We arrived at the platform of Birkenau at dusk on a Sunday evening. It was Shavuot. We disembarked the train and were told to line up in rows of fives, men to one side and women to the other. It was always in fives. Old people and those who didn't have the strength to walk were told to go to the wagons that would take them to their new homes. We left our packages behind, which the soldiers said would be delivered to us. After those three days on the train, we couldn't even think anymore. We lined up as they instructed us, not having any idea what was ahead. Esther, my youngest sister, had been very sick in the train, so I told her and my mother to go in the wagon because it would be easier for them, and we would meet later. I never saw either one alive again. My mother and my 12-year-old sister with beautiful long blond braids were both gassed to death and cremated that very night.
The SS men and their dogs began marching us down the road and suddenly we saw the big chimneys ahead. We didn't know where we were. I saw a pair of eyeglasses and crutches by the side of the road and wondered to myself why the owner would leave them there, when surely he still needed them. How naïve I still was to think the owner of those glasses and crutches was alive.
I was with my two younger sisters, Hermine, 20, and Blanche, 16. My father and brothers Joseph and Benze were with the men, who were kept separately from that point on. Joseph and my father were destined to die, while Benze, who survived, didn't see any of us again until after the war.
I arrived with my two sisters to what I now know was called the Central Sauna, the reception building in Birkenau where prisoners were processed and their clothes were disinfected and deloused. There were two doctors sitting at a table, and they separated us once again. Half of us, chosen at the discretion of the doctors, went back outside for a short walk to the gas chambers. My sisters and I were in the half that went for real showers down the corridor of the Sauna building.
We were told to remove our clothes and place them in the cubicles provided. We were given soap and took a group shower, after which we were led into another room where all hair was shaved from our heads and bodies. We were given gray cotton shift dresses, which were the only material possessions we would ever have in Auschwitz. Then the SS women took over and began marching us to the barracks. It started to rain, and when I felt the drops of water bouncing off my bare head, I began for the first time to feel very frightened. We were brought to Lager C, a barracks filled with three-tiered beds, with wooden boards serving as mattresses. Fourteen people slept on each tier and shared one blanket. We were like sardines. When one person wanted to turn, everyone had to turn. For years afterward I had a black mark from lying on my side on that wooden board.
We were awakened at 4 a.m. that first morning and asked what our skills were. The maids and cooks were the lucky ones. Their skills were needed and they were given regular jobs. The people who had no skills that were of immediate use to the Germans were chosen to perform odd jobs like hauling rocks from one place to the other. We were then lined up with the rest of the camp for a mass counting, which was to become standard procedure. At 4 a.m. the entire prisoner population would be lined up in rows of five for counting and inspection. Selections were made for the gas chambers. If someone couldn't be accounted for, the entire camp had to kneel until the person was found, dead or alive. Anyone who stood up was killed. And every morning, prisoners who had decided to kill themselves could be seen lying dead by the electric fence surrounding the camp.
That first day we knelt barefoot and freezing until noon. When we returned to the barracks, each group of 14 people who shared a bed was given one bowl of soup, filled with rocks, greens, garbage; anything that was available. There were no spoons, everyone had one sip at a time while the others watched to make sure no one cheated and took more than her share. I wasn't hungry enough at that point to eat. I had seen the woman preparing the soup sticking her arthritic feet into it to warm them. We waited in the barracks until 5 p.m., when the entire camp was again assembled for counting and selection. Afterwards, we were given dinner consisting of one slice of bread and a piece of margarine. This time I ate it.
By that night, all of us were already terrified and crying. A prisoner who had been there for a while came into our barracks and said, "Do you know where your parents are? They're up in smoke," pointing towards one of the chimneys. That's when I realized my parents and little sister, Esther, were no longer alive.
One day I saw my 13-year-old brother, Joseph, playing with other children in an enclosed area, and he asked me where his mother and sister, Esther, were. I told him they were napping. That was the last time I saw Joseph. I learned later that he was killed when the Germans evacuated him along with 400 other children from Auschwitz as the Allied forces approached. The Allies thought the train was carrying supplies and ammunition for the German troops and bombed it, killing everyone aboard. I never saw my father again after our arrival at Auschwitz at dusk on Shavuot, and I believe he was murdered there in the gas chamber.
All the days at Auschwitz continued much like the first. After the first counting and gas chamber selection was over at about noon, we had our one chance of the day to use the sanitary facilities, which consisted of hundreds of holes dug into the ground in one section of the camp. Urinating at the wrong time could mean death. One of the worst sights I saw in the war was that of an SS woman savagely beating a teenage girl to death for urinating at the wrong time.
We were counted and selected for the gas chambers two or three times a day; sometimes all day. Anyone who wasn't looking well and couldn't hide it was immediately sent to the gas chamber. Some people, the lucky ones, were chosen to leave Auschwitz and go to work in Germany. Anything was better than being in Auschwitz, where you never knew if you were going to live through the day. At first, when the SS women asked us who wasn't feeling well, we foolishly thought they wanted to take care of the sick. It didn't take long for us to realize that those who went with the SS women never came back.
Sometimes sick prisoners tried to outwit the SS men and women who were in charge of the gas chamber selections. Every barracks had a kitchen next to its backyard. When we were let out into the backyard, some people would take scraps of beets lying on the ground and rub them on their cheeks to make them look red and healthy. That was also risky, though, because occasionally the SS would select the "healthy" prisoners to give blood for the German soldiers. The reward for this would be an extra piece of salami. When the selection process would go on all day, the task of escaping death became as tricky as running through a loaded minefield. Yet those with guts could survive.
One day in October, my 16-year-old sister, Blanche, was selected for the gas chamber. Along with the other condemned, she was put into an empty barracks that had a piece of wire stretched across the door, showing it was forbidden to enter. I instantly knew I would never give my little sister to the Germans without resistance. I told her to make sure to stay near the door. She was crying. After a few hours, I went with my other sister, Hermine, to get her. I stepped over the wire, went inside, grabbed her and wrapped her in a blanket. There was bedlam inside the barracks of the condemned. People were screaming and crying, and the guards were busy trying to maintain order. Luckily, there were no guards outside. We crawled back to C Lager.
Not surprisingly, food was constantly on our minds. For hours at a time, we would talk about the foods we had eaten at home; describing how the food looked and saying we would gladly give ten years of our lives for a good meal. The dinner menu at Auschwitz never varied much. It was always either jelly or margarine with a slice of bread, and, occasionally, a piece of salami. I always ate my bread right away, but some people liked to save their slice for the next day. It gave them security to know they had that piece of bread waiting. In the morning it would be covered with the bedbugs that ate themselves into the wooden boards and bit us while we slept. But people just blew the bedbugs off their bread and ate it anyway. Insects weren't considered disgusting in Auschwitz. Sometimes we even ate grass, like cows do. We knew the grass had been urinated upon, but it didn't matter to us. When a group went to the gas chamber, there were, occasionally, extra rations of food left over. I actually looked forward to this. Can you imagine waiting for people to die, so that you can get an extra piece of rotten potato one inch in diameter that was better fit for pigs than humans? I was terribly ashamed of that, and I still am. You really became an animal there. Every day was like a hundred years.
Cliffside Park, New Jersey
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