputy head of the political department, SS-Oberscharführer Wilhelm Boger, and in the sidecar SSRottenführer Bruno Schlage, the newly appointed chief of Auschwitz Hut 11, the execution block. Boger and Schlage are experts at interrogation. The former prides himself on ‘interrogation without a cudgel’. He pretends he knows about every offence, about what’s going on in the camp, between prisoners and SS men. Boger is not irascible or impatient, he examines thoroughly and slowly: so long as a man is alive he may yet talk. Schlage works faster. He hasn’t got the same vocabulary, but he has a firm hand and his interrogations usually end by the wall of Hut 11, with a bullet in the back of the neck. They roar up to Hut 9 and Schlage, still in the sidecar, shouts: ‘Los, on your feet!’ ‘All Slovaks one step forward!’ he adds coldly. No one moves in the ranks. ‘What? … No Slovaks? One step forward!’ Boger repeats. Kozlowski shivers from pain and the cold and, with chattering teeth, explains to Lausmann that in Hut 9 there are only Poles, French, Dutch and a few Greeks. ‘All Slovaks, fall in!’ Schlage shouts in the direction of the camp. The Slovaks come running from their huts. Lausmann and Schlage make them line up on the road between Huts 9 and 11. ‘Fifty-seven … Is that the lot? …’ Boger asks the chief clerk, who has brought the list of the complement of prisoners in the evening, broken down according to nationality. Altogether there are two hundred and nine. One hundred and forty are at present at the ramp. Two are at the furnaces, eight in the neighbouring cages. Take two hundred and nine from thirty-seven thousand. Only one has survived here out of every one hundred and seventy-five. And those two. Boger calmly walks past the fifty-seven. He looks searchingly at their pale faces and with his swagger stick taps the noses of the right markers. He would like to read in their faces something by which they’d give themselves away, joy, suspense, fear, derision or nervousness, but it appears that there is nothing in them except dull indifference. Because he cannot think of anything else at that moment he stops and says: ‘So no one knows anything. Very well, very well. But you’ll be sorry. Dismiss!’ When they have dispersed he mounts the motorbike again with Schlage and turns towards the quarantine hut. Two shots are heard, two dum-dum rounds.

120 Escape from Hell

‘Old trick,’ remarks Adamek. ‘Herr Schlage is trying to fool us.’ Suddenly Schwarzhuber with Bischoff and Kaduk appear on the road by the gate. Schwarzhuber’s walk is a trifle unsteady and, before he really gets near, he shouts at the men at Hut 9: ‘Who permitted you to stand up, you shits?’ ‘Drunk, totally drunk,’ Wladek says softly. ‘Who permitted you to stand up?’ Schwarzhuber repeats when he has got to Hut 9. ‘The Herr Oberscharführer Boger,’ Kozlowski answers, alarmed. ‘Who? … Crouch! … About turn, that is, stand up! At the double! About turn! At the double! Crouch! … Up, down, up down, up, you bandits!’ he shouts at the top of his voice at the panting men and, as he shouts, his face turns red and foam appears at his mouth. Suddenly he snatches his sub-machine-gun from his shoulder and describes a circle with it. ‘I’m giving you another ten minutes. If no one speaks up … if no one …’ He sways a little and again waves his sub-machine-gun. ‘If no one … on my honour as an officer, you swine, nothing will happen to anybody if …’ He looses his thread, wobbles again and only keeps his balance thanks to Bischoff. Bischoff pulls him gently away, so he doesn’t make a fool of himself. He slips free from him and, as though he had only just noticed him, he shouts angrily, suddenly sober: ‘And what the hell are you doing here, Bischoff? Join the boys and go searching! As far as the Vistula! …’ Bischoff, offended, blinks, salutes and, with a sullen face, walks away. After a few steps Schwarzhuber stops and angrily snaps at Kaduk: ‘Stand to attention, Kaduk, when I’m looking at you!’ Kaduk pulls himself up, nervously, because Schwarzhuber is unpredictable when he is angry. ‘Run over to the barracks and chase another three hundred men out!’ he commands. ‘And until those two are caught I don’t wish to see your face.’ *** Figures are running and electric torches are flashing outside the cages. Now and again Bischoff’s dry voice is heard. Then the dog-handlers pull harder on the leashes and the air is filled with the furious barking of dogs. Nearly sixty thousand are still standing. Hoar-frost is settling and a wind is springing up from the north. In front of Hut 9 Lausmann apathetically walks up and down. Whenever the barking of the dogs outside and the shouts of the SS men get louder, he looks uneasily at the lined-up prisoners. In different

‘In the Name of the Reichsführer SS’ 121

circumstances many would by now have fallen down. But now, it seems to him, they have more strength than usual. And that is strange because they have behind them a day’s work and hours of standing and they haven’t eaten yet because Schwarzhuber has forbidden the issue of any supper. It seems to Lausmann that, whenever the nervous shouting and barking from outside is heard, their eyes have a curious gleam, and that the whole floodlit wall of striped bodies is hardening in some incomprehensible defiance. Just as if our own nervousness were giving them strength, he thinks, and once more his thoughts fly to his wife as he tries to visualise her grief and lamentations when she receives the news of the death of her son. It would strike her down for some time. Damned eastern front! The longer they stand, the more chaotic the bustle becomes. And that is a good sign. It instils a slight promise and even the slightest thought of a successful escape of those two revives the prisoners’ strength. Pavel and Wladek and, at the other huts, also Kolka and Vasil and Adamek and Bolek mingle with the ranks of five and drop the odd word that might add new warmth to that faint hope. Right at the back Pavel lifts one person up who’d been sitting on his heels, warming his hands in his armpits. ‘Help him, support him,’ Pavel says to the other prisoners. ‘Hold out, they’re not going to catch those two, there won’t be a ceremonial.’ Two prisoners take the emaciated man between them, they lean on him, supporting him with their hands, but the man says hoarsely, barely moving his lips: ‘I can’t manage, I can’t manage any more. Are we going to stand here much longer?’ ‘Not much longer,’ says Pavel and the man looks at him with unbelieving eyes: ‘Till midnight, I expect. Ah, the Sonderkommando is returning.’ On the road they hear the slow, heavy footfall of a hundred and fifty prisoners returning from their afternoon shift at the crematorium. Filip, a slim, dark-haired young man with piercing eyes and with the corners of his mouth drawn downward as if for crying, slips out of the marching column and behind Lausmann’s back turns to Hut 9. He used to come over quite often for a chat with Pavel, Wladek and Karol. ‘Where’s Karol?’ he asks. ‘Seems he hasn’t been anywhere since lunchtime,’ Stanislav answers as calmly as if he were talking about the weather. Filip’s eyes are laughing. He whistles in surprise. ‘We heard that damned thing wailing,’ Filip says with a smile, ‘and we just couldn’t understand that someone wouldn’t love this place. So then … Karol.’

122 Escape from Hell

Pavel grins too and Stephan looks at him suspiciously. Kozlowski snaps at Filip: ‘You idiot, surely you knew he was planning to?’ ‘Of course I did, you old cabbage head,’ Filip answers briskly. ‘Everyone’s planning it except yourself. But don’t you tangle with me, I’ve thrown more handsome ones into the furnace.’ Then he continues calmly: ‘Of course I knew, you pig’s snout, you arsehole. From the first day we got here he’d been thinking about it. And I’m the only one still in this cage from that lot. But if you like I’ll punch your nose for the lot of them.’ Filip turns and disappears behind the column. While Filip was talking Pavel was glumly watching Stephan. He had noticed the expression with which Stephan had watched Filip several times before. In the slits of his cold eyes flicker zealous flames and Pavel guesses that Stephan is beginning to consider denunciation. Filip might not tell them much, but possibly enough for Schwarzhuber who, in his desperate search for a lead, could beat the life out of him. Pavel catches Stephan with his glance fixed on Lausmann, as he walks down the road, hanging his head. And just as Stephan is turning to move to the left wing of the column, Pavel catches him by the arm and pulls him to himself so violently their noses nearly touch. ‘You’ll stay here, Stephan,’ Pavel whispers sharply and Stephan’s eyes betray the fear of a thief caught in the act. ‘While we’re standing here, you don’t even budge from us! Hear Bischoff shouting out there? Get it into your head that if you even indicate anything with your eyes, Bischoff shall learn that you are the only one who knows anything about Karol.’ Stephan tries to wriggle free, but Pavel’s grip holds him as in a vice. Stephan drops his head in confusion. A moment later he lifts it defiantly and says quickly: ‘But that’s not true. I’ve never had any dealings with Karol.’ ‘Bischoff isn’t going to ask you about that. He’ll send you to Hut 11, to Schlage, and there you’ll sing – even about what you don’t know.’ Pavel looks at Wladek and adds: ‘Don’t let him out of your sight even for a minute. The gentleman wishes to serve the Germans.’ After this they are silent. They pull their jackets closer to their bodies, a sharp wind has sprung up. Shouting and barking continue outside the camp. The silence is broken by Heršek, who is standing right in front: ‘They’re running around like scared chickens … those two have certainly made fools of them. I can feel it in my bones: they’re over the hills and far away by now.’ ‘They’ve caught cleverer ones before,’ Stephan can’t restrain himself. ‘They won’t catch these two,’ says Heršek. ‘Unless you yourself were searching for them, Herr kapo.’

‘In the Name of the Reichsführer SS’ 123

‘Stephan is right,’ Pavel interrupts the argument and surprise appears in Stephan’s features. ‘We’ve stood longer before and – still there was a ceremonial.’ ‘They’re not bringing those two back,’ Heršek repeats. ‘My bones never let me down. And I feel it in them …’ ‘Ten cigarettes say they’ll be caught …’ Antek interrupts him. ‘Deal?’ Heršek extends his frozen hand and Antek clasps it. Rustling up ten cigarettes is very difficult, but escaping from this damned tomb is even more impossible. And if that most impossible thing does happen, why would he not rustle up ten cigarettes? Not till after midnight, when the bustle of the SS men quietens down a little, do they send the prisoners in all the cages back to their huts. ‘Block 9 will continue to stand!’ comes Kaduk’s voice from the gate and Lausmann wearily says: ‘Scheisse das Ganze …’ The men’s teeth chatter with cold. They are hungry and exhausted. If they do not get any food, few of them will last until morning, Pavel thinks to himself. He weaves through the column. Eight men, who have collapsed from exhaustion, have already been carried to the wall of the hut. A few, supporting themselves on their stronger friends, sleep listlessly. Between the men there are puddles of urine and dysenteric faeces. He walks over to Heršek and Antek and talks to them for a while. He fails to convince them completely, it is too risky, but Heršek nods his head and, along with Antek, quietly enters the hut by the back door. Within an hour they have carried out from the hut nearly half the allocation of bread. Whenever Lausmann is some distance away, they walk from one man to another, distributing half-helpings. In the cold dawn more men are lying or sitting in their faeces. Some have been dragged away and propped up against the hut. By the gate SS men again begin to rush about and dogs begin to bark. Fresh SS men and fresh dogs. In a moment they will be fanning out all over the neighbourhood, cursing and searching. Three days and three nights. Those are the regulations for their searches. *** Two hundred metres to the right of the road that leads to the crematoriums, in the ‘Mexico’ area, where they intend in the shortest possible time to complete a vast camp for ten thousand Soviet prisoners of war, whom allegedly they are already holding somewhere, the two fugitives are again getting down into their hole to sleep. They move very slowly, their hands and feet stiff with painful cold. The first terrible night is behind them.

124 Escape from Hell

As late as an hour after midnight the whole camp around them was still noisy with a hullabaloo such as they’d never heard before. Curses, the barking of dogs and Bischoff’s angry voice came, at times, from quite close to their hideout. On more than one occasion they clearly heard the panting of the dogs through their twenty-centimetre thick timber wall. At those moments they almost die of nervous tension. Karol on one occasion and Val on another picked up the razor, opened it and held it until the barking moved away again. Tobacco, petrol and oil, Karol thought each time, tobacco, petrol and oil have saved us. Seventeen hours, a mere seventeen hours out of eighty, have passed from the moment when they climbed into the hole under the timber. Less than a whole day in two years of hell, where every hour is endlessly long. A moment ago they had stretched a little and warmed their hands and feet. But now the pain has come back. After the slightest movement a sharp painful cramp grips their whole bodies. Karol looks questioningly at Val. His eyes are dull and bloodshot, full of weary fatigue. Will they unleash the same madness again today? They are bound to come again with their dogs and the two will again nearly die of fear amidst the frightful barking, scratching and shouting. Hopefully the tobacco hasn’t lost its smell and the petrol hasn’t evaporated. But the petrol and oil must by now have evaporated … perhaps the tobacco will save them from the sniffing snouts of the damned beasts. They have tied strips of flannel across their mouths. Whenever they feel a tickle in the throat they tighten them. ‘You’ve allowed eight hundred of them to rest? What the hell for, Kaduk?’ Schwarzhuber in his office snaps at his ablest Unterscharführer. Kaduk stands by the wall facing him. To the left of his head is a big photograph: Heinrich Himmler surrounded by gentlemen from Berlin, Hamburg and Münster on their visit to Auschwitz. When Schwarzhuber looks at Kaduk, his eyes unintentionally move to the photograph. And whenever he sees his supreme commander, an icy hand of fear grips his heart: he is tormented by the thought that they haven’t caught those two yet. ‘Don’t stand by that picture like a pillar of salt, Kaduk!’ the Obersturmführer grunts and Kaduk obediently moves to the window. ‘In fact, don’t stand at all! Do something! Run to the barracks! Leave six hundred to snore, but chase the rest out! Heil Hitler!’ Unterscharführer Kaduk clicks his heels, about-turns and puts his hand on the door handle. ‘Wait a moment, Kaduk!’ Schwarzhuber’s voice stops him. In a somewhat milder tone he continues: ‘Has it occurred to you that … that under certain circumstances a good word might be dropped about you higher up? Give me grounds for it, Kaduk! Oversee the boys, make sure

‘In the Name of the Reichsführer SS’ 125

they search properly. By this evening you’ll bring those scumbags to me. Christ Almighty, they can’t just have dissolved into thin air. Go now and bring them back to me. This evening we’ll have a Parademarsch!’ Even before the fog lifts the forty square kilometres between the Vistula and the Sola resound with angry shouting and furious barking. One thousand seven hundred SS men with and without dogs search every hollow in the ground and every ridge, comb through every bush, search in ditches and trenches, between roof timbers and tiles. Like a heavy thundercloud Kaduk walks and runs from one group to another, snapping in all directions. He doesn’t really believe that they will get those two. After all, they combed everything through yesterday and during the night explored even the most unlikely routes of a possible or impossible escape. Now they are recrossing their search routes of yesterday and not only he, but others as well, doubt that this crazy hunt will succeed. This reflection brings him close to insanity. He can still hear Schwarzhuber’s promise. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if he spoke for him to someone influential? But into his ears steal also the words of the searchers, grumbling and cursing with disgust. And when he sneaks close to them he is amazed at the unconcerned frankness with which they complain of being overstretched, of their reduced cigarette and food rations, their stopped home leave, of what is happening to the armies at the front, where they have been ‘tactically withdrawing’ for an overlong time, and about the Reich postal service that delivers barely one out of every three letters home. Kaduk stops behind a group of five men who are relieving themselves behind a stack of tiles and realises with horror that these superbly trained troops of the Waffen-SS, who have lately been on duty day and night, while outwardly still hard, while disciplined towards their superiors, and while equally merciless towards the prisoners, or indeed even more merciless than before, are inwardly badly shaken and unsure. ‘Enthusiasm’s down the drain,’ he hears the same hollow voice that a moment earlier had blamed the retreating armies. ‘Yes, friends, strangling was my trade. I never approved of shooting. If you shoot a man he croaks with a grimace as if he was laughing at you. But if you get him by his Adam’s apple and his eyes and tongue pop out, then terrible fear always remains in his face. As I say, enthusiasm’s down the tube. Now it’s just routine. And let me tell you, it’s high time to shit on this routine.’ Unheard-of, thinks Kaduk, pressing his lips together hard so they don’t let out a hiss of furious outrage. ‘Grub, booze and fags, these are my holy trinity,’ Kaduk hears the voice that had complained about the reduced food and cigarette ration. ‘I don’t give a damn if we catch those two or not. Anyway, all that

126 Escape from Hell

ridiculous fuss about two people when they bring several thousand here every day.’ ‘You’re talking a lot of balls,’ says the voice that complained about the postal service. ‘Our orders are to search and search we will. If we find bugger-all, then the Lagerführer will get it in the neck, they’ll probably rip off his pips. Now stop this whinging and let’s get on with our job or else some Bischoff might catch us here.’ ‘Perhaps a Kaduk will do,’ barks the Unterscharführer and jumps out from behind the stack of tiles. If in front of these five – who have now risen from the pile of tiles and frozen to attention – Karol and Val had appeared with the request to be taken to Schwarzhuber, they could not have been more taken aback and terrified. They stand there to exemplary attention, their frowning features marked by boundless fear. Unterscharführer Kaduk, his face red as a beetroot, looks at them with a cruel smile. In his hand, trembling with fury, he holds his army pistol. ‘Weapons by your feet!’ he hisses and the five swiftly put their submachine-guns on the ground. ‘I could have shot you, you lousy dogs, but the Herr Lagerführer will think up something better,’ he adds coldly and with a gesture calls over a pair of dog-handlers who were walking past nearby. ‘Take these weapons,’ he orders the surprised dog-handlers, ‘and escort these gentlemen to Unterscharführer Schlage. Tell him that SSUnterscharführer Kaduk requests him to accommodate them in the bunker. Dismiss!’ Just as this strange procession disappears behind the quarantine hut, Schwarzhuber steps out of his office. The reports he receives every hour are, on the whole, nil-reports. Where should the two be looked for? What lead has he got? Prisoner 44070 went to Sector B-II D and prisoner 29162 left that cage at thirteen hundred hours. But this information was not obtained by his people from the prisoners, but from the control book at the gate. A very poor and really worthless lead, a mere confirmation of fact. Where should he have those two searched for? Or was it really time to make a report to his superiors? By the gate he spits in disgust. He stops for a while and then, with repressed anger at one thousand seven hundred trained élite soldiers, who cannot find two hungry and half-alive scumbags, he walks over in the direction of the loudest noise. *** ‘Scheisse das Ganze,’ Lausmann grumbles as he walks along. He gazes at the ground, his shoulders are drooping as if he had borne a heavy

‘In the Name of the Reichsführer SS’ 127

burden all night. The Rapportführer evidently has forgotten him because he has not sent him his relief. True, he ate in the evening and just now he has had his breakfast in the prisoners’ cookhouse, but what with his walking all night his legs are like lumps of lead with fatigue. ‘The whole world’s an arsehole,’ he mutters despondently and suddenly he is seized by rage that those damned prisoners from Hut 9 are still on their feet, that they have not all dropped to the ground and croaked. He would have had them moved to the Leichenhalle, the morgue, and then he would have sat down and written a few words of comfort to his wife. This dedicated SS man, who not so long ago had crushed the heads of prisoners, buried alive, by horses’ hooves, seemed unnatural and unreal to the prisoners of Hut 9 in his dull dejection. He used to be very lively, quick-witted, even inventive in his sadistic punishments, so much so that Schlage was envious of him. Seeing him now as a heap of unhappiness in his half-buttoned grey uniform, spluttering the poison of dissatisfaction in an astonishingly limited vocabulary, was filling the prisoners with even greater satisfaction than the evening when he had shown some of them the photograph of his son. ‘This is a strange Saturday,’ remarks Wladek, ‘almost an English one …’ ‘Without an English breakfast,’ dryly observes Stanislav. They are standing near the road and Lausmann hears their remarks. He stops and raises his head. His heavy eyelids keep drooping and along with his swollen upper lip give his features an absolutely dull appearance. ‘You were born as a pig and you’ll die as a pig,’ he hisses through his teeth at Stephan, who is urinating by the side of the column. Then his lids hang just over his irises and his cold, evil eyes are fixed on Pavel’s face. Lausmann looks at Pavel a long time, in complete silence, as if he were trying to look down to the depths of his soul and the unpleasant thought comes to Pavel that this double-bent greyhound might be suspecting something. But Lausmann waves his long arm over the column and says mockingly: ‘You’re croaking in your own stench, aren’t you?’ Still regarding Pavel with half-closed, evil, pale eyes, he continues: ‘All night long you talked to the people, you lifted them up and … it was bugger-all use to you. So why do you do it, you swine? Ten times I wanted to shoot you.’ Quite unexpectedly he turns and walks over to the left wing, while Pavel and Wladek follow him with their eyes in alarm. ‘He suspects something … or he wants something,’ Wladek whispers to Pavel. After a while Lausmann comes back and once more stops in front of Pavel. He frowns and his eyes flash angrily, just as they did when they looked at that paste of crushed human heads, mixed with soil, when in

128 Escape from Hell

mad ecstasy he had exclaimed: These lousy bastards tried to fool Lausmann! Except that these hate-filled eyes were now fixed on Pavel as if trying to swallow him up and transform him into something that could not be seen or sensed. And Pavel suddenly remembers Stephan, that damned malicious toady, and, gripped by fear, slowly drops his head. He hears Lausmann’s brief giggle and then his croaky voice, betraying his inner unease. ‘You too are only a very ordinary scumbag, kapo. Off to your hut! I’ll be following you.’ At that moment Pavel feels a small package in his hand – cigarettes. Lausmann couldn’t have seen anything because Wladek had stood very close to Pavel. As he gets to the door of the hut he hears behind him Lausmann’s heavy step. A chill runs down his spine. Now Lausmann might easily send a bullet through the back of his neck, he thinks, but as he passes the door it occurs to him that, for some inexplicable reason, Lausmann might want to do it without witnesses. But inside the hut, in Kozlowski’s little room, into which Lausmann waves him, he is surprised by his incomprehensibly meek invitation: ‘Sit down, kapo! And hand over the paper that scumbag slipped you!’ Wrapped in the paper are five cigarettes. Lausmann puts three into his pocket, one into his cigarette case and calmly lights up the fifth. ‘Sit down,’ he says again. They sit next to one another on a bunk, Lausmann voluptuously inhales the smoke and Pavel, his heart racing, seeks the answers to a thousand tormenting questions. ‘Ten times I wanted to kill you during the night,’ Lausmann says, quite calmly. ‘Exactly ten times, I counted … whenever I saw you lifting up those bastards. You’re more powerful than the rest … you irritate me … d’you understand what I’m saying? You irritate me terribly. Whenever I remembered my son I wanted to shoot you down. God, a scumbag like you for my son! Ugh!’ He falls silent, covers his face and trembles slightly. Then he looks at Pavel like an experienced interrogator: ‘Now you’re not afraid, scumbag. But out there you were afraid.’ Then he surprises him with the question: ‘During the night you gobbled bread, didn’t you? Yes or no?’ ‘We ate … ‘Swine gobble,’ Lausmann corrects him, lights another cigarette and continues: ‘And when I saw that you’re filling your filthy Bolshevik bellies with good German bread I remembered that good boy of mine. And then I had the idea that I should stuff you with bread for two people, really fill you up … and then send three bullets into your belly. I don’t know why I didn’t do it. What do you say to this?’

‘In the Name of the Reichsführer SS’ 129

For a moment Pavel reflects intently and then, looking firmly into those pale brutal eyes, he replies: ‘You can do that any time you like … even now. You didn’t kill me because … you know very well that I can’t escape you.’ ‘Ach, Scheisse das Ganze,’ Lausmann says, his voice now raised. He gets up. Abruptly he asks: ‘And those two … those two will escape?’ Pavel presses his lips together and shakes his head. ‘You’re not straight with me, you shit!’ Lausmann shouts angrily. ‘You’re convinced that they’ll get through. But you’re wrong. By evening we’ll have them. By evening they’ll be on the little tables. And maybe, during the Parademarsch someone other than me will finish you off. The way things are, anyone escaping runs straight into death.’ He takes a deep breath, as though this taxing philosophical aspect of the world has exhausted him, and abruptly walks out of the hut. And then, until nightfall, until two iron gallows are erected on a small platform, he sits in the door of Hut 10 opposite, wordlessly and severely watching the men’s steps on the road, indifferent to the prisoners, immersed in his own gloomy thoughts. The gallows are clearly visible from Hut 9 in the evening light and Lausmann watches with a grimace as the whole weary standing column is seized by a spasm of fear and terror. He searches for Pavel with his eyes and in a hollow voice, as though reminding him of his word that morning, says: ‘Nooses for two, kapo. And there’ll be a march.’ Pavel is seized by a momentary weakness, everything spins in front of him. He reels and, as through a dark glass, he sees Lausmann leave in the direction of the gallows. He hears Kozlowski bleating: ‘It’s all over, there’ll be a ceremonial again. I had my thirty-five strokes in vain.’ These words arouse fierce protest in Pavel, sweeping away all his doubts. He says darkly: ‘Maybe they’ll rave as during a ceremonial, but we won’t see the clerk on these gallows. Maybe they’ll beat you into a frazzle, but the clerk is safely away and that’s more important than your behind.’ Kozlowski spontaneously touches his behind and a stifled note comes from his throat. All those around revive and stare at Pavel. ‘So you’re yourselves again,’ Antek says to them. ‘Let me tell you that Schwarzhuber will string up on these gallows, high up, those two SS men who let the two through the gate.’ ‘I’ve never seen such dunderheads as you,’ Wladek says angrily. ‘You really think Schwarzhuber is going to rack his brain about how many SS men to string up just to make you happy?’ He spits and adds: ‘I’ll tell you what he’ll do. During the night he’ll have two corpses from the

130 Escape from Hell

morgue strung up. He’ll get their faces covered or disfigured and we’ll be doing our Parademarsch past them. You’ll see …’ Wladek falls silent because at just that moment they hear Schwarzhuber’s sharp barking voice from the gate. They all stiffen. Lausmann hurries unsteadily to the gate. After a little while he returns and with great relief shouts: ‘Into the huts! Los! Move your arseholes!’ In front of the cookhouse two empty nooses collide in the irregular gusts of wind and eventually a weary, glum Saturday evening begins in Hut 9 after twenty-five hours of tortuous, killing standing. *** For a moment the two climb out of their hole under their roof of panels that lets most of the frosty air of the Sunday morning mist through. As far as their hideout allows them, they stretch their stiff bodies and try to get them into a different position. Karol cannot move his right arm at all, he cannot lift it at the elbow, his fingers are stiff and without feeling. Val leans forward and, until it becomes too tiring for him, rubs Karol’s shoulder with his hand to get his blood circulating at least a little. It is Sunday and the two can visualise exactly what is going on in the camp. One hundred and fifty men are at the ramp and three hundred at the furnaces. Four hundred and fifty are outside – and, of course, those two, whom they haven’t deducted yet but whom they’re not counting any longer. In front of Hut 9 and in front of Hut 10 in the other cage, the men are still standing, or again standing. If they are still standing, then no doubt a lot of them have already been carried to the back, to the wall of the hut. But it is possible that this horrible dying has come to an end. One way or another it is a desperate joyless Sunday. Every Sunday in the huts is like that because Death has got into its swing, mowing people down ceaselessly and not letting them forget, even on a Sunday, that it is in control – and not some unrealistic hopes or longings. In the huts they will now be washing themselves and their clothes. Patiently they will be searching for and killing the typhus lice, scraping out the dirt from under their finger nails, nibbling them, ripping their clothes into bandages, rags, scarves, handkerchiefs and ear-flaps, patching up trouser legs and jackets, with their fingers picking off the mud and blood on their clothes, carefully scraping off the traces of faeces on their bodies, and with their only precious needle sewing on new number-rectangles and carefully writing their numbers on them. Those all-important numbers. The hairdressers with their old-fashioned machines are shaving their heads bald – shaving them without soap, forty prisoners per hour. Those

‘In the Name of the Reichsführer SS’ 131

shaven wash their dirty necks and hands with what is left of their tea. For lunch they will get soup. A Sunday dinner. Karol swallows heavily and Val smiles bitterly. How long since they have eaten? And how long before they eat again? Karol looks at his phosphorescent wristwatch. A mere two thousand three hundred and forty minutes have passed since they crept into their hideout. Not quite half the time until, according to local practice, the SS will withdraw their security ring. But suppose Schwarzhuber withdraws it a day or two later? What then? Maybe hunger is not going to kill them, but will they overcome the hardships of their flight when they are totally starved and enfeebled? It looks as if Val is also troubled by similar thoughts, or even by identical ones. He picks up the razor and holds it up before Karol’s face. His eyes say clearly: While we have the razor, they won’t get us alive. And maybe they won’t get us dead either. Cautiously and silently they try to find a position in which they can lean against the edges of the timber panels with the least pain. So long as they do not stiffen up in their new positions. Karol covers his eyes with one hand and with the other points upwards, indicating, not very clearly, evening, night and darkness. But Val understands and nods. Yes, if only dusk fell soon. If only this day passed happily. The hustle and bustle of the search that is going on everywhere around them will quieten down in the evening and only patrols will be left inside and outside the concentration camp. Even in their situation the evening is more merciful than daytime. *** All afternoon Franz Schwarzhuber is consumed by torturing pain. Anger bubbles up in him like a spring tide. Whenever he falls victim to hopelessness and, with his elbows on his desk, begins to consider the situation that might develop, the moment when he would have to report the escape of those two to his superiors, he is gripped by despair that governs all his thoughts and actions. He has Bischoff brought to him and with unusual asperity accuses him of not doing nearly enough to ensure an orderly and smooth procedure of the work between the ramps and the crematoriums. ‘How many Greeks were brought in last night?’ he asked irritably. ‘About a thousand and two hundred, Herr Lagerführer.’ ‘About! I thought you wouldn’t know accurately. One thousand one hundred, Bischoff, and they made a row as if they were three times as many. And how many did we dispatch to their Olympus?’ ‘We kept eighty, Herr Lagerführer.’

132 Escape from Hell

‘Remember, Bischoff, this isn’t proper work. This is bungling. It takes the men ages to push those bastards into the chambers and there’s too much noise with it!’ He leans forward a little towards Bischoff and continues in a more confidential tone: ‘Sometimes, Bischoff, sometimes I have the impression that I’m getting tired. Think of it. We work our guts out here and Moll gets the kudos. What does he do? Keeps the record and boozes. We do the work and he gets recognition and medals. And gold … The devil knows how much gold he’s already ferried out. Tell me, Bischoff, is that fair?’ ‘No, Herr Lagerführer, that’s not fair at all. All work, no recognition. I didn’t get home for Christmas and now over Easter I have to stay behind in this shit again.’ ‘Well, there you are. Does anyone understand it? Very well, Bischoff, send me Kaduk over.’ While he grumpily talks to Kaduk a railway engine whistles penetratingly at the ramp. His bad mood returns: ‘Those are Jews from the ghetto,’ he says darkly. ‘Another two transports are scheduled for this evening … complete with families. As God is my witness, Kaduk, I’d trade in five such transports for those two fugitives. Today was supposed to be a holiday for our men, am I right?’ ‘Yes, Herr Lagerführer!’ ‘Well, it won’t be,’ he grunts. ‘Today’s time off is cancelled. There won’t be any concert, no tra-la-la. I don’t wish to see anyone in the barracks except those on duty.’ He presses his lips together and hisses: ‘Everybody will search, Kaduk, everybody! If they find them there’ll be booze for them. Hold out the prospect of leave to them. Take command, bring back those two bastards and I … I’ll recommend you for the Knight’s Cross.’ For the rest of the afternoon he is haunted by terrible visions. Over lunch Boger had come to see him and in his revoltingly gentle manner had reminded him that an unsuccessful outcome to the search would trigger a thunderstorm from Berlin, with lightning bound to strike people here. A brilliant discovery! As if he didn’t know himself! There was no need for that self-confident dandy to remind him of it. What irks him most is that Boger will protect himself against those strokes of lightning and that he himself has no way of stopping or even mitigating any such initiative from the political department. So Boger sends out telegrams from his office to all SS commands in the Government-General with a description of the fugitives and these telegrams keep Schwarzhuber mercilessly glued to his office chair for hours.

‘In the Name of the Reichsführer SS’ 133

For several hours he composes in his head the text of his report, jumping up every so often and going to the window in the hope of seeing those two miscreants amidst a bunch of dog-handlers on the road outside the camp. With approaching dusk this wish grows in strength, but somewhere in his subconscious his hope is fading and a sense of being wronged steals into his soul, mingling with growing unease. ‘Damn that Lausmann,’ he grumbles rather illogically. ‘Why couldn’t he have sent that bastard to hell? The one who vamoosed.’ Late in the evening, about an hour after the arrival of the family transports from Westerborg and Mechelen, when all hope has died within him that the two would be brought to him before the end of the day, he sits down at his typewriter and reports the escape of two prisoners to the Reichsführer SS-Himmler, to the Resettlement Office, to SS headquarters and to the central office in Oranienburg. By the time he has squeezed the report out of himself he has gone through a lot of paper and a lot of vodka, ceaselessly cursing Boger, Bischoff, Kaduk and Lausmann. Then he is again seized by fury. He picks up the telephone, calls the duty officer and instructs him: ‘Arrange at once for a message to Doctor Wirths that he need not bother to go to the ramp. We don’t need a single person as we’re disbanding many squads. Clear?’ After giving this order he feels so much better that he manages, without any cursing, to seal the envelopes with his report and prepare them for dispatch. Then he places a bottle of vodka and a large glass by the telephone and, ceaselessly drinking and smoking, waits for it to ring. Several hours have elapsed. It is now after midnight, there is another bottle by the telephone, but so far no one has called, no one has reported that those two are being escorted back into the camp. If that were to happen he would immediately destroy his report and announce everywhere that any earlier telegrams were totally unsubstantiated. But the phone stays silent, that damned phone, and that swine Boger need not have been in such a hurry. There is something wrong even with that vodka. He quaffs it like water but it is not going to his head and his bad mood will not leave him. The more he drinks the more he is gripped by fear that the escape of those two old-timers, who have seen and heard a lot here, will mean for him a posting to the worst sector of the eastern front. As he was signing his report he had the chilling feeling that he was signing his death warrant. And from the moment that he slipped the copies of it into their envelopes and sealed them he saw himself in the most varied and most dangerous situations – in the trenches under fire from Katyusha mortars, in no-man’s-land under fire from both sides, in the

134 Escape from Hell

middle of mine fields, under the caterpillar tracks of tanks, surrounded by partisans. He is soaked through with vodka by now, but it has produced no Dutch courage. In none of these dangerous situations does he see himself as a hero, no one is pinning a medal on him, no one promotes him for conspicuous courage. ‘To hell with the front and all heroes,’ he mutters. He takes a gulp straight from the bottle and again looks at the telephone. Then he walks over to the armchair by a small table, sits down and with dull eyes regards the floor. His head is feverish and, as through a mist, he sees on the floor a gigantic face of Heinrich Himmler with its cold merciless eyes. Then the floor heaves up menacingly, he quickly closes his surprised eyes to shut out the terrible vision and, with a burning cigarette between his fingers, he falls asleep. Next morning he does not wake to the usual gong. What wakes him is Boger appearing to him in his bad dreams with the announcement that the rank-and-file Waffen-SS man Franz Schwarzhuber is, on the order of Reichsführer SS-Himmler, to prove his loyalty to the Reich at the eastern front. Schwarzhuber shakes violently. His confused glances stray about his office and then stop at the telephone. In his twisted mind a sudden ray of light appears. He will summon Boger to find out if he has heard anything new, but then he changes his mind and walks over to the water tap to wash and brush up. A few minutes later he is sitting in his open car, speeding to B-II D. By the gate, where he brakes sharply, the SS men salute him, but he does not reply, he is too choked by fury. By the huts stand the prisoners who should have long been at work, which reminds him that he was not woken by any gong today. ‘Dunderheads, swine, crooks, idiots,’ he screams at the SS men. ‘You thought you had to wait for me?’ And with more curses he orders them to strike a piece of rusty rail. ‘Bloody idiots!’ Then, filled with gloomy thoughts, he stands by the gate until the last ranks of five have passed through. The end of the column is provided by the ‘Mexico’ squad. They have to string up the final few metres of barbed wire, deepen the trenches and assemble new huts for further subhumans from the occupied countries of Europe. Eventually they are all outside – except for some one thousand textile workers from the neighbouring cage, where Drechsler’s voice can be heard from time to time. There’s going to be another selection in the women’s camp. *** Ever since the morning a muted banging of timber, a clanking of metal, the shouting of kapos and SS men and the barking of dogs has

‘In the Name of the Reichsführer SS’ 135

penetrated into their hideout. In their minds they try to guess the distance that separates them from the SS men, the place where the prisoners were working, stiffening and almost ceasing to breathe; whenever the shouting or the barking gets close one or the other picks up the razor. Although it is unlikely that in the middle of the working day anyone would search for them on a work sector, they are unable to suppress their fear of the dogs and their nervousness increases as the hours slip by. But by the second gong, announcing the end of the midday break, no one has got close to their hideout. Shortly after the second gong Val jerks so violently that he only just stifles a shout of pain. They are surprised to hear shuffling footsteps nearby, as if somebody had come through the air and stopped near their hideout. A few more steps, this time away from their hideout, then nothing for a long while. Finally – urinating. And whistling. Mama son tanto felice … A smile comes over Karol’s pale face. Val pushes forward eagerly and just then the whistling is heard again. He grips Karol’s hand firmly. Adamek, that’s Adamek! He’s told them everything. All’s well, no one knows anything about them. Adamek has come to reassure them, to strengthen their hope and to raise their courage. Good old Adamek! All afternoon their tired, sunken eyes shine with nervous excitement. Time and again life revives in them in ever more powerful surges. They are starved, but as time elapses and approaches 5 pm, the pain of hunger vanishes and a sense of returning strength increases. They both believe that their stiff arms and legs will obey them, that they will quickly succeed in escaping from the perilous neighbourhood of the concentration camp and that they will not make any mistakes afterwards. Hope is a fantastic force. Who can tell how much food and sleep a spark of hope can replace? Once more they change their position and Karol tightens the cloth over his mouth because he wants to shout with joy. It is exactly five o’clock, the band has started up by the gate of B-II D and from the road comes the sound of marching feet. The noise from the ‘Mexico’ sector gets weaker and eventually stops. Karol has to push his fingers into his cheeks, pinch himself and bite his lips to control the wild joy that drives thousands of words to his tongue. Good heavens, the third day is drawing to a close! Is it possible that we have lived to see this moment? It is five o’clock, in an hour they will start counting. The thought of the count suddenly depresses him. What will happen to them if the numbers do not tally today? If somebody has escaped from one of the cages today? Oh, you cursed siren, don’t wail today, don’t once again let loose hundreds of SS men and dogs all over the countryside, you can wail tomorrow, the day after, every day, only not today. Crushed and totally exhausted, they have lain here for seventy-

136 Escape from Hell

seven hours. They would not survive another three days and three nights. Will the numbers tally today? *** The numbers do tally. They clearly tally in every cage. No one is missing anywhere, alive or dead, not one man missing, otherwise the siren would wail. All around the lights are on and beyond the ring of lights the windswept dusk is thickening. Sixty thousand prisoners in ranks of five impatiently shuffle their feet, waiting for the command ‘Into the huts!’ And for something else. Four days have passed since the escape of those two. If past practice is followed, the hunt for them should end today. So why have they not yet stood down the guards outside? Why have they not stood them down if everything up front is all right? In the past, provided the numbers tallied and no one was missing, the hooters would ring out from watch-tower to watch-tower, full stop to the counting, everything is all right. Up front by the gate there is still some confusion. A few SS men are shouting. The shouting stops after a few minutes and only Bischoff’s voice is heard. Lausmann stops on his way in front of Hut 9 and curiously looks towards the gate. ‘Scheisse,’ he says in his high-pitched croaky voice, ‘what’s going on there?’ Since morning he has been in the grip of a bad mood. During that endless standing about he caught a cold: he has a sore throat, and his voice has turned squeaky beyond recognition, his nose is all red and sore from the frequent use of a handkerchief. ‘Nothing’s going on,’ says Marcel in a high-pitched voice, as if answering Lausmann. ‘No good news for us.’ Marcel’s squeaky voice is carried to Lausmann by the wind. Lausmann turns and, with a malevolent smile that reveals three big yellow teeth, yells: ‘Come here, scumbag!’ Marcel runs over to him and Lausmann orders him to repeat what he said. ‘I said, Herr Rottenführer, that now … now we’ll have good news. Like an end to standing around, Herr Rottenführer.’ ‘Say that again,’ Lausmann screams in his squeaky voice and Pavel notices with alarm that the unpleasantly croaky and squeaky voices of the two men are so alike that Lausmann probably thinks that Marcel is mocking him.

‘In the Name of the Reichsführer SS’ 137

‘I said, Herr Rottenführer,’ Marcel peeps, ‘that we’ll soon go back to our huts.’ Angrily Lausmann leans forward. Everybody expects he will hit him hard, but nothing of the sort happens. The Rottenführer controls himself and in a croaking voice says: ‘Very well, Frenchman. You are French, aren’t you? Get into the first rank. Piss off.’ Slowly he walks down the road. ‘Give him a wide berth,’ Pavel says to Marcel. ‘At least for a week avoid him like the devil.’ Up front there is again some confusion. Antek stands on tiptoe, but he cannot see as far as the gate because dense wisps of fog hide the lights. ‘They’ve nabbed them, you’ll see that they’ve nabbed them,’ says Stephan behind and a moment later lets out a scream of pain. ‘If you open your cakehole once more,’ Wladek says to him, ‘I’ll work you over till you’re not good enough even for the Leichenhalle!’ In that growing tension Heršek now turns up and looks towards the gate. Then he acts as if he has noticed something that he has long expected. He draws Antek back a step, then playfully punches his side and with a smile gives him a cigarette. ‘Take it … afterwards you’ll owe me eleven.’ Antek understands. His eyes flash joyfully and from inside his sleeve, held in place by a rubber band, appears a packet of ten cigarettes. Heršek’s eyes pop out. ‘Well, there!’ He extends his hand, but a moment later he stops. ‘I don’t want them yet. The guards are still out there. When they call everything off.’ ‘All right, Heršek,’ Antek smiles. Never in his life has he been happier to lose a bet. ‘All right, Heršek, but … now I want a moment’s quiet. Ever since midday I’ve been racking my brain, trying to work out where those two have got to by now.’ Heršek moves forward to Pavel and Marcel. Through the rolling mist they see two shadows, bent double, running to the gallows. The shadows take down the nooses and pull away the small platform from which the death sentence was to be announced. As they disappear beyond the road, the command, ‘Stand down the security chain’, is heard from the gate and a deep hooting begins to be carried from tower to tower. ‘Everybody to the hut!’ Lausmann squeaks. ‘Frenchman, you stay with me!’ He raises his voice: ‘Everybody inside the hut! Los!’ As the area empties, Marcel looks questioningly at Lausmann. For an instant their eyes meet and Marcel trembles. ‘He’s going to beat me up,’ he thinks to himself. ‘He’s going to beat me up badly. Maybe he’ll send me to Hut 11. But why? True, Pavel has told me to explain to him that I have such a squeaky voice since my castration. My God, he thinks I’ve been winding him up!’

138 Escape from Hell

‘Herr Rottenführer …’ ‘Shut up!’ Lausmann hisses. Suddenly he adds quite calmly: ‘Let’s go, Frenchman. Walk in front of me!’ Cold sweat breaks out on Marcel’s forehead. ‘Faster, Frenchman!’ As they walk along the side of the hut Pavel peeps out from around the corner. Barely twenty paces before him he sees the two men in the yellowish light, dimmed by the rolling mists. Lausmann is holding a revolver and says quickly: ‘Life’s a seesaw, Frenchman. Back there, by the road, you shot your mouth off to me. Now I’ll do the shooting. About turn!’ Marcel turns. Now he faces Lausmann eye to eye. A few steps behind Marcel’s back is the barbed wire with its lethal voltage. Marcel is pale, his brain is numbed by fear and his body is stiff with cold, with the breath of death that has been close to him several times. ‘Herr Rottenführer, I … I …’ he stammers, he doesn’t know how to finish, there is now no other thought in his head than whatever he does he will die now. At Marcel’s squeaky words Lausmann is gripped by astonishment and Pavel, who has crept along the back wall of the hut can clearly hear his thin hissing voice: ‘What a strange man you are, Frenchman. You know that you’re going to croak … I can see it on you that you know it … and still you’re mocking me. Still you’re making fun of me.’ Harshly he adds: ‘Walk backwards … ten steps back!’ Marcel walks backwards with short steps. ‘Longer steps!’ shouts Lausmann. After ten steps Marcel stops. He stares at Lausmann, his features tense. Lausmann looks somewhere above his shoulders, as if trying to judge the distance between the prisoner and something behind him. Marcel glances quickly behind him. He sees the ditch, the brightly lit prohibited zone on which the machine-guns on the watch-towers are permanently trained, and the barbed wire. At that moment something gives in Marcel’s brain and with a strangely clear mind he realises that Lausmann wants to kill him. ‘Further back … another eight paces, Frenchman,’ Lausmann commands, slightly raising his arm with the revolver. Marcel takes four steps back and then halts. ‘More!’ Lausmann hisses, stepping forward and looking at Marcel with his unmoving pale eyes. ‘Do you hear, Frenchman? More!’ And then something happens that neither Lausmann nor Pavel expected. Marcel’s features broaden in an ugly animal grin and a large gob of hot spittle flies into Lausmann’s eyes. Lausmann jerks his head violently, instinctively raising his hand to his face; at that moment

‘In the Name of the Reichsführer SS’ 139

Marcel kicks him fiercely in the stomach. Lausmann immediately pulls himself together, but before he manages to raise his arm with the weapon and fire a burst of machine-gun fire comes from the nearest watch-tower. With an unexpectedly fierce, shrill cry Marcel hangs on the wire, strangely contorted. Lausmann, stunned, gazes uncomprehendingly at the burnt and twisted body of the Frenchman and Pavel, fists clenched and hanging his head, enters the bustling hut. *** Shortly after the burst of machine-gun fire Karol and Val duck so they can at last climb out of their hole. ‘At last!’ Karol relieves himself. And these are the first words they have spoken in their hideout. Val is still struggling, he slowly pushes the upper part of his body out. At every careless or sudden movement a sharp pain shoots through his arms, legs, trunk and neck. But after a while they are both in a position where they can embrace and hug one another. Seventy-nine hours they have been kneeling, half-sitting, half-lying amidst the seething madness outside. At long last they can now stretch their chilled bodies and attempt their first stiff, jerky, uncertain, vague and exacting movements. Their circulation returns only slowly. They both have the sensation of ants running along in their veins, that their bodies have been transformed into big, very slowly warming antheaps. The moment they stand up on their legs a fog descends on their vision and a thousand tones ring in their heads – as if they were learning to keep their balance and to control their arms and legs, to master the slightest movement of every part of their bodies. The onset of weakness is so fierce that they have to support themselves on the inner edges of the panels. Long minutes pass before this attack of faintness passes. Only now do they realise how starved, weakened and thirsty they are. Karol motions upwards with his head and looks at Val inquiringly. ‘Not yet,’ Val replies. ‘Now … now we must be very careful. We’ll wait at least till nine.’ ‘Yes, we’d better wait.’ For a while they crouch and stretch, bend their arms at the elbow and their legs at the knee. They rotate their feet. Then they pull out their knapsack from the hole and take from it everything that they might need for their flight in case snow had fallen outside: two long white shirts, loose pants and big socks made from white cloth. They close the knapsack with its straps and for a while test its weight. It is a

140 Escape from Hell

lot heavier than it was eighty hours earlier. Finally they tie up their shoes into pairs and once more try to get their stiff bodies warm. *** Adamek steps into Hut 9. He looks right and left, somehow from above, condescendingly, with a gentle smile. That glance is meant for Kozlowski, who is just then shouting at Stephan that an orderly issue of bread applies to everybody. ‘That’s the kind of block leader I like,’ says Adamek with a smile, looking at Pavel and Wladek. ‘Oh yes, with one like that one might live until his death.’ Kozlowski suddenly forgets about Stephan and snaps at Adamek: ‘Why don’t you crawl into your own sty? What business have you here?’ ‘I’ll tell you,’ Adamek replies cunningly. ‘I’m looking for your clerk, just to tell him what a sight you are, and then I’ll disappear. But where is he? Good people, where on earth is Karol?’ Kozlowski turns pale. Over the past few days a lot of pointed remarks have been addressed to him. Without my fists or my kicks I won’t maintain my authority, he believes, and clenches his fist, but he instantly pulls back because he senses the hostile glances of the men behind his back. So he just says angrily: ‘You’re raving. Where have you been if you don’t know that he’s no longer with us? So piss off, now, piss off or I won’t control myself!’ ‘Yes, of course, he’s no longer with us, I had quite forgotten,’ says Adamek and moves towards the door. There he turns round and says, laughing: ‘Of course, I now remember. It was because of the clerk that they decorated your behind. Well … at least it wasn’t for nothing.’ Stephan roars with laughter, this way he repays Kozlowski for his earlier criticism. And Kozlowski assesses the situation correctly. He does not strike Adamek because he would make enemies of all the older prisoners. But nobody likes Stephan. Quickly Kozlowski bends down and shoots up and, before Stephan realises what is happening, he hits Stephan on his nose with the heel of his clog. Everything goes black before Stephan’s eyes and he crashes to the ground with a heavy groan. Kozlowski searches the faces before him to assess the effect of his action. They are frowning, motionless, reflecting neither approval nor opposition, yet there is something in them that fills Kozlowski with a sense of unease. Looking at Stephan as he gets up from the floor, with confusion and surprise in his eyes, the features of the others express indifference. But in their gaze at Kozlowski, who had decided to heighten the authority of his function with his fists and by kicking, there is a chill, a hostility built up patiently and over a long time. Kozlowski very clearly feels that hostility at that moment.

‘In the Name of the Reichsführer SS’ 141

‘The gentleman has used his horns,’ says Wladek, approaching from behind. He looks at Stephan’s bloody forehead, gently pushes him aside and fixes his gaze on Kozlowski. ‘A well-aimed blow,’ he remarks with feigned admiration. ‘Is your aim going to be as good at other times, block leader?’ ‘Maybe I’ll hit you one day.’ ‘But after that no one else,’ Wladek replies firmly. ‘No one else – understood?’ he repeats in a hard voice. ‘We two could just about coexist under one roof, so long … so long as you don’t forget my words. But you won’t forget them, will you, Mister block leader, will you?’ Again wrath rises in Kozlowski. He flings out his arms, but before he can flood the other with angry words, Wladek steps up close to him and with a friendly smile says: ‘When the head’s filled with anger, common sense usually moves to the arse, Kozlowski. See them, your public is hungry.’ ‘Hungry, hungry,’ Kozlowski repeats, glad to have come out of this verbal duel without a bruise. ‘Anyway, what the hell’s happening about that bread? Heršek, move your arse! Antek, Juzek, Kaczmarek, get going with those cakes! And everyone to their places, to the bunks!’ Pavel stands by his bunk, on the middle part of which Karol used to sleep. Marcel’s journey has ended on the wire, he reflects. And where will Karol’s and Val’s journey end? Will they get safely home? Will they get across the frontier? Then he catches himself putting words together and putting entire sentences into Karol’s and Val’s mouths. This is what you should report. And that. Talk about everything, one thing after another. And don’t forget that they’re planning to build new gas chambers and crematoriums. After the issue of the bread Antek, Juzek and Heršek slip to the side and festively light half a cigarette each. Now and again Karol’s name is mentioned. They are proud of him and they do not hide it. They were his friends. They lived, or rather vegetated, together for a long time. And now and again Marcel’s name is mentioned. Who’d have thought that he’d end like that? Only Kaczmarek is depressed: he does not hear anything and does not take anything in. Will he see Esther again? Is she still alive? Or is she already … Perhaps he will not see her again. They had a selection there today, flames will again shoot up from the chimneys tonight, prisoners and civilians. But if he does not see her again, if she is no longer … What will he do if she no longer exists? Well, he knows a reliable way to end it all … Through the back door of the hut. For the moment, however, he ties up nearly a whole helping of bread in a piece of cloth.

142 Escape from Hell

Bolek sits quietly on his bunk in Hut 17. Those two are escaping somewhere where they will tell all. And then something will happen. Surely the world cannot remain blind and unfeeling in the face of such brutal murdering! Kolka in Hut 16 draws the entire front line on the wood of his bunk with his fingernail, its full length as he pictures it, and with all his strength presses a finger at the spot where the decisive blow should be struck against the fascist units. In Hut 11, where the prisoners of the punitive squad are usually retained, Vasil sits pensively, his fingers tapping his knee, slowly chewing each small piece of bread. Now and again a weak smile flits over his features: those two have broken through the murderous ring and the SS unit, armed to the teeth, seethes with anger. And that really is a good sign. Andrej, the doctor and chief of Hut 10 of the quarantine, hopes that Karol and Val won’t need any medications. He hopes nothing will happen to them. And that they will soon report to the right people, so that something might happen here to compel the Germans to disband their concentration camps. Fero from central registry also feels that his work was not in vain, that, as far as possible, he provided help. What more could he have done? The master record that he is responsible for and that no unauthorised person is allowed to see, has disclosed its testimony, its horrendous evidence. Filipek in Hut 13 lies on his bunk dressed, his feet dangling from his bunk, his arms under his head. He thinks about the two years he has survived here. He has long deleted himself from the list of the living, because all the time he has been working with the dead, and at this moment he wonders whether he, ‘dead’, did enough while alive in those surroundings. He feels he probably did. He wrote down the names of all the SS men working around the crematoriums. He recorded the transports around which he ‘worked’: where they had come from and when. In this collection of information he had been helped by others. Yet even so … He pulled off the label from one can of Zyklon. He got the first two parts off cleanly, the next two he copied out by hand: place of manufacture, name or title of the manufacturer – enough to prove criminal complicity. No doubt bombs will soon drop there and manufacture of Zyklon will not be restored in a hurry. He hopes they will not lose the list and the label, he hopes they will take it all as soon as possible to safety, to people. Edek in Hut 14 in his mind follows the escape of the two in clothes that he sneaked out from the store where he sorts clothes. Tailor-made suits from Amsterdam. In such clothes they will be able to show themselves

‘In the Name of the Reichsführer SS’ 143

among ordinary people. He sorted out two outfits, not for Berlin but against Berlin; he smuggled them out safely. But … what did he actually do? Tomorrow, along with fellow prisoners, he will once more go to the store to sort clothes for the murderers. What more can he do amidst the things that used to belong to people who are no longer alive? In Hut 18 Otta looks at a wooden toolbox, a locksmith’s toolbox. The box has a narrow false bottom in which, for more than a year, he has been carrying secret messages and reports from one cage to another – some even got out of the camp. A locksmith without a master craftsman’s certificate, he carried out a lot of non-locksmith’s work … Otta produces from the box a key to a shed and gazes on it as on a jewel. That key is precious. Karol has a copy of it. There, in the small shed amidst all the junk it was possible to write, to talk, to draw a site plan and dye trousers and jackets with acetone dye that was easy to dilute and remove. And he keeps worrying if he could have done more … In the nearby women’s cage young girls stand outside some of the huts. There are only a few hundred left of those who came to Auschwitz in 1942. They are leaning against the walls, reluctant to go inside. They look up at the cold starry sky and dream their dreams. Two years back, when they arrived from Slovakia, they believed that they would be released after three or six months. But then they lost all hope and lived without hope, in boundless suffering and despair. But now they once more begin to hope. Those two will get away, they will tell the world and surely the International Red Cross or whoever will take action. Perhaps even aircraft will appear overhead … Surely those two will reach safety and quite certainly they will meet people to whom they can tell everything. And maybe they will return in the next few nights with those who will liberate the concentration camps. Surely they will come with them and they will have a wonderful reunion with their dear ones. Then they quietly disappear in their huts. Deep silence hangs over the whole concentration camp. But the machinery continues to function with precision. The cages are brightly lit, SS men sit behind machine-guns on the watch-towers beyond the wire, a powerful lamp is alight over every hut door. In the barracks the SS men relax over games of cards. Some of them are already asleep, others sing about conquering the ‘Sowjetunion’ and ‘Engelland’. Only two are missing, those who four days ago were on guard duty by the gate. Twenty-one days in the bunker! That was the command of Lagerführer Schwarzhuber. Before the evening gong he amplified his sentence: ‘Fling the block leader in as well, and that Jew from the quarantine!’

Chapter 10

Danger: Live Ammunition!

Now comes the first push of stiff hands against the timbers, the first attempt to shove the heavy hut sections aside. But there is not enough room or enough strength for a concerted heave. After each fierce and prolonged effort a thousand fiery needles dig into their flesh. After the third unsuccessful attempt they can manage no more: they are exhausted, their legs tremble and fold up under them, they cannot support the weight of their bodies. For a while they pause and gasp for breath. In this brief and unnerving pause they realise that night in the camp is too short, that the minutes that elapse now could become fatal for them, that by this enforced waste of time they are positively asking for failure and bringing on the morning, when they will not be able to do anything but, with extreme nervous tension, will have to await another evening. They take a deep breath, brace their backs one against the other and, as far as possible, straighten their arms. This way the pressure is much greater. They push with all their might: in no time they are covered in sweat, they have reached their limit, beyond this effort there is absolute weakness. Oh Lord, thinks Karol, if we don’t move these panels our hideout will become our tomb. Again they heave. Bracing back to back they feel that they have spent all their strength and if the panels do not yield now an hour or more will have to pass before they can make another desperate attempt. ‘Hold out … just a little longer …’ groans Karol. Val suddenly stops, his hands sink down to his knees. ‘I’m all in,’ he whispers and in an onrush of weakness closes his eyes. They both sweat profusely. They breathe fast and fiercely, emitting croaky groans. Karol’s fingers probe the panels above their heads. ‘Have they moved?’ ‘They have,’ Karol whispers excitedly. ‘Upon my soul, they’ve moved a bit!’ The knowledge that above these last few panels is the night sky under whose cover it will be possible to escape beyond the boundary of the camp, into a wide, free landscape, makes them even bolder. As long

Danger: Live Ammunition! 145

as they can they stand on tiptoe … They take more frequent breathers and again and again brace themselves against the timbers. Each effort needs all their strength and all their willpower, but these desperate attempts flag after a while and they suddenly weaken again, certain that they have no strength left for a further attempt. They sit on their heels, trembling, listening for suspicious noises nearby. But everything is quiet, they can hear nothing except their own rattling breath. But there is a noise – the hissing of flames. At this sound a cold shiver runs through their sweaty, exhausted bodies and involuntarily they cling to each other. ‘Don’t think of that now,’ Val speaks up. ‘Don’t think of it now. We got the better of Schwarzhuber and these timbers won’t stop us.’ The edge of the timber cuts against their bones, but they go on straining, puffing, panting, pushing again, listening to the dry, scraping friction of wood against wood. At each desperate heave the two panels move at least three millimetres apart and presently, though totally exhausted and weary, they see above them a piece of the night sky and some distant, cold stars. On their faces they feel a breath of refreshing frosty air. The darkness above them is entirely different from the darkness in their timber hideout. It is alive, fresh and friendly, because it shields them from pursuing eyes. ‘At last!’ Val whispers and fiercely embraces Karol. ‘Put your hand there. Can you feel the gap?’ Then he urges: ‘Let’s go, now we mustn’t lose another second.’ They stand on tiptoe to widen the gap above their heads. Then Val locks his hands to give Karol a leg-up. Karol presses his elbows against the upper panels and slowly tries to pull himself up. The timber is icy and slippery, there is nothing to catch hold of and it takes him quite a while to pull himself up and to lie flat on the stack. He looks in all directions. A multitude of sounds strikes his ear. From the crematorium and from the ramp, he can hear the slamming of waggon doors, the puffing of the engine pulling the empty goods trucks away from the ramp, the shrilling of the railwaymen’s whistles. His hands are under his chest, they’ve practically got stuck to the icy crust and his heart is pounding with excitement. Before him wink the lights of the darkest place on earth, the lights of Auschwitz. For a moment he is mesmerised by the view, then he rolls over on his side with a sigh and whispers down into the opening: ‘There’s no snow … Put the shirts and trousers back in the rucksack. And pass it up!’ He takes the shoes, tied together as pairs, the knapsack, the rucksack and, having tied a string to them, lowers them, one at a time, to the ground. Val scrapes some earth together to the centre of the hideout so

146 Escape from Hell

he can stand on it and more easily pull himself up. Only on his third attempt do his fingers catch a slippery notch in a panel and, with Karol’s help, he climbs to the top of the timber stack. He lies down, shaking. He stares into the darkness and listens out. This is the first time they have seen part of this spectral inferno by night. From their pile of panels they gaze on a huge sector of the Auschwitz complex and for a moment they are seized by a painful sense of their own weakness. A big searchlight casts a long beam of bright light on the main road. Above the gate of each cage is a further spotlight whose yellow beam lights up the roads between the huts. Hundreds or even thousands of small lights are mounted on the concrete pylons by the trench along the wire fence. No part of the perimeter is in darkness or even semidarkness. Cage next to cage, light next to light – huge rectangles or squares of lights, illuminated living tombs behind a barbed wire in which death lurks. Before them lies the centre of the concentration camp – Birkenau and Auschwitz, a small sample of German goodwill. To the right are the crematoriums; from two openings above them blinding flames shoot up at irregular intervals. Behind them is a free space, where there is neither life nor death. For the first time they are seeing this horrible sight with open eyes and from outside. For the first time – and hopefully for the last. Horrified, they watch the blazing flames. At every brief flickering of the greenish-blue light they can see the chimneys. Through these we were meant to leave this place, Karol reflects and the thought makes him shiver, but a moment later he smiles. Only through these chimneys, there is no other way, they tried to convince us. Suddenly he feels he is blaspheming, laughing at the unleashed elements, he, an unimportant speck still within the range of their destructive power. We are still near Schwarzhuber, he reflects, still those green and red, blue and purple flames lick over us with their horrible breath. Slowly he looks behind him, into the dark empty space, where, at every flashing of the flames from the two chimneys, they can see the vague outlines of the as yet unmanned guard towers beyond the ‘Mexico’ fence. And at each terrible flash he looks intently right and left and strains his ears. Eventually he raises himself to his knees with a sigh and starts letting himself down to the ground from his timber stack. Val follows him, slowly, cautiously, so as to make no noise. From the direction of the crematorium comes a cold wind, driving a grainy dusting of snow from one spot to another. As they hear nothing suspicious, they stamp their feet for a while, bend their knees, move their fingers, rotate their feet, rub their calves with their hands: it seems that they do not have a single sensitive nerve in them. Val next climbs up the neighbouring stack and slowly, millimetre by millimetre, begins to shift the panels back into

Danger: Live Ammunition! 147

place. Whenever they think they have made too much noise, they instantly stop and intensify their watchfulness. Eventually Val climbs down and helps Karol to flatten the rucksack and tie it up securely. They pull their socks and strips of cloth off their feet and quickly put on their shoes. ‘As close to the ground as you can,’ whispers Karol and lies down. Looking right and left every other moment, they slowly crawl forward on elbows and knees. Karol pulls the rucksack behind him, Val helps to push it. Along the stacks of the hut sections they creep to the wooden shed, listen out for a minute, then turn right again and, on their bellies, slip into the ditch under the wire fence. They leave no noticeable traces behind them, they crawl in the ditch along the right side of ‘Mexico’, and at its end they turn left and laboriously crawl on. The bottom of the ditch is covered with half-frozen dirt; the crust of ice cracks unpleasantly under their elbows and knees. Karol stops after a while, looks at Val and motions him that this is the spot to climb up the side of the ditch and crawl under the wire. They clamber up and Val, who brings up the rear, tries to smooth out their tracks as far as possible. At the fence they produce two wooden pegs from their pockets and force them under the bottom wire. Although the gap between the ground and the wire is thereby widened, the tight wire forces the pegs into the ground, which is softer here. They grope around for some flat stones, then they put them under the pegs. Now everything is all right and they can crawl through under the bottom strand. On the other side they pull the pegs out and, metre by metre, creep forward. Now they can crawl next to one another and pull the rucksack together. Outside the fence the ground is surprisingly damp, muddy, not trodden down, so that the rucksack does not pull as easily as on the crust of ice. They must get their breath back again. ‘On we go,’ says Val after a short break. The noise and roar from the crematoriums is only slightly less here, flames still flash from the chimneys and at irregular intervals light up the darkness. ‘Look out,’ they both breathe simultaneously. ‘Damn the bastards, what’s this?’ grunts Val. Before them is a white stripe, about half a metre wide, probably some oil paint. The paint is very smelly and thick, and the stripe evidently surrounds the camp territory. Val touches it with his finger. It is probably mixed with some pungent adhesive, as it holds firm and smells, it smells revoltingly. Any foot that touched it would leave very visible tracks for quite a distance. They fling the rucksack across the white belt, then jump across the smelly obstacle and crawl on. Their knees and elbows are wet, muddy

148 Escape from Hell

and sore, but they cannot afford a rest now: they both know that an implacable battle for every second has begun. They have to make a semicircle around the road leading to ‘Mexico’, continue along the peacefully flowing Vistula beyond Brzezinki and from there to the far end of the main camp. On their right the Vistula murmurs monotonously, sparse bushes rustle in the squalls of the wind. On their left they can still hear the hiss of the chimneys and the noise from the crematoriums. The wind twists close to the ground, blowing dirt into their eyes, impairing their view and their breathing. Karol has the impression that the camp moves along with them, because, though they crawl on and on, they cannot escape from those terrifying noises. After a while they catch sight of a solitary tree in front of them. They drag themselves up to it, digging their elbows and knees into the cold swampy ground. By the tree they look back, greatly relieved to find themselves a good distance from the camp. It is quieter here and in the total darkness they can at last straighten their legs and stand up. Karol gets up and immediately sinks back to the ground. His legs are so weak that they shake, even now that he is sitting on the rucksack with Val, his legs freely stretched out in front of him. For a long while they are unable to utter a single word. Then Val produces a piece of bread from his bag, the first in ninety-two hours, and says: ‘So we’ve lived to have a banquet. Eat! They say there’s strength in bread.’ They chew slowly. From time to time they examine their painful knees and elbows. When they have finished, they get up wordlessly and slowly set out again across the sodden ground. They get even closer to the Vistula and for a while they follow its course. Every so often they take the heavy rucksack from each other. Now and again they look back towards the left anxiously, in the direction of the camp. The circle and the squares of light have become much fainter and the bluish-green flames from the chimneys are no longer so frightening. And the sounds that had for so long made their blood run cold are no longer meaningful; at this distance from the camp they merge into a strange vague murmur. They stop by a dry bush. For a while they rub their muscles, then they jump to get warm. ‘It’s three o’clock already,’ says Val. His luminous wristwatch is well above his wrist. ‘A miracle I didn’t bust it. It’s still going.’ ‘In an hour it’ll be getting light,’ Karol replies nervously. ‘Got to speed up a little.’ For a short distance they drag themselves between spiky bushes, where the ground is a little firmer and drier, then again they are back in the heavy mud. Every moment or so Val nervously looks at his watch,

Danger: Live Ammunition! 149

time is passing too fast, he reflects, and we are moving too slowly. Only with an effort does he make out the silhouette of Karol walking in front of him. All round is a thick wall of fog, but it seems to Val that higher up it blends into grey mist. It can’t be far to the little wood, he reflects again, perhaps two kilometres, perhaps even less. There’s an hour to go until dawn. Will we get to the wood in time? ‘Watch out!’ Karol in front almost shouts. ‘A fence.’ Before them are three strands of wire on wooden stakes, perhaps to keep horses in. Or perhaps to keep people in. ‘Let’s follow the fence,’ says Karol softly. ‘And carefully. For all we know they may have set up some alarm trip wire.’ Abruptly they look at each other accusingly as they realise that they have behaved rather noisily. One could have cut the darkness with a knife; it is impossible to discover what lies behind those wires. They crouch down and listen intently, they try to make out or even to guess the shape of nearby objects. Val stares into the dark along the fence, then he looks round and whispers joyfully: ‘There it is … have a good look … that damned notice!’ Bent double they advance a few steps. Yes, this is one of those notice boards that mark the boundary of the camp. It says: CROSSING THIS TERRITORY IS STRICTLY PROHIBITED! FIRE WITH LIVE AMMUNITION OPENED WITHOUT WARNING! THE CAMP COMMANDANT

‘They forgot to say,’ Val says with a grin, ‘from which side the territory mustn’t be crossed. What do you think? From inside or outside?’ They covered a good twelve kilometres before getting to that notice. And suddenly it seems to them that there is no need to curse it. Karol embraces its iron post and with his other hand pulls Val to himself and excitedly declares: ‘We’re over the frontier … over the frontier of this accursed hell.’ ‘If only we were across our own frontier!’ exclaims Val. ‘Arseholes! Warning people not to enter. As if people were queuing to come in!’ For a while they push their way through soft, springy vegetation. They watch the darkness turn to grey even at ground level and in this grey light they make out bushes and occasional solitary trees. In front, to their right, rises a dark wall – the wood. They know that somewhere near there are quicksands, where many people have died, and they are careful not to stray anywhere from where there would be no return. We’d probably be wise to wait a little, Karol reflects, but he walks on, trying to lengthen his stride. Unexpectedly a narrow strip appears in the east and this strip of tentative daylight quickly spreads, dispelling

150 Escape from Hell

the darkness. No, we really must not lose any time, reflects Karol. It could be quite light in a quarter of an hour. But before then we’ve got to cover some more ground, quite a bit more, so that, while we’re still near the boundary of the camp, we can safely hide out during the day. Underfoot the ground is now firmer, a stony, uneven path. They leave it to make for the undergrowth closer to the wood and then again drag themselves along the boundary between springy soil and swamp, which probably marks the beginning of the quicksand. Karol is at the end of his strength: I’m dying from my feet up, he thinks, I don’t feel any life in them at all, as if I were walking on wooden legs. Val notices that Karol is slowing down, strangely wobbling as if he were losing his balance. After every five or six steps he halts and groans with pain. With a great effort Val, himself exhausted, supports Karol and drags him forward into the bushes that border the small patch of woodland. A little bit more, Val thinks, away from the edge, deeper into the trees. His shoulders are sore from the rucksack, he has a stabbing pain in his chest, he feels he is collapsing under the weight he is dragging. Just under that tree over there, he decides, and suddenly this thought vanishes in a burning darkness in which he sees nothing and feels nothing. Darkness engulfs him while he is still on his feet, so that he doesn’t feel his fall, the impact of his exhausted body on the ground or the weight of Karol, whom he has pulled down with him. But when he opens his eyes he is greatly surprised. Everything around him – the spruce forest, the shrubs, and the whole hopeless vast plain behind him with the remains of last year’s grass with black marks of fires – all this lies in the light of the declining day. Karol lies beside him and regards him with tired eyes. The branches above them rustle and move in the gusts of wind. And higher up still, small pale clouds and darker wisps float towards the south, perhaps to the frontier. It is beginning to be evening. ‘The dogs woke me,’ says Karol, waving his arm towards the left, where he suspects the edge of the wood to be. ‘There must be some SS kennels there. Scared me a bit. Made me tremble, but you were lying there like a doorpost. Instead of getting up with the gong you deliberately had a lie-in.’ As dusk descends on the wood, they scrape the dried mud off their clothes and their rucksack, rub their aching feet and sore hands. When even the nearest trees are in the dark, they set out along the edge of the wood, down the slope. ‘We’ll always only move in the dark,’ says Val. ‘My legs hurt like hell. But before daybreak we’ll climb up as high as possible, best among some trees.’ The forest is not large but the way is uneven and rather tiring. Twigs snap under their feet, the thin ice crust on the leaves cracks, they slip

Danger: Live Ammunition! 151

on patches of ice and they trip over the twisting roots of trees. Both have several falls. Karol cuts his palm on an icy edge and Val hits a sharp rock with his knee. ‘We’ll soon have the wood behind us,’ Karol says encouragingly. ‘Then the going should be easier.’ But behind the wood is only a short stretch of slightly descending flat ground. Beyond that rises the dark slope of a hill. The slope is almost smooth, without outcrops or boulders, with a few hazel bushes. In the thickening darkness they climb easily enough – their legs have loosened up. On the top of the hill they stop, have a short rest, then they walk down the hillside, splash through a little stream and once more set out up the next hill. On the crest of the fourth hill, midnight catches up with them and Val throws down his rucksack to have a short rest and gather new strength. Karol sits down on a low tree stump and Val squats on his heels next to him. From the rucksack Karol produces their second bread ration. ‘Treat ourselves to a little coffee?’ asks Val. ‘Just one sip each,’ answers Karol. He remembers Dr Andrej, who had emphatically warned them: ‘Never drink a lot when you are tired and hungry. Your feet would swell from the fluid – and that, in your case, would mean the end.’ ‘About another seventy kilometres,’ Val says pensively. ‘Seventy kilometres as the crow flies. How far would that be by this kind of route?’ Karol is silent, deep in thought. They are escaping. They have escaped from the bony hand of the most hideous death that has ever exterminated humans. But they are not yet safe and they have not yet fulfilled what those suffering friends of theirs inside the camp expect of them. Back there, where they are fleeing from, they are killing people even now and will kill them tomorrow and the next day, forever, until some great force rises up and punishes the murderers. ‘How far to the frontier? By this kind of route, over the mountains?’ Val repeats his question. Karol, still deep in thought, answers: ‘No idea. But certainly a lot. Maybe a hundred and forty kilometres.’ ‘Hell!’ Val spits. ‘That’s a lot even by car.’ Again they climb up the slope. In some spots it is covered by hard ice and because they slip they have to advance sideways, digging their heels into the frozen ground and ice-covered rocks. After two hours they eat the rest of their second bread ration and have a swig of coffee. And they move on at once. Val complains. His sore knee hurts, he would like to sit a little longer, but Karol nervously points out that they still have a long way to go and Schwarzhuber is still only a stone’s throw away.

152 Escape from Hell

At daybreak they find themselves above the Jawiszowice camp, an outlying part of the Auschwitz complex. Tired, they crouch behind some dry, bare bushes and glumly watch the road from the camp, along which prisoners are walking with an escort of SS men. When the whole procession after a while disappears in a hole at the foot of the opposite hillside, evidently in one of the Jawiszowice mines, Karol says glumly: ‘It seems we’ll never leave those damned Germans behind us.’ All around them extends a landscape of bare, sparsely covered hills, an inhospitable, monotonous, repellent world. The sky is grey and a cold wind blows ceaselessly. They shiver with cold. During their nocturnal march they got wet through to the skin with sweat and now everything sticks to them and they feel very cold. They drag themselves a short distance to a slight hollow in the ground and there try to warm up by jumping and violently waving their arms. But they soon give up their attempt because they are too exhausted. They sit down resignedly and carefully wrap their wet and sore feet in pieces of dry rags. Then they gain fresh strength by sleeping until the late afternoon, waking each other after an hour of unquiet breathing. Just before dusk the clouds in the west part and from a deep blue gap between the clouds a glaring oblique sun peeps out. In this cold and weakening daylight they can see the prisoners and SS men come out on the opposite hillside. The prisoners form up on the road and march along the stream into the middle of the dark valley, to the long, low huts of the Jawiszowice concentration camp. When everything has fallen silent around them, they quietly fish out one French cigarette each. Then they carefully examine the ground around their rucksack to make sure they’re not leaving anything behind. A moment later they set out along the crest of the long hill, groaning and complaining as their pains come back again in their legs. By the time they descend on the far side it is quite dark. Over the valley floor below them lies a deep oppressive silence. Down there, there is not a breath of wind, the few sporadic trees do not rustle, they only hear their own footfalls and their laboured breathing. After a short consultation they halt, eat another helping of bread and two helpings of margarine, they drink the rest of their coffee and fill their bottle with icy water from a rivulet. ‘Are we keeping to the valley for a while or do we have to climb again?’ asks Val, probing his swollen knee with his hand. After every brief rest the pain comes back, insistently, after the first step. Karol looks at Val for a while. He could do with a rest, he reflects. Perhaps his knee should be firmly bandaged with a rag. When he tries to do just that Val screams with pain: ‘Leave it like that, don’t tighten it, it makes it hurt even more.’

Danger: Live Ammunition! 153

‘We mustn’t hang about in the valley,’ Karol says sadly. ‘That could be disastrous. The way over the mountains is more difficult, but it’s shorter. And a lot safer. But if you really …’ ‘No, I don’t,’ Val answers decisively. ‘Let’s take the shorter one.’ But as he shifts his weight to the painful leg he moans and whimpers. ‘Let’s take the shorter one … I’m thoroughly fed up with Poland.’ Karol flings the rucksack on his shoulder. Cautiously they circumnavigate the huge boulders, continue along the road on the valley floor and slowly climb up a hillside with a few stunted pines. After three hours they take another rest and these enforced stops are increasingly long and unnerving. They decide to walk until dawn without further breaks. Endlessly they drag themselves along the righthand side of a continuous chain of hills that runs towards the southeast. Daybreak finds them between two hills, totally exhausted, their arms round each other’s waists, like drunkards, tottering to some trees at the foot of the hill facing them. They do not sit down among the trees, but wobbling uncertainly on their weary legs, with dull pain in their features, look up the slope above them. ‘We’ve got to get to the top,’ says Karol after a while, breathless. ‘To the top, d’you hear, Val? Here they might see us. Can you manage it?’ Val grunts with pain and grits his teeth. All night he has been limping. Whenever his foot touches the ground a fierce stab shoots through his knee and a torturing pain through his whole body. He looks at the valley floor that is getting brighter and then up the hillside. ‘Well now, Val. Think we’ll make it to the top?’ ‘Y- yes,’ Val replies doggedly. ‘Let’s go.’ Breathing heavily they drag themselves up the slope diagonally. They fall a few times and for a while lie down to get their breath back. For a bit they crawl on elbows and knees, then they get up again and, step by small step, shorten the distance to the top, now and then helping themselves with their hands. In normal circumstances they would have climbed the hill in fifteen minutes; now it takes them six times as long. Each time he falls and remains lying, Val loses his consciousness for a while. And when he comes to, he loses heart and doubts that he will ever get up again from this hillside. ‘You go on, Karol,’ he stammers in a feverish daze. ‘Down there are Germans. Do you hear? Go on without me.’ Karol smiles. Then he bends down and with a major effort turns Val over on his back. His face is smeared with damp earth and his chest rises and falls violently. ‘Another hundred steps, Val,’ Karol slowly raises him to a sitting position. ‘Only a hundred steps and then … then we’ll sleep until evening.’

154 Escape from Hell

On the fifth attempt he puts him on his feet and then, for some two hundred steps, for nearly a whole hour, tottering, falling and getting up again, he supports him and drags him to the top of the hill. In a spot where it seems to him that they cannot be seen from below, he puts Val down on the ground, places the rucksack under his head and lies down beside him. He instantly falls asleep. Karol wakes in the late afternoon. With his hand he feels around him but there is no Val. He sits up sharply. Although the movement makes his whole body ache, he chuckles softly as he sees Val sitting by his feet, gloomily inspecting his swollen knee. ‘Doesn’t hurt quite so much,’ Val says and pulls down his trouser leg. ‘A little while ago I heard some noise … like cars going along or what the hell.’ ‘Somewhere close there should be a railway line,’ says Karol, peering down. ‘At least, that’s what the map says. Maybe we’ll see it from the next hill.’ Carefully Val pulls himself over to Karol. ‘I’m terribly … hungry,’ Karol says. ‘And thirsty, very thirsty.’ Val feigns surprise. ‘Of course, you were asleep,’ says Val and Karol is delighted to see an impish smile in his friend’s eyes. ‘I’d forgotten you were asleep. Schwarzhuber came running over, shouting wildly, you scumbags, here’s some roast turkey for you to help you on your flight. I really stuffed myself!’ ‘Yeah,’ says Karol. ‘You’ve given me a great appetite … for a piece of bread and marge. So let’s have some.’ They each have a whole helping of bread and a double helping of margarine. Then they sit on their rucksack and enjoy half a cigarette each, closely watching the landscape in front of them. The near hills are mostly bare, only sparsely grown with hazel and fir. In some places water has washed the soil away and exposed grey rock. Beyond are further hills and even further there rises a wall of forest, a dark belt, evidently covered with fir and spruce. These hills and forests are to the south of them and from that direction they now hear a faint, pulsating noise. After a while the noise ceases, then it comes again and gets stronger, until they can identify it as the puffing of a locomotive. ‘Bloody hell,’ Val relieves himself. ‘When I woke up I strained my eyes like anything, but didn’t see a thing. Look to your right!’ To their right, on the narrow floor of the winding valley, Karol sees a pair of railway tracks. At that moment they distinctly hear the clanking of wheels on the rails. And then a train appears from round a bend: a small local train with ancient carriages, hurrying towards the north, an

Danger: Live Ammunition! 155

ordinary, perfectly normal little train that is not transporting people to their deaths. Curiously they gaze down until the last carriage disappears round a bend between two steep hillsides. Then they grin at each other. ‘Haven’t lost our way then,’ Val says with satisfaction. ‘And we won’t so long as we follow the railway line.’ Until late afternoon they attend to their hands and feet and in the weak sunshine they dry their wet clothes. For some time they look at the home-made map, spread out on the flattened rucksack: this is where we went, here we climbed up that terrible hill, somewhere here I lay down in the stream, over there was Jawiszowice, now we are somewhere among these hills and this little circle ahead of us – that’s the damned hydro power station. Two nights’ walk away still, the devil take it! Karol remembers Pavel’s warning. ‘That’s the most dangerous part of our route,’ he says glumly. ‘There’s a regiment of Hitlerites there. And from there it’s still two or three days to the frontier.’ When the hills before them begin to go grey and slowly merge with the darkening horizon, they carefully replace their things in their bag and rucksack and with curses and groans take their first painful steps. ‘Two nights’ trek, God Almighty,’ Val blasphemes and with a twisted grimace catches his painful knee. ‘Two nights and then a regiment of those bastards! Just what we’ve always wanted!’

Chapter 11

Two against a Regiment

That morning nothing could have surprised them more than the sight that opened before them as, on the top of the hill, they stepped out of the forest into a clearing. Below them on the right is the small, white building of the hydropower station. Above the dark peaceful lake behind the dam hangs a dense net of barrage balloons. To the left of the power station, on the opposite slope, is the compact settlement, Hof. Immediately behind it and all around it the hillsides are cleared – there is not a single tree or bush, just perfectly clean-cut hillsides on which the slightest movement would be visible a long way off. ‘Circumnavigate half the world?’ Val exclaims angrily. Broken by a sense of defeat he sinks to the ground by a tree. ‘Circumnavigate half the world!’ he repeats plaintively, his body twitching in fits of despair. ‘Oh God!,’ he shouts. ‘Damn their German God!’ Since, for the first time in two years, they saw a train that was not taking people to the gas chambers, they have put two nights of torturous walking behind them. They fainted on their feet and awoke again to a consciousness that was really a feverish state of raving, when they could not see properly or judge anything soberly. In that state of total apathy Val had fallen behind in a valley and Karol only found him after a long search, sobbing hysterically, lying with his feet in an icy stream and with his upper body on the rocky bank. For a while they tottered on their feet, for a while they crawled on their bellies, the steeper bits they tackled on all fours, bleeding from hands and feet and soon also from noses and faces, scratched and rubbed sore from countless falls. Val’s knee is one big, bluish-purple swelling. In addition his toes are so swollen that he cannot take his shoes off. Karol makes a cut in the uppers with their razor. Although the pain eases for a moment, the swelling immediately spills out of the cut. Karol has swollen wrists from their frequent progress on all fours. Yesterday he was quite unable to unwind the bloodstained rags that had dried and frozen on to his feet. At every step they sting and burn unbearably on his open wounds. And today – today they are eating their last helping of bread.

Two against a Regiment 157

Karol tears his eyes away from the little village and looks at Val, who is stretched out on the soft conifer needles. He no longer sobs, but he pants heavily. He has fallen asleep, his mouth half-open, one hand under his painful knee that, now and again, jerks uneasily. Val is at the very end of his strength and genuinely unable to cope with a longish trek. In normal circumstances they would reach the frontier in two or three nights. But circumstances are not at all favourable and circumnavigating those damned bare hills could cost them another night. He kneels down by Val’s feet and carefully pulls off his shoes. As he unwraps the wet rags from his feet, Val moans with pain in his sleep. He waits for a moment for him to quieten down in his sleep, then he unwinds the rags down to where they are dried on to the skin. There he cuts them off with the razor and spreads the blood-soaked pieces out on the ground to dry. From the rucksack he produces a few dry pieces of cloth and wraps Val’s feet in them. It’s all right now, he tells himself; he sits down by Val’s side and gazes down to the settlement. Between the power station and the settlement are two long huts, clearly barracks. Grey smoke rises from the nearer hut, no doubt the cookhouse. In the yard are small, greyish-green figures – soldiers. Between the two fugitives and the bare hillsides opposite is a regiment of healthy and well-nourished, fully armed and bloodthirsty Hitlerites. But they have to get around those hills and no one can tell how many Germans will block their way or how many more there are between here and the frontier. He places his bag under Val’s feet to prevent the dry bandages getting damp, pushes the rucksack under his head and himself lies down, intending not to fall asleep before Val wakes up. Several times he tears himself away from dozing off – it costs him a major effort. Eventually, darkness overcomes his eyes and his weakening consciousness can no longer resist sleep. He falls asleep, thinking of Val’s total exhaustion. He wakes in the late afternoon. The hillside is dead. Down below he sees nothing suspicious, the barracks square is deserted. And Val is still asleep. He shakes him for a while, he looks into his mud-covered face with rivulets of dried blood under his nose and on his cheek. Eventually Val opens his eyes and immediately sits up, leaning against a tree. His first glance falls on his treated feet. ‘Thank you … I’ll do the same for you one day,’ he says with a faint smile and then drops his head as if ashamed that he has been some trouble. ‘Know what I dreamt just as you were waking me?’ he says after a while. ‘We’d got back home and the people said: Just look at those lunatics! The war’s long been over and they want us to liberate the concentration camps!’

158 Escape from Hell

‘That’s a nice dream,’ Karol replies appreciatively. ‘If only half of it were behind us.’ He puts the dried rags, the bundle with the medicines, the razor and the flashlight into his bag. He puts one metal tube into his pocket and gives the other to Val. Then, with a sigh, they start on their last helping of bread, share one cigarette, and until dusk look after their feet. When they have put their shoes on, Karol stands up and heaves the rucksack onto his back. ‘Got to move,’ he says pensively. ‘It’ll be dark by the time we get down.’ ‘By the time we get down?’ Val repeats, alarmed. ‘We can’t circle around it, Val. At the lower end of the village there’s a footbridge, we’ll take the shortest route. We mustn’t lose time.’ Val supports himself with one hand on a tree, but immediately sits down with a shout of pain. Crushed, he raises his head and moans: ‘I … I can’t. It hurts terribly.’ Karol looks at him in despair. For a moment he is seized by anger, but then he feels ashamed and says sadly: ‘I know, Val, it hurts. I … I wouldn’t have managed this far with a foot like that.’ He throws his rucksack down and adds resignedly: ‘So what, we’ll move deeper among the trees and wait a day, or two or three, till the swelling goes down a bit. I don’t suppose we’ll die of hunger. And hopefully they won’t find us here.’ A tear glistens in Val’s eyes. He feels awful, quite awful, he knows that they should run and not rest, that they are still very far from the frontier and even further from the people to whom they wish to bring the terrible report about the mass death in Auschwitz. ‘Wait two or three days?’ he asks, terrified, and his features suggest that everything has suddenly gone topsy-turvy in his mind. ‘Wait two or three days?’ he repeats. ‘What the devil for?’ With sudden defiance he stands up fiercely, but immediately stumbles and squeals with pain. Then, teeth clenched, he moves into the forest. ‘God Almighty, it does hurt, it hurts terribly, but I’ll loosen up walking, let’s move on. The devil take my knee.’ He swears every time his foot touches the ground and his voice breaks strangely: ‘Maybe the Germans down there,’ he attempts a joke, ‘will offer me a spare.’ They go back into the forest for a bit, then, groaning with pain, they descend the slope, aiming at the lower end of the settlement, where a fast stream emerges from the outlet of the power station. There the stream is bridged by a narrow gangplank. If they succeed they will gain a night, maybe a crucial night. Beyond the hill opposite they’ll find the rail track again. According to their map the track turns towards the northeast not far from here. And from that bend it is only fifteen to

Two against a Regiment 159

twenty kilometres to the frontier as the crow flies. Twenty, perhaps twenty-five hours on the ground. The lower end of the village, wedged between two steep slopes, is peaceful and quiet, they cannot see anybody on the footbridge that is some thirty steps from the nearest cottage. They straighten up a bit so as not to look suspicious to accidental eyes. They cross the road and with their hearts thumping step on the footbridge. It is not long, barely six metres. They intended to cross it slowly, relaxedly, in order not to arouse attention. But as soon as their feet touch the rotting wood, their nerves give way. They cross at a run and after a further five or six steps they work their way up the bare slope above the stream. It is sufficiently dark now for them not to be seen from below. They climb the hillside bent almost to the ground, then on all fours, continuously looking around themselves. Now they do not squeal or moan. The sense of tormenting pain has suddenly left them – every nerve of their weakened bodies is concentrated solely on the top of the hill, beyond which lies the promise of safety. Karol, panting noisily, looks ahead of him. Another forty or fifty steps and they will be at the top, they will clear the ridge and, safe at last, they will be regaining fresh strength for the rest of their journey. But the next moment they hear the barking of dogs. ‘That’s the end, damn those fascists, the end!’ Val curses. With an all-out effort they crawl on, looking back down to the road. Val gets a dim picture of two men standing out against the background of the pale wall of the last cottage. He shouts: ‘Freeze to the ground and don’t move at all! They can probably see us.’ In the dark silence a shot rings out, then another, and even before the first echo is heard a bullet whizzes above them and another pings on the rock next to Val. ‘Roll away from each other,’ shouts Karol. ‘And if you can manage, get over the crest!’ The instant they get up and start running two bright beams of antiaircraft searchlights leap up from below. They sweep from left to right and from right to left, flooding the whole width of the hillside with their bright pale yellow light. Eventually the beams cross on the two running figures. At that moment a dense hail of fire hits the slope. The bullets from rifles and machine-guns whistle, smack and ricochet from the rocks and boulders and in that terrifying racket, heightened by a multiple echo, the two jump sideways, trying to escape from the merciless embrace of the beams. Luckily they both realise quickly that the only way to escape from the moving light beams is to get out of their range. They therefore stop dodging from side to side and instead, under heavy fire, begin to race straight uphill. Every step or jump forward,

160 Escape from Hell

demanding all their strength, which miraculously seems to have returned to them, seems an eternity. But even in this frightful tension Karol finds himself wondering at the fact that no bullet has yet hit them, that they are still alive and that, despite the heavy fire, the distance between them and the crest of the hill is shrinking. This surprise that neither of them has been killed or hit does not leave him even when they have got beyond the critical point on the hill, when firing abruptly ceases and the two searchlight beams only strike the clouds above. They choose the direction where the slope is steepest, anxious only to increase the distance between themselves and the Germans as fast as possible. At times they hold hands and run steadily, panting and puffing, uttering incomprehensible sounds. They do not feel any pain at this moment – it seems that it has been totally absorbed by their extreme nervous tension. Their legs have become blunt, unfeeling mechanisms moved by a supreme willpower to save their bare lives and reach a place of safety. They descend towards the right, a little way above the foot of the slope they run along the flank of another hill and then, without a break for rest, begin to struggle up a hillside grown with firs and spruces. Well after midnight, totally exhausted, they drop onto a small patch of frozen snow on a small piece of flat ground that is lashed by northerly winds. The cold wind whistles above them, they press their burning bodies, their foreheads and their bleeding palms against the sharp, scratchy snow, they lick and nibble it, feeling the beating of their exhausted hearts directly on their bones. For a good hour they lie there without a word, trying to forget the terrifying moments on the floodlit slope as the memory of them comes back into their consciousness. Eventually Karol turns over and, lying on his back, gazes into the starless darkness. ‘We’ve saved at least ten kilometres,’ Val says in a strangely unfamiliar voice. ‘Could you please,’ he stammers, ‘cut open my shoe?’ The nervous tension has ebbed away and searing pain returns to hands and feet. They drag themselves from the snow to some frozen tufts of last year’s grass, shielding their heads from the gusts of wind by their arms. Karol picks up the razor and makes a long cut. The swelling is enormous and Val screams with pain as Karol tries to pull his shoe off. In the end he cuts both his shoes open right to the heel. ‘Leave it, I’ll pull them off myself.’ He brings up his feet and with a single movement tears his shoes off. Then he grits his teeth for a long time and gasps for air, afraid the pain might make him faint. ‘Bugger those fascists, bugger those bastards,’ he swears after a wave of pain. ‘If someone had told me this morning that I’d be running on these feet today, I’d have spat in his face.’

Two against a Regiment 161

Karol also takes off his shoes and flings both pairs into the bushes. Then they bandage their feet with pieces of cloth: they tie them up with narrow strips and finish off with wider ones. If they’re going to send out dogs after them, then they’ll only get as far as their shoes, the bandages will leave no traces, Karol reflects. Then he gets up and, to Val’s surprise, says: ‘We must leave the track for a while. Like this we’ll get to the Czech frontier.’ During the morning they remain by the stream in a deep and very damp valley. They wash their faces and hands in the icy water, to remove at least some of the dirt from their blood-encrusted wounds. Then they air their sweaty undervests and shirts and in silence smoke their last cigarette. The valley is filled with mist, there is rime on the trees and a hard ice cover underfoot. ‘I think we should make use of the mist,’ Val suddenly says to Karol’s astonishment. ‘We could cover quite a bit of ground by the time it lifts.’ Because of their exhaustion and the pain that is once more flooding their entire bodies, they give up the idea of going on once they have reached the top of the nearest hill. Besides, any further movement would be rather risky because the mist below has begun to tear up and dissolve and rise. Through the gaps in it they can now see a considerable expanse of an inhospitable world. They are looking for a drier spot in which to lie down. They take off their knapsack and rucksack, sit down under a tree and lean their backs against its trunk. ‘Have a snooze,’ suggests Karol. ‘I’ll wake you in an hour.’ ‘Out of the question,’ Val answers. ‘If I shut my eyes you won’t get me up for a couple of days.’ The wind rustles softly in the pine needles, not too cold nor too damp, and the sun is now shining on the milky mist that rolls in wisps below them. Deep in thought, they watch the wisps of mist tearing up and reuniting, getting thinner and denser again, alternately revealing and concealing the grey hillsides and the dark valley floor. Above them the clouds likewise part and combine and the sun only rarely shows through a rent in the clouds. And their thoughts are not unlike these colours, that dusk and sunlit brightness, that alternation of darkness and light. They are down, totally down. They no longer have even a piece of bread or margarine, nor any prospect that on their way to the frontier they might get hold of some food. All they have left is their medicines and their razor, their wristwatches (a miracle they were not broken), a map, a flashlight, bits of cloth and the metal tubes. Karol gets up abruptly and with horror in his eyes begins to turn his pockets out. He goes pale and, almost crying, he whispers:

162 Escape from Hell

‘Oh my God, it’s not here!’ Somewhere he lost his metal tube, probably near the power station when they had been running for their lives and frequently falling. Rolled up in the tube was the groundplan of the crematoriums, the plan of the concentration camp and the SS barracks. Oh, this is terrible! My dear Vasil, your work has been in vain. Swearing, lamenting and cursing his own carelessness he mentally apologises to Pavel, who had risked his life to provide this piece of paper, and to Vasil, who had drawn the plan in the small locksmith’s shed. He holds his head, full of unhappy confused thoughts, in his scratched hands. Val tries to calm him, uncertainly. ‘Don’t take it to heart, Karol,’ he says to him. ‘People have actually been lost and the world goes on. We’ll cobble up those plans ourselves, it doesn’t have to be a topographical hand. They’ll find Auschwitz on the map and we’ll draw the rest. This will be sufficient for them’ – and he produces the second little tube, which contains important evidence: the history of the establishment of the camp, a list of transports, the entire hierarchy of the SS, the incredible brutality and the incredible victims, and the label of a Zyklon B canister. Eventually Karol stops cursing, but he is not placated, his conscience still torments him. One tube with very important evidence has gone. Pavel and Vasil and a number of other helpers gambled with their lives to obtain that evidence. Thinking of their friends among the countless striped ones suddenly rouses his defiance. ‘Get the map out, please.’ They stretch out the map on their rucksack and try to find where exactly they are. ‘We are probably here,’ Val points with a little stick to a triangle indicating an elevation point. ‘About twenty kilometres from the frontier as the crow flies. ‘Over there, beyond that hill,’ he points to a nearby hill with a ridge with a dip in it, ‘beyond that hill should be Milówka. Beyond Milówka the track turns towards Zwardon. Just a stone’s throw from here …’ The hill is overgrown with stunted, wide-branched pines and promises what, on their flight, they have rarely had the good luck to enjoy – a little sunshine and the opportunity for well-concealed movement during the day. Karol looks challengingly at Val, who drops his head in thought but then winks and says uncertainly: ‘I don’t mind. We can move off. So long as I can hold out we’ll move.’ After three hours of unhurried progress with short breaks they reach the top of the hill below which lies Milówka. They look about themselves, then they sit down among the firs on small heaps of broken twigs and begin to unwrap the torn and threadbare rags on their feet.

Two against a Regiment 163

From time to time Val looks anxiously at Karol, who makes no secret of the fact that something is worrying him. We need to sleep a little, Val thinks as he finishes rebandaging his feet in dry pieces of cloth. ‘Are you very hungry?’ Karol asks. Val opens his mouth in astonishment. ‘No, no, mate, I’m full to bursting. Hell, I’d eat any carrion!’ ‘And your feet? Very painful?’ ‘No, no. I was just thinking we should run a little for exercise. Movement, as Schwarzhuber kept telling us, is what we lack most.’ He looks suspiciously at Karol. ‘If you tell me that you want to go a little further, I’ll tie you to a tree and we won’t move till nightfall.’ ‘Well … as a matter of fact we should go a little further. At least until we have sight of the rail track. I can’t go on any further … I just can’t. But the truth is that it would be better to be a little nearer the frontier.’ When they halt again, Milówka is well behind them and down below the rail track turns in a wide arc towards Zwardon. Zwardon, from where over more than two years ago cattle trucks had arrived in Auschwitz with a human cargo. Zwardon – Auschwitz – crematoriums. For more than two years, day after day, night after night. ‘We’ll have a little rest, then,’ says Karol, but Val, gazing down to the two gleaming lines of the track, shakes his head. ‘Anywhere, but not here,’ Val says glumly. ‘I think we’ve seen enough trains for a while.’ After about an hour large rocks appear before them in the distance. Somewhere behind them or between them the highest peak should emerge – Skalisté. In the village below it begins their native land. One night, or at the most a night and half a day, of tiring trekking through the mountains. With both of their feet bleeding, cursing their incapacity, they slowly climb up to a further ridge, but when they get there they are disappointed to find the rocks to the south hidden by dense fog or mist; they had hoped that from there they would be able to see Skalisté. Disappointed, they walk down the southern slope, where there is no trace of an icy crust on the ground. They will stay among the trees above a stream until evening. Just as they stop by the rushing stream there is a huge explosion near the upper end of the valley, then another, and a third and a fourth. Evidently, not far above them there is a quarry. Wordlessly they wade through the stream, quickly cross the bumpy road and, with the very last of their strength – no longer from their bones and muscles, but merely from the brain, which wants to live and not to perish – they crawl and scramble up the hill beyond the road. And there, just before dense and burning darkness swamps their eyes, they realise that they are looking at a viaduct.

164 Escape from Hell

When the darkness lifts from their consciousness they throw their wet rags off their feet and spread them out beside them. Then they wrap their feet in dry ones and, groaning with pain, try to find the most comfortable position for lying. They lie on their sides, facing each other, the map between them. Gloomily they look at it. Directly before them are closely guarded viaducts. Guards continually patrol along the track, and no doubt there are also sentries posted under the bridges. Now and again a donkey engine moves along the track and they can clearly make out some figures in army uniform. They also see the lamps. At night the viaducts are lit up and along the track, every one hundred and fifty metres or so, there is a powerful light. If only we could destroy just one, thinks Karol. But what use would that be? We would only trigger an alarm and attract attention to ourselves. And how far would we get on our mutilated feet? We couldn’t get across at night, we’ll have to try in the morning. There’s bound to be fog then and under its cover we might manage to slip across. ‘When it gets dark we’ll descend a little further and have a closer look,’ says Karol. ‘And we won’t cross in the evening, we’ll try in the morning.’ ‘Downhill, uphill, downhill and up again,’ grumbles Val. ‘To hell with such tourism!’ ‘I’m hungry. God, am I hungry!’ he adds angrily. ‘A moment ago you were full to bursting,’ Karol reminds him with a grin. ‘I could eat even if I was full. I wouldn’t mind being full at all.’ He sighs yearningly, wipes his mouth and spits.

Chapter 12

Death Lives on the Other Side

They are woken by the sound of steps, the cracking of branches and the clatter of loosened stones. As if by command they press themselves to the ground and, raising themselves slightly onto their elbows, crawl with their knapsack and rucksack behind a fir. Some thirty metres higher are other firs, stunted and dense ones, with branches reaching out on the ground. Val wants to crawl up to them, but Karol stops him: ‘Don’t go there, from there we won’t be able to observe.’ Two figures some way down disappear and reappear from a dip in the ground: at this distance they cannot tell whether they are civilians or soldiers. They will hardly be civilians, Karol reflects, surely they would not walk into these deserted mountains with nightfall approaching. Unless there are some isolated cottages nearby. ‘Who can it be?’ Val is troubled. ‘Maybe poachers?’ ‘You’re an optimist. Suppose they’re a German patrol? Or some agents provocateurs?’ Val zigzags a short distance backwards, attentively looks around and presently returns with a crude stick. ‘All clear on this side. What shall we do?’ Karol turns over the most varied possibilities in his mind. It is still daylight, he reflects. If we set out now, we would have to make a detour towards the northeast. We don’t know the area. Although no villages are marked on the map, that does not mean that there might not be a few remote houses or small camps with a Nazi garrison. There is nothing we can do but wait and watch those two figures from a hideout. Quite possibly they have no idea that we are here. ‘We’ll wait,’ Karol decides. ‘No dogs with them, I don’t believe they’ll find us – if they are looking for us. And if they aren’t we’ve nothing to fear.’ Val again crawls away and after a while returns reassured. ‘All clear over there and if it comes to the worst we’ll ambush them and tap them on the head with a stone, drag them among the trees and …’ ‘It’s a woman and a boy!’ Karol whispers surprised. ‘A woman and a boy. What would they be looking for in the mountains so late in the day?’

166 Escape from Hell

They appear unexpectedly, quite close below them. The woman with a rucksack on her back is calmly walking up the winding footpath, the boy, about ten years old in a little grey coat, dark trousers with patched knees and boots too large for him, struggles awkwardly behind her. A few metres from them they leave the path and stop by a large flat rock. The woman slowly removes her rucksack, sits down on the rock and says: ‘Sit down, Wladek. We’ll take a short breather.’ If they had reflected for a while, or discussed, whether to leave the shelter of the fir-tree or not, they would clearly have opted in favour of caution. But they did not reflect at all. The rucksack instantly conjured up the idea of food and a lot of firm and dry rags that would come in very useful. The thought of food practically brought them out from the trees. They stand there – Val with his crude stick and Karol with two sharp stones in his hands. Hungrily they regard the rucksack by the woman’s feet. The woman and the boy see them at once. The boy jumps up in fright, but the woman catches him by the hand and draws him close to her, curiously regarding the tattered men before her. The woman has an oval face, bright eyes that gaze firmly and directly, with no fear. Her smooth hair is divided in the middle by a narrow parting, just visible under her headscarf above her high forehead. ‘Don’t be afraid, Wladek,’ she whispers to the boy and she greets the two aloud: ‘Good afternoon, boys.’ These are the first words anyone has spoken to them since they left their cage. When Wladek sees the confusion in their emaciated and dirty faces he is even more frightened. ‘Don’t be afraid of these men,’ the woman reassures him. Her eyes scrutinise them attentively. ‘Don’t be afraid, they won’t hurt you.’ Karol, embarrassed, drops his stones and Val awkwardly tries to create the impression that his crude stick is for support. A slight smile flickers over the woman’s lips. Then she again looks searchingly at their feet in their dirty bandages and at their tattered mud-caked clothes. They both feel her long, intense and scrutinising look and they have the impression that their appearance does not surprise her. Eventually the woman asks calmly, but with evident curiosity: ‘Come from far, boys? Going far?’ Questions should be avoided, Karol thinks, we must divert the woman’s attention to some meaningless subject. But Val bursts out in good Polish: ‘Going to Sola, to work. Is it still far?’ The woman again looks at their feet and with a reproachful smile says:

Death Lives on the Other Side 167

‘Going to work? Well … I’d have thought you were coming from work.’ Val quickly glances at Karol. He does not like the woman’s words at all. They had better get away from here – that woman does not believe them. Maybe she suspects something and if they do not shake her off quickly they might land in a mess. Maybe it would be best to send her back to where she came from. But no, that would not be wise, they must not part in anger, they had better make her realise that they need help. ‘Going or coming, it’s all the same,’ Karol says calmly. ‘Surely it doesn’t matter to you?’ ‘Suppose it does,’ the woman surprises them. ‘One likes to help decent people in need.’ She looks Karol straight in the eyes and next stuns him with the direct question: ‘You want to get across the frontier, don’t you? Which frontier?’ She says this as calmly as if it were the most natural and the most practicable thing in the world. Her directness arouses in Karol his most naïve suspicion. The bold woman with the large clear eyes is pretty enough, but she could easily be in disguise, serving those damned Germans. However, there is enough time to tap her on the head. I’ll tell her, at least we’ll see how she reacts. ‘We want to get to Slovakia. So – now you know it. Advise us what to do and then go your way. And if anything happens, we haven’t met.’ Her clear eyes darken a little; two short vertical lines briefly appear above her nose. She gazes towards the mountains in the southeast; the two men also look in that direction. Then their eyes meet and Karol is suddenly convinced that these clear, calm eyes cannot hold even a speck of dishonesty. ‘It isn’t far,’ she reflects. ‘But it isn’t easy even for good feet.’ She falls silent and then surprises them with the question: ‘You don’t trust me, do you?’ Karol is pensive. ‘I think you are a good person,’ he says seriously. But immediately he is worried by the thought: Suppose I am mistaken? How did she guess that we want to get across the frontier? What about her remark about good feet? Why was she questioning them so oddly? ‘If you really trust me, then wait here until tomorrow,’ she suggests to them. ‘I’ll come again at this time – with my brother-in-law. He knows these mountains like the back of his hand, he’ll guide you across safely.’ The woman gets up, begins to open her rucksack and Karol considers: Shall we trust her or not? Wait, or go on? If they wait they will lose a day and a lot of the strength they have left. Maybe instead of her brother-in-law she’ll bring some Germans with her. No, at this stage

168 Escape from Hell

we must not take any unnecessary risks, we’ll move on as fast as we can. Why was I so foolish as to tell her we wanted to get to Slovakia? The woman silently produces two medium-sized blankets or sheets from her rucksack – old ones with holes in them – explaining that she normally carried in them dry firewood from the forest. ‘Take them,’ she says quite naturally. From the tone of her voice they sense that she does not expect to overcome their mistrust. ‘The ground’s damp, put one under you and cover yourselves with the other.’ She seems to be pleased at their surprise because she now smiles. ‘Don’t worry, they aren’t stolen.’ Then she produces from her rucksack two round loaves of black bread. ‘Eat it,’ she says, pleased that she can offer it to them and Karol feels as if the most wonderful bell has begun to ring out. ‘Although decent folk nowadays are hardly ever sated, I’ve never seen quite such hungry eyes as yours. Eat, boys, may it do you good! I can’t give you anything else.’ All suspicion has suddenly dropped from them. They wipe their hands on their dirty jackets and virtually snatch the bread from her. They turn it over in their hands, their eyes alternate between surprise and amazement, then they look at each other with wonderment and laugh. Little Wladek is no longer afraid of them, he smiles, he is proud of his mother who has given such pleasure to these two starved, tattered and terribly dirty young men. ‘Eat, please,’ she encourages them. ‘It’s good, we baked it this morning.’ They eat greedily. Pleasant warmth floods their bodies. For a moment they forget the suffering they have been through and the suffering that is probably still awaiting them. Chewing, with a full mouth, Karol glances sideways at the woman and she immediately turns her face away so he need not feel ashamed of his greediness. Glancing at the woman with her high forehead, her straight nose, the birthmark on her cheek, her large, bright and direct eyes, he suddenly feels profound satisfaction. This mental ease, that spreads throughout his aching body, stems from his huge joy and his conviction that at last they have found a person with a clear conscience and a good heart. The woman feels his long and warm gaze upon her and, probably to dispel embarrassment, begins to talk. Her voice is clear and unusually smooth, it is good to hear. Down there, she explains, on the other side of the hill, is a factory for some spare parts and delicate instruments. Of the many Poles who used to live near the factory only about six hundred families remain. Some distance from the factory, in cottages below the mountains, live women and children. Nearly all the menfolk and also many women were dragged off and none of them has returned so far. And the rest are

Death Lives on the Other Side 169

resettlers. Germans from the Reich and the occupied countries. Volksdeutsche. ‘My husband works in the factory,’ the woman continues. ‘He’s a skilled worker, so they kept him, at least until now. There are also a few Russian prisoners working in the factory. Along the Czech frontier, remember this, boys, are many camps and the rumours about them – better not talk about them. Not a week passes without some fugitives fleeing across these mountains, either from the transports or from the prison camps. Poor things, they are just skin and bones, they don’t know their way about this region and those Germans are on the lookout for them – so anyone who’s not afraid helps them however they can.’ ‘You live somewhere in these mountains?’ asks Val. ‘No, down there by the factory. But on Strmá, that’s a patch of grassland, we have a hay barn and whenever we go there we collect some firewood here at the same time.’ Karol looks even more attentively into her face, which is serious and truthful, then into her eyes, where he sees a little sadness. Eventually his gaze slips down to her hands. They are rather large, work-worn, veined, with long firm fingers, dark fingers as usually found on people who work in the open. A short while ago I thought she was a traitor, one who served the Germans, he reflects, and guiltily lets his head droop. He would like to say something kind, something that would smother that feeling of guilt, but the woman gets up abruptly, flings her rucksack on her back, seizes Wladek’s hand and says: ‘Got to make a move, it’ll soon be dark. Just stay here quietly till tomorrow. You don’t have to worry, they don’t come up this high. At least not at night. And don’t move about needlessly, save your feet.’ With a slight nod of her head she leaves them and, taking a short cut, goes straight down the steep slope with Wladek. The boy turns his head a few times, he waves to them and they wave back. They are silent for a full hour, thinking about the strange meeting, looking down to the station building and across to the mountains in the southeast, though they surmise them rather than actually see them. ‘I wonder,’ Val breaks the silence, ‘why she didn’t tell us anything about her brother-in-law. Or about that safe route. If she’d told us we might have tried it on our own.’ Karol is silent and Val nervously wriggles his fingers. ‘Do we stay till tomorrow?’ he asks urgently. ‘Do we wait to see how that brother-in-law turns out? If we stay we certainly lose a day. We’ll be even hungrier and weaker. And we could lose even more. Maybe everything.’ Karol, deep in thought, gazes down to the rail track, the station, the village behind it, the empty hilly ground behind the village that is now

170 Escape from Hell

slowly disappearing in the chilly dusk and in his mind repeats the woman’s every word. ‘Are we going to take the risk?’ Val asks again. ‘I don’t believe they would catch us in stages,’ Karol replies, still in deep thought. ‘It’s nearly an hour and a half since the woman left. If she was going to betray us something would have happened long ago. She is a good, courageous person. I trust her.’ Val frowns. The word ‘trust’ seems incomprehensible – strange and unreal in their situation. ‘You trust the first person we’ve met,’ he says reproachfully. ‘If you want to live, you’ve got to trust,’ Karol quietly replies. ‘We depend on courageous people and if you want to exist among them you’ve got to trust in their courage. After all, aren’t we fleeing to just such people to get them to halt that frightful lunacy? Don’t we believe that they will help? I believe, I believe very strongly. If I didn’t believe I wouldn’t be here, I’d have been hanging on that wire long ago.’ The lights go on at the station building. Other yellowish pools of light appear along the track. Pensively they get up, softly curse their aching feet, walk slowly down to the stream to get a better idea of the situation by the railway and by the viaducts. On their left they see two lines of lights. ‘The viaduct,’ says Val, his eyes attentively following the string of lights. The last two lamps merge into two narrow strips of light. No movement is to be seen between the lights, no sound comes from above or below, nothing to hold their attention. ‘Who knows how many men guard it. Or if they don’t stray some way beyond.’ ‘I think they guard both ends of the bridge,’ says Karol, ‘and probably also under the viaduct, by the piers. I don’t think they’d stray far away in the dark. The woman also said that they don’t move far at night.’ ‘It gives me bellyache the way you’re determined to trust her,’ Val says unhappily, but suddenly, quite against his will, a strange thought arises in him, a thought that surprises him. That woman has so far acted bravely and in a way that one can trust her. And yet he does not trust her. She has given them bread and blankets, she has warned them to avoid the Czech frontier, she has offered them a guide to their frontier, yet something in him compels him to see in all this a pretence, something whispers to him that the woman wants them to be caught in order to endear herself to the Germans. Back in that hell I stopped trusting people, he suddenly realises and this realisation worries him greatly. ‘Jánošík, our national hero, was quite a chap and yet he was betrayed by a woman,’ he says half jokingly, to overcome his uncertainty. They both laugh. But Val continues to feel uneasy. Somewhere in the dark, beyond the yellowish lights now half obscured by a light haze, is

Death Lives on the Other Side 171

the path by which the woman’s brother-in-law is supposed to guide them to safety. But can anyone who is standing up to the murderers really find a safe spot in a country in the grip of the SS, where thousands of innocent people are being killed day and night? Is that path really safe and will it lead to the frontier? And is it really possible that a complete stranger would risk everything, that he would unselfishly enter into such a dangerous undertaking for the sake of two strangers who are of no possible concern to him? Surely that isn’t possible, Val concludes, but a moment later he has doubts about his conclusion. After all, conditions in the camp were even more difficult and even more dangerous, yet they had been helped by a lot of people to stay alive and to escape from that frightful death factory in order to take a report with them for the world that, as they believe, so far only suspects what is going on there, but has no definite proof. Far ahead to the left two lights appear. They describe a sharp curve, reappear again and with a metallic roar race across the viaduct. A goods train from the southeast, from the Slovak frontier. Before it gets to the station it lets out a prolonged whistle, but it does not stop, it does not even slow down, but hurries on until its roar is lost among the hills to the north. ‘Poor chaps, probably Dutch again,’ Karol says dejectedly and, freezing, grips Val’s arm. ‘Or perhaps Hungarians.’ Val swears angrily. Another two thousand people for the insatiable stomachs of the furnaces, yet those in the trains suspect nothing; they are cold, they huddle together to keep warm, they eat, they wonder where they will live and what they will do, they peer into the darkness through the cracks by the door and perhaps they even spell out their unfulfillable hopes and wishes into the rhythm of the wheels on the track. ‘Dear mother, who will stop that killing?’ he exclaims with a guttural voice and Karol shivers as he hears him. ‘Who will punish those criminals?’ Val buries his head in his hands and, as in terrible madness, shakes it. ‘Let’s get away from here!’ he shouts. ‘Let’s get away now, my God, there is no end to those transports and we want to waste a whole day!’ Then he turns and zigzags up the hill. ‘Who is going to stop that killing?’ he repeats, feverishly muttering something. A little distance from where they met the woman and Wladek they sit down on the blanket. For a long while they torment themselves, but finally decide to wait for the woman and her brother-in-law. ‘Maybe those two will feed us,’ Karol concludes the unhappy conversation, ‘and if that chap really knows these mountains well, we’ll soon make up for lost time.’ Then, throughout the night, they doze in turns. At first light they get up and begin to climb to the crest of the hill. Val again curses his knee – the swelling has gone down a bit but it still hurts. Here and

172 Escape from Hell

there they stop. From the thorny shrubs between the firs they pick some bluish berries, tasting one after another and spitting them out again: they are all very hard and as bitter as gall, there is no juice in them. The twilight is retreating, revealing an ever greater expanse of the hilly world around them. Then the sun rises and under its light the landscape opens out even more. From the grey twilight there now emerge brown and green hills in the distance, grey rocks and the hills on the frontier, tall, extensive, dark blue. Beyond them lies their native land. Hopefully the sky beyond these hills will not be fouled by the smoke from crematoriums, hopefully back home people would only be dying of natural causes. They sit on the folded blankets. Studying the map, they guess how many kilometres they have covered already and how many there are still ahead of them. When the whistle of a railway engine has shrilled down below and a goods train has thundered through the station, they fold up the map and stow it in their knapsack. The train hurrying northwards reminds them that they should not yet think that they are safe. Karol goes a little beyond the crest to look around and then they take turns watching, to make sure no danger threatens from below. Above and below them are patches of snow. Under the warmth of the sunshine they melt and run down the slope in crooked rivulets. A few steps further down, where clean, cold water has collected in a slight hollow of a rock, they wash. With a good feeling that they are more or less clean, they carry the blankets, the knapsack and the rucksack nearer to the fir trees and there, sitting down, expose their faces to the warm sunshine. After a while Karol lies back and, with thoughts about home, gazes at the blue expanse above him. Although such thoughts have always aroused in him unease and excitement, that strange tingling of the blood in the veins, this time a vague anxiety has crept in as well. He has not seen his native region for two years. In two years much will have changed there – no doubt for the worse. And were the ones who dispatched him, along with hundreds or thousands of others, to behind the wires of Auschwitz not also people from his country? Does the order now reigning in his country not condone and support it all? In the course of his flight he has a thousand times imagined his reunion with his dear ones, with his friends, with people whom he would tell about the murdering and cremating in Auschwitz. Those were the people he was now fleeing to with important evidence, plans and statistics – but would he find them? After all, fascism has swamped the whole of Europe like a plague and the fascists were everywhere killing honest people. Where will he go, whom will he try to convince and stir up, to

Death Lives on the Other Side 173

whom will he submit his documents, sketches, calculations about transports, when cages, watch-towers and crematoriums exist also at home, when the people who might help, the ones he will hand his report to, are themselves marching in ranks of five, surrounded by SS men and Hlinka Guards, to some meaningless work – to death? No, this is not possible, this must not be. Beyond those dark hills perhaps the soil does not yet reek with thousands of decomposing bodies and maybe there is no barbed wire. At least not yet – that is what he heard from Czech prisoners who had recently arrived in Auschwitz. Val sits up and looks at Karol, who is crumbling pieces of earth between his fingers. Worried, he says: ‘Ever since this morning I’ve tormented myself with the thought that hardly anyone back home will believe us.’ ‘If they don’t believe our account,’ Karol answers, ‘we have proof, evidence.’ He is silent for a while, thinking of Pavel and recalling his last talk with him. ‘We’ll seek out people who fight against the fascists and who are persecuted by the fascists. You don’t expect us to proclaim our report in the Slovak parliament?’ Val laughs, but instantly is serious again. ‘No, I don’t think that, but I do think that back home nobody nowadays carries his convictions or his conscience on his sleeve.’ In the little village behind the station a bell starts ringing, it is midday. They are thirsty, they are hungry, they are plagued by gloomy thoughts. Karol gets up to drink a little melted snow from the bubbling stream, but after the first step he gives up the attempt and sits down again. His body aches from lying and sitting: the moment he got up it ached all over. Still sitting, he pulls himself over to the bush under the fir tree, gropes about the ground and collects the bluish berries. They are dry and very hard, but he cannot control his painful hunger. Eventually Val also begins to collect them. They nibble at them, they chew them and swallow them, even though they are bitter and acrid, even though they sting like the hottest spice and burn like fire. Inside they are poisonously yellow and that colour now stains their teeth, tongue and lips. They clear the ground under the bush to the very last berry, but this does not assuage their hunger. A strange burning fills their stomachs and they both feel that the berries have only made them even hungrier. Nearly all morning they avoid thinking of food. Their hunger emerged with the midday pealing down in the village – moreover, so suddenly and violently that they feel all their strength draining out of them. The hunger had come with a strange trembling in their stomachs and soon turned into fierce pain. When they had eaten the berries their

174 Escape from Hell

sense of hunger only intensified, the pain spread throughout their bodies, absorbing all the pain from the wounds on their hands and feet, from their weakened bones and inflamed muscles. Finally it rose into their heads as a dark burning wave and they both had the impression that it had suddenly got much warmer and darker. Helping themselves with their knees, they drag themselves away from the bushes and with their vision blurred by a dark mist look for some thick tufts of old rust-coloured grass. They pick the blades one by one, put them in their mouth and chew them. Then they each collect a handful, drag themselves back to their blanket, divide the grass into several bundles and lie there or sit there until nightfall, grinding the grass into a paste between their teeth and joyfully feeling their strength gradually returning to them and the world before them beginning to look brighter. They no longer even think of looking around to make sure no danger threatens them from the other side. Sunset is accompanied by a wind and by a mother-of-pearl glow in the western sky. The soothing green of the stunted firs is getting darker and so are the rocks to the southeast. The high mountains on the frontier are quite black and it seems as if the darkness is spreading from them into the entire landscape. Now and again a breeze ruffles the firs and this tripping fresh rustle refreshes them after hours of semiconsciousness. ‘They should be here by now,’ says Karol. They both get up, fold the blankets, tie up their rucksack and move closer to the spot where they met the woman yesterday. ‘I’d begun to think you didn’t trust me and … beat it,’ they heard her clear pleasant voice. They turn. The woman and Wladek stand by the flat boulder on which they sat yesterday, a rucksack by their feet. The woman smiles, but they are disappointed because they do not see her brother-in-law. ‘Open it,’ the woman says to Wladek. ‘Your brother-in-law … he hasn’t come?’ Val asks disappointed. ‘He’ll be here in a moment,’ she answers with a smile, looking behind them. They both turn their heads. Out of the bushes by the firs, where they had spent hours overcoming their hunger and faintness, steps a short man. He walks firmly, lithely and quite noiselessly. He stops a short distance above them, his right hand in the pocket of a stained dark grey trench-coat and looks at them with sharp, piercing eyes. His cap is pulled well into his face and his features are a cold stony mask that does not betray any emotion. ‘This is … the brother-in-law,’ says the woman and they all smile slightly.

Death Lives on the Other Side 175

The man nods his head and continues to scrutinise them. Karol senses that he is assessing them and that the outcome of this assessment will decide whether or not he will help them. ‘Give them the food,’ the man says eventually. From her rucksack the woman produces two mugs, two pieces of bread and spoons. ‘Eat it!’ Cabbage and potatoes! With wide-open eyes they look into the mugs. Karol swallows hard and moistens his lips with his tongue. Val quickly bends over his mug and mumbles something unintelligible. They eagerly pull the mugs to them and, open-mouthed, stare at the woman, who is smiling, and at the man, who with a nod of his head urges them to eat. As though afraid that the mugs full of cabbage and potatoes might be a mirage that could dissolve at any moment, they begin to eat eagerly. They devour large spoonfuls, faster and faster, then, unashamed, they scrape the mugs clean and use their fingers to collect what is left behind. ‘Thank you, thank you very much,’ says Val, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand. ‘Haven’t eaten anything like that for two years,’ says Karol, staring at the mugs as if he did not believe his own eyes. ‘My, that was good!’ The man steps up to them, the hand that had been in his pocket now holds two cigarettes. ‘D’you smoke?’ And as they light up he continues: ‘I’ve watched you eat – and that’s enough for me. Was it far from here that they starved you like this?’ Karol hesitates for a moment, then he replies: ‘Well … ten nights’ march over the hills.’ ‘That’s not … very far,’ says the man. Then he swiftly bends down and before Karol can pull away he pushes up his sleeve on his left arm. He lets out a surprised whistle: ‘Twenty-nine hundred and sixty-two! Old lags, aren’t you? My guess would be 1942. Auschwitz! … Slovaks, aren’t you?’ He quickly looks into their faces. His action has positively stunned them. They are surprised and confused. Karol is gripped by fear that the man will now walk away and leave them at the mercy of the night. ‘You did your runner a week ago, didn’t you?’ the man continues. ‘There’s a warrant out for the two of you. Barbara,’ he turns to the woman, ‘if you’ve got anything else, give it to them. We’ve got to make a move.’ Karol heaves a sigh of relief. ‘Thought I’d leave you in the lurch, did you?’ the man asks. ‘Don’t worry, I’ll take you to the frontier. But … you’ll have to be quick.’

176 Escape from Hell

While Wladek rolls up the blankets and the woman puts the mugs away, the fugitives, astonished at the man’s information about them, each drain a mug of goat’s milk and eat another piece of bread. ‘Rags … you haven’t given them the rags yet,’ the man reminds her tersely. With a show of guilt Barbara produces from her rucksack some firm, densely woven pieces of cloth. ‘Throw away those tatters, boys,’ she says, ‘and bandage your feet up again. Like that you won’t get far.’ ‘Let’s go,’ says the man as soon as they have rebandaged their feet. Barbara gives them a hug: ‘A happy life, boys. Find your mothers in good health and don’t drink any water, your feet wouldn’t hold out. Go now, don’t waste a minute.’ By the time they descend the slope there is total darkness. A short way before the railway line the man stops and encouragingly says to them: ‘Like this I won’t get far with you, boys. You walk slowly and groan a lot. I know you have sore feet, but you’ve got to grit your teeth and unless I allow you to, you mustn’t even cough. You’ll walk in the middle,’ he touches Val, ‘and you bring up the rear,’ he says to Karol. ‘Three steps between you. Up the embankment, across the rails and down the embankment we’ll go in single line abreast. After that once more in file. ‘How far to the frontier?’ Karol cannot stop himself asking. ‘That depends on you,’ says the man. ‘If you move well you’ll have the worst behind you by morning. Don’t zigzag about. Try to walk normally. The body gets used to pain.’ They step out in silence, three paces between them. Near the track an elderly railwayman appears among the trees, he holds his lamp behind his back to avoid the light falling on them. For a while he talks to the man. They converse calmly and softly, in German, then the railwayman walks up the embankment and, waving his lamp, moves off towards the station. They wait for two or three minutes. Then they hold hands and cross the line. Avoiding the station, they set off towards the mountains. The man walks fast and regularly. He does not look back at all and does not care whether they keep up with him. He compels them to make an all-out effort. They are breathless and sweaty. With great determination they try not to submit to pain, to stifle or soften every groan and to step out firmly regardless of the torturing pain they feel. On a small mountain meadow that ends in a difficult gully they accelerate their steps and here, under a high rocky wall near an old charcoal kiln, he addresses them for the first time. ‘You’re very tired, aren’t you?’ he says and they nod their heads, puffing. ‘Don’t think of fatigue. Try to think of pleasant things. Think

Death Lives on the Other Side 177

that tomorrow you’ll cross the frontier. We’ve got to walk fast and silently all the time. Being slow could kill not only us, but also those who might need help tomorrow. The wounds on your feet hurt?’ ‘Terribly,’ they answer. ‘They’ll get well again.’ He takes the rucksack from Karol, slips it on his own back and adds: ‘Remember, this is a safe route, but only for those who are quick. Let’s go!’ They do not stop till after midnight. Yellow moonlight floods the clearing that is surrounded by tall oaks on all sides. ‘Sit down,’ the man tells them. They settle down on rotten-smelling leaves and instantly fall asleep. For a while he listens to their rattling breathing, watching the spasmodic twitching of their hands and feet, then he puts a coat under their heads. ‘Pretty well finished,’ he says softly. After half an hour he shakes them. Karol sits up in alarm – he is afraid the short Pole with the severe and cold features has left them, because he does not see anyone in the silent darkness around him. It takes him a moment to see two little pale cold fires, the man’s eyes, and close above him he senses the warmth of his body. ‘Get up,’ he hears the man’s commanding voice. ‘Get up at once or you’ll get pneumonia.’ They lean against trees. They are shaken by cold, their legs tremble at the knees; after their short deep sleep a dull blackout remains in their heads. ‘Still far?’ Val moans rather than asks. ‘No road is too long if there’s life at the end of it.’ Karol asks: ‘How did you know that we … that we escaped from Auschwitz? After all, there are so many camps hereabouts, but you … you knew by the number.’ ‘Don’t be ridiculous, boys,’ the Pole answers. ‘We heard about it and we quite expected we might run into you and be able to help you. Guys like you don’t escape on the king’s highway.’ Quite expected … Karol repeats the Pole’s words in his mind. Who expected that they would make for the Slovak frontier? To whom does this unselfish person belong who moves about these pathless mountains with such assurance and totally without fear? ‘Don’t speculate too much about me,’ he hears his quiet deep voice. ‘I’m Tadeusz … in case you want to address me. But we must go now, I’ve got to be in the factory in the morning.’ For a long time they stumble over stones and roots on the path above the burbling stream. The path rises and drops, twists and suddenly disappears: before them is a clearing with a lot of logs. Even Tadeusz moves more slowly now and more and more often he wipes his neck

178 Escape from Hell

and forehead. The distance between him and them has increased a little. The determination with which they suppressed or ignored their pains has greatly weakened. They moan and can go no further, as they walk they force their hands against their thighs. Karol stops for a moment, catching his hip, but Tadeusz is immediately aware of the lessened sound of their steps and says: ‘Only as far as those trees, all right? There you can have a break.’ By the trees he throws the rucksack down and when they catch up with him he says: ‘Sit down and don’t worry. I’ll be back in a moment. Don’t move from here, I don’t want to have to search for you. And don’t worry, you’re quite safe here.’ Quickly he disappears among the trees and a moment later his footsteps are gone. ‘He moves like a cat,’ Val says wearily and then his head drops to his chest. Karol stares anxiously into the darkness. Suddenly, with a start, he quickly moves to a tree. He thinks that quite close he heard the crack of a dry twig. A moment later he is engulfed by a blend of dark, muted sounds. He looks from side to side, he looks up into the tree tops bathed in the pale moonlight. He tries to distinguish the sounds and discover the direction from which they come, but it takes him a while to realise that these sounds do not enter through his ears but originate in his feverish head. Abruptly he turns his head, instinctively he senses that someone is standing behind him. Tadeusz. ‘We’ll have a smoke and then we go on,’ he says, waking Val by touching him. ‘Get up, son, you can sleep – over on the other side.’ He draws them deeper into the trees and offers them cigarettes. ‘A present from our people. Cigarettes and army boots. Try them on – they’re nice and big.’ ‘Your people?’ Karol draws out the words and carefully lights up. ‘Yes, our people, son,’ replies Tadeusz. ‘The cigarette you’re smoking is German. Cigarettes and some stuff – that’s all that was left yesterday afternoon from a German convoy. Try those boots on.’ Cheerfully they unwind the rags from their feet. But the swelling on their feet is too big and too painful. Angrily they put the boots into their rucksack and again bandage their feet with rags. ‘Never mind, boys,’ says Tadeusz. ‘Every music has its price. And those Huns certainly treated you to some tunes, didn’t they? Stub them out, we’re off.’ They scramble up to the ridge, cross it and descend, and surprisingly Tadeusz has noticeably slowed his step and no longer urges them on. Finally he stops, and with a sigh that betrays relief and satisfaction says:

Death Lives on the Other Side 179

‘That’s it, boys, before you is the frontier. When it gets light you’ll see the marker posts. And beyond are fields and people.’ The ground starts spinning before Karol and the starry sky above him. It costs him an effort not to cry out with joy. Before them rises a dark hill bathed in moonlight, at its top will be the markers and beyond them, on the other side, his native land. Joyfully they both embrace Tadeusz and he has a job to free himself from their bony hands. ‘All right, boys, all right,’ he calms them. Clearly he too is moved because his voice shakes a little. ‘That’s enough, you keep it for your mothers.’ Then he surprises them with a question that they have been unable on their flight to answer for themselves. ‘Whom will you turn to in Slovakia? Mothers, of course, are still the most reliable people even today, but they’re very weak. They couldn’t save you if they came to pick you up.’ They are silent, embarrassed. Tadeusz continues: ‘As soon as you’ve crossed the frontier you’ll need someone very reliable. You’ll need care, food and clothes. Two hundred and sixty-four, remember this number. Two hundred and sixty-four – you won’t forget it? That’s the second house in the second row from the end. The password is “The living hillsman”. The living hillsman from Milówka. Tell them the living hillsmen have sent you. Matej Koneczný, remember this name also. In case you don’t find anyone in Skalisté, go on to Čadec and find Koneczný. He lives in the railwaymen’s settlement. Matej Koneczný is a railwayman. He’ll certainly help you. So remember: in Skalisté number two hundred and sixty-four, password “The living hillsman from Milówka”. In the railwaymen’s settlement in Čadec find the footplate man Matej Koneczný. Repeat it to me.’ Slowly, with a kind of ceremonial reverence, they repeat the number of the house, the password and the name of the railwayman. Tadeusz nods his head: very good, you mustn’t make a mistake. In a few words he then sketches out to them the situation at the frontier, at the point where they plan to cross it: a tumbledown cottage, a patch of woodland, a seat at the top of the hill, some oaks. ‘From there it is over four kilometres to Zwardon and that road is patrolled by the frontier guards. One patrol takes an hour. Got that?’ ‘Avoid the fascists,’ he advises them emphatically. ‘The Polish and the Slovak fascists are no better than the German ones. If you go to the communists for help you’ll certainly live to see the end of the war. Or perhaps not, who knows,’ he continues pensively, ‘but it’s better to die in battle than croak in subjection. Take this, you’ll be safer.’ He hands Karol a small pistol, slaps their shoulders, turns and is off. After a few steps he halts as though he had forgotten something. He continues: ‘In Poland it was the communists who helped you, they’ll help you also at

180 Escape from Hell

home. Tell everyone about Auschwitz, tell them all about it, but be careful that you’re listened to by honest ears only. Take care!’ He disappears among the trees like some benevolent, omnipotent and omniscient being from a fairy tale and they continue looking in that direction until daybreak, until the big patches of snow between the sparse trees and bushes are touched by the bright sunlight. Then they withdraw behind a thick bush in the snow and with growing nervousness and ceaseless thinking of Tadeusz and his words they wait for the first signs of life on this side of the frontier. They lie on a moderately sized rise in the ground, the forefield of a hill with a fairly long and straight ridge. Opposite, on a long, gentle slope, there is no snow at all. The hillside is brown, clearly ploughed. Eventually people appear on it, coming from the left, mostly old men in woollen trousers and jackets, a few elderly women with kerchiefs and bonnets, with hoes in their hands. Along the ridge of that hill runs the state frontier. They can clearly see the trigonometric markers, somewhere close to them should be the old oaks and a seat under them – the centre of a four-kilometre section where, according to Tadeusz, two pairs of frontier patrols meet. The people on the hillside work the soil with their hoes, they pick up and remove stones. There are many of them, too many for such a small patch of stony ground. They watch them intently. Then they look up to the bare ridge: the sight excites them because just then two pairs of men in uniform have met. Unconcerned, they stand on the ridge, evidently chatting and from the movements of their hands it is clear that they are smoking. After a few minutes they part again unhurriedly. ‘Do we move now or not till evening?’ asks Val. In the evening, when the hillside is deserted and quiet it would be unwise to go, Karol reflects. In the evening every little noise would be suspicious and, who knows, they may have searchlights. Tadeusz said that one patrol round takes an hour. We’ll have to check that. After sixty-two minutes the patrols meet again, have a smoke and part once more. ‘Go now?’ asks Karol. Val considers for a moment, his glance sweeping the steep slope. ‘Now,’ he says calmly. ‘We’ll walk stooped, as if picking something up – stones or pieces of wood – and throw them into our rucksack.’ Karol undoes the rucksack and carries it by the straps. Val’s calm leaves him, he is gripped by excitement. ‘Dear mother, keep your fingers crossed for us!’ he sighs. As they get up he says: ‘Just look, I’m jittery all over. And, cross my heart, not from fear. Let’s hope this won’t be another marathon!’

Death Lives on the Other Side 181

They emerge from their hollow, walk round a wooden cottage under a fir tree and along the left-hand edge of the ploughed land they start climbing up the slope. From time to time they throw bits of wood and leaves, anxious not to straighten up in case their unfamiliar faces arouse attention. But the people who are rooting in the soil only some thirty paces from them take no notice of them at all. Step by step the hillside ahead gets less and when they look towards the top they nearly die of suspense. But there is no one on the ridge and they are seized by wild excitement. Another twenty steps! Another short distance and they will be able to say that Death lives on the other side. The path along the frontier is deserted and quiet. By the little seat under the three oak trees lie a number of cigarette stubs, an old Polish newspaper and a matchbox. Ducking, they ran a few steps over to the other side, below the ridge. They are on home ground, at last on native soil. To their right, some distance away, is a scattered group of people. Some two hundred metres further down are little houses with tiles, slate or asbestos-sheet roofs. Skalisté, a Slovak village, with Slovak people. To the left there is a forest, dense, green and fragrant with resin. Val bends down and viciously spits on the frontier stone on which there is a large black D for Deutschland. ‘Devils, savages, murderers, slave-drivers!’ he shouts after every spitting and suddenly stares at Karol with his eyes popping out. ‘My God, I’m going round the bend!’ he says horrified. Karol lies stretched out on the damp leaves and with both arms embraces a thin shoot of spruce. As in a sudden fit of madness he rolls round the shoot and in a voice breaking with happiness and tears he shouts, ‘Native soil, dear native land, bugger the fascists, we got away from them, we are home, death is behind us, don’t worry dear Pavel, we’ll fulfil everything!’ ‘Don’t shout so,’ Val catches him by his shoulder. ‘D’you hear? Good Lord, you survived it all and now, home at last, you go mad!’ Karol sits up abruptly, there is a feverish gleam in his eyes, his mouth is twisted. ‘We’re home,’ he breathes, looking down towards the cottages. ‘Two hundred and sixty-four … The living hillsman from Milówka … Oh Pavel, dear Pavel, Vasil, Adamek, Bolek, Filip, we’re back home, with our own people.’ Quickly he throws out the small stones, bits of wood and leaves from their rucksack, then he stands up, slings the rucksack onto his back and hurriedly moves down the hillside. ‘Come,’ he says, ‘come quickly or I’ll have an accident.’ Their nerves are all shot to pieces, but not having been seen or disturbed by anybody or anything they stop at the edge of the village. ‘Second house in the second row from the edge,’ Val repeats Tadeusz’s words.

182 Escape from Hell

The cottages are fairly close to each other, with small yards at the back, towards the forest. Ducking, they move along the fence, they read the small tin plates with the numbers, then, with hearts pounding, they enter the yard and knock at the door. ‘Who’s there?’ they hear an elderly man’s voice from inside. ‘Who are you?’ For a moment they are silent. Karol is bathed in hot sweat. ‘Open up, please,’ he begs, endeavouring to suppress his excitement and resist the weakness that is entering his head. The door opens. A bearded old man’s head, a coffer and a cupboard in the hallway start to spin in a wild merry-go-round and Karol feels that he is plunging into an infinite dark depth. A dull pain after his fall on his sore head in the hallway brings his consciousness back for a moment and in this brief lucid instant he hears Val’s voice: ‘The living hillsman from Milówka. We come from …’ Then the daylight seems to drain from his eyes and just before he is engulfed again by deep hot darkness he hears the old man’s quiet words: ‘Hanka, over here! Another two for Ondrej. Quickly! One of them’s already out for the count.’

Chapter 13

‘Did You See It with Your Own Eyes?’

The room where they have been lying for the past two days is not big, it is gloomy with brown-stained floorboards, a square in semidarkness with two narrow windows onto the hillside. There are two solid matrimonial beds, a table in the middle, little tables, a heavy wardrobe, between the windows a chest with decorative brass corners, on the wall hung two pictures, the Virgin and Child and Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane. To these pictures Hanka, Ondrej’s wife, runs every time it seems to her that in those two motionless bodies with their terribly battered feet there is not a spark of life left, that they would not wake up and that, in granddad’s words, this time they would have complications with the customs people or the gendarmes. As soon as they wake up I’ll tell Ondrej to send them off, she decides. Her fears grow when she finds a revolver in the jacket of one of them and in their rucksack two pairs of army boots which granddad says are German, then a flashlight, a razor, some small tube and a few more suspicious items. Ondrej, weighing the terrible weapon in his hand, calmly said ‘Belgian’ and put the revolver in the rucksack, which she, Hanka, then took to their storeroom, covering it with old rags. Heavens, a revolver! What if those two emaciated, bearded and pale young men are being sought for some crime and are found in her house? True, Ondrej and granddad have reassured her, but she is still fearful – every so often she steps out of the cottage and looks down the road in case someone is coming. She is much afraid about Ondrej because she knows that he is involved in something or other. He works at Vítkovice, but very irregularly, he often keeps away. Sometimes he goes to Poland, even twice a month, often he goes to Čadec and Žilina; and more than once he brought a man to the house with whom, as she suspected, things were not all they should be. Only three weeks back the customs people came round to ask whether anybody has woken them at night, whether they have heard anything, or whether they have offered anybody a bed for the night. ‘Don’t argue with me,’ she says to her husband, ‘we’ve got to get rid of them or I won’t have a minute’s peace.’ But when the two wake up and look about them in surprise, Hanka cannot utter a single unfriendly word. At those moments there is always

184 Escape from Hell

a great bustle. Hanka brings in some thick bean soup (at Ondrej’s instruction she has made a big pot of it); she brings them sausages and bread: go on eat it, don’t worry, we’ve got enough – and they all stare in wonderment at the mountains of food those two very quickly get through. And then as a rule they immediately fall asleep again and Hanka brings some warm or hot water from the kitchen and Ondrej and granddad wash their feet, sometimes without them waking up, and they keep washing until the last piece of dirty, blood-stained rag has come off the scabs. ‘Hanka, over there are two cubes of octane,’ Ondrej said on one occasion. ‘Dissolve them in a basin and get some bandages ready.’ Patiently Hanka prepares the bandages. ‘Hanka, get hold of some zinc ointment somewhere.’ ‘And if they ask who it’s for, what do I say?’ ‘Ah, silly girl, the goat’s bruised her side. You’ll think of something,’ granddad reproved her. The men sleep very soundly but restlessly. While their feet are being washed they toss about, jerk, whisper and exclaim words that do not mean anything to granddad or Hanka, but Ondrej notes them carefully and keeps them and eventually everything becomes clearer to him. The fact that they have come from the Living Hillsman and the tattooed numbers on their arms dispel all guesses. And the words and sentences they utter in their uneasy sleep suggest to him that the two are cases for Doctor Polák rather than for Matej Koneczný in the railwaymen’s settlement in Čadec. ‘Don’t whinge, silly woman. These aren’t murderers or thieves,’ he tells Hanka repeatedly, once just before they awoke. Half-awake, Karol caught those words. Hanka says ‘The Lord be thanked’ and then a sense of misfortune and fear that has been troubling her for some time engulfs her. She bursts into tears. She has had enough of this life at the frontier. Day and night there is rifle fire, some people are getting caught. Ondrej ought to be looking after her more, she is sick, she is getting worse all the time, she can hardly feel her lower back, he should listen to her and leave these terrible hills. They could make a living somewhere in Čadec or Žilina. ‘Don’t worry, Hanka,’ Karol hears Ondrej’s deep voice, ‘when the time comes we’ll leave. But first there are some things we have to put right. We’ll leave, you’ll see, just hold out a little longer.’ Karol and Val wake up with refreshed strength and a sense of relief throughout their bodies after their long sleep that was broken only by short intervals during which they ate. The sky is clear, the air is pure and fresh, the hillside they see through the window seems very close, enough to reach out and touch

‘Did You See It with Your Own Eyes?’ 185

the spruces. The slope on the left is in the sun, the one to the right of the cottage is in a bluish shade. With a broad smile Karol looks at Val, who in turn seriously scrutinises Karol, while granddad looks at both of them with satisfaction. Just look at them, Ondrej and Hanka, these halfdead have recovered, they’ve revived very nicely. Ondrej has rounded up what he could – for Karol a boiler-suit jacket, a check flannel shirt, black leather trousers and a cap that is a little too small for him. For Val he has a collarless embroidered shirt with a ribbon tie, linen trousers … a perfect recruit, they laugh, that’s quite all right, tomorrow are enlistments in Čadec anyway. ‘You be careful they don’t enlist you,’ Hanka says to Val laughing. ‘And you are an electrician,’ Ondrej says to Karol. ‘Clever boys they are, but they haven’t learnt to shave yet,’ adds granddad, enormously proud of his razor. Towards evening Ondrej brings two pairs of boots with rubber soles so they should not be suspicious in those German monstrosities, as he put it. Also they were heavy and hard as wood and would mutilate their feet even further. While Hanka gets the supper they carefully cover their festering wounds with strips spread with zinc ointment, pull on warm soft socks and their new boots and begin moving about the room to wear them in a little. Their pain seems to have slept with them. As they now start to walk it wakes up again. But the boots are soft and yielding and after a while they stop grimacing and groaning – never mind, now they can bear anything, now that they have eaten their fill and regained their strength. They are surrounded by good people, they do not have to flee by day and night, even that terrible enemy Fear has ceased to plague them. Although their fear has gone since their latest awakening, their nervousness is growing. Two days have passed and they are still at Skalisté. During that time eight thousand people may have been burnt in the Auschwitz furnaces. Pavel, Vasil, Bolek, Adamek and all you others, please be patient, we won’t let you down, we’ll do everything to make sure the truth about Auschwitz is disseminated throughout the world, Karol reflects. Don’t be angry, dear friends, but that journey was truly terrible and too endlessly long. But now … What will actually happen now? Where are the people we must talk to? Who will put us in touch with them and when? Ondrej? Can Ondrej know such people? Well, yes, perhaps so, he’s already hinted that he will take them somewhere where they will be properly attended to. What a strange person Ondrej is. He asks no questions. He talks very little and then only about the situation in Slovakia, so they should have at least an approximate picture of the life into which they are returning. He has narrow, dark eyes, he is tall, broad-shouldered, very careful in

186 Escape from Hell

his speech and exceedingly good-natured. ‘Hanka, go and warm up something for them, bring some more sausages, and you, granddad, pop out for some beer, they’ve been thirsty long enough.’ After supper, when they each have in them two ample plates of potato soup with dried mushrooms, a piece of smoked meat and a mug of milk, Ondrej says: ‘Do you know that a shiver still runs down my back over what you screamed in your sleep?’ All day Karol was in a talkative mood. But Ondrej always skilfully interrupted: ‘Hanka, feed them a little more, you can see they are as thin as rakes.’ Karol is bursting to talk, but Ondrej does not seem to be interested. He says: ‘Waste of time. Tomorrow is the day when you’ll tell everything. Lie down now, we’ll set out at midnight.’ Shortly before midnight he leads them to the nearby wood. ‘Keep to this track and you won’t lose your way. Before dawn you’ll get to the main road. It’s market day in Čadec, lots of carts go there, someone will give you a lift. As we agreed: if you don’t find me there, don’t move away from the market. I’ll be there with a cart.’ At daybreak they reach the main road. What a strange feeling it is to walk slowly and comfortably on the main road, to stop for a breather whenever they feel like it, not looking for a hiding place, no fear of sniffing dogs, in good soft footwear and with a full stomach. Carts loaded with timber, ploughs, harrows, poultry or squealing piglets bump along towards Čadec. With the silent consent of a farmer they jump on the back of a cart drawn by lazy young bullocks with white patches on their flanks and listen to the accordion and the singing of recruits on a ladder-side cart in front of them. The farmer, with a wrinkled face and a suspiciously red nose, continually cracks his whip and mutters, ‘Move, you lazy beasts, I’ve fed you properly so pull now, the way we are crawling along there won’t be a buyer left.’ But there are a great many buyers and sellers at the market, many more than they expected. Everywhere there is shouting, arguing, expressions of dissatisfaction or praise: ‘I’d sooner kill it than let you have it at this price … wait, don’t run away, I suppose I can go down by a koruna or two, hell, that’s selling it for a song and when you want to buy they skin you’. Clacking chickens, squealing piglets, snorting pigs and mooing cows – a really big market, where everybody wants to sell well and buy well. People in townish suits and in smocks, affluent people and paupers. By the rail to which the cattle are tied a few German soldiers hang about, inspecting the cows, this cow nicht gut, skin and bones, this cow sehr gut, but, my God, expensive, damned expensive.

‘Did You See It with Your Own Eyes?’ 187

They find Ondrej at the far end of the market, frowning, arguing with two older men in peasant smocks. Of four pairs of suckling pigs he has sold only one and the two men who want to buy from him are pressing him hard. ‘Did you ever see such skinflints?’ he expostulates. ‘Two hundred and forty for a pair! I’d sooner put them on a spit and feed a gypsy camp!’ The men in the smocks walk on to some other cart and Ondrej tells Karol and Val to go on drifting around. He cannot return from the market empty-handed. When they return to him later he is pleased and cheerful – he is left with only one pair and he has sold well, no one has cheated him. His cart is not big; the horse with short, firm legs stands placidly, its head in a sack of oats, now and again flicking its thick tail. Ondrej laughs and jokingly calls out: ‘Come and buy these piglets, young men. For you they are only two hundred each.’ Then he looks about him cheerfully and adds softly: ‘Stand by the cart, I’ll be back in a moment.’ A good hour passes before he is back, shortly after the midday chimes of the church bell. ‘Get on the cart, we’re off. It isn’t far.’ They cross the little square, turn into a side street and enter a twostorey building. Ondrej knocks at a door with a metal plate: MUDr V. Polák, General Practitioner. With undisguised curiosity they wait for the door to open. A man of about thirty-five, in a white coat, fairly tall, dark-haired with serious eyes, looks inquiringly at Ondrej. Ondrej nods, yes, this is them. ‘Come in,’ says the doctor. In the waiting room, which is empty during the midday break, he stops for a moment and says to Karol: ‘Put your rucksack in the corner over there.’ Karol glances quickly at Ondrej. No, I’m not letting go of that rucksack, he thinks, and walks with it into the consulting room. A young girl immediately gets up from a table and asks the doctor: ‘Could I pop out into the town for a minute?’ ‘Go along,’ the doctor replies and the dark-haired girl takes off her overall and leaves. The doctor invites them to sit down on the couch covered with a white sheet, pulls up a little stool, sits down on it and asks: ‘From where?’ Karol questioningly looks at Val and Ondrej. Ondrej nods and Karol says: ‘From Auschwitz.’ ‘From Auschwitz?’ the doctor asks incredulously. ‘And … have you got numbers? Forgive me, but here it was said that everyone there gets a number.’

188 Escape from Hell

They both push up their sleeves. With a strange expression on his face the doctor looks at their forearms. ‘So … from the notorious Auschwitz.’ The thousand guesses with which they entered this house now merge into powerful excitement. We are facing one of those, Karol reflects, to whom we will be able to tell everything. We’ll tell him – and where will he send us afterwards? Heavens, he suddenly thinks, a doctor in Čadec. What connections can a doctor in Čadec have? To whom will he pass us on, or where will he take us? ‘Yes, from Auschwitz,’ Val needlessly confirms Karol’s answer. ‘You escaped?’ the doctor asks. Val makes an irritable movement. ‘Not at all,’ he answers with suppressed anger. ‘They drove us out because we ate too much.’ A little more calmly he adds: ‘Of course we escaped. They don’t send you on home leave from there.’ The doctor’s features show sad surprise. They have heard about Auschwitz from people back home and from the radio. It was nothing pleasant. Nothing but terrible things. Family bonds forcibly torn apart, inhuman treatment of the prisoners, even killings … Ten thousand have been taken away and none of them has so far come back. And here are two who have escaped from there. Two eyewitnesses. ‘Forgive me,’ he says quietly. ‘I didn’t want to hurt you. Please take your boots off.’ While they are doing so he asks: ‘Is it true that … they really kill people there?’ Val glances at Karol: look at him, a doctor, and such stupid questions. ‘They kill there … really,’ Val replies with gritted teeth. ‘And you two … you saw the killing with your own eyes?’ ‘Sometimes we shut them,’ Val hisses. ‘Sometimes it was so … so … my God, what a question! Of course we saw it. We and ten thousand others. We all saw it, every hour, for two whole years. At present they kill there at least five thousand people a day. Five thousand, doctor!’ ‘Five thousand?’ the doctor raises his eyebrows in alarm. ‘And you … you would be able to report on everything in detail?’ ‘Able?’ asks Karol. ‘We want to and we must. We know the whole history, everything. We’ve got to speak about it, doctor.’ For a moment they look into each other’s eyes, then the doctor gets up, walks over to the telephone: yes, you can come over, your medicine has just come in. Then he bends down to their feet. ‘We must be quick, any moment my patients may arrive,’ he says and tears the pieces of bandage off their wounds. Now and again they groan and pull their feet away. ‘It’s awful, it’ll hurt, but we can’t do anything else.’ He trims the skin around the wounds, removes rotten pieces of flesh, applies hydrogen peroxide. The wounds foam and smart. Then he applies

‘Did You See It with Your Own Eyes?’ 189

gauze with some ointment, bandages them: well, there you are, you are damned lucky, you could easily have lost your feet. There is a knock at the side door. The doctor unlocks and opens it. A man in a grey suit enters, a little plump and seemingly awkward, with spectacles on his lively eyes and a Hlinka Guard badge on the lapel of his coat. He greets them with a nod. Karol and Val are stunned to see the double-barred cross on blue ground, but the doctor reassures them, everything is fine, you don’t have to worry, you’ll be in good hands. But Karol nevertheless puts his hand in his pocket and grips the small Belgian pistol. ‘And where … where do we go now?’ he asks. ‘To Žilina,’ the doctor replies. ‘There you’ll meet people to whom you’ll tell everything.’ He pulls out his wallet, counts out five hundred koruna and hands them to Karol. ‘That should be enough for you to start with.’ Karol remonstrates but the doctor is firm. ‘Take it, this isn’t just my money, you’ll need it.’ Through the side door he lets them out into a narrow passage. To the man with the Hlinka Guard badge he whispers: ‘Be careful, these two are worth their weight in gold.’ Then, loudly, he addresses Karol and Val: ‘Ointment overnight and don’t wrap them up! Walk as little as possible! And keep them clean! Goodbye.’ Ondrej wants to accompany them out into the street, but the doctor holds him back: ‘We should have a word about your wife.’ They walk to the station in a kind of ecstasy. People swarm around them, carts rumble. A little old woman, hanging out wet rugs on a fence, greets them respectfully. Children pour out from the school, in no time the pavement is full of them and so is the road. A little way in front of them a young man, cursing, tries to start an ancient motorbike. From a little street on the left comes a group of recruits with long tricolours trailing from their hats. They are slightly drunk; the two in front have bottles in their hands which they wave in time with their singing: ‘You gentlemen in Mikuláš, who’ll look after my family at home?’ The name of the town of Mikuláš was not sung in unison; Karol clearly heard some of them sing ‘Bratislava’. ‘Did you hear?’ the man with the Hlinka Guard badge addresses them for the first time. ‘They’re all sick to the back teeth of it.’ The street is flooded with afternoon sunshine. Myriads of dust particles flicker in the beams of sunlight. The air is fragrant with the slowly warming earth. In this springtime contentment, on their way to the station, they both think of the strange chain of good people who have made their return to their native land possible – of Pavel, Bolek, Adamek, Vasil, Andrej, Filip and others in Auschwitz, of Tadeusz of the

190 Escape from Hell

Living group on the Polish frontier, of Ondrej in Skalisté, of Dr Polák, and of the man with the Hlinka Guard badge who, the moment he finishes a cigarette, offers them another. And, of course, of the people whom they are to meet in Žilina. Will they meet them today? Or when? And who are they? Are they in a position to take immediate action?

Chapter 14

‘But What about the Postcards?’

The ancient, grey building of the Žilina old people’s home, with its tall narrow windows, is nearly deserted. On the ground floor lives the administrator, the part facing the courtyard contains the kitchen and a small store, next to which, in a small room, lives the housekeeper. On the first floor only a few rooms are occupied, on the second only one, actually a bathroom, which they have made available to Karol and Val. From the small bathroom window you can see into the courtyard below and into the garden next door, from where the chatter of children can be heard from morning till evening. They had been brought into the building by an ambulance: their arrival caused no attention at all. Three times a day a key squeaks in the door to the room next to the bathroom, three times a day they hear the medicine cupboard that hides the low, narrow door to the bathroom being pushed aside, whereupon Betka, the housekeeper, an elderly, greying and gently sad woman, enters with a packet of food. Twice they have been visited by Vendelín, a worker from the cellulose plant: a short man with a square, furrowed forehead, a straight nose and a pensive expression. Before the joint meeting with all the interested persons, he wished to find out some specific information: Karol and Val had the impression that he was verifying some reports that he had already heard about Auschwitz. Their answers greatly disturbed him. He listened attentively and did not interrupt them even when, driven by some inner need, they talked and explained so profusely that the information asked for was drowned in a flood of secondary facts. When he parted from them after an hour-long visit the day before, he suggested that it would be best if they wrote down their experience of Auschwitz. ‘Perhaps it can be arranged,’ he said, ‘that it gets by some way or another to the governments that are fighting against the fascists.’ After that they had thought about Vendelín most of the night and about his conviction, as it emerged from his remarks, that these details should be brought to the knowledge of Moscow. At last the impatiently awaited moment has come. They are sitting in the room next to the bathroom. Apart from a long table with a

192 Escape from Hell

telephone, some chairs and the medicine cupboard that conceals the door into the bathroom, there is no other furniture. Sitting at the table are Vendelín, the cellulose factory worker; next to him is a fair-haired, pink-cheeked lawyer with a receding chin, who conveys the impression of being exceedingly calm and slow, who makes good use in his underground work of his connections in the ministry of the interior and in several inconspicuous institutions in Slovakia and abroad; further down is the Prague correspondent of a Swiss newspaper, a slim and lively young man with restless eyes, who is personally acquainted with officials of the International Red Cross; and finally there is Madame Ibi, a dark-eyed chestnut-haired, middle-aged woman with a six-pointed star on her dress. Before the war she was a functionary in a progressive Jewish youth organisation; now she cooperates with the illegal domestic resistance. The plumpish, seemingly clumsy, man who had brought them here from Čadec, now without his Hlinka Guard badge, works in the finance department of the Ministry of the Interior and is therefore, for the resistance, a good source of information on measures planned by the fascists. And of course there are Karol and Val, who are unable at this moment to suppress their growing impatience. But the people at the table are evidently still waiting for somebody. The lawyer explains something to Vendelín and Karol catches the name Waren. The plumpish man talks softly to the Swiss journalist. Madame Ibi puts some bottles of mineral water on the table, as well as some glasses, plates and forks, a large plate with salami, eggs and salad; before the Swiss newspaperman she places a small plate with almonds. The lawyer keeps looking impatiently at his watch; when the phone rings he picks it up quickly, listens with an angry face and puts it down, disappointed. ‘Mr Waren is not arriving until tomorrow or the day after tomorrow,’ he announces. ‘So we’ll start without him.’ He locks the door, sits down in his place and, his eyes fixed on Karol and Val, finally gets down to the business. ‘So, the two of you were in Auschwitz,’ he says, his voice raised. ‘Two years, nearly two years, we’ve waited for an eyewitness to confirm or refute those unpleasant rumours. Finally our waiting has been rewarded. Let me welcome you, we are happy to see you among us. Tell us, was it … is it so difficult to get out from there?’ Karol looks at the lawyer as if wondering if he had really meant this naïve question seriously. But the features of the fair-haired, pinkcheeked gentleman are dignified and earnest. Karol realises that there will be more such naïve questions and that they will have to answer them patiently. Therefore he replies calmly but curtly: ‘A lot more difficult than getting in there.’

‘But What about the Postcards?’ 193

‘So how did you manage if it’s so difficult?’ asks the Swiss journalist, munching an almond. ‘Tell us how you escaped from there.’ Val believes that the Swiss man’s question contains a little suspicion. With a stinging reply on his tongue he leans forward irritably, but he draws back angrily and says nothing because Karol has gripped his hand. ‘That isn’t very interesting,’ Karol says, ‘but we can tell you. We left on the tenth of April, that is sixteen days ago. For ten days we drifted around as well-to-do tourists, a Hungarian salami in every pocket. Everywhere we were welcomed by triumphal arches, by German military bands. Three days we relaxed at Zakopane and from Čadec we travelled by Pullman car.’ Vendelín smiles understandingly. The lawyer’s face acknowledges a good, a very good, joke. The plumpish man from the finance department crushes a coloured sweet wrapper between his fingers. In Madame Ibi’s brown eyes, fixed on the Swiss correspondent, is mild reproach. ‘Forgive me, I got a little heated,’ Karol tries to justify himself, ‘but how we escaped … that isn’t important at this moment. At this moment you should consider how to stop that terrible killing as quickly as possible.’ The lawyer says: ‘That is precisely why we have met here. But if we are to pass this on, we need to have more facts, the whole history. Tell us about everything you experienced there and saw there.’ At last some common sense, thinks Karol and encourages Val to start reporting. Val is the ‘older’ prisoner; he was in Lublin before the Auschwitz mega-butchering machine even existed. Before the fair-haired lawyer, the worker Vendelín and the Swiss journalist, before Madame Ibi and the man from the finance department a tragic film now unwinds of men, women and children driven to the most bestial death under the pretence of resettlement in a new homeland. Val alternately speaks very fast, as though he wanted to get everything out of himself, and then again very slowly, as if he were looking for appropriate words to express his thoughts. He does not wish to forget anything. He wants to tell them everything straight out to prevent even a shadow of doubt arising in them. He wants to speak like a witness, nothing but facts, but the terrible events sweep him along like a torrent, he relives them with his nerves, with every pore of his body, so that after an hour he is completely exhausted. Oh, why am I telling them everything at such length? Surely everything that corrodes me inside might be summed up in a few words: Believe us, they have already killed millions of innocent people and they will kill further millions unless the world forces Hitler to stop the deportations at once.

194 Escape from Hell

When he speaks of the liquidation of families, of men driven to slave labour, and of their women and children, who were murdered, the Swiss stops chewing for a moment and asks: ‘Women too?’ ‘And children,’ Val answers wearily. ‘Dear God,’ sighs Madame Ibi and dabs her eyes with a handkerchief. ‘You mentioned hunger in Majdanek,’ says the lawyer. ‘Was that hunger there from the start or did it only begin later?’ ‘From the very start,’ Val answers. ‘But later it got even worse. When our transport got to Majdanek, we were immediately surrounded by emaciated and bleeding people. At first we thought that these were murderers with a life sentence or something like that. And all held out their hands and begged for bread and cigarettes.’ ‘But surely they fed them there?’ the Swiss journalist asks in astonishment. ‘Some gentlemen from the International Red Cross recently told me of extra deliveries of food. And the parcel campaign was said …’ ‘Of course they did,’ Val interrupts him. ‘If you want to know I’ll give you a normal menu: for breakfast, eggs, a sausage, butter, honey and coffee … Have I left anything out, Karol? For lunch there was gulyas, soup, cakes and wine … Oh yes, they fed us, those sons of bitches!’ He looks guiltily at Madame Ibi and justifies himself: ‘Don’t be angry with me, but a crust of dry bread … oh, who can count those who went into the gas for a crust of bread.’ He looks at the correspondent and adds in a quieter tone: ‘Sir, they set up those camps for people to die there more quickly. As quickly as possible – do you understand?’ ‘As much as one can understand,’ says the correspondent. The more Val reports, the angrier and more embittered he becomes. He would be happier if they were flabbergasted, if they showed sympathy or protest, because that would be a sign that they believed him. But they are silent and in their faces he sees only attentive interest. He is most irritated by the indifference of the Swiss journalist. Ceaselessly he moves his jaws, he chews silently, looking at the small yellow plate as if he were counting the almonds yet to be eaten. He seems to believe the gentlemen from the International Red Cross, which is sending foodstuffs and clothes to some of the camps. These gentlemen, as Karol has already learned from the lawyer, were assured by the Nazis that the people in their ‘new homeland’ will suffer no shortages. There can be no question about murder, because these people were living and working normally. If they won’t believe us, it suddenly occurs to Val, we would have done better staying with Tadeusz and helping him to finish off a few Germans among the trees. He realises his own impotence and he is seized by defiance. They have

‘But What about the Postcards?’ 195

got to believe us – even the Swiss newspaperman must believe us, because he is in a better position to get something done than the others. Patiently and in detail he speaks about the prisoners’ selfgovernment. ‘Explain to us what the people did who were assigned to work,’ the lawyer requests. ‘Only what served the development of the camp and the faster killing and disposal of the victims,’ Val replies glumly. ‘In every camp?’ ‘In all those where I was. In Lublin, Majdanek and Auschwitz.’ He falls silent for a while, then he continues in a choked voice: ‘And especially there. You know, the first day we thought we’d come to something better, because the Auschwitz main camp astonished us by its order and cleanliness. But once they had put us to work we soon realised that in Majdanek the dying was less quick. Have you heard about Buna?’ ‘What about it?’ asked the Swiss newspaperman. ‘One of the worst workplaces to come under the Auschwitz administration,’ Val says. ‘A huge plant for the manufacture of synthetic rubber. Well, we built that plant … digging and concreting the foundations, fitting the steelwork and so on. The numbers they sent there to their death! The many they concreted into the foundations alive! Ten square metres – that was one’s workplace. On each such section a team would be working that was specially guarded, because the Buna complex was outside the last security chain surrounding Auschwitz. Half a step beyond your patch – and you were dead. A moment’s breather – and you were dead. Speaking to a mate – and you were dead. ‘Just like that? Without trial?’ ‘Any SS man was judge, jury and executioner in one,’ Val replies. ‘Tens of thousands, Mr Journalist, tens of thousands perished during the concreting of those foundations. And I doubt if even one of us would have survived if construction hadn’t been stopped for several weeks.’ ‘Bombing?’ asks Vendelín. ‘Typhus,’ says Val and Madame Ibi lets out a sigh. ‘And strange as it may sound, those were weeks of recuperation. The disease took a terrible toll, but it was a pleasanter way of dying, the sick people didn’t see those terrible bestialities.’ Karol gazes somewhere under the table. He tries to put himself into the role of a listener, of a person who is hearing the details of this ghastly tragedy for the first time. Does Val explain clearly enough? Can all this be grasped and believed? But to be a listener is too difficult, or indeed impossible. Buna, the exhausting labour, the machine-gun fire,

196 Escape from Hell

the shouting – no, he cannot be a listener because Val continually sweeps him along into the bottomless grave of the living and the dead. Karol raises his head and looks around the table. Except for Madame Ibi they are all taking notes. Even the Swiss journalist now listens intently, he writes and he chews the brown almonds that Madame Ibi is constantly supplying him with. ‘Can you tell us anything about specific bestialities by the SS men?’ the Swiss asks. Val’s face reflects boundless astonishment. They are all surprised, because nothing else has been talked about so far. ‘That is,’ Val replies embarrassedly, ‘as if you wanted me to tell you of a specific day when there was water in the Danube. Maybe that’s not a good example,’ he continues pensively, ‘but those bestialities are performed there non-stop, day and night. It was bestial that they drove us out of our native lands, out of our homes, the conditions in which people live there are bestial, the labour is inhuman and the dying is inhuman too.’ ‘What I had in mind were specific instances about which you might recall names: this or that happened and it was done by so and so,’ the journalist amplified his question. Val lights a cigarette. Yes, now he understands the question, now he can answer it. ‘Those who didn’t catch typhus at the Buna plant,’ he continues calmly, ‘had to paint skis for the German army in the camp. Cushy job, would you say? But SS man Henkel checked the numbers every day and finished off anyone who had not painted at least one hundred and twenty skis. Other men from Buna made boxes for shells. That’s not heavy work either – for men with a full stomach. Some fifteen thousand crates didn’t have the prescribed dimensions. For every one hundred crates they shot one prisoner. Want me to continue?’ The Swiss correspondent turns a page in his notebook and nods. ‘The SS man Palitzsch throttled a prisoner, a weak asthmatic, because he had a coughing fit just as the command “Silence” was given. Another prisoner, also a new man who’d only arrived a few days before and didn’t yet know what was and what wasn’t allowed, ran up to him and started shouting at us: “Help him, people, he’s still moving, he’s still alive!” Palitzsch seized that man by his throat and asked him “Is he really still alive?” “Yes, he is, can’t you see his chest heaving?” shouted the young man. “You can see that?” Palitzsch asked him. “I can, I’ve got two eyes in my head,” the prisoner answered back. “But quite needlessly,” Palitzsch said and as he held him by the throat he drew his revolver and shot both his eyes out.’

‘But What about the Postcards?’ 197

Val remembered a few more similar incidents, then he spoke about the construction of Brzezinki and the dozens of transports that were driven straight from the ramp into the gas chambers. Madame Ibi interrupts him: ‘Excuse me, please, but what are these ramps?’ ‘The spot where the goods trains with their human cargo arrive, with the people sent there “to work”,’ Val replies. In front of Vendelín, the lawyer, the journalist, the gentleman from the finance department and Madame Ibi a fuller spectacle now begins to unroll, more detailed scenes, the terrible fate of people chased out from the trains at the ramps, arranged into ranks of five, marching, even with their children, into the bathrooms where from the showerheads issues not water but poison gas. ‘They had no suspicion that they were going to their death?’ asks the lawyer. ‘It was not suspicious to them that after a long journey they should shower,’ says Val. ‘Some even welcomed it. Mostly they went quietly. They were gripped by fear only when they stood crammed next to one another, five or six hundred people in a small room, twelve hundred to fifteen hundred in a bigger one without any windows, only with a ventilation plant – when they realised that in such a press, where people were stepping on their own children, there could be no question of showering. At that point shouting and crying broke out and everyone began to push to the steel door, but nobody got out of the room alive because others were pouring in from outside, driven by SS men with rifle butts and dogs.’ ‘You were saying that from the ramps most of them went quietly,’ says the correspondent. ‘Were there also occasions when they revolted on the ramps? When they did not go quietly?’ ‘They got out of the trucks quietly enough. After all, they’d been in them for several days. From Greece they were sometimes two weeks in transit. They were exhausted, tired, glad to have got to their destination. They had entered the trucks quietly and therefore they left them quietly. Very often, however, they staged a selection on the ramps themselves. In that case things struck the people as suspicious,’ Val says, frowning. ‘Explain to us what a selection is,’ Vendelín asks him. Karol glances at him quickly: surely Vendelín knows what a selection is – he had asked them yesterday to explain it to him in detail. He has clearly asked this question to make sure nothing important is missed by those present. ‘They put the younger ones to one side,’ Val continued, ‘as if choosing them for work, to fill the gaps left by the murdered ones and those

198 Escape from Hell

without strength, and to the other side they ordered the children and the old people, the ones they’d chosen not for work but for cremating. At that point there was sometimes confusion. Mothers didn’t want to let go of their children, men didn’t want to leave their wives, so the SS men battered their heads and sometimes they fired into them like mad. We then had to remove all traces of these massacres, so that the new arrivals, who by then were somewhere on their way, wouldn’t find anything suspicious.’ Val speaks in great detail about the selections on the ramps and about the frequent, almost regular, selections in all the cages, while Karol closely scrutinises the faces around the table. Vendelín is not taking any notes now, but he listens very closely. Madame Ibi is pale, deeply affected by the misfortune that has befallen millions of people. The fair-haired lawyer is outwardly quite calm, but his pink cheeks have turned much darker. Everything he has so far done against fascism seems to him trivial, risible, almost pointless. Conscientiously he takes notes and reflects whether they will be able, straight away, to take any action against that unprecedented crime committed by a power that has spread over nearly all Europe and has everywhere imposed its bestial laws. The plumpish gentleman from the finance department looks as if he is falling asleep, but in fact he is not missing a single word. Under his sleepy appearance are taut nerves and very alert reactions. Is it possible, he wonders, that the Allies are unaware of this? They must know, surely, but probably they do not know the whole story and lack detailed accounts of these monstrous facts. In the features of the Swiss newspaperman there is not a trace of disbelief left. From time to time he bends down over his notepad, moving his jaws and wondering if his paper will have enough courage to publish this terrible accusation against Switzerland’s powerful Nazi neighbour. Val takes a sip of mineral water and the lawyer uses this pause to ask: ‘What became of the possessions of those unfortunates? Did the prisoners ever get any of those things?’ ‘Now and again something would slip through Canada.’ ‘Canada?’ ‘That was the name we had for those who worked in the Aufräumungskommando, the cleaning squad, on the ramps,’ Val explains. ‘You know, when they cleared the trains out they could always find something to eat or a cigarette or two. The lads loaded the luggage on lorries. We did that night after night, day after day – there were real mountains of it. Everything was taken to the Auschwitz and later also to the Birkenau stores, where it was sorted by women and girl prisoners. Textiles, clothes, footwear and toys went to the Reich, for the

‘But What about the Postcards?’ 199

pure race, canned food and other durable foodstuff went straight to the front and the rest to various economic departments of SS headquarters. And, of course, gold – whole crates of gold and jewellery direct to Himmler’s office. But some of it always stuck to the fingers of the commanders and their wives, of the SS officers and their women friends and also Scharführer Wykleff, who supervised the sorting. And of course our boys weren’t stupid either.’ ‘Did the people, when they arrived, know that they were in Auschwitz?’ asks Vendelín. ‘The Poles knew exactly what Auschwitz was,’ Val replies. ‘But the others suspected nothing. Even on the ramps nearly all still believed that they had come there to work, just as they’d been told back home. And even if they hadn’t been told so, hardly anyone thought it could be anything else.’ ‘Didn’t they revolt when they discovered they’d been deceived?’ the Swiss asks. Val waits for Madame Ibi to pull down the blinds and switch on the light. Then he answers: ‘Oh yes, I often saw a major clash on the ramp. The young Poles frequently lost their heads. As soon as they were chased out of the trucks and looked around, they knew where they were. Maybe one of our lot had whispered something to them. And those youngsters went for the SS men like a swarm of wasps. With their bare hands, honestly, with their bare hands! But a few of the older men from the ghettos also joined in, especially from the trucks at the back. The result was mountains of dead bodies, as the Germans fired into them with machine-guns and sub-machine-guns, and the Sonderkommando then had to cope not only with the asphyxiated but also with those shot dead.’ Val realises that he has to explain what the Sonderkommando is. ‘Initially there were three hundred in the Sonderkommando,’ he explains, ‘but now there are four hundred or possibly even more. They are the ones who work in the crematoriums. They fling entire gassed transports into the furnaces. They cremate the dead and sometimes even the living.’ ‘They cremate the living?’ Madame Ibi asks, horrified. ‘After gassing, that is before cremation, they break out the gold teeth of the dead, they pull off the crowns,’ Val says in a weary voice. ‘They have to do this conscientiously because they are supervised by an SS man and the head of the crematorium, who now and again open the mouth of a corpse themselves with an iron hook to make sure the Sonderkommando won’t let a gramme of gold go up the chimney. But the men are so exhausted from this horrific work that in spite of their

200 Escape from Hell

greatest attention they sometimes miss a piece of gold. Well, when the SS man discovers this he always has one of the Sonderkommando put on a stretcher and shoved into the fire. On a soap-greased stretcher for easier slipping.’ He is tired and his eyelids flicker with nervous tension. The lawyer lights a cigarette for him. Val inhales deeply, and again, then continues in a hoarse voice: ‘On the 15th of January 1943 we were transferred, as a punishment, to Brzezinki and there I met Karol. He can tell you the rest.’ The concentration in the faces has relaxed. Madame Ibi gets up, switches off the light and opens the window to air the smoke-filled room. The lawyer and Vendelín stand by the window, talking. The gentleman from the finance department, who has not spoken a word all the time, now urges Val and Karol to eat: ‘You should eat, you should eat all the time, those bastards starved you properly.’ The journalist talks to Madame Ibi: yes, this is terrible, he will certainly write about it and do all he can to get the boss to publish it, surely the world should know what goes on behind the wires of the concentration camps. Karol and Val eat – salami, eggs, salad with mayonnaise and butter. Now and again they raise their heads to catch what the lawyer is saying to Vendelín about the Terezín prisoners. Yes, the lawyer explains, from Terezín they sent them to Auschwitz or Brzezinki and from there, it seems, the prisoners are still writing that they are not going short of anything, that they are together, thank you for the parcels and so on. There are two knocks at the door. Betka comes in and puts a basket with rolls and biscuits on the table and a Thermos with coffee. ‘This is the supper for the two gentlemen, but if you need anything else I can wait downstairs for an hour or so.’ ‘No, thank you,’ answers the lawyer and locks the door behind her. ‘Can we continue?’ asks Vendelín. Karol nods. From under his jacket he produces a thin tube. ‘Here’s the evidence.’ He takes out some rolled-up paper from the tube. ‘The prisoners in the central registry risked the gas chambers when they copied these facts out for us.’ He spreads out the papers, they all bend their heads over the table. They are gripped by amazement. These dirty sheets of paper contain very important facts: data on the establishment and extension of the various camps, numbers of victims driven there first from Poland and then from Germany and France and later still from all the occupied countries of Europe, including ‘non-occupied’ Slovakia. ‘Is there anything about Soviet prisoners of war?’ asks Vendelín. The correspondent immediately comes to life. He bends lower over the table: yes, that is a very interesting question as Moscow radio has

‘But What about the Postcards?’ 201

been making a lot of noise about those prisoners of war. ‘But I suspect,’ the correspondent continues, ‘that this is just a propaganda move. Surely the Germans aren’t so naïve that they’d violate international agreements on the treatment of prisoners, surely that’s a sword that cuts both ways.’ No, the fascists are not naïve, they are exceedingly cunning, reflects Karol. After all, they butcher entire nations in their camps in such a way that even the slightest rumour that leaks out into the world seems unbelievable. It is people like the Swiss who are naïve if they attribute to the Germans correctness and decency, qualities that are largely alien to them. ‘Twelve thousand Soviet prisoners of war from Minsk and Vitebsk with independent numbering,’ Karol says, looking at the paper even though he knows it by heart. ‘And fewer than a hundred of them are left. They beat them to death, they shot them and they gassed them. Hundreds of them died of starvation or diseases, or froze to death in labour squads, in or outside the huts even during the winter before our arrival.’ ‘That’s a fantasy, that’s unbelievable,’ says the Swiss as he hears these details about the prisoners. ‘Perhaps this was a mistake. Perhaps they executed them there arbitrarily … without Berlin’s knowledge, without the knowledge of the Wehrmacht command. You don’t,’ he looks at Karol, ‘admit the possibility of a mistake?’ ‘They didn’t build the concentration camps by mistake, they didn’t start this war by mistake,’ Karol answers harshly. ‘Their killing out there is very organised and deliberate.’ And then he speaks a little darkly and emotionally, putting one unrolled paper aside after another. The faces of the people around the table reflect more and more horror and amazement as they realise that this horrendous lawlessness cannot be overcome by appeals, petitions or moral pressure, but only by military might. From the unrolled papers emerge transports and clouds of smoke smelling of benzene and methane alcohol; the smudged sheets of paper speak of victims burnt in a gigantic trench that was subsequently filled in and steamrollered, of temporary gas bunkers in the huts, where over a million people were poisoned, of the construction of the crematoriums that day and night swallow up six, eight and by now perhaps ten thousand people. Karol lights a cigarette. The lawyer uses the short pause of tense silence. ‘In August or September 1943 a transport went from Terezín to Auschwitz. A class-mate of mine was in it. Would you know what happened to that transport?’ Karol understands. The lawyer asks this question to test the veracity of the data on their unrolled sheets. He picks up a sheet that he had

202 Escape from Hell

already put aside, then he reads, along with the lawyer: ‘8 Sept. 1943 transport from Terezín, 5006 persons, liquidated 8 March 1944.’ Until April 1944 there rise, from these sheets, inhabitants of Poland, the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia, Slovakia, Yugoslavia, Russian civilians and army prisoners of war with whom they replenish the number of killed prisoners, Dutchmen, Frenchmen, Belgians, gypsies from every corner of Europe, people from dozens of concentration camps and prisons in Germany and in the occupied countries. Day and night an engine whistles on a dead-end track, several times a day the Aufräumungskommando moves off to the ramps and ceaselessly they fill the twelve furnaces, all forty-six chambers in Brzezinki. ‘They drive the transports from outside straight into the furnaces,’ Karol continues, ‘and inside the cages they have ever more horrible selections. In January 1944 alone Dr Thilo sent five thousand young girls into the gas. And every week they chose many prisoners for Drs Mengele, Clauberg, Mrugowski and Schumann …’ ‘Chose for the doctors? … how are we to understand that?’ the Swiss correspondent asks. The small yellow plate before him is full again, but he is not munching now, he is smoking. Clearly a cigarette gives him more satisfaction. ‘You’d better make a note of these names,’ Karol continues viciously. ‘Dr Mengele is in charge of scientific extermination and personally specialises in experiments on twins. SS-Brigadeführer Dr Horst Schumann sterilises both men and women. Dr Wladyslaw Dering is Clauberg’s assistant. And SS-Brigadeführer Joachim Mrugowski, a doctor and professor of bacteriology, head of the SS Health Office, uses prisoners to try out the effectiveness of various bacteria.’ ‘You claim that people … that living people are used there for experiments like guinea pigs or rabbits?’ the journalist asks, horrified. ‘They inoculate them with cancer, typhoid, malaria, they kill them with phenol; they sterilise them. In their experiments they deform their skulls, legs, arms, chest and then they report their findings under lamps whose shades are made of human skin.’ Every one of Karol’s words has the effect of a blow on the head. The journalist grips his pencil more firmly, jots down a few cues and then requests Karol to repeat the names of the doctors and their SS ranks. While Karol dictates them, Val rolls up the smudged papers and the man from the finance department speaks up for the first time: ‘This is frightful, this is incredible. This is more than the human mind can comprehend.’ He lights a short cigar and with a dark gleam in his eyes adds: ‘Something’s got to be done against this … but, my God, what and how?’ This question hangs above the table as something insoluble. Karol has the impression that under its weight all those present have shrunk,

‘But What about the Postcards?’ 203

grown smaller, more uncertain and more desperate. What can be done?, reflects the lawyer and with this question in his eyes he looks at the journalist. But Karol sees the question in all the faces and almost physically feels the weight of helplessness that has gripped everyone in the room. And he suddenly realises what Val has also just realised: What can seven people, backed by little more than their own consciences, achieve against such a gigantic crime? With what naïve ideas had they arrived here? Had they thought that they would tell their stories, that they would show the evidence, the plans – and that people with a conscience would, like a huge avalanche, go into motion, tear down the wire cages and watch-towers, liberate and feed the prisoners, give them weapons and together with them they would punish the murderers? So now they are here, among people with a conscience, reporting to them as Pavel, Vasil, Adamek and Bolek, Filip and Tadeusz, all of them in those cages, had wished. They have spoken about everything, shown the evidence, answered questions – so what will these five now do? Whom will they seek out, to whom will they pass on their information? Whom, for instance, will Madame Ibi tell about it? To men and women with stars on their clothes, persons who have so far been exempted, or those hiding in beer cellars but apt to be pushed on a train tomorrow and to be taken to the Auschwitz ramps? Whom, or how many, can they rouse in this country, where fascism has donned a cassock in order to serve Hitler even more obediently? It’s ridiculous, a sharp voice speaks up within him. Words cannot overcome this madness, words cannot defeat this murderous system. This needs weapons and armies, this needs gigantic strength. He rubs his eyes, his lids are heavy and swollen. The journalist says something softly to Vendelín and Madame Ibi answers them just as softly. Surely, Karol thinks, the Swiss has possibilities. He can see to it that the full truth about the concentration camps gets to Moscow and London, to Washington and the whole world. And Vendelín had clearly hinted to him that if they wrote a report on Auschwitz and Brzezinki it would be possible to get it to Moscow by a secure route. Vendelín is certain to be a communist, Karol reflects, and clearly in contact with leading figures in the Resistance who would somehow send their report to the governments of the countries fighting against fascism. No one has yet answered the question asked by the gentleman from the finance department. But it has not gone away, it weighs heavily upon them and insistently demands an answer. Vendelín eventually breaks the silence: ‘Can you rustle up a typewriter for them? A typewriter and paper?’

204 Escape from Hell

The query was addressed to the lawyer and the man from the finance department. The lawyer nods: yes, that’s easy, a trifle, tomorrow they can have it. ‘Everything you told us,’ Vendelín continues, ‘and anything you may have forgotten, you’ll write down in detail. You know how to type?’ Karol nods. ‘Write it in five or six copies. Just the bare facts, nothing else.’ Karol smiles and Val eagerly reassures them. Yes, they will write day and night, in two or three days they will have it all down. The plump man dispels his seeming sleepiness from his features, looks at the Swiss journalist and says in a lively voice: ‘That’s an excellent idea. It won’t be difficult for you in Switzerland to arrange for it to get into the hands of the Americans and the British.’ ‘Certainly … if I take it there myself.’ ‘You mentioned yet another piece of evidence yesterday,’ Vendelín says and Karol extracts from the metal tube a rolled-up label and a scrap of paper with pencil writing on. He hands it to the lawyer. ‘On the labels there are only the first two sections,’ Karol explains. ‘As you can see, a piece of the label is torn off. The third and fourth section are completed in pencil. But it’s quite accurate.’ He looks at the people at the table and adds: ‘These labels were on every can of gas.’ The lawyer inspects the label for a while, then he begins to read aloud: ‘1. Poison gas: DRP … (a smudged number) … Cyanide preparation. Store in a cool and dry place. Protect from sunlight and open fire. DRP … To be opened and used only by trained personnel. Zyklon. 2. Zyklon (registered trademark TESTA), Tesch and Stabenow Limited, Hamburg, Messberghof, International company for vermin extermination. Exclusive right of sale for Reich territory east of the Elbe, including the Sudeten area, the Government-General, the Reich Commissariat for the Eastern Territories and for Denmark, Finland and Norway. 3. Guaranteed life: three months’ storage by the user. 4. Degesch. Zyklon. Cyanogen contents 1500 g. Manufactured by German company for vermin extermination Limited. Frankfurt-on-Main.’ The piece of label and the paper accounting for the missing part travels from hand to hand. They all hold it with the tips of their fingers as though afraid that contact with human warmth might turn it into the murdering crystals. Then they raise their heads; in their faces is helplessness and a kind of sad anxiety. Eventually the lawyer gets up and the others follow suit. He looks at his watch, four o’clock already, he says, it will be daylight in a hour. But he does not say goodbye or

‘But What about the Postcards?’ 205

leave. With a stunned face he looks at Karol and Val, searching for words that might give them hope. Whatever I say to them now, he reflects, will be empty words, cheap and perhaps improper. In the morning I will send them a typewriter, he says to himself, in three days we will meet again and then we will do something with that report. ‘You’ll have that typewriter in the morning and in three days we’ll …’ the lawyer begins eventually, but Val interrupts him. He shoots up from his chair and with features distorted by sudden anger he shouts: ‘Easy for you to say “in three days”! But back there they are flinging people into the fire at this moment and in three days they’ll kill thousands. Do something immediately!’ Val steps up to the lawyer, but Karol pulls his arm, don’t shout, he says, it’s night and everything can be heard for miles. But Val, beside himself, continues to shout: ‘Do something immediately! Do you hear? Good Lord, they’re all standing there like pillars of salt! You, you,’ he points his finger at the journalist and the lawyer, then at all the others, ‘you’ll all finish up in the gas unless something is done! Do you hear?’ Suddenly his shoulders drop, he folds up oddly and sits down hard. Madame Ibi stands behind him and, although alarmed, speaks to him softly: Calm down, son, everything will be all right, you’ll see, calm down, better go to bed now, it’s beginning to get light … just calm down, all will be well. When the room is empty Madame Ibi switches off the light, opens the window and then helps Karol to push the tall medicine cupboard in front of the bathroom door. *** On the third evening Mr Waren finally arrives, the liaison officer of the International Red Cross. He cordially greets Karol and Val: so these are the two who – looking at the lawyer – robbed you of your quiet sleep. Mr Waren is a tall, at first sight agreeable, man. His voice is deep and resonant. But after a few remarks the first impression evaporates, sympathies are lost, and all that remains is his excessive self-assurance and self-importance. Karol and Val understand that Mr Waren has taken part in many negotiations that have reduced the sufferings of thousands of people; that he regards the International Red Cross as an army that, without weapons, step by step induces the warring parties – or rather Germany – to observe, at least roughly, the rules of this cruel game. And after the first few minutes of his study of the report that it took them three days to write (two of them until daybreak), they have a sufficient idea of his counter-arguments and their very dubious sources. These include a denial by the Reich minister of propaganda Goebbels, by the Reich Resettlement Office and by the German Labour Front.

206 Escape from Hell

They also include the answers of Dr Robert E. Grawitz, a senior official of the International Red Cross to various questions from the international centre in Geneva. They are downright stunned by such incredible naïveté and at one point Karol has the impression that Mr Waren is expending too much effort on persuading the people round the table that everything the Reich authorities are denying is in perfect, or at least in relatively perfect, order. Mr Waren appears to be a champion of benevolence and patient waiting for the moment when the problem of deportees and resettlers can be addressed more resolutely … That moment, if they correctly understand Mr Waren, would be coming after the invasion of the British and Americans somewhere in Europe. After that the Germans, facing that new threat, would become more conciliatory. Karol and Val are amazed that he has not once mentioned the Soviet Union or the Soviet army. Waren’s strange views, together with the fact that Vendelín is not present and that the lawyer, the journalist, the man from the finance department and Madame Ibi are listening to his expositions with a kind of patient resignation, dispel in Karol and Val nearly all the hope they have of this meeting and their report. They have produced six copies of it and now they are awaiting some clear decision. But the new man, Mr Waren, who (as they gather from some remarks) spent the whole morning with the lawyer, and is therefore at least cursorily acquainted with their statements, now has wasted nearly a whole hour with an account of his meeting with the Swedish Count Bernadotte at which they apparently tried to solve the problem of even more extensive help for the ‘European resettlers’. And then, with an occasional glance at one of the early pages, he wastes more time by referring to various actions by the International Red Cross that, as he puts it, have in many countries of occupied Europe mitigated the hunger of detainees and prisoners, their cold and dirty environment and kept alive their faith that the world had not forgotten them. Throughout all this Karol listens in amazement, because this athletic man with smooth features and a smooth voice devotes a lot of effort to emphasising the dedicated work of the well-heeled gentlemen in the International Red Cross, who see the supreme aims of this international organisation in the parcels drive. ‘If you permit me,’ Karol nervously interrupts Mr Waren, ‘milk, biscuits, socks and soap haven’t helped a single prisoner there. The milk and biscuits are enjoyed by the SS men, the clothing is worn by the Nazi bastards and the soap is used by German whores. May I ask you one question?’ Mr Waren raises his eyebrows in surprise. Karol asks: ‘How long have you been sending those parcels to the camps?’ When he is told

‘But What about the Postcards?’ 207

more than two years, he says irritably: ‘There you are. During those two years they cremated there at least three million … resettlers you call them, don’t you? And even God can’t count how many thousand died of starvation, cold and dirt … in their own excrements. And while you send milk, the prisoners drink typhus- or dysentery-infested water. And while you’re satisfied that you do some good, they die on a huge scale. You send socks, but the SS fire at or flog the half-frozen prisoners for tying bits of cloth over their festering wounds if they get hold of any on the ramps or in the stores. And for whom, in heaven’s name, do you send your soap when people … thousands of people … have a shower of Zyklon every day?’ Mr Waren raises a manicured hand, but he does not stop the rush of Karol’s words. While Karol continues angrily, Mr Waren blinks and acts surprised and disappointed: that young man is too explosive, he should control himself better in the presence of a lady. But then he smiles slightly and nods his head; go on, young man, I can easily refute your unsubstantiated accusations. ‘Your parcels,’ Karol continues, his eyes burning, ‘have not lengthened a prisoner’s life by a second, they have not even saved the lice that feed on them.’ The mildly reproachful smile on Mr Waren’s face inflames him even more. ‘To hell with your parcels drive … anyway it’s only the Reich that benefits from them!’ he shouts. ‘If you want to help the prisoners …’ ‘Will you at last let me say something?’ Mr Waren interrupts him unsmilingly. ‘I’ll tell you one more thing: even if they get those parcels, they wouldn’t help. They’d croak with them or without them. But they don’t need alms. Give them freedom! Inform the world what’s going on there and force Hitler to scrap the concentration camps! Don’t soothe your conscience with biscuits when tons of human flesh are burnt there every day.’ A little nervously Waren turns the pages of a miniature note pad. He really knows how to control himself. Within a moment the flush leaves his face and the nervous movements his fingers. When he speaks again his voice is sonorous, smooth and self-assured as before and it reflects the high value he attributes to what he is saying. ‘This year I received several letters from Dr Robert Grawitz,’ he says earnestly. ‘In this one, for instance … this is a letter of February … he writes: The German Red Cross hopes that the actions of the International Red Cross will become even more frequent and that, thanks to them, the detainees and resettlers will live to see the end of the war with absolutely minimal deprivations … This, if you please, was written to me personally by Herr Grawitz, the responsible representative of the German Red Cross.’

208 Escape from Hell

Val leans his elbows on the table and raises himself a little. ‘That Grawitz is a German, isn’t he?’ he sneers. ‘And a fascist, a hard-line fascist. If he wasn’t they wouldn’t have given him such a high position. Hitler to him is Mein Führer. How could such a swine write to you differently?’ ‘Grawitz personally supervises the mass exterminations in Auschwitz and Brzezinki,’ Karol exclaims angrily. ‘Good Lord,’ he looks at Waren, ‘in the end you’ll convince us that we weren’t there and saw nothing or that Hitler established those camps so the gentlemen from the Red Cross could feed the people there who were starving back home.’ Mr Waren gets up, offended, and paces from one wall to the other. It seems that for the first time he has in his notepad no note, no quotation from some paper, no persuasive argument. The journalist watches him with a sneer. Val rolls up the sixty-page report and desperately strikes the table with it. ‘Never mind Grawitz. We spent three days writing this report,’ he explodes angrily. ‘It contains everything, the whole history. The transports, the ramps, the furnaces, the SS men, the prisoners’ lives in the work squads and in the huts. Maybe the number of victims isn’t accurate, give or take fifty thousand. But we wrote it so you should read it straight away and pass it on to someone who instead of sending biscuits will send aircraft. Do you understand? Aircraft. Kill the SS, smash their barracks, the furnaces, the fences, the rail track, everything that’s needed. Parcels are no use. The biscuits go into the bellies of Himmler’s boys. I don’t know what you’ll do, but you’ve got to do something, otherwise they’ll now send there transports from Hungary. And after them more Russians, Dutch, the lot.’ Val’s features are distorted by fury because Mr Waren is still silently pacing up and down. ‘Can’t you understand?’ he raises his voice. ‘What don’t you understand? What isn’t clear to you? Or doesn’t it concern you? If those furnaces are not destroyed, one day it’ll be the turn of the Swiss complete with their banks.’ Mr Waren stops and smiles indulgently. ‘You see everything magnified and in black, young man,’ he says. But then a slight tremor runs through him as though he has suddenly realised what had escaped him a moment before. He looks at the faces round the table and mutters: ‘But this isn’t possible, it just isn’t possible.’ But the expressions of the journalist, the lawyer, the man from the finance department and Madame Ibi say the opposite and Mr Waren eventually sits down heavily and, forcing himself into cold calm, begins to read the voluminous report. They all wait, turning the pages. Now and again Mr Waren makes a note in the narrow margin. ‘26 March 1942: 1,000 girls from Slovakia …’

‘But What about the Postcards?’ 209

‘30 March 1942: 1,112 prisoners from Paris …’ ‘In June 1942: up to 4,000 people lost their lives in the labour squads in Auschwitz and Brzezinki …’ Mr Waren turns one page after another. ‘17 July 1942: the second gassing bunker opened in Himmler’s presence …’ Karol watches Mr Waren attentively as he turns the pages of their report. His face is motionless, composed, betraying no emotion. ‘15 to 17 August 1942: eight thousand Jews from Sosnowice gassed in bunkers 1 and 2.’ Eventually Mr Waren raises his head, a wrinkle on his smooth forehead. ‘These data,’ he asks, ‘these data are reliable?’ ‘They are copied from the record book, from the data at the political department, a few were given us by the men from the crematoriums, and there are also some of our own entries from the ramp and from the camp,’ Karol answers. ‘They are truthful, but not complete. They only cover major transports and major selections. They do not include the victims they brought in by the dozen and by the hundred by motor vehicles or drove them in on foot, nor those killed by gunfire or injections.’ The further Mr Waren reads, the more frequent the transports become, the victims running into hundreds of thousands. After an hour and a half he gets up and opens the window. ‘It’s terribly stuffy in here,’ he says and with a glance requesting permission from Madame Ibi he undoes the collar of his shirt and loosens his tie. A moment later he returns to the report and for a whole hour he does not utter a word. ‘21 January 1943: about 1,600 prisoners from the Terezín ghetto killed …’ ‘28 February 1943: selection in the women’s camp. More than 1,000 women prisoners gassed …’ ‘24 March 1943: more than 2,000 from Salonika killed …’ ‘29 August 1943: selection in the men’s camp. Over 4,000 prisoners selected …’ ‘7 October 1943: 1,260 children from Terezín gassed, along with about 50 adults who accompanied them to the camp …’ ‘8 March 1944: 3,800 from the Terezín family camp liquidated, the remainder of the transport of 8 September 1943. Only a few children spared – twins for experiments …’ A cloud settles on Mr Waren’s face, inside him there is icy excitement. These data are horrendous. The whole report is terrible with its dry and unemotional recording of the victims. He lights another cigarette and reads the names of the camps that come under the Auschwitz administration, over thirty satellite camps. Then he reads the names of

210 Escape from Hell

the SS dignitaries: Hoess, Aumeier, Liebehenschel, Schwarzhuber, Kaduk, Bischoff, Moll, Grabner, Boger, Palitzsch, Stiewitz, Schneider, Buntrock, Perschel, Lausmann, Baretzki … Among the women are Hössler, Mandl, Drechsler … The doctors Thilo, Mengele, Wirths, Clauberg, Brode, Schumann … the SS barracks, stores, ramps, crematoriums, kennels, the system of watch-towers. And at the end of the report a table by nationality, of three million murdered. Mr Waren dabs his forehead with his handkerchief and pushes the terrible report away. Then he looks at it in horror and waits until they have all finished reading. What is going on inside him? Karol wonders. Does he now believe? Will he have some reservations or objections? And what will he propose? Perhaps he will not propose anything or else he will promise something to reassure them, but not keep his promise. Why should he not keep it? Three million innocently murdered people surely cannot leave anybody indifferent. And there is still the journalist. He will probably publish the report in his newspaper and hand it over to the British and Americans in Switzerland. But you never can tell, perhaps he will not do so. Lots of people believe that a distant fire need not be put out so long as it does not threaten them. And then there is Vendelín, who is sure to forward the report … But where is Vendelín? Why has he not come yet? But Vendelín will not let them down, perhaps he will come tomorrow – or rather today, as it is past midnight. At last they have all got to the end. After Val’s and Karol’s verbal account three days ago a thousand questions and doubts were left in their minds. Many of the men’s assertions seemed to them exaggerated, dictated by a wish to convince them of the need for immediate action and also by their hatred for the people who caused them so much suffering. But today they are shaken by the terse and cool data on the most sadistic killing and robbing of human beings. Three days ago they had gone away in embarrassment, with feelings of anxiety and sadness, mitigating them with the small hope that perhaps things were no longer quite as bad. They had believed a lot, but there was much that they had not comprehended because it exceeded their power to envisage it. But this factual report, comprising hundreds of dry and harsh data, has blown away most of their question marks and overcome their doubts. Finally, the plan of the Auschwitz complex that Val has put before them in order not to give them a single opportunity for ‘wherefores’ and ‘supposes’, has now opened a vista of the whole killing machine, organised as it was with thorough German precision. ‘This is Auschwitz,’ says Val, pointing with his finger at the amateurishly drawn plan. ‘And this is Brzezinki-Birkenau. Here runs the Vistula and here the Sola. These are the SS barracks … the commandant’s villa … the staff building … And here, see, is the railway

‘But What about the Postcards?’ 211

station … a dead-end track … the ramps … from here they were marched to the shower room, here they undressed … These are the four crematoriums where the Sonderkommando works. These are the stores and this is where the huge trench was. Over here is the woman’s camp and these are the men’s camps … stores … the security chains … the kennels … Got it? And here is that murderous Buna, which belongs to the I.G. Farben concern. Is all this clear to you? Do you see how it’s all thought through? Tell me, is it clear to you?’ This amateurish plan nevertheless convincingly shows the cunningly organised system of killing, the terrible chain of integrated facilities, the monstrous conveyor belt of death, with a fast track from the ramps to the gas chambers and furnaces, and a slightly longer track from the ramps to the cages, from the cages into labour squads and from there to the mortuary, or from the labour squads into the cages and, after a selection, under the gas showers. Shock and sadness remain, but embarrassment has been replaced by tormenting unease and a sense of comradeship with the people so coldbloodedly tortured and murdered by the fascists. ‘And this is the route of our escape,’ Val continues, putting a stack of paper on the table. After a very concise account he adds: ‘And these are our numbers! Convinced?’ He bares his arm and Karol does likewise. ‘Will this do? Is everything clear?’ *** Madame Ibi, as white as chalk, clutches the report between her fingers. The man from the finance department shakes his head as if he wants to dispel the visions the report has called up within him. ‘Unbelievable,’ he whispers, shattered. ‘What’s to be done? I ask you: What’s to be done?’ The journalist is dejected, he has no questions. Three days back he had asked about everything and now he understands why the two men had reacted so irritably, bitingly and angrily to his naïve and stupid questions. At times they must have felt that he was ignorantly belittling their enormous sufferings. Regardless of Waren’s opinion and regardless of the outcome, he will try to get the report home with him and hand it over to some diplomatic mission. But it would certainly be better and more effective if the International Red Cross officially made the report known to all concerned countries and also to all neutrals. Mr Waren is pensive and his face is no longer a cold, inscrutable mask; it now clearly reflects what is going on inside him. His conversation with the lawyer in the morning had certainly aroused his interest, but then, thinking about it, he had decided that these were probably mentally unhinged young men and that he would have no

212 Escape from Hell

difficulty sorting out their lies and naïve reports. This view, especially about lies, was confirmed in him at the beginning of the meeting, even though he convinced himself that he was dealing with essentially normal people. But later, as he read the report, his counter-arguments gradually melted away, leaving behind his own incredulity, supported by nothing other than his inability to comprehend or to find a motivation for such unprecedented crimes. Then there were the letters from Dr Grawitz, a senior official of the German Red Cross. But these letters, when he thought about them, were really rather vague and explained nothing. ‘The German Red Cross endeavours …’ and so on; the only hard point in them was their insistence on the continuation of the parcels scheme. Mr Waren has run out of arguments and he is gripped by sensations that are new to him. The thought that it will be necessary to adopt a firm stance against that monstrous crime and take some action positively alarms him because he foresees enormous complications. With his elbows on the table and his head in his hands he looks at the lawyer. Everyone is waiting for him to say something. From his breast pocket Mr Waren produces two postcards. Karol and Val sit up with a jerk: they know those cards well. ‘You say in your report that this Terezín transport was liquidated on the 8th of March 1944. These are postcards from two people on that transport, from Birkenau near Waldsee … Both of them have postmarks around the end of March. How do you explain that?’ ‘We had to write these cards, the date was added afterwards by the SS; even those who went into the gas two or three days later had to write them,’ Karol explains. Why on earth, he thinks with regrets, did I not take van Cohen’s card? Why did I have to return it to Kaczmarek? I would have been able to prove now that they all resemble each other like two peas in a pod. Oh my dear Pavel, how could I have guessed that getting people to believe us would be more difficult than escaping from that hell? To make them see that they must act at once? ‘If you wish I can tell you approximately what it says on those cards,’ Karol continues. ‘ “In a few days we are to leave here. We are all together and the children are well. Thank you for your regards and the parcel. We hope to see you soon …” Or “We haven’t been assigned to work yet, but we’ll work in our field. Don’t worry, we are well.” Is that right?’ They all bend down over the postcards, amazed. ‘Yes, it is right,’ mumbles the lawyer, who has seen such cards before. ‘This is terrible, positively diabolically contrived.’ ‘If you permit me, I have a few more questions,’ says Mr Waren. His voice is sonorous again, but no longer so smooth or melodic. For a good half hour Mr Waren asks his questions and Karol and Val patiently reply. The questions are not uninteresting and the journalist

‘But What about the Postcards?’ 213

now and again takes up his fountain pen to make a note of their answers. ‘Last year we sent a commission into some of the camps with Dr Goebbels’s permission,’ Mr Waren continues. ‘That commission was to establish whether the reports of foreign radio stations, especially about Birkenau, were based on fact. However, that commission …’ ‘Didn’t return, did it?’ Karol interrupts him. ‘Yes, that commission was in Auschwitz – at the end of summer in ‘43, I think. That day nothing was happening in the Auschwitz crematorium. But in Birkenau they were gassing intensively. In Auschwitz everything was outwardly all right for the commission. It’s possible, however, that some prisoner whispered something to them, because they insisted on seeing Birkenau as well. Well, in Birkenau the SS liquidated them and then spread a rumour that they had had a road accident and were drowned in the Vistula or something similar. But the men of the Sonderkommando knew very well whom they were shoving into the furnace.’ A moment’s silence. ‘Do you know how many Jews are in the total of killed that you are reporting?’ Karol reflects. ‘Certainly a great many,’ he replies. ‘Maybe a million and a half, possibly more. But I don’t quite understand … your question. After all, Auschwitz was not set up for Jews. They were killed in their cottages, behind their barns, in the woods, in the ghettos, wherever they could be found. Auschwitz was for those who caused them discomfort, who stood in their way, including communists. And with much gusto any Slavs. But, as you know, they didn’t stop at the Slavs. Any moment now it’ll be the turn of the Hungarians.’ ‘How do you know that the Hungarians will be next?’ ‘That was no secret back there. In March or April they completed the rail link from the ramp to the crematoriums and even then the SS men were licking their lips in expectation of Hungarian salami, smoked meat and wine. There was even talk of a swift liquidation of half a million Hungarians, beginning of course with the Jews.’ Another pause of silence. ‘Thank you, that’s all,’ Mr Waren says in a weary voice. Karol has the impression that he is at his wits’ end. ‘What will you do?’ asks Val. ‘And when will you do it?’ Mr Waren is again hiding his head in his hands. Val exclaims again: ‘What will you do now?’ Mr Waren raises his head, his forehead is furrowed, his lips pressed together.

214 Escape from Hell

‘What will you do with our report?’ Val insistently asks again. ‘Will you multiply it? Will you use it for leaflets? Will you send it out into the world, or … where can you send it?’ Mr Waren lights a cigarette. ‘We will try,’ he says earnestly, letting out a little cloud of smoke, ‘we will try to do everything to get it into the hands of responsible Americans. We will try to obtain a promise that they will negotiate to make the Germans stop …’ ‘Don’t negotiate, don’t negotiate with murderers!’ Karol exclaims angrily. ‘They’ll cheat you! Against murderers you need aircraft, do you understand? Aircraft and bombs. Let them destroy everything – the barracks, the crematoriums, everything. Yes, you give it to the Americans,’ he goes on, his eyes feverishly shining. ‘And to the British. Give it to all the emigré governments. And let Vendelín send it to Moscow. To Moscow, all right? There are no Americans or Brits in the camps. Moscow would more readily understand.’ The journalist nods assent. Yes, he will do everything to get the report into the hands of the Western Allies. In addition, provided the political situation permits it, his paper, too, will carry it. And when Mr Waren has promised in all earnest that he will do everything in his power, they all heave a sigh of relief. Karol holds in his hand the report intended for Vendelín. His gaze fixed on the lawyer, he asks: ‘Will you be seeing Vendelín this morning?’ The lawyer gets up and Karol feels a foreboding of evil. ‘Vendelín … don’t expect Vendelín,’ he says softly. ‘I didn’t want to upset you straight away, but … at lunchtime yesterday he was picked up with several others.’ By way of explanation he adds: ‘Let’s hope it’s nothing serious, that the fascists merely want to be safe on the first of May. Let’s hope …’ The faces in front of Karol recede into a mist. Vendelín locked up. Vendelín who would surely have sent their report into reliable hands. For a moment he feels faint. He hears Val swear. When the faces before him are clear again the lawyer puts two identity cards with photographs on the table – with his and Val’s photographs – and says to him softly: ‘You are Jozef Vicen and you,’ looking at Val, ‘are Ján Vrbský. At noon you are moving to a new place.’ The dark square of the window begins to show daylight, somewhere in the distance a railway engine whistles shrilly. Then deep silence descends on the little room – like that silence in July 1942, when all the old men and women were moved out of that old people’s home to share the fate of their families.

Chapter 15

There are Limits to Human Imagination

The scorching July day has ended with a short, gentle shower. The air is fresh and bracing, saturated with the fragrance of gardens, vineyards, meadows and nearby forests. The sky is starry and dark, the moon has not yet risen. From the distant city centre comes a confused medley of sounds that is silenced by a loud rushing noise when a gust of wůžžd leaps from the forest across meadows, vineyards and gardens, leaning into the leafy tops of the lime-trees in the dark street. Whenever the wind springs up, the weak light of a bluish lamp starts dancing between the trees. The lamp, suspended on a wire, creaks and Jozef quickly looks up from his radio receiver and glances at the dark window. ‘That’s the lamp, Jožko,’ Hornáček reassures him. He is a short, stocky man with a square face and calm eyes under thin eyebrows, the owner of this small house on the outskirts. ‘I expect you’ll be scared to the end of your days.’ Those in the palely decorated room also include Vinco and Michal, Hornáček’s daily visitors. They are all crouched over the receiver, which emits hisses, gurgles and whistles; only here and there are some disjointed words audible. Hornáček bends over the receiver with a concentrated look on his face, trying to catch any comprehensible words through the whistling and crackling. Abruptly they all stiffen. ‘Dear listeners … in Czechoslo … a special report …’ is all they can hear, the next few words are drowned in hissing and whistling, with some music washing in. A moment later: ‘This is the free transmitter … a special re … rrr … sss … today.’ ‘Bloody hell! Damned set!’ Hornáček curses, ‘Just at this very moment it must squeak like a hog that’s being killed!’ ‘Try another wavelength,’ says Jozef. Hornáček carefully retunes the dial. A special report! Surely not a revolution in Germany? Perhaps … surrender? What can it be? On the new wavelength the words are a little clearer and more continuous. Jozef pulls his stool up and Hornáček presses his ear against the material over the speaker.

216 Escape from Hell

‘… years the German fascists cunningly disguised … nevertheless failed to conceal the unbelievable bestialities and mass killing … most terrible crimes … human history … near Auschwitz in Poland … gigantic complex of concentration camps. In one of them, Birkenau … brick-built crematorium … population of subjected and occupied countries … gassed and cremated … two eyewitnesses, young Slovak prisoners, who … two years’ internment in the camp, brought out with them shattering … evidence of this unprecedented crime … history …’ The receiver again crackles and whistles. Jozef tears his excited face away from it and looks first at Hornáček and then at Michal and Vinco. Christ Almighty, he thinks to himself, breathing heavily, so the report … the report is out at last! At last the world is listening! After three months! Michal sits with his mouth open and Vinco nervously snaps one match after another in his powerful fingers. ‘That damned set …’ Hornáček swears, but instantly he stops as the hum fades and the words can be heard again. ‘… 1942 and until April this year they have already killed more than three million people … in the Auschwitz complex.’ ‘What?’ asks Michal, drawing the word out. His face goes even paler. ‘Stop chattering,’ says Hornáček angrily. ‘Shut up and listen!’ ‘… during the past few weeks four transports a day … a day they kill up to ten thousand people … evidence that … even more intensive extermination … other populations … rrr … sss… documents in detail … after our regular bulletin … Death to fascism!’ ‘Rrr … sss …’ ‘Allô, allô … radio Alger … ici radio … vous allez … vous allez écouter …’ Hornáček switches the radio off. Jozef watches them closely. They all retreat a little, as if the receiver contained some explosive that might go off at any minute. They are surprised, amazed. They all have things they want to say, but they do not speak, their lips are pressed together. More than three million killed, Hornáček still hears the words of the announcer. Ten thousand people a day! Good Lord, surely this is incredible, he thinks and lights a cigarette. Then he looks at Jozef and says quietly: ‘This is … this is unbelievable! They’d have to be lunatics and not normal people, those who do the killing and those who stick their necks out under their knives.’ Michal blinks. Yes, that’s the truth, only lunatics could do such a thing. Vinco no longer snaps his matches, he is totally stunned by the report. Three million people. And not on the front, but somewhere in a concentration camp. God Almighty, three million people! Why, that’s as many as the Slovak nation. A shiver runs down Vinco’s back and then he too looks at Jozef as if expecting some reassuring words from him.

There Are Limits to Human Imagination 217

‘That’s unbelievable,’ Hornáček repeats quietly, clenching his hands so firmly that his knuckles turn white. Jozef suddenly stands up and Hornáček, Vinco and Michal see that his eyes have a feverish gleam and that his face is distorted by some incomprehensible pain. ‘Jožko, are you all right?’ Hornáček asks solicitously. ‘Well, yes … that report … is quite something. But perhaps it isn’t true. There’s a war on, as you know, and in wartime people don’t always stick to the truth.’ ‘Perhaps it’s just propaganda …’ says Michal. Jozef sways a little. He shuts his eyes for a moment, he has to steady himself on the chair. When his weakness has gone he sits down with his head in his hands. This is unbelievable, Hornáček had said and also Michal and Vinco. He saw it in their faces, they really did not believe it. Perhaps it’s just propaganda, Michal had said and Hornáček and Vinco had nodded in agreement. Jozef is gripped by pain, unrest and sadness. This has been the reaction of nearly all of those who had helped him after his departure from Žilina and at whose houses he had eaten and slept for a few days. This or something like it. But in all the three months he had not met a single person who had accepted the rumours of the mass killing in the concentration camps without reservation or without some remark about propaganda. If he had believed all that time that this incredulity would disappear as soon as the report got out into the world through the press or the radio, then he had been deluding himself. ‘Jožko, are you all right?’ Hornáček asks again. Hornáček’s voice comes to him faintly, muted. He looks up and sees the others watching him anxiously. Even they don’t believe, nobody wants to believe, it flashes through his mind, and he feels like crying. ‘My head, got a bit of a headache,’ he says wearily. ‘Probably something I’ve eaten.’ What can he tell them? How can he explain what he feels at this moment? With what words can he convince them that what they heard was the truth? How can he describe the terrible sufferings, the infinite misfortune? The deaths of so many old men, women, children? How can he make them visualise the frightful misery of the thousands who are still there, doing slave labour amidst blood and sweat and urine, and all the transports rolling in by day and by night? How – if human imagination has its limits? How many people heard the report? How many were convinced by it? How many believed it? And how many said: This is unbelievable … would the Germans really? Yes, really. How many? How he wished everyone to believe, this whole town, the whole world.

218 Escape from Hell

Hornáček puts a small glass of hard stuff on the table. ‘Drink up, Jožko. This is good stuff for the stomach.’ ‘Thanks,’ Jozef answers and drains it in one gulp. Hornáček nods towards the radio and asks: ‘What do you think about it, Jožko?’ Jozef does not answer. After a while Michal speaks up. He speaks slowly, barely moving his thin lips. ‘Well, I heard something from my neighbour. But that was still in ‘42, when they began to deport the Jews from here. That neighbour, a railwayman, simply told me that they won’t find much joy in those camps.’ ‘Compulsory labour, moreover abroad and in wartime, certainly wouldn’t be much joy,’ remarks Vinco. Jozef presses his lips together. A hot wave runs through his body and for a moment his sight and hearing are veiled. Compulsory labour, that is what nearly all of them call it. Why should they kill them when they need them for labour? What use would dead men be to them? The word ‘labour’ has penetrated into his heart and brain like a red-hot needle. In his chest he feels a stifling pressure. He felt this pressure once before, but that was far from here and back there, where this feeling tormented him, when transports of human beings were billowing to the sky in unending clouds of smoke. ‘I also heard that things there were not quite right,’ says Hornáček and fills the small glass again. In the brief interval he recalls the many Germans he used to meet long ago. They ate like him, they laughed like him, they cursed like him, they slept, they snored, they danced, they did everything the same as himself, normally, properly – and now such things? ‘Yes, I heard stories, but they never really bothered me, because it was being said and written that these people were being sent off to work.’ ‘God Almighty!’ Jozef exclaims and fiercely flings his arms wide open. ‘To work! Allegedly to work!’ ‘Quite so,’ says Vinco. ‘Yes, everyone thought it odd that they were also taking children and women and even cripples. But why should they kill them? How could they be in their way, these non-combatants? And if it is true, heaven forbid, what would they do with so many corpses? Where would they put them? Three million people – that’s not like a needle in a haystack.’ Jozef understands him. Vinco needs precise words. He wants to be clear about the fascists. He wants an answer to the question ‘Why?’ According to Vinco two or three, or a group of people, can go mad, but not millions of them. Can a whole nation go insane suddenly, lose its mind, its judgement and its entire humanity? Can madmen enact laws,

There Are Limits to Human Imagination 219

govern, invent and control sophisticated machines, do business, count, build factories and palaces and roads, write novels and poetry, dance and sing? No, this is incredible: all that requires time, a sound clear head, talent and human emotions. But what else are they then if not madmen, if these stories of frightful killing and torture are true? What else? How can one comprehend it? Jozef senses their frame of mind. Vinco really cannot know what such a crematorium looks like, that part of the Auschwitz killing machine. Nor can Hornáček or Michal know it. ‘Don’t tell us about it, Jožko,’ Hornáček requests him. ‘Such thoughts stop you from going to sleep.’ He forces himself to smile. He has been in this house six times now and every time he has brought some news. Once about the front, another time about Germany, about the insincere politics of the Western Allies, and on his last visit they had shared their ideas about the postwar world. But today, after that radio report, he would like to tell them something different, to make them understand and believe and go to bed with hatred in their hearts. But how can he tell them? They will want proof. Clearly they will not be convinced by his number. Anyway, is a number compelling proof? Someone may have a number tattooed, someone else a snake or an anchor, a heart or the head of a woman. What proof is that? He lights a cigarette, inhales slowly, lets the smoke out and says: ‘One day … I’ll bring along someone who has seen it all and lived through it. Perhaps it won’t be long … I’ll certainly bring him along. But don’t let anyone fool you, that report … you should believe that report, it’s true, every single word of it.’ He falls silent, seeing Vinco’s frozen features before him. Vinco Marenčik is a driver. Every morning he checks over his vehicle to make sure he can drive safely, without problems. He is a good soul, he would not hurt a fly. When he comes home from work he usually has a little bag of cheap sweets in his hand and distributes them to a circle of excited children. He is happy if he can give others pleasure, even by just a word. He knows his town like the back of his own hand - he would not exchange it or leave it for anything in the world. How can such a person imagine a handful of ash, of grey dust, that is all that is left of millions of human beings? Michal Juhás became an invalid at age fourteen. He has seen a bit of the world. Maybe he once was a hard person, but now he is soft, sensitive and submissive, sometimes when he is right about something he will give in rather than argue and convince. He is a gardener. He looks after the public parks, he concerns himself with every little flower or plant. He is very sad when some tearaway child destroys one of his

220 Escape from Hell

tulips and he is sorry when he has to chase some children out of the park. So how could this lover of flowers and children understand and believe that a few kilometres beyond the frontier the Germans use injections and gas to kill those most precious and most valuable blooms – the children, many of whom he saw running about the park? Matej Hornáček is a master carpenter. He has never turned his back on his town, he has never handled a rifle. He’s a working man. From dawn to late evening he is bent over his plane, his saw, his hammer or his glue. He has two small children whom, if by any chance he gets home from work in time, he puts to bed himself. He knows three or four stories about bravery, goodness and happiness that comes to those who love the truth, and with these stories he usually settles them down to sleep. So how could this man Hornáček believe that there are people who will kill the children whose parents they did not manage to exterminate? Jozef heaves a deep sigh and clenches his teeth. With his fingers he rubs his forehead and his temples and closes his eyes. But he cannot drive away the apocalyptic vision. ‘Another snifter?’ asks Hornáček. ‘No, thank you,’ he replies softly and abruptly rises to go. ‘Good night and till tomorrow.’ ‘Get well and don’t forget to come,’ Vinco says. Jozef strides along the fences and gardens on the outskirts of the town. Before his eyes he sees Hornáček, Vinco and Michal and in his ears ring the words of the radio announcement. Climbing above the sparely lit town he instinctively clutches his pistol in his pocket. From time to time he looks around. He would like to consider at leisure where to withdraw for the next few days, but his mind is disturbed. In his head rings the news on the radio and its words transform themselves into horrible visions. But the terrible pictures break off and he once more sees before him the carpenter Hornáček, the driver Vinco and the gardener Michal. They did not believe the report, they doubted. God, will we really not find anybody who believes all of it? He only stops when he is above the capital city. All round him is silence. The leaves on the trees rustle softly, now and again an owl flaps its wings or some nocturnal bird calls. Over to his left a few camp fires are burning in clearings and the sound of guitars and singing can be heard. It is vacation time and the students have their dreams and longings. Below him the city is spread out: a big city with thousands of houses and tens of thousands of apartments, all asleep. How many people in this city heard the report today? How many people found uneasiness creeping into them? In how many did their conscience awake or rebel?

There Are Limits to Human Imagination 221

Sixty miles north of the frontier by railway is another town, the strangest town on earth. In that town, cursed a million times, the monstrous chimneys hiss hideously. That frightful intermittent wailing freezes the blood in their veins, but it cannot be heard from here. Why is this murderous wailing not heard throughout the world? Why do the tears, the moans and the death cries of the unending striped processions not carry as far as this? Then people would surely cease doubting and more readily believe. Maybe even today all doors would open and people would march in huge numbers out of this city, out of this country, out of any country, to punish the most insane murderers and barbarians the world has ever seen. For days on end he roams about like this, he and Janko. They walk uphill and downhill, sometimes at night, from home to home, from hill to hill. They roam, they are ceaselessly searching for something … at times it seems to them that in that bewitched circle they are searching for themselves. But are they alone in living like that? Are not others living a lot worse? Millions are suffering in trenches, in underground shelters, in the mountains, in ghettos, in catacombs, in sewers and behind wires – they fight, bleed and die. Down there in the city the people are asleep, they breathe quietly, and he is flooded by grief and painful envy. Down there are people who, whatever they are suffering, live together with their nearest and dearest, untroubled by visions, yet he, one of them, cannot claim their companionship because he had been forcibly snatched from their circle and marked with the mark of the rejected. A short way higher up he supports himself on a post and looks over to his left. Some fifty paces from him is a camp fire. Sitting around it are youngsters, playing guitars and mandolins and singing. One of them has just got up, left the circle of light and returned from the darkness with dry firewood. The fire crackles, the flames lick up: such pleasant flames, they throw a stronger light on the figures and tents and with their heat set the treetops moving. For a moment he is gripped by an almost irresistible longing to join the youngsters by the fire and listen to their carefree talk. The boys are singing about some distant land, where the arms of beautiful dark women are opened for them and where human happiness is guarded by golden stars in the high warm sky. Instinctively Jozef glances upwards. The sky is dark, it looks down with myriads of winking eyes. Some poets maintain that every person has his star. Where is his? It must be infinitely remote and terribly small and perhaps it does not even exist. Suddenly he draws his revolver and starts to inspect it. What use is it to him? Against whom is he to raise it, at whom is he to aim it? Against a murderer, of course. Only against a murderer. If he were standing eye

222 Escape from Hell

to eye with a murderer he would at least feel a flash of happiness. How strange that a person must seek happiness in revenge. A piece of his happiness. To the southwest, beyond the Danube, two narrow beams of light cut through the darkness. The beams aim high, they cross, they steady themselves from horizon to horizon, they are joined by others. Somewhere the dark sound of aircraft can be heard. For a while he watches the probing beams of the searchlights, then he returns his gun to his pocket and moves away from the fire. He passes through some trees to a small clearing. He leans on a small post. From here he has a view of the dark, sleeping city. Over to the left is the Apollo plant that was quite recently destroyed by American bombers. The Apollo plant! A fire was caused, several workers were killed - all that was left was a ruin and charred remains. And widows and orphans. He looks up at the dark sky. The tongues of light are still probing the darkness, the planes are still rumbling. Probably Americans. Certainly they will be Americans or British, they fly in these regions. As he thinks of the Apollo plant and the aircraft he is gripped by an angry sense of infinite despair. Why did they have to devastate the Apollo plant? Why did they not drop their bombs on that horrible tomb some sixty kilometres from their northern frontier? They could have wrecked the SS barracks, the ramps, the crematoriums, the roads and the rail track. Why didn’t they? The noise of the planes has ceased, but the searchlight beams are still licking the small fluffy clouds. A big cloud has sailed south and allowed a strangely large, yellow moon to appear. The clearing is now lighter and the gnarled trees around it are acquiring fantastic shapes. After an early evening shower a warm mist, smelling of horse urine, rises up. Jozef looks at his luminous watch, then he looks left again and takes a few steps towards the camp fire. Suddenly he stops. No, he cannot go and join them. He is still a number … he cannot laugh or amuse himself in a carefree manner – maybe he has forgotten how. And what would he talk about to them? Perhaps he would begin to tell them. And they would not believe him. They are so young, carefree and inexperienced. How could they understand? He returns sadly and slowly climbs up through the clearing. He turns towards the city, looks to where he assumes Hornáček’s cottage to be. They did not believe him. Not even now. Who will believe later on, once the fascists have obliterated all traces of their crime? Who will provide the evidence once they have liquidated all those with numbers? He turns, draws his pistol and climbs a little higher, to the shack where he and Janko sleep.

Appendix I

Photographs and Documents

224 Escape from Hell

Portrait of young Alfred Wetzler

Appendix I: Photographs and Documents 225

Card from the infirmary register of the Auschwitz camp showing the name of Alfred Wetzler with the date 19.5 (1942)

Trainload of deportees arriving at the Birkenau platform known as the ‘ramp’. The Jews were removed from the cattle trains onto the ramp, where they faced a selection process; some were sent immediately to their death, while others were sent to slave labour.

226 Escape from Hell

Women and children waiting on the ramp by the barracks and the electrified barbed wire before being taken directly to the gas chambers.

Appendix I: Photographs and Documents 227

Veteran inmates unloading and sorting the personal belongings of the new arrivals at Auschwitz.

228 Escape from Hell

Women who were classified as ‘fit for work’ are being taken to their barracks in the women’s section of the camp after ‘registration’. In this process the women were disinfected, their heads shaved, given prison uniforms and had numbers tattooed on their arms.

Appendix I: Photographs and Documents 229

Women forced to labour at a construction site in Auschwitz.

230 Escape from Hell

Appendix I: Photographs and Documents 231

Map showing the escape route of the two Jewish prisoners from Auschwitz, 7–25 April 1944.

232 Escape from Hell

Map showing the route by which the truth about Auschwitz made its way to London, 7 April–24 June 1944.

Appendix II

Auschwitz Protocol (Vrba-Wetzler Report)

234 Escape from Hell

Appendix II: Auschwitz Protocol (Vrba-Wetzler Report) 235

236 Escape from Hell

Appendix II: Auschwitz Protocol (Vrba-Wetzler Report) 237

238 Escape from Hell

Appendix II: Auschwitz Protocol (Vrba-Wetzler Report) 239

240 Escape from Hell

Appendix II: Auschwitz Protocol (Vrba-Wetzler Report) 241

242 Escape from Hell

Appendix II: Auschwitz Protocol (Vrba-Wetzler Report) 243

244 Escape from Hell

Appendix II: Auschwitz Protocol (Vrba-Wetzler Report) 245

246 Escape from Hell

Appendix II: Auschwitz Protocol (Vrba-Wetzler Report) 247

248 Escape from Hell

Appendix II: Auschwitz Protocol (Vrba-Wetzler Report) 249

250 Escape from Hell

Appendix II: Auschwitz Protocol (Vrba-Wetzler Report) 251

252 Escape from Hell

Appendix II: Auschwitz Protocol (Vrba-Wetzler Report) 253

254 Escape from Hell

Appendix II: Auschwitz Protocol (Vrba-Wetzler Report) 255

256 Escape from Hell

Appendix II: Auschwitz Protocol (Vrba-Wetzler Report) 257

258 Escape from Hell

Appendix II: Auschwitz Protocol (Vrba-Wetzler Report) 259

260 Escape from Hell

Appendix II: Auschwitz Protocol (Vrba-Wetzler Report) 261

262 Escape from Hell

Appendix II: Auschwitz Protocol (Vrba-Wetzler Report) 263

264 Escape from Hell

Appendix II: Auschwitz Protocol (Vrba-Wetzler Report) 265

266 Escape from Hell

Appendix II: Auschwitz Protocol (Vrba-Wetzler Report) 267

268 Escape from Hell

Appendix II: Auschwitz Protocol (Vrba-Wetzler Report) 269

270 Escape from Hell

Appendix II: Auschwitz Protocol (Vrba-Wetzler Report) 271

272 Escape from Hell

Appendix II: Auschwitz Protocol (Vrba-Wetzler Report) 273

274 Escape from Hell

Appendix II: Auschwitz Protocol (Vrba-Wetzler Report) 275

276 Escape from Hell