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Many Times Born, Many Times Died

By Martin Weiss

All of us have had the experience of being born one time. If you are a Holocaust survivor, like me, you may have been born many times and died many times, as well.

Starting in Auschwitz, upon our arrival the first thing we discovered was a fear that no human being can imagine unless you were there. We arrived around midnight. As soon as we disembarked from the boxcars, we experienced utter chaos. Everyone tried to hold on to each other, especially to the children. It looked like a sea of humanity that had arrived in hell. We were surrounded by floodlights, soldiers with rifles pointing at us with a finger on the trigger. Everyone felt hopeless. At the same time, we were surrounded by nasty German police dogs, growling like they were ready to rip someone apart. Immediately, the soldiers separated the men from the women and then we marched toward a tall SS officer looking very intimidating in his shiny boots. He very calmly pointed his thumb to the left or the right. If you were chosen to go to the right, your life was spared. Everyone sent to the left went directly to the gas chambers. 

Before we got off the train I had put on extra jackets so I looked bigger, because we figured that they would want us to work. Until this day, I think of the boys from my town; I was the only one born in 1929 who survived. The extra jackets may have made the difference.

Jacob, my father, and my older brother, Moshe, were tall, and I was behind them and passed, not knowing how lucky I was to have made the cut. Later I discovered that only four other boys from my hometown passed that selection, but they were born in 1928. The rest of my school friends did not and went to their deaths.

After the selection, a large group of us were standing there, when I noticed my mother and my younger sisters, Esther and Monica, with only a small empty space between us. So I said to my father, “How about if I run across and join them so I could be of help to them.” My father said “OK.’’ As I started running toward them, a “kapo” with a long rod yelled at me, grabbed me by the back of my neck, and threw me back screaming, “You can’t go there.” I returned to my father and complained to him about the kapo.

After the showers, we were issued the striped prisoner uniforms and wooden shoes and were marched to our assigned barrack. The atmosphere in our group was sad and hopeless. It’s impossible to describe it. It was in the spring but it was very cold, with dreary rain. We had to stand shivering outside for hours before we were allowed inside the barrack.

As we were standing there, we noticed tall chimneys reaching skyward spewing out heavy black smoke with black cinders falling to the ground like snow. We were told they are called crematoriums and that they were burning the corpses after people were gassed there. Also, we saw a long fire the length of a football field with flames reaching the height of the pine trees. Again a kapo informed us that the crematoriums could not handle the volume, so they were burning the bodies in those pits. And the people had arrived yesterday, which meant our families. You cannot imagine our reaction because, in fact, our reaction was no reaction. I know that does not make any sense, but that is how we reacted. The transports from Hungary were so numerous that the killing rate was 10–12,000 people a day. I know this now because Museum researchers discovered this from German records.

I was lucky again, because in a week or ten days we were transported out of Auschwitz to Mauthausen in Austria. Mauthausen was a very large camp, and most of the prisoners were classified as “political.” The prisoners were of many nationalities from all over Europe, even Germans. Many of the Germans were serving long sentences for civil crimes, so, many of them were kapos.

After we were processed in Mauthausen, we were then shipped to a subcamp. My group was shipped to Melk. In Melk we were assigned to different types of jobs. Most of the time I worked building a tunnel under a huge mountain.

One day I worked the night shift, which ended at 8 a.m. At 7:30 a.m. I had to go to the latrine outside the tunnel. I was gone only minutes because we were not allowed much time. By the time I returned, there was heavy black smoke coming out of the tunnel, caused by thick BX cable on fire. Sixty-five people died from suffocation within minutes. Once again, my life was spared.

My father, my uncle Elje, and many from our transport were also in Mauthausen. My father was billeted on the other side of the camp, so we didn’t see each other very often, but in January of 1945, my uncle informed me that he had died.

My luck returned one beautiful day in early spring of 1945. I was supposed to be sleeping in my building (which was built with reinforced concrete). But instead, the kapo grabbed me and sent me on an assignment a short distance outside the camp. It was the best assignment I ever had. The sun was nice and warm and it was very pleasant for me because I usually worked in a tunnel with a pick and shovel. Our assignment was to clean up the twigs from the winter. When lunchtime came, we were enjoying the warm, beautiful sun, lying on the grass. I remember feeling very good because I had not experienced this for almost a year. As we were enjoying this moment, we heard the drone of Allied bombers in the vicinity of our camp. They turned out to be British, and they mistook that building for an ammo depot and dropped 15 bombs on the sleeping night shift. Five hundred people were burned to death. 

When the Russian troops reached Hungary, we were evacuated from Melk back to Mauthausen. When we arrived in Mauthausen, the Jews were separated from others, and we were put on the mountain in an inhospitable area with no shelter but thorn bushes. By now our rations consisted of crumbs from black bread, much of which was actually sawdust. The server had to use a ladle to put crumbs full of green mold in our hands. We also had a cup of broth made from sugar beets.

But we also now had a new worry: Why had they separated us from the other prisoners? We were convinced that they were going to shoot us. Then one morning we were told we were going on a march. The rumors had it that they were going to march us to the Swiss border and the Allies would give them trucks in exchange for us. I knew that had to be a rumor. I could not see anyone trading trucks for a group of Jews who were barely alive. As we marched westward, we were like basket cases; if someone fell down, the guard would shoot him.

After several days, we arrived in camp Gunskirchen in the Linz area. Once again, my good luck intervened and in the population of around 15,000, I ran into my cousin Jack and a couple of his friends. Jack had arrived there from Hungary. Like many Jews of military age in the Hungarian work battalions, they had been used as slave labor. So when the Hungarian troops were retreating into Austria, they ended up in Gunskirchen as well. That gave me a big psychological lift to hook up with them. By now, many of us who had come from Mauthausen looked like the walking dead. Still somehow, I survived.

©2018, Martin Weiss. The text, images, and audio and video clips on this website are available for limited non-commercial, educational, and personal use only, or for fair use as defined in the United States copyright laws.