The Difficult Journey to the Concentration Camp, Dachau
On the seventh day, about several hundred of us were marched to the Trieste Railway Station and, up to a hundred people were herded into one of the box cars. Even though I dreaded standing, it was somehow easier than in prison. At least I managed quickly to stretch on the floor in a corner. It was sub-zero temperatures, but we did not feel cold, just hunger. The horror started when one of us felt the need for a toilet! We were unable to escape the stench created by our own accumulating wastes.
We were not told where they were taking us. For three days and nights, we all suffered without food or water, urinated while standing or laying on the floor; all taking place in great silence as we just listened to the rolling of the wheels.
At the time we embarked we saw on each rail car, a Nazi sign “Rails Must Roll for the Victory.” (Räder müssen rollen für den Sieg).
A trip that was supposed to last 10-12 hours took three days because the Slovenian partisans destroyed the rails on several junctions in Austria. The third day our car was opened and the command was shouted to us, “Raus” (“out”). Only then did we know where we were; the railway station at Dachau. There, we received a slice of bread and a little hot soup and then we were marched to the concentration camp, joining 60,000 others already there!
The Incredible Reception in Concentration Camp
The first impression at the entrance was misleading: there was a sign “Arbeit Macht Frei” (“Work Will Set You Free”) so I was determined to work very hard so as to get free as soon as possible. An hour later we learned that the reality of the camp was different. The sign meant that our possible freedom depended, first of all, on a German victory (occupying the entire Soviet Union, as well as the British Isles). We were also warned that this was not a hotel or home for convalescence; that we were really convicts.
After that speech, we were ordered to undress completely (it was thirty below zero!). In this fatal five minutes, many people just fell down and were taken to the crematoria. I managed to get away with just contracting pneumonia and a high fever. A Polish doctor (an older prisoner) saved my life in a miraculous way. We were first brought into a barricade for disinfection. This action deserves a description in detail. First came a prisoner (with a black triangle for anti-socials) to trim our hair. That was not so bad, but then he shaved all hairs from our body with an old-fashioned razor, without soap or cream, and fast, injuring almost everybody's face. Then came another prisoner with a pail of carbolic acid and with a hard barn brush, swept our bodies. An enormous burning sensation left us really suffering. Then we went into the showers: first boiling hot water, then ice cold showers!
The Sorting Out of New Arrivals into Categories
All of us that survived the bath with a suspiciously burnt skin went to another lineup for a medical examination. An SS man presided and two Polish doctors (prisoners) examined us and proclaimed us fit for instant labor or for a couple of days “rest”.
As soon as it was my turn, I was the first to establish a third line and this third group got an instant treatment. There was a pile of paper cement bags in which tar glued together several layers of paper. The layers were separated and our bodies were covered with sticky tar paper. This was supposed to reduce the skin inflammation and reduce the body temperature.
I was warned by one of the doctors that I still had to come every Saturday to remove the tar paper and take a bath, but he whispered to me that the healing process would occur only if I could manage not to remove the tar paper for several months.
This meant I had to hide every Saturday and not go to the bathhouse with the others. This would be a punishable offense if I were caught. I managed not to get caught all through the winter months of 1943-44; always being in mortal fear of being found behind the barracks.
However, God helped me two-fold during this time. First, by my hiding undiscovered and, secondly, by allowing me to return to my barrack at noon with some foodstuff in my pockets, as I usually hid where it was most dangerous; behind the barrack of Polish priests who managed to give me some dry food through the back window.
Once I was caught red-handed by a Capo (prison guard) who wanted to turn me over to the SS but then, we made a deal. He had a green triangle (criminal). The “deal” involved my service to this Capo until the end of my incarceration; consisting of smuggling out of the camp, some metallic materials (mostly nails), which were not available to German farmers or carpenters and pieces of genuine leather for shoe repairs, and selling these goods in German villages through which we marched to our worksites and splitting the proceeds with the Capo.
I was lucky never to be subjected to my pockets being searched at the camp entrance, going or coming back, and to be able to barter with a nearby farmer; my handful of nails or a piece of leather (hidden in my oversize shoes) for two boiled potatoes or a small package of margarine. My knowledge of German was of decisive importance in such transactions. The time of this exchange while marching: thirty seconds!
Behind Every Name a Story: Miroslav Grunwald's Memories, Introduction »
Behind Every Name a Story: Miroslav Grunwald's Memories, Transports to Other Camps »
Behind Every Name a Story: Miroslav Grunwald's Memories, Liberation »
Behind Every Name a Story: Index »