testimony from Auschwitz-Birkenau
translated by Amalie Mary Reichmann-Robinson
The Last Moments of Srodula/Kamionka (Ghetto in Bedzin,
Sosnowiec) Deportees at The Gas Chamber/Crematorium Nr. 5
- Birkenau, August 3, 1943
As Described by the Eyewitness Testimony of a Sonderkommando
relative calm at Birkenau in the early days did not last.
Soon after my arrival tens of thousands of Jewish citizens
from France, Greece, Holland, the ghetto of Bialystok, and
the camps of Pomeran, Kila, Zawiercie and Poznan were swallowed
up by the insatiable ovens of the crematoria. The liquidation
of the ghettos of Sosnowitz and Bedzin which began in August
1943 was one of a number of particularly brutal measures carried
out in Birkenau at that time. Many thousands were gassed within
a period of ten days. This is an account of how it began:
ne evening as we marched out on night-shift hundreds of armed
SS men were lined up along the street. Because of comparative
closeness of the two towns in Upper Silesia the SS were afraid
that the local population as well as the Jews in the ghettos
might have come to know about the atrocities perpetrated in
Birkenau. For this reason several hundred SS men were ordered
to action stations before the start of the campaign. For some
weeks now I had been a stoker in crematorium #5. During this
particular night we cremated corpses from a transport from
France. The remaining bodies were stacked like logs in the
changing room. At dawn next morning all was quiet in the area
surrounding the crematorium. The silence was broken by the
barking of dogs and the brisk commands of their guards. Preparations
were under way for a fresh series of mass murders. Before
long we could hear SS men shouting orders. Then came the sound
of desperate wailing and lamenting. When I looked out of the
window I saw in the gray dawn thousands of people running
along the dusty road to the crematorium. On either side SS
men struck at them with whips and sticks, kicking them and
shouting incessantly: 'Come on, come on, faster, faster!'
The column running the gauntlet was several hundred meters
long. They ran as fast as they could, but many could not keep
up the pace. It was above all the elderly who were left behind.
Their sweaty bodies were clad in rags on which the yellow
star of David was sewn. The excited dogs tore not only the
people's clothes but snapped at their limbs. Fathers and mothers
carrying small children were worst off: they were running
for their very lives. Anything encumbering them was dropped
in the way, even their last precious piece of bread. Mothers
with small children in their arms tried to keep up with their
husbands, for they could see what happened to the ones who
became winded. Anyone who fell and lay face down in the dust
never got up alive.
resently about 2,000 people were assembled in the crematorium
yard. Once they had their breath back, their main concern
was for their children. However, before very long they began
to realize that what they had gone through was nothing to
what awaited them. Facing them was the red-brick building
with its two forbidding chimneys belching forth the smoke
and the fumes of the fires of hell. They were surrounded by
an armed gang of SS men, determined to suppress the least
resistance with brutal force. The people were seized by fear
and helplessness. Even the children fell silent and no longer
asked questions. Accompanied by his underlings Gorges and
Kurschuss, Oberscharführer Voss stepped before the crowd
and shouted on the top of his voice: 'Now listen carefully,
you Jews, to what I have to say. In your own interest, I repeat,
in your own best interest, I ask you to get undressed as quickly
as possible and to put your clothes on the ground by your
side.' This unusually terse speech demonstrated one thing:
the SS were in no doubt that the people facing them knew exactly
what was to befall them. That was why they saved themselves
the trouble of talking about the necessity for showers and
disinfection and the whole play-acting performance. A few
succinct commands, which said what was required, sufficed.
tanding apart was a group of SS leaders who were obviously
watching whether today's method of making short work of the
wretched victims would prove feasible. Even Obersturmführer
Hössler whom, for obvious reasons, we used to call 'Moishe
Liar' stood apart and was not called upon to play his usual
role. The effect of the Oberscharführer's request on
the people was the same as if they had been told that their
lives were finally forfeited. At first sight it seemed that
they were resigned to their fate. They began to undress, undressing
also their children, and it was as though with every garment
they were discarding a little of their lives, those lives
which for most of them had, in any case, consisted of nothing
but want and privation. Many were fighting back their tears,
afraid that their children might be alarmed or start asking
questions again. The children, too, were looking around sad-eyed.
Quite soon they were all undressed. Husbands and wives embraced,
caressing their children and trying to comfort each other.
Disappointed with a world that had turned its back on them,
they used their last few minutes to search their souls and
think about their lives which, however wretched they might
have been, still seemed more desirable than the death which
now awaited them.
uddenly from among the crowd a loud voice could be heard:
an emaciated little man had begun to recite the Viddui. First
he bent forward, then he lifted his head and his arms heavenward
and after every sentence, spoken loud and clear, he struck
his chest with his fist. Hebrew words echoed round the yard:
'bogati' (we have sinned), 'gazalti' (we have done wrong to
our fellow men), 'dibarti' (we have slandered), 'heevetji'
(we have been deceitful), 'verhirschati' (we have sinned),
'sadti' (we have been proud), 'maradti' (we have been disobedient).
'My God, before ever I was created I signified nothing, and
now that I am created I am as if I had not been created. I
am dust in life, and how much more so in death. I will praise
you everlastingly, Lord, God everlasting. Amen! Amen!' The
crowd of 2,000 repeated every word, even though perhaps not
all of them understood the meaning of this Old Testament confession.
Up to that moment, most of them had managed to control themselves.
But now almost everyone was weeping. There were heart-rending
scenes among members of families. But their tears were not
tears of despair. These people were in a state of deep religious
emotion. They had put themselves in God's hands. Strangely
enough the SS men present did not intervene, but let the people
Oberscharführer Voss stood near by with his cronies,
impatiently consulting his watch. The prayers had reached
a climax: the crowd was reciting the prayer for the dead which
traditionally is said only by surviving relatives for a member
of the family who had died. But since after their death there
would be nobody left to say the Kaddish for them they, the
doomed, recited it while they were still alive. And then they
walked into the gas chamber. Zyclon B crystals extinguished
their lives while life in the camp and in the Sonderkommando
went on as usual. The Jews from the ghettos of Sosnowitz and
Bedzin had neither hopes nor illusions about their fate in
Auschwitz. They lived not far from the camp and knew what
n the ghettos of Polish towns there were always individuals
or small groups who tried to escape. Most of these attempts,
undertaken long before the liquidation of these ghettos, came
to a tragic end. Members of the Kattowitz Gestapo used police
dogs to unearth the fugitives in their secret hiding-places,
mostly in shelters hastily dug in wooded areas, and dragged
them out of their burrows like rabbits. Afterwards they were
taken to the crematorium at Birkenau where a bullet finished
them off. Particularly heart-rending was the sight of young
mothers standing naked, their baby in their arms, at the execution
wall. Many of these mothers implored their executioners to
kill them before their children.
ne day I was able to have a last conversation with a small
group of Jewish families who had been caught. For four months,
so they told me, they lived in dug-outs near Sosnowitz, leaving
their hiding-places only at night to get a breath of fresh
air and also to provide them- selves with the bare necessities
of live. When their money ran out, their supplies dried up
too. Hunger and thirst, cold and disease, took them to the
brink of despair. In the end they were given away by the constant
crying of their hungry and feverish children. SS patrols who
were always prowling around with their dogs tracked them down.
Without questioning or trial they were brought to Birkenau
from where there was no return. They were exhausted and on
the point of collapse, and they knew full well what was in
store for them. When the SS men told them to undress they
did not seem to take their command in; however, they began
to undress slowly. I was watching a young mother. First she
took off her shoes, then the shoes of her small daughter.
Then she removed her stockings, then the stocking of the little
girl. All the time she endeavored to answer the child's questions
steadily. When she asked: 'Mummy, why are we undressing?'
her mother replied: 'Because we must.' When the little girl
went on to ask: 'Is the doctor going to examine me, and make
me well again?' her sorrowful mother replied: 'He will, my
darling, soon you will be well, and then we'll all be happy.'
It cost the unfortunate woman all her self-control to utter
these words. She was struggling to go on talking to her beloved
child quite normally to spare her the terror of imminent death.
In these last few minutes the young mother had aged fifty
years. What were her innermost thoughts at this moment? Was
she remembering her own youth, her home town, her parents'
house or the brief days of her marriage?
t last an SS man came to take her to the place of execution.
She lifted up her little girl and hugged her tenderly. She
even forgot, so engrossed with her child was she, to bid farewell
to her husband who was standing not far from her. And now
she stood in front of the wall of execution, holding her child
clasped tightly in her arms. The room reeked of fresh, warm
human blood. Motionless, her eyes closed, the woman waited
for the end; she waited and waited for the killer bullet to
take her away from this tormenting life, from this hostile
world, into another realm. Did she consider that, as she fell,
she might pull her child down and bury it beneath her? That
was surely not what she wanted. But neither did she want to
be an eyewitness when the life of her darling was extinguished.
Meanwhile Voss, the executioner, was circling round mother
and child looking for a spot on the child's little body at
which to aim his gun. When the distracted mother noticed this
she began to twist and turn to the left and to the right,
back and forth, anything to take her child out of his field
uddenly three shots cracked through the silence. The little
girl was hit in the side of the chest. Her mother feeling
her child's blood flowing down her body lost all self-control
and flung her daughter straight at her murderer's head while
he was already aiming the barrel of his gun at her. Oberscharführer
Voss grew very pale and stood there petrified. When he felt
the warm blood on his cheek he dropped his gun and wiped his
face with his hand. A few seconds went by before SS-Sturmann
Kurschuss grasped that his chief was no longer master of the
situation. Then he hurriedly took hold of Voss' arm. Gorges
picked up the murder weapon. 'Carry on, Rottenführer!'
stammered his unnerved chief, 'I've had enough for today.'
When the execution was over, fifty naked bodies were lying
on the ground behind the wall. A few were still breathing
stentorously, their limbs moving feebly while they sought
to raise their blood-stained heads; their eyes were wide open:
the victims were not quite dead because the bullets had missed
their mark by a fraction. Gorges went to examine each one
and administered the coup de grace into the heart or the eye
to all who still gave signs of life.......
translated by Amalie Mary Reichmann-Robinson, - (KL Gross
Rosen #47746, KL Flossenbürg #63905)