Richard Sufit is born in Paris (France) on September 16th, 1925. He arrived in Brussels (Belgium) in 1928, became resistant in France, has been arrested in 1944, interned in Drancy (France) then to Auschwitz-Birkenau on June 30th, 1944 with the 76th convoy, tattooed roll number : A16866. Worked at Buna-Monowitz, took part in the Death March to Gleiwitz, then to Buchenwald where he was freed by the Americans on April 11th, 1945.
"I was born in Paris. My parents were born in Poland. We moved to Brussels, Belgium, in 1928. My parents had a Jewish restaurant. We were a well-off family. We were talking Yiddish at home, and we were politicaly involved: my father was "bundiste" (note: could be compared to socialist) . I was member of a non-Jewish Socialist Youth Movement, the "Red Falcons" and I studied at the college Léon Lepage, in Brussels.
On May 10th, 1940, the war started in Belgium. On May 12th, we were summoned to the French consulat de France where we received a orders to evacuate. On May 14th, I was evacuated as a French citizen and sent to Béziers, where the refugees were divided, placed in different villages and housed by the local citizens.
In September 1940, I had the opportunity to return to Belgium by a train reserved for French citizens. I went back to school, continued my studies and the all-day life was restored. In 1941 we received the order to wear the Jews star. This star, some days I wore, other days I didn't. It depended how I was feeling, where I was going and who I was with at the time. .I have seen my friends from the "Red Falcons" and from different youth movements we continued our meetings.
There was no anti-semitism at school , I mean no active anti-semitism, except maybe from one of the boys in my class who had nazi opinions and who became later member of a nazi youth organization. He was my friend until end of 1941. At this time he really became a nazi and our friendship was over. One day, some of my friends had a big fight with him, just because he injured me. He has been seriously beat up. I have been called by the director of the school, who asked to me to stay two or three days at home because nobody knew what the reactions of the boy will be. In fact, there were no special reactions and I never saw him again. It seems he was killed somewhere on the Eastern Front...
In June 1942, when we received orders to place a sign on our restaurant saying "Jewish Enterprise", my parents have decided to stop their political activities and to close the restaurant. At this time, the arrests of Jews had aleady begun. Some friends of my father who were in Breendonck surprisingly were freed after some months. They told us what was happening and we decided to leave our house. My 12 year sister had been sent to her old nurse where she had lived until 1940. My parents had decided to stay apart and each of them has been housed by friend. Me, as a French citizen, I have been sent to France, to Béziers. My parents told me that they will join me some months later.
I had left Belgium by train for Lille at the end of June, after the school tests, then to Paris and finally to Béziers, with a stop at the disembarkation line at Vierzon, between the occupied zone and the "free" zone. Until Vierzon, I had no problems, I was with a friend of my father. Arrived in Vierzon, he just left me and I had to take care of myself alone. The Gestapo arrested me in Vierzon during a simple identity control. First I was treated like a Jew, then not! - my name doesn't sound really Jewish - they have verified my identity papers and the content of my bag. I was wearing a sort of velvet short, just like scouts, and the belt of the "Red Falcons"!. The German officer thought that the iron falcon was the sign of a nazi youth movement. I told him he was right and he has certainly though that never a Jew will dare to wear a "eagle" on his belt . More, I had some picture where it was written in German "To my friend". They were pictures with a really nice blonde girl in the uniform of the "Red Falcons" from Switzerland and it was signed in German. The German officer told me kindly to stay in the station and to take the first train to Paris the morning after. At midnight, I came back to this German officer to ask him the authorization to go to the hotel because I was tired and I wanted to sleep. I have received a ticket for the hotel, but in fact, all I wanted was to leave the station! So I went to a public closet just in front of the station and of a cafe. As soon as the cafe opened, I ran into it. There, a man immediatly understood my situation: I was not the first in this case, and certainly not the last... He "Yes ? Ok. Wait here." I have to say I was a bit afraid. After a while, another man came, took my bag and placed it in the station, saying that I'll take it back at the next station... The he came back again with a fishing rod and we left. We went out of the city, and after a while, we arrived along the banks of the Cher river. There was a German patrol. We have waited until the patrol leave then the man said to me : "O.K. you cross the river. On the other side, it is the free zone". I jumped into the river, with my shorts, shoes, everything..., and I had never learned to swim... To be honest, I had learned to swim but I was very afraid of water and, in the swimming pool, I always stayed where I had ground under my feet.... The Cher river was very difficult to cross because it was raining for three days. But I did it and, since this time, I have no problem to swim...
Arrived on the other side, I have walked to a village named Cheribibi where was the next station on the line Vierzon - Oléans. Meanwhile, I have taken some rest in a meadow. The weather was wonderful. I was lying naked in the grass, waiting until my clothes were dry. I though to myself that a police patrol would shortly come here. And I was right. A car had stopped on the road and, since I was totally naked, I decided not to escape. It was the French police. They asked me my identity papers, where I was going; I have answered that I was going to Béziers and they just said to me that, as soons as I arrive in Béziers, I had to ask for new identity papers. That's all they did!
Later, I went to Cheribibi where I took the train to Béziers. From Béziers, I reached the village where I came in 1940, Cazous-lès-Béziers, 20 kilometers from Béziers. No problems. There were a lot of refugees arived in 1940 and many of them had asked for the French nationality. In the refugees, I have met a friend of me and his wife. I knew them from Brussels. He was a French resident, and I think he was member of the French secret services. He was working under the cover of a private detective.
In 1942, he took the control of the secretariat of the mairie and, without asking anything, he gaves to me all the paper I needed. I received an identity card, food tickets and money. I have said to him that I didn't wanted money but I only a job. In order to find a job, he said to me that I had to come back to a big city: Béziers.
He was right, I have found a job as worker in a typewriter factory, I have found a small apartment and I worked.
Since I was all alone and because the time was long for me, I ate every day in the Red Cross canteen, which was at this time not far from the station of Béziers. I met there many different people, young people like me and a lot of refugees from Paris. Among these people, there was a Jew. He was member of the Protestant scout, and he invited me to join him. That is why I became chief in scout unit in Béziers. Later, I have been asked to join the Resistance. It was in eptember 1943. My first job as a partisan was to distribute a newspaper: "Combat" in the mail boxes. Later, I have been used as a mail box: I received mail and I distributed mail. Nothing more. I took part in the preparation of sabotage but I never took part in the active phase. My job was to spot on a map the good places on the railways for sabotage.
At the end of April, maybe May 44, I was arrested. A member of the maquis had to contact me as well as oher member of my group, the Group 5 of the A.S. (Armée Secrète - Secret Army). He has been arrested in the station of Béziers with the names of everybody he had to contact. Did he talked to the German, did the German found the list, I don't care. I don't know if he has been tortured, but, in any case, he told to the Germans what was the meaning of the list.
I've been interrogated during two days by the Gestapo in Béziers. Then I have been jailed in a German caserne. From this place, I have been transfered to Paris. Arrived in Paris, I have been brutally interrogated again by the Gestapo, rue des Saussaies. Finally, I have been trasfered to Compiègne.
During the transfer in train from Béziers to Paris, we were 20 people, most of them were resistant, excepting a Swiss citizen who was going to Paris in order to prove that he was Swiss... Our train has been attacked by the Allied air planes just before Orléans, and, of course, we have tried to escape. But the Swiss citizen took me back in the train, saying "Sir, you forget you bagages!". I'll never forget this man! In the group, there was also Spanish veteran from the Spain Civil War. These men were very brave and very politically engaged. When they escaped, they took with them all the document of the german police concerning the prisoners, including my folder. When I arrived in Paris, the German had no report, no papers, nothing. That's the reason I have been interrogated in Paris and then transfered to Compiègne.
In Compiègne, I made a very big mistake: when the Germans asked me the name of my father and my mother, I have given their real names : Sufit and Grosman. I thought that these names would sound Dutch or German. "Where were you living in Caen ?" My goal was to tell a false story to these SS and always to repeat the same story. We knew that Caen was totally destroyed and that there was no archives anymore. So I told them that my family was coming from Caen. The SS beat me but I was so busy in order to repeat always the same version of my story that I didn't feel the pain. Finally, I told them that I was born in Paris, I didn't knew that my parents were at the same time in Paris! Arrived in Compiègne, other friend from my group told me that the Germans didn't know anything about us because all the documents were destroyed. The only thing they knew was our names. The Gestapo was investigating the names... A very good friend kindly told me: "Don't say you are a partisan, just say you are Jew. If you say you are partisan and if they investigate in the mairie of the XXe arrondissemnt, if they know that the name of your father is Abraham Benjamin Sufit your mother is named Hella Grosman, you are dead." So I told to the SS that I was Jew and I have been transfered to Drancy.
After two or three weeks in Drancy, we took the train for "Pitchipoï". Pitchipoï, in fact, it was Auschwitz. We were in cattle wagon, sixty prisoner in each wagon, no food, no water. In my wagon, there were only men. Some of them were preparing to escape, but it was impossible because we had no tools and the floor of the wagon was to thick. After five days, we arrived at Birkenau.
Arrived at Birkenau, the SS told us to leave our bags in the wagons and that we will get it back later. We have jumped out of the wagons and we were immediately divided in two groups: the men on one side, women and children on the other side. The people who appeared too weak to walk or ill were placed in trucks. In an other wagon, two or three wagons in front of ours, some prisoners had tried to escape during the journey. They jumped from the wagon just before the German border and tried to hide in the forest. But the train had stopped and all these prisoners were captured by the SS. Some were immediately killed and all the prisoners, dead and alive, were placed back in their wagon. Upon our arrival at Auschwitz, we have seen the survivors placed in a group apart from the others. We'll never see them again.
At Birkenau, I witnessed my first "selection" - that is how it is called today but, at this time, we didn't knew what was the meaning of this. Right side, left side, right side, left side... One hour later, maybe more, we left the station and we arrived in the camp by the main entrance. We had walked across the entire camp until we arrived on a huge open area. There, we had to wait. Some of us recognized some "veteran" prisoners in the camp, family members, friends... These "veterans" told us very little about what was happening in the camp but just enough to understand...
I remember a group of young girls coming from Hungary. They were incredibly nice. They did not knew what was planned by the SS for them. They were singing. I remember they were all wearing original costumes from Hungary, and they were such beautiful girls. I was nearly eighteen...and I was not unaware to the beauty of these girls. After, we had to remove all our clothes and stand naked in the open air, we were ordered keep our shoes in our hand and we were forced to enter an enormous room called "shower". I do not know if the gas chamber would be like this place. A friend told me later that it was exactly like that. We entered the shower with our shoes in hand and water begun to fall on us. It should have been gas but it was just water. We had no towel, no soap, nothing. We left the shower by another door and we were placed outside the big shower area, totally naked. The only thing we could do was wait until the wind and the sun dried us.
We received later these famous striped clothes. I remember we were so naive, we started to exchange our clothes "This is too large for me, this is too small for me...". It was just solidarity between us and, at this time, we were still human. Later, we would never be like this again: the only thing we wanted was to survive. We had received nothing to eat, and everybody was hungry. We were ordered to form a column and we left Birkenau in order to reach Buna-Monowitz, Auschwitz III.
After a long march, we were placed in huge tents. These tents were big enough for 200 or 300 prisoners, and there were two or three tents. We received some soup and the guards told us not to leave the tent. We did not knew where we were. Some veteran told us that we were at Auschwitz, in Poland. We stood there, waiting for 48 hours. No food, no water, no beds, just dirt to rest on and very crowded. After 48 hours, we were tattooed. A number on my left arm. At this moment, a veteran told us that we were very lucky because we were going to survive. They told us also that we had no name anymore. We were just numbers. I was A16866.
We were separated, placed in different barracks and, the morning after, I was sent for working in a kommando . From this moment, we became a part of the huge mass of prisoners who thought that they were in a work camp. But day after day, our reactions begun to change; we discovered that what we thought to be a work camp was in fact a concentration camp. So, the most important question for us was "how to survive", not work or productivity. We had to live, we had to survive at all costs.
Another thing has changed in some prisoners, but never in me: morality and the contact with other prisoners. Because the education I had received from my parents, I could not be egotistic, so I had no problem to adapt myself to the others, and I felt I had to help them. When I could, I shared things or food with other prisoner.
During my first weeks at Auschwitz, I was thinking about escape projects but later, I just concentrated on how to endure and survive. Some prisoners have stolen. Me, I could not. I have tried to "organize" (note: to steal the SS or the German) things, attempted to get food or other items without stealing, but I never stole anything from my brother prisoners.
We were working at the IG Farben Industries factory, one of the biggest factory in this area. I had been in several work Kommandos - five, six, more maybe, and each time it was worse than the previous one. I have been three time in a Strafkommando (punishment unit). I remember, one day I was in the Kommando 50, the Baukommando (construction unit) .It was raining, the weather was very bad and there was a German engineer, a civilian, who was leading the work (he was a veteran from the Eastern front and he had lost an arm).He wanted me to crawl in the swamp in order to place big electric cables under a building. The hole I had to crawl through was so small that I was sure I would be trapped and die. I refused even though I knew I would be punished. It is strange ; you are in a concentration camp and, finally, punishment units make you fear your helplessness even more.
I think I have been very lucky. In some Strafkommandos, I have worked less than in my normal Kommando and I have received more food. I remember we had to break big stones into small pieces and to place these pieces on a road. I was alone with the guard, a German soldier, not an SS. He was coming from the Ruhr, he had family in France and in Germany and he was talking some French. When he realized that I was French, he showed me how to break the stones. Before the war, he was miner. He told me that I was talking very bad German and that it was easy to see that I was not German. Then he told me : "You stay here quiet, you don't move and if somebody comes, just say that you are working and that you do not know where I am". So, during the three weeks I stayed in this Strafkommando, he gave me every day a large sandwich with bacon. There was just one condition: I had to eat it immediately. So, everyday, I was eating this delicious sandwich.
An other strange story: I was in a kommando in which we had to move a machine from a factory destroyed by bombers. We worked with English prisoners of war. Their camp was two or three kilometers distance from the factory. Very strange people, these English men! When you know that they were prisoners of war and they received packs with chocolate and food from England (that is what they told me)! One time a year, they received a new uniform, with insignias and grades... More, they had tea, coffee, milk in powder, biscuits...I remember, it was three in the afternoon, an English soldier has cried : "Tea time!", he stopped working and has started to make tea. The next day, he repeated, "Tea time !". He took me by the hand and we arrived in a small barrack. That was the place they were drinking tea. And, during three weeks, they gave me tea, biscuit and chocolate.
There was also a kommando where the work was incredibly hard. The first day, we had to take very heavy beam from a wagon. It was a stupid job, but it was killing us. We were working in groups of three. We had to take the beam, the first prisoner place it on his right shoulder, the last prisoner place it on his left shoulder and the middle one had to help them. Since I am very small, I was always in the middle and always with my arms up, trying to carry the beam. The chief of the kommando has immediately seen how it was ridiculous and he called me. He took me and told me "Everyday, you have to clean up my room, take care of the fire and you'll give soup to the other prisoners". That is what I did during three weeks. The guard was a very brutal man, he often killed prisoner by beating them with a shovel or a pickax. When I was distributing the soups, he was of course the first served. I had to give him the best part, then I could take my ration and then give the rest to the prisoners. Most of the time, for me like for the others, it was just warm water but me, I was not working.
All these stories may sound funny but I have also seen horrible things in these kommandos. When we were leaving the camp in order to go work, the prisoner who was in charge of the kommando had to say "Kommando N°12; 45 prisoners". And the SS sometime answered; "Tonight, you'll be 35... " The guards who were in charge of the kommando were most of the time just criminals. During the day, they killed the weakest prisoners in order to have the right count of prisoners. We had to take the corpses back to the camp because, if a kommando of 350 men was leaving the camp for work, we had to be 350 men coming back to the camp in the evening, dead included.
Except in the Strafkommandos, the life in the camp was everyday the same... a long and terrible routine. Going to the "Appellplatz", being counted again and again during hours, etc... One day or hundred days, finally it was the same. The most important in fact, it was the spiritual condition. I think that most of the prisoners who survived the camps had a goal in their life ; most of them had political or religious opinions and they were fighting for them. What my father was, insisting that I became an active member of a youth political movement, that I had an ideal, I think it is one of the reasons I survived. I have survived through good or bad times, through punishments and so many stupid things that every one of us has lived through everyday: you were walking too slow or too fast, you were in the wrong place at the wrong moment, and you were beaten up you even did not know why.
I remember a very sad day, when six of my friends were hanged by the SS. During all my time in the camps, I have seen maybe 10 executions by hanging. But these six friends... I remember also I had a friend in my group. You know, we tried to create groups of friends in the camp, members of the same family, people coming from the same city, or just people the same age. I was in a group of five prisoners, all of us were the same age. Two of them arrived at Auschwitz in the same transport with me, the three others were in the previous one. We shared everything we could find in the kommando. It was very difficult to enter in the camp with food because, each time, we were searched by the guards. And if they found something on you, you were immediately hanged. One day, one of these friends had been searched and the SS has found a piece of bread in his pocket. The SS told he had stolen it but, in fact, he had received it from a French worker. The next day, the SS hanged my friend; a public hanging . It was horrible for me.
I think that, days after days, we adapted ourselves to the "society" where we were living. Even if we tried to keep human sensibility, I think we became sometimes insensitive to what you were living everyday. You could try to help everybody but it was impossible so you had to choose your friends. I remember, a day, I was in the toilet. (the closets were just a beam with a hole over a pit). Of course it was public closet, everybody could see everybody else, no privacy at all.. It was in the morning, I had just sat down when another prisoner came and sat beside me. I though she was old because her physical condition seemed to be bad. She had just smiled to me, she said "Ouf!", then she fell to the ground, dead. I had no choice, I could not do anything. I stood some moments there, looking at her, but I had to go so I left. Week after week, I had lost a part of my humanity. I was not a man anymore, not yet an animal. I think I was human when I was with my small group of five friends.
This was the life in Auschwitz... I remember also the selections. I had passed through three selections. I was very lucky because I had enough strength, I was not too weak.
Christmas at Auschwitz... a day just like another day. On January 20th 1945, the camp has been evacuated (the red army was close to the camp). We stood the whole day at the roll call area in rows by five. We were issued a blanket, a small piece of bread and some margarine, nothing more. We ate everything immediately! We have left the camp in the evening. We were maybe 10,000 prisoners in Auschwitz III. We walked during three days in order to reach Gleiwitz. During two days and three nights, with a freezing temperature of -20, -25° Celsius, we could hear shooting, the SS guards were killing the prisoners who were to weak to walk. Me, I was lucky: I had good shoes, it was very important.
We were split into small groups, five in each row, some with SS guards, others with German soldiers. Once again, we were lucky - it is something impossible to explain. We were walking for one half-hour when I noticed an SS guard with a bucket in his hand. I was the left outside man in the row. The SS man suddenly told me: "You take the bucket, I come back in a half-hour." Surprise: the bucket contained three big salamis!! I have shown the salami to the others in my row and I have said to the prisoner on my right: "I go to the middle of the row, the guard will come back soon". Then we ate the salamis and throw away the bucket. A half hour later, the SS guard returned looking for me. He did not find me. Today, I'm sure that eating this salami saved my live. It provided me with enough strength to continue the march.
I remember also that, I don't know when exactly, I was alone with one of a friend of my parents. There was nobody in front of us, nobody behind us and no guards. This prisoner was very weak and had great difficulties to walk. This meant death for him. I have proposed to him to sit down a while then to try to find some houses where we could hide. Snow was falling, with a freezing temperature of -20° Celsius. He refused my proposition and I tried to help him to walk. He died several years later, after he had found his son in Canada. It was so: I could not let him alone, I could not let him die... And maybe, if I had escaped, I would be dead today, shot by the SS or the Russians...
We walked until we reached Gleiwitz, where we have received a cup of warm water. Then we were placed in wagons. Once again, I was lucky: I was in an open wagon, I mean without a top. We were fifty in this wagon and after four days we reached Buchenwald. During the travel, we had a stop at Prague. The train stopped under a bridge. It was early in the morning and we have seen people on bicycles, going to their jobs. These people threw bread into our wagon. That's why I say I was lucky to be in an open wagon. The others were closed and the prisoners did not received anything to eat during four days... I remember I ate the snow falling on us.
Arrived at Buchenwald, I was in the barrack 42. The Blockälteste (chief of the block) was Marcel Paul - he became minister in France after the war. After our arrival in this block, we were forced to listen a boring political speech from him. After the speech he said to us that he'll try to do his best to help us: "Some days ago we received some packages from the Red Cross. I'll try to get a maximum of packages and I 'will give them to you." And we shared everything.
After four days, I have been transferred to another barrack. Just next to this barrack, there was a smaller one where prisoners were punished. Only Russian prisoners and, even for us, they were in a pitiful condition.
There was no factory at Buchenwald so I've been sent to a kommando where I had to bury the corpses of the prisoners who had died in the camp. It was horrible. There were trucks full of corpses, we had to take them, put them in a huge pit, then cover all these corpses with lime. After two days, I have try to go to another kommando. I have been sent to a kommando in Weimar. I just remember we were working at the station. In fact, I don't remember what we were doing at Weimar. You know, we were so weak, so tired that we became like robots. Just an image: I remember an old woman with a handbag containing bread. The bread fell from the handbag and I remember calling to the woman to warn her: "You lose your bread!".
It is at Buchenwald that somebody has stolen my shoes. It may seem ridiculous but to have good shoes was extremely important. Bad shoes mean that you cannot walk and work. If you could not work, you were punished or simply executed. The Kapo gave to me sandals with the sole made of wood. From this moment, it was terrible for me. The sole hurt my feet very much and after some days, I had an infection. The infection spread to hip. On April 1, I have been sent to the Revier (infirmary). One or two days later, I had surgery. The doctors of the camp (all of them were also prisoners) pretended that I had a swollen gland.
The Germans asked: "Swollen gland? What do we have to do? - We have to cut... - Do that and after he go back to work." So the doctors operated, they placed a kind of drain in the wound and I have been placed in a bed. But it was not a swollen gland: the pus has already attacked the bone of my hip... It was an arthritis. The doctors did their best to keep me in the infirmary as long as possible. So I stayed there until the day of the liberation.
During the liberation of Buchenwald, the Americans have requisitioned all the food for the Revier and we have received a soup. This soup was full of meat, beans, sprouts and, on the top of this a huge layer of fat! When I have seen this soup, I was not hungry anymore because I had received chocolate and biscuits from some American soldiers who came first in the hospital. Also, this soup was too rich for us, I have thought that if I eat this soup I'd certainly die... so I have refused to eat it. It is terrible to say but this soup killed a lot of prisoners at Buchenwald. Of course, the soldiers did not knew that we were totally unable to digest this soup. The day after, most of us had dysentery. Dysentery and a weak condition means death. When the US doctors have discovered what kind of food we had received, they ordered a different diet for all inmates who were sick. So the day after we have received a lighter soup.
It took me two months to return to Brussels. Five days after the liberation of the camp I have been transferred to a hotel at Weimar. I remember a strange story: The American authorities under General Patton had requisitioned all the German nurses. I was in a very bad condition, but days after days I was recovering because the food was better. I remember I have asked the nurses if they were Nazis: of course not one of them was, except one who answered that she had to be member of the party because it was the only way to get a job in a hospital (the hospitals were under control of the Nazi Authorities). She was not really nazi but she was member of the nazi party. I was glad because she was the only one who told me the truth. I gave her some chocolate and biscuit I had received from American soldiers. I know it is strange but it was my pleasure because, for the first time, I have seen somebody who did not lie to me.
Concerning my parents, they never joined me: they had been arrested in June 1942 and sent to Maline, with XIth convoy. I have learned they were arrested from a postal card sent by a friend at Beziers. The message was "Your parent are going to do a long journey". I realized that they were arrested, but, at this time, I did not knew anything about Auschwitz.
Nobody knew what was happening during the war. Well, in fact, there were people who knew, but nobody believed them! The English and American governments knew about Auschwitz, in the middle of the war, both of them had received testimonies, even pictures... But, in the population, the only one who knew were the workers who were volunteers to work in Germany and who were in contact with the prisoners. Maybe they told their friends or parents what was happening. I don't know. It was so incredible that a lot of people thought that it was just stories.