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[Page 254-259]

From Zloczew to Auschwitz (cont.)

TESTIMONIES

 

The Hanging

One incident that left a terrible impression on me to this very day had to do with the execution of my best friend, Lipman Lewkowicz, the son of the best tailor in our town who was executed for breaching the rules of not moving more than 20 metres away from your place of work. People who knew him could testify as a hundred witnesses that he had no intention of escaping, but to the cruel Nazis, the fact that he moved away from his group was sufficient to condemn him to death and to kill him. On the allotted day, Lipman Lewkowicz moved from his place of work to relieve himself, but the guard immediately chased him and before he had a chance to explain himself, he was put under guard and taken away.

The veteran camp inmates knew exactly what was going to happen, but we green Zloczew people thought about the punishment that he may receive and had no idea that he would be treated in such a harsh manner. The following day, we were released from work a little early so that we could witness the tragic events that were going to take place. In the meantime, the people of the camp prepared according to the orders of the commandant, a gallows in the camp yard. At the allocated time, we were ordered out of the huts and told to arrange ourselves in the parade grounds for the horror that was just about to be carried out in front of our eyes. Rumours immediately spread as to what was about to happen as the veteran camp inmates were full of bitter experiences and knew exactly what was going to happen.

We stood there completely humiliated and depressed, filled with sorrow and anger as to what was about to happen in the parade ground. Two Jews were ordered to prepare the ropes and bring the condemned man, bound hand and foot, while deathly silence hovered over the killing field. He was put on a chair under the rope, the rope was placed around his neck and the chair kicked out. This filthy, despicable death was the first one that we Zloczew people witnessed and it completely shook us. It was easy to understand what a blow this was, especially for the twin brother of the murdered man who stood amongst us during the hanging.

Bullying in the Camp

Bullying and other barbaric acts by the camp staff and their helpers became an integral part of the way we existed. Excuses were not even needed for all kinds of punishments, described later, which were visited on us at every step. In spite of that, in this darkness of medieval barbarity, there were such shocking incidents that shook all of us to the core; even those who were used to such things and these became a daily occurrence. On Sundays, this being a Christian holiday, we did not work outside the camp, but stayed in and worked till lunchtime. One Sunday, Rabbi Meir Shochet, who was also a camp inmate, was ordered to take a wheelbarrow full of soil on muddy ground and as it was more than he could mange, he was unable to do so. As punishment, he was asked to take the wheelbarrow onto the railway ties but he could not manage that either as it was sinking between the ties and he was not able to pull it out, but the camp guards showed no pity

They beat him with sticks all over his body, to spur him on and in a sadistic frenzy they beat him harder and harder until all who saw that became completely distressed. The slaughtered man, Rabbi Meir, was well known in Zloczew, as he was also a Dayan or religious judge and a Hebrew teacher well- known and respected and knowledgeable in the ways of the Torah. And there he was being tortured and when the Zloczew Jews saw him being beaten and dying in front of their eyes, their blood froze and their spirit was crushed. Some moments later, he died and two prisoners were told to take his body outside the camp. Nobody knew where he was buried. His son was also a camp inmate and saw what the Nazi evildoers did to his father.

Courage and Hopelessness

It is very difficult to work out a set of rules for a place such as this camp, a hell on earth that would conform to some normal human behaviour. The accepted norms of civil society, such as heroism and opportunities to succeed, or self-sacrifice or altruism by helping others, did not apply. This hellhole was outside the pale of normal human behaviour. Here, the prevalent feeling was one of depression, expressing itself in all kinds of ways, such as being totally apathetic with no care for others and sometimes outbursts of rage and despair that did not lead anywhere, but to abandonment and a final tragic end.

A typical case illustrating all of this was what happened to one of the inmates from our town - Moshe Klinowski, a quiet, humble man we all knew, who could not do anything out of the ordinary or amaze the people around him, as he was an ordinary man. What he did, he may have thought about beforehand or perhaps he decided to act under the force of the circumstances he was in. In any case, the fact is that he actually did something very unusual in that place of depressing savage reality.

It was a normal working day, no different from the days before it or after, marking our miserable way of life in the Autochno camp. Everything was as expected, nobody dared challenge anything or rebel against the way of life of the slave labourers, but in spite of that something happened. It started as a trivial matter, which could have happened on every day of the year. And so it lead like a match lighting the flame into something else.

We used to work in groups of three in the middle of the muddy fields, digging and taking the soil away in wheelbarrows. Everybody tried to work as hard as they could and do what was expected of them, as the penalty for failing to do so was severe. The ever-observant eyes of the guards and their filthy helpers did not miss a thing and if they found anything that did not satisfy them they never restrained themselves from using their fists. But, sometimes, despite their strong wishes, people could not manage the murderous rate of work because they were naturally weak or by being with the Nazi regime for so long now, they could not find the will to work any harder. And they could not manage this tremendous physical effort - they could not go on. If one member of the three-man crew faltered, you could imagine what that would have meant for the other two.

Moshe Klinowski was placed with a trio that was quite weak and that manifested itself in the work rate. There was no official work quota, but it was understood that if one group finished loading their wheelbarrows, the rest had to keep up as the train was due to take away the loads and there was no way a train could be delayed by slacking. And so it was inevitable that one of the group could cause delays and the guards would beat the inmates hard to make them work faster. Moshe was under no illusion as to what will happen next as his group could not keep up and perhaps from that moment, he started plotting something. Or perhaps it was a spontaneous act.

He stood there with his unfilled wheelbarrow and watched the guard, stick in hand, getting nearer towards his faltering crew. The minutes ticked by and Moshe had a pickaxe in his hands. Time was fateful, just another step, two more steps, just another minute of last thoughts, another second and here the guard is actually hitting him on his legs with his stick. The blow is painful, burning, making his blood boil, and Moshe, overtaken by spasms of pain, just waiting for the train to come nearer - and then he lifted his pickaxe and with a mighty blow hit the guard with it.

Many are running towards him to subdue him, but he managed to push them all off with mighty force. There is a moment of madness, what else can he do with this loss of control? Will he stop, will he run away? But where to? And in the meantime, the train arrives and Moshe throws himself at the last second underneath its wheels and takes with him his right to go to oblivion.

Escapes

Apart from the usual precautions taken by the Germans to stop escapes from the camp such as excellent armed guards, we also had the problem of the camp being in the middle of a very hostile area. We were so different from the look of ordinary people in the way we dressed and in our physical condition. This and more prevented escape. And anybody who did try was punished by death, but in spite of that, from time to time, some brave souls took the risks even though they knew what will happen if they were caught and how small their chances of escape were. These were just a few people and I do not remember any plots for mass escapes and no such groups were ever organised because any suspicious movements could provoke an immediate reaction and all reaction in the camp had the smell of death on it.

I remember some people who chose liberty, but they did not go far. As soon as they reached the nearest village, they were picked out by the local population and betrayed to the camp commandant. In such cases, not only did the Nazis take their revenge by death, but they also wanted to humiliate the victim and to try and show the others to see what will happen if they tried to escape. After catching the escapees, we were all concentrated in the parade ground where the gallows were erected and before execution one of the executioners gave a speech and said it was a pity to waste a bullet on a Jew and therefore the criminal had to be hanged.

Special Punishments

“Hunger breaks iron”, goes the popular saying and we were hungry all the time. We tried, in spite of all the rules and the dangers and punishments, to come up with ideas as to how to get some food. Sometimes, we had to borrow something or steal something from the local population. In some cases, we actually took the food that the farmers left for their pigs many days before, but we were usually caught and it was a great miracle that we survived this incident. But we did not get off lightly and were flogged as a punishment and in a typical German fashion this had to be done as a special ceremony. On Sundays, we were taken out to the parade grounds where a special flogging instrument stood - just two sticks in the ground to which a low table was attached and the victim was laid down, his trousers taken off and he was beaten on his naked body.

The guards beat up the inmate with their customary Teutonic barbarity until they bled. I myself had to take 25 lashes and just barely recovered from them. The pain, the sorrow and humiliation were exacerbated when I knew that my father and my Uncle Gabriel and his son-in-law Moshe Grabowski were witnessing my flogging. Official punishments aside, the Nazi guards never missed an opportunity to humiliate and punish Jews by slapping, shouting and swearing. They did that at every step with the intention of breaking the inmates morale.

From the Frying Pan into the Fire

After 6 months in this camp, rumours circulated that we may be going back to our families in Zloczew and this expectation was based on efforts made by my late mother to enable us to leave the camp. With her connections with Mrs. Haya-Sarah Faiwlowicz and the way she worked and pleaded with the Judenrat and with all kinds of bribes and favours here and there, she somehow managed to get us to leave the camp and so we were released and made our way back to Zloczew. We did not mange to reach Zloczew as we were stopped and found ourselves in the Ghetto of the nearest town, Zdunska Wola. Fortunately for us, my niece lived in that town and thanks to her; we actually had a place to put our heads down.

It is difficult to talk about living conditions as my mother was waiting for us only to find out we were not coming and so she tried to get a permit to come to us and after much effort she managed to leave Zloczew and came to stay with us. Now we knew what happened to enable us to leave the camp. We found out that as my late father was a leather merchant, he had some stock left from the pre-war days and she used that to bribe some influential people who controlled our lives and who could arrest us when they wanted to or undo our chains as it suited them. As to the rest of the family, we did not hear from them or know what happened to them since our town was taken.

The Convent - the Last Stop

As my mother was staying with us, we tried to plan ahead and see what we could do, but as we did so, a terrible rumour reached us, which was, as we later found out, true. It was like a death knell. It concerned the Jews of Zloczew who were taken out of the town, locked up in a convent for three days, and after this, let out, and taken by force to Belzec concentration camp where they were killed. There is no testimony as to what happened to them from when they left the convent until they were killed as not a single person was saved. (See “Their Last Way” in this book).

The Deportation of Zdunska Wola

It soon became clear that the deportation of Zloczew Jews was not a peculiar incident, but a part of the general plan for the whole area. Two weeks after arriving in Zdunska Wola, the liquidation started there. The Jews were ordered to go to the cemetery. The Germans searched the houses and any stragglers were immediately killed. I was already in the cemetery when I remembered that I left something at home. I made my way there without being noticed, but when I was preparing to leave, I noticed a German running towards me with a bayonet. I felt that the end was coming and charged the German, but he beat me on my head and seriously wounded me.

I ran to the cemetery where everybody was waiting to see what would happen next. After a few hours, another German came and did a selection. Everybody had to go through a kind of a corridor between SS and other Germans armed with rifles and sticks who beat us in furious anger and swore and something happened here which was so horrible that when I think about it my flesh creeps. In front of my eyes, I saw my mother beaten so severely that she fell down dead and I was beaten until I lost consciousness. I do not know quite what happened, but I ran in an unknown destination, my head turning. And from that moment on I did not know what was happening around me.

When I recovered, I found myself in the cemetery with a group of people surrounded by armed guards. I tried in the darkness to look for my father. I crawled amongst the graves as quietly as I could as the SS were very near, just a few yards away and, of course, crawling under those conditions took a lot of time until I reached a place where I thought I would find my father. But, upon arrival, I was bitterly disappointed as he was not there. Returning to where I started from was pointless, so I decided to stay there until morning. In the morning, we were given some food, but no water. During the day the guard slackened and I could move more freely. I tried to look for my father and found him with my brother, but what happened to my mother broke our spirits and we were completely depressed and my father was destroyed. After three days, we left the cemetery for the railway station and after many delays we were put into cattle trucks and the train started moving towards Lodz.

In the Lodz Ghetto

After several hours, the train stopped in a place called Roza Pabianice, not far from the city of Lodz. As we did not receive any water in the cemetery, we were dehydrated and I asked if we could fetch some water. We received permission and I was one of the search party, but as soon as I got off the truck I noticed some barrels 200 metres away. When I got there, I realised that they were quicklime barrels full of water. As I was about to take the water from the barrels, I heard shouting from the train that the trucks are about to move and that I must return. I tried to ignore those shouts and to get the water, but soon was fired at and had no choice but to run back to the train without the water and without wetting my lips.

By the time I got to the train it was moving and I had to run after it trying to get back to my truck while the Germans were shooting at me from both sides of the train as the guards were in the first and last wagon. I was lucky, attaching myself to the side of the wagon and was not hit. I managed to get into one of the trucks, which were not mine, and the train carried on into the city of Lodz, where we were led to a wooden barrack in the middle of the city.

Being in the Bed of Sodom

So, a few days have passed and I managed to find my father by chance, but we did not have much time to spend together as he passed away as a result of everything that happened to him. I was left alone to face all the tragic events that lead me to where I was now. In just a few months, I lost my family and now remained alone at the age of 15 in a strange place with no parents and under the yoke of the Nazi regime.

In the Ghetto, people who came from other places were initially sent to the barrack camp where the conditions were extremely bad, but as I knew the slaughterman's daughter who lived in Lodz, I found shelter in another place that cannot be described as fit for human habitation. It was in a yard of a house inside a tool shed and it was difficult to sleep in there as I was squeezed in between the tools. After six weeks, I met my Uncle by chance and we decided to stay together as we were the only remnants of the family.

We managed to get a room somewhere and made a home that was no better than what I had before. It was winter now and the snow was coming in and melting under our feet and making water puddles on the floor. Apart from that, the yard was full of rats and when we got bread we had to hang it in the air so that the rats would not eat it. From somewhere, a baby cot was found for me, but sleeping there was like sleeping in a bed of Sodom or a torture chamber. As for my Uncle, he was luckier, as he worked as a coach driver transporting sand in his wagon 18km away with him acting as a horse and pulling the wagon. And while he was travelling, he found a regular bed and brought it home. I became ill, but had to carry on working, as without work I could not eat. I worked in a factory making felt boots to protect German soldiers against frostbite on the Russian front.

I managed somehow to adjust to the working conditions, but the lack of food and the constant hunger gnawed at me without let-up and all I could think about was how to find something to revive my spirit. With much effort and cunning, I managed to think of a way to get some food, but was caught. As a punishment, I was demoted from working with boots to a much harder job - blacksmithing. But as I was in possession of a single person's permit, I was arrested, and transported to the jail.

Escaping from the Jail

It was an ordinary two-floor apartment house, converted to act as a prison, by placing bars in the windows and doors, but it was a prison, which completely depressed me. I managed to get a primitive screwdriver and after working very hard managed to free one of the screws and then bent one of the bars so that I could pass my head through. I knew then that I could get out and without any hesitation, I jumped into the yard and reached the fence. There, I stopped for a while, as I knew where the Jewish police guard was. Waiting for the guard to move away, I jumped out, but was spotted and chased through the alleyways. I managed to hide in a yard in a septic tank by holding on top a post so that my body was outside.

Finding a better hiding place later, I had to stay underground by changing places of hiding and where I slept, as my place was taken away during the day and vice versa. I had many more trials and tribulations to befall me and all the while I tried to stay alive. Getting food became harder and harder and I was bloated from hunger. The Ghetto was liquidated in September 1944 with the great transport of the Lodz Jews to the concentration camps and I was selected for transport to Auschwitz with my Uncle where I stayed for a month and a half.

Jews transported to Auschwitz

 

I was then transported to other camps such as Dachau, Kaufering, Landsberg and Zirkau and Boblau. I was finally liberated by the Americans in the Tigheim camp and after the war passed through Belgium to reach the land of Israel.

 

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