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Eyewitness 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 Survivor

Thehe 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:

One 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.

Presently 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.

Standing 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.

Suddenly 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 be.

Meanwhileeanwhile, 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 to expect.

In 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.

One 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?

At 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 of fire.

Suddenly 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)