In Kaiserwald, Near Riga, In Hell
The Technology of Manufacturing Non-People
With our arrival in Kaiserwald, in the central sorting-out camp, a new era of our lives began-one marked by the highest level of torture, humiliation, cruelty, neglect, and dejection attainable at that time in history. The doors of Kaiserwald opened wide for us, and we found ourselves in a broad, deep death-swamp. This was one of the major, state-of-the-art concentration camps, or catsetn as they were called for short. We had made a great advance-from locked-up provincial ghettos we had emerged into the world of highly modem international death machines. I say international because here we met Jews from a dozen different countries. Our volunteer or conscripted torturers were probably also from a dozen countries.
But it seems to me that I may be a bit excessive in calling my catsetn highly modern. The truth is that the most modem killing equipment had not yet been installed in my catsetn. I did not see with my own eyes either gas chambers or crematoria. In my catsetn they killed tens of thousands of people with somewhat obsolete equipment. In that regard, I must admit, right from the beginning, that the catsetn culture I enjoyed was a good deal more backward than that of my honorable colleagues who saw and smelled their fill of both gas chambers and of crematoria. So, it seems, I ought to beg forgiveness for my boasts.
In any case, just what was a modem concentration camp of German design? What was its mission? I shall try to give you a rough idea. Basically, it was a well-organized installation in which people, physically and mentally healthy, were made into non-people-in which their last bit of dignity was taken away, along with their name and their clothes. People who have been worked over in that way become like the lowliest of creatures, systematically driven toward death, or even running to it of their own accord. Is such an explanation too theoretical for you? Then come along with me, and I will show you how a concentration camp worked in actual practice.
The transport that brought us to Kaiserwald had hardly come to a halt when a hailstorm of short, rapid orders began to hit us:
Crawl out! Arrange yourselves in two rows! Attention! Women and children remain in place, men forward! March! Halt! Arrange yourselves in rows! In straight rows!
And suddenly, as though from underground, there rose up a gang of wild creatures in striped prisoner outfits, with murderous faces. The clubs, whips, and wires in their hands began to fall on our heads and backs, and to flay us on all sides. They shouted:
How are you standing? What are you holding in your hand? Take off your caps! Put your caps back on! You aren't standing straight! What, you are still not satisfied? You are still talking? What have you got in your pocket?
And for each of the extraordinary offenses blows were rained upon us. A few of us were soon bloodied. We became confused, and we no longer had any idea how to stand, what to do, what to say, how to keep silent, what to think....
These were our new overseers, and this was the first phase of working over newly arrived Jews. Short, rapid, cutting commands were delivered in a tone that only Germans and their good pupils can master. Terror, beatings, and confusion never ceased. The German death psychologists knew very well that such treatment could be depended on to break down victims mentally and physically and stifle in them every bit of will power or resistance.
The second phase of working us over was to separate the men from wives and children. We had not had time to look around, and those who still had a child, a wife, a sister, or a mother, did not get a chance to say goodbye. We were very quickly hustled in various directions. Every attempt to ask a question brought a blow to the head with a club, or at best a laconic answer: Shut up, you dog! You're still talking?
I took a look at the area of the camp courtyard. It was a large, sandy place with dozens oflong, wide barracks or blocks and a high, double-rowed barbedwire fence. I saw S.S. men, watchmen, watchtowers with machine guns, and those wild creatures in prison clothes-no doubt everything that is needed in a modem concentration camp. Other groups of people were also being driven from place to place, I noticed. They were like us, but had arrived earlier.
It was getting near evening, and it seemed that we still had quite a few more concentration camp ceremonies to get through. Our overseers were stirred up. We kept hearing the same command to hurry hurry. We were driven along with clubs and whips, and then we were shoved from one barrack to another so rapidly and unexpectedly that no one could speak. No one asked anything; no one said anything. And not only were we moving along, but we were running, fast, in order to avoid another blow to the head with a club.
Give Up Everything That You Have!
The further phases of working us over and turning us into non-persons were to take away the last small items we owned, to exchange our personal clothing for cheap concentration camp garb, and to give us numbers by which to be called.
Having driven us into a huge barrack and arranged us in two rows, they gave us a stem command:
Show everything that you have in your hands, in your pockets, or sewn somewhere in your clothing, or shoes! Everything must be shown to the control! Go over, with your pockets turned inside out, to that table! Anyone who
hides anything, or leaves anything in their pockets, will immediately be taken out and shot. Understood? I repeat: everything.
Two by two, we began going over to the control table, holding in our hands everything that we still owned. One can imagine how emptied out we already were after two years of ghetto-life, and after having given up our poor packs of belongings in the Riga ghetto. Yet the control table was soon piled high with German paper money, metal coins, pocket knives, shaving instruments, tiny scissors, small purses, needles, cigar cases, tobacco pouches, a few rings and watches, combs, spools of thread, tiny mirrors, bottles, lead pencils, buttons, and who knows what other kinds of valuables that you can take with you in your pockets. An especially large pile was made of old personal documents, passports, photographs, papers with a child's handwriting or drawing-all such things that are exceptionally valuable to people as mementos of their former life or of relatives who have perished. But why did Jews need such sentimental keepsakes, which were much more suitable for real people? Give up, give up! Throw it into the basket!That goes to be burned!
Still standing too far frbm the control table to see what was happening there, we were suddenly shaken up by a frightful howl, accompanied by a gross abusive curse:
You, swine-dog! You, asshole, cursed Jew! How can you dare keep that little picture, when you've been told to give up everything? You are still shouting, you scumbag....
And then came more curses and blows, accompanied by shrieks of pain. Later we found out that it was one of our group, the teacher Helman, who had been shrieking.
The nerve of a Jew-wanting to deceive the camp authority and take with him that tiny picture, the only remaining memento of his murdered child, his little girl!
I don't know what became of Helman-whether he died a natural death after they had damaged his brain with club blows, or whether they selected him and led him away with a group of the elderly and weak down the path of no return....
After that small incident the procedure went on smoothly. People gave up everything. Then I myself was nearing the control table and my comrade Laib Bobrov was already there. He had given up everything, and they were about to pat him down, when suddenly I heard him speak in broken German:
Herr Overseer, will you allow me to take with me my wedding ring? This was left to me from my wife. You understand, she is dead, no longer here, and only ....
What? You had a wife, you filthy Jew? And you still have a gold ring? And you want to take it with you?
Fortunately, when the club blows began to fall on him, Bobrov was able to cover his head with his hand (even though that was against the rules).
Afterwards, when we asked him why he had asked such a foolishly human question, he couldn't explain it himself. He told us that he hadn't meant to, that he had only been thinking about it and it had just slipped out of his mouth. Oh, the devil with it! he said. That's the way it was destined to be, probably....
Poor Bobrov. For a week after that, he walked around in great pain, with a hand that had swollen up and turned blue. He told no one how much it hurt. He knew that it was too dangerous to talk about sickness, weakness, or pain. I helped him to the extent that I could, with towels dipped in dirty water.
When my own row was about to have its tum at the control table, the thought of keeping my own wedding ring ran through my mind at the last second. My wedding ring was the only thing I had that was like a holy article, and I had protected it until then. I bent over as though to pick up a little knife that had fallen, and with lightning speed I stuffed the ring into the secret hiding place under the half-tom sole of my shoe. I didn't allow myself to think about what would await me if I was caught.
Then my row's tum arrived. I went up to the table, turned over a few small articles, and was searched and patted down. I showed them a piece of dry bread that I was holding in my hand. They checked it out carefully, lest there was something hidden inside, and permitted me to keep it. But they didn't touch my shoes.
My crime had gone down quietly.
They Drive Us to the Bath House
Immediately after the search they drove us to another barrack: Hurry, hurry, don't lag behind! They pressed us into a room that was pervaded by the stench of carbolic, chlorine, dirty laundry, sweat, spoilage, and who knows what else. As it turned out, they had misled us-and here began the real orgy.
Like demons, our overseers threw themselves upon us with clubs and special blackjacks, beating us left and right, and shouting:
Give up whatever you have sewn or hidden in your clothing! We know you still have plenty of gold and diamonds.... Just the same, we will soon undress you naked, and take away your clothes, so you better give everything up to us willingly! What? You don't have anything? We will soon find it. We warn you once more, better give it up willingly!
And to demonstrate that this was not just talk, they pulled out of the crowd a select few and proceeded to batter and beat them up thoroughly. Amid the dense crush of people, they were nevertheless able, in a tricky fashion, to flay them across the face, under the heart, and in the stomach. They threw them down, trapped them, and kicked them in the most sensitive areas of their bodies. While they were doing so, they expressed their satisfaction with their own performance by shouting Ha! after each successful blow, as only well-trained and practiced beaters and murderers can. And as we later learned,
they actually were murderers, robbers, thieves, property destroyers, and every variety of professional criminal. They were not only Germans but also Poles, Ukrainians, Serbs, Latvians, Lithuanians, Estonians, and Austrians. Chiefly they were simple German folk from different lands. All had been condemned to hard labor and were specially brought down to be our teachers and educators, as we called them.
They were some teachers and educators, and that was some proper school we passed through! By long years of instruction and blows on their own backs, these outlaws had become experts in how to work over those lower than themselves, and especially in how to be unceremoniously and unmercifully cruel towards Jews, the lowest of the low. Alas! How many painful troubles and tortures we had to endure from those savage underworld types, the loyal pupils of the Germans, the diligent students who wanted to outdo their mentors. And why wouldn't they do every painful kind of evil to the Jews, who were abandoned, and who, besides, might still have some small thing that could be squeezed out of them?
The German commander, who had pretended not to know anything about the savage behavior that had just taken place, now appeared again, and his order rang out:
Quickly, get undressed! Faster, faster! Put all your laundry right here, the trousers here, and the jackets on this pile here! Take with you to the bath only your shoes, cap, a belt or suspenders! Nothing else! Understood? Attention! I will repeat it once more....
So they were going to lead us to a bath. To us this was a laughable concept, since in Yiddish to lead someone into a bath means to deceive that person. Still, we wondered, Who knows what it really will smell like? Who knows what kind of bath it is, and...whether one gets out of there alive? We had already heard enough about specific procedures that started out like baths, with everyone ordered to undress, and ended with gassing or burning.
But our bath was not one of those. It was in fact a real bath, and the true purpose of it was to take away every thread of clothing we still had on our bodies and thereby our human dignity. They knew well the Nazi principle that people who are stripped of their individual clothing also lose their last bit of self-esteem, their last bit of resistance, and their instinctive desire to live, becoming passive and indifferent to their fate.
In five minutes we were all obliged to get completely washed up. Carrying in our hands our shoes and caps, we went into the bath. It was cold and damp. While we waited for the first group to finish washing, I noticed that the overseers were rummaging in everyone's shoes and caps, which were spread out along the wall. They were obviously still hoping to find things of value. They searched and felt with their hands, looking for hidden objects.
And like a bolt of lightning the thought suddenly cut through me that my shoes were not kosher. They might uncover what I had hidden in them, and
then not only would I alone suffer, but others would suffer also. I pushed myself deeper into the human mass, and without being noticed, I removed, from under the half-tom sole, the six hundred German marks entrusted to me, and also the wedding ring, and-what to do next? At that moment I remembered that I was carrying the piece of bread I had been allowed to keep. Quick as a flash, I stuffed the money and the ring into the bread, kneaded it a little, and wrapped it in my handkerchief. Then I took it into the bath with me as though it were a hand towel. A kind of blind, hard stubbornness not to give in to them had settled into me. I thought to myself, Throw it into the water, bum it, but never give it up to them, those rummaging bloodhounds! And if they catch me? Well, that will be the end. In that case I will certainly not get out of here.... But I didn't want to think about that, and I went with everyone into the bath.
Right at the entrance one of the overseers noticed the little package in my hand and gave me a shout:
What are you carrying there, in your hand? Show me!
A hand towel and...a piece of bread. Please, you can take it away from me if you wish, I said, and I placed the wrapped-up bread with its treasure right into his hand.
He grabbed the little package, muttering Bread, damn you! and with contempt he threw it to the wall where the shoes were lined up. He raised his hand, apparently to give me a shove, but I wasn't waiting around. I pushed myself quickly into the bath. Quite a decent treatment from him, I thought, going in.
The bath functioned in a wonderful fashion. For half a minute, some water was sprayed from up above, and we were all supposed to get wet as ordered. After tha, we were to soap up on the double. Feeling crowded and rushed, we blindly grabbed the few little pieces of clay-like, smelly soap from one another. Then they let the water flow down for another half minute, and we were ordered to rinse off, again on the double.
Would you have been able to do it? I couldn't. You would have had to be a very efficient person to come out of that bath cleaner than you went in. But the sticky, smelly soap was quite strong. It burned our skin for a long time, and for many of us it caused inflammation and rashes.
We Become Arrested Inmates But Are Still Swinedogs
Coming out of the bathhouse, we found ourselves in another area, where it was hot and suffocating. There we found that fresh laundry had been prepared for us. The truth is that the laundry, our new clothing, was black and dirty and tom, but it was warm, having just been taken out of the disinfectant tub. The lice on it was dead and charred. Yet when it came to putting on these clothes, we were filled with doubt: How were we supposed to wear such things?
The clothing had come from a huge, steaming pile in the comer. Three of our overseers had distributed a jacket, a pair of trousers, and a coat to each of us as we filed by. They had not looked to see whether what they gave us was large or small, whether it might fit or not. Whatever fell into their hands was what you got, and you were supposed to go on your way without questions or objections.
I got my little package of clothes and began to put them on. Then I glanced at my neighbors, who were half dressed, and I was overcome by a weird kind of laughter. The others also looked around and were soon holding their sides with laughter. A wild laughter took hold of everyone. And how could we keep from laughing when we looked at one another and could not recognize ourselves, as though we were attending some unlikely masked ball?
My friend Bobrov had received a kind of woman's coat. He had put one arm through a sleeve and could not go any further. He was standing there in embarrassment and didn't know what to do next. His puzzled facial expression made everyone laugh uproariously, until he gave a good push and the coat came apart in every tight spot.
One of my acquaintances from Kovno, Chassman, a tall, thin man, was wearing trousers that reached only to his knees and a wide coat with a belt made of rope. He reminded me of a person from the old days, the town madman and water carrier.
Another Kovno acquaintance, Abraham Raudanski, was wearing a kaftan long enough to reach the ground. His whole miserable appearance reminded me of an old-time preacher or messenger. So as a joke I referred to him as Avremele, the renowned town preacher from Kovno, and that name remained with him among all acquaintances and even strangers who encountered him thereafter.
People said that my own new wardrobe made me look like a bandit, a criminal who had run away to escape the hangman's noose. Unfortunately, I did not have a mirror to see for myself what I looked like, so I had to accept their words as truth.
One advantage of our new clothes was that we were no longer obliged to wear a yellow badge. Instead, there were red and white stripes on the coats and jackets, on the length and breadth of the breast and back. The stripes ran down the pant legs as well. They were smeared on with oil paint, which doesn't rub off or wash out, and could be seen from quite a distance, distinguishing us from ordinary folk. They provided some assurance that we would not, God forbid, get lost.
While we were dressing, I did find my little package of bread with the money and the wedding ring hidden inside. It was lying with our shoes, right where the overseer had thrown it. My shoes and cap had in fact been thoroughly searched, and the half-tom shoe sole had been completely opened up. But the little package of bread had not been touched. The ring, which I had in
this fashion saved, I carried with me afterwards constantly, sewn into a garment. In the many dangerous situations to come, I believed that it saved me from death, and I hold that ring dear to this very day. It is the only souvenir I have of my former family and my former life. But looking back, I can't understand my contrary stubbornness and resistance at that time, my determination not to give up a wedding ring, but to keep it at all costs, and to carry it with me throughout my entire hellish journey.
Finally we came to the last act of our reception in Kaiserwald. After they had taken us to the bath, and after they had given us our colorful new clothing, they drove us on the double to a barrack called writing house. There they began anew to inspect us, to see whether our clothing was kosher. Wherever necessary, they applied bright new red and white stripes. Then they wrote down the names by which we used to be known, placed a number next to each, and distributed to everyone a small band with that number on it. This was to be sewn onto the jacket.
Bobrov and I, with a few other acquaintances, placed ourselves one behind the other, in order to receive numbers that were close together. We had already learned that they would later separate us into groups, and that numbers next to each other had a better chance of ending up in the same group. And that's the way it really turned out. My arrestee-number was 16787 and Bobrov's was 16788. And as close as our arrestee-numbers were, that's how close the two of us remained to the end-two comrades welded together with the same sufferings and temptations of fate. But Bobrov's journey ended differently from mine....
After giving up the last of our personal belongings, after parting with our own clothes and putting on the concentration camp rags with the arresteenumbers, and after losing our own personal names-after all that, we had become complete non-persons, without human character, without human thoughts, human feelings, human traits. The human in us had ceased to exist. We were human beings neither in our own eyes nor in the eyes of others. Rather, we were part of a pile of blind, dumb work tools, part of a great mass of clumsy robots in the hands of all kinds of murderers and outcasts. Or at best we were part of a herd of abandoned, beat-up animals, pushed and driven from place to place.
Although officially we were called arrestees-that is, arrested criminals, just like our overseers but at a lower level-we remained the same accursed Jews that we had always been. We were the same swine-dogs, pack of Jews, trash bags, piles of excrement, assholes, dirty Jews. And we were known by even worse names that I don't want to mention, so you will not be ashamed of your widely non-respected fathers and mothers, and of your doubtful Jewish descent.
The Holy Roll Calls and Military Drills
At the end, they drove us into a large barrack, where a couple of hundred people were already in residence, and they told us to occupy the free places on the ground. Go be a smart person and try to occupy those places, which in fact are not available! I thought to myself. The crowded conditions were so severe that we were falling upon each other on the dirty, well-trodden floorboards. After such a difficult and long day of tiring activity, our only wish was to lie down and get some rest. Despite our terrible hunger, we were willing to do without food as long as they would let us get a little rest. But no-this hellish day was not yet over!
The oldest member of the barrack staff, the boss, turned up with his assistants and overseers, all of them the same kind of criminals of Polish-German descent. They fell upon us with a concerned, fatherly flood of words:
What? You really just want to lie down? What about your evening meal? How can one go to sleep without an evening meal, on an empty stomach? March, march! Everybody up, and go for the evening meal!
Broken and dead tired, we were driven out of the barrack. They arranged us in long rows to get a little black, oily water that they called coffee. But it was a shame to lose valuable time just waiting for coffee, so in the meantime they arranged us in new rows and acquainted us with the holy concentration camp ceremony of roll call. They taught us how to stand, how to hold our hands, how to conduct ourselves, and most important, how to show respect to the powers that be.
With the command caps off, they instructed us, we all must quickly, in one movement, and at the same moment, remove our caps. And with caps on, we must quickly put them back on. With the command eyes left, we must quickly, all at the same time, tum our eyes and heads to the left, from which direction the power representatives would be arriving. And with the command eyes right, we must tum our eyes and heads to the right. And eyes straight ahead? What might the meaning of that be? By this time, we had caught on, and would not tum our eyes and heads to the left or to the right or anywhere at all without a command, for fear that we would be whacked with a stick.
Oh, the poor educators who had to go teach the little Jews how to observe the soldierly gospel in the Nazi manner! How frustrating it was to train those dull children who could barely stand on their feet, and whose heads were empty as barrels. It was especially unworkable with the caps, which had to be removed with a fast, abrupt motion, in one pull and at the same time as everyone else. What stubborn, brainless incompetents! And why shouldn't one beat them, when they didn't even try to understand? When they aggravated their teachers so much?
Soon our overseers were beating on our heads with clubs and pieces of wood, without any rhyme or reason. The entire roll call ceremony was trans-
formed into the most brutal, sadistic torture scene. Stinging slaps, deafening club blows, cutting whip lashes, kicks, and jabs fell upon us from all sides, and we never knew where any blow was coming from or how to protect ourselves. And whoever wanted to play, to do a bit of torturing to the band of Jews, was permitted to lend a hand....
Those cursed roll calls and drills-with a variety of special punishments, such as knee bends, jumping on one foot, and running and then abruptly sitting-used to be dragged out for hours, so that we were tired to the point of fainting or breaking down. This was also the kind of torture that never let up for one day. It extended across the whole length and breadth of my concentration camp experience.
And do you suppose that the women were treated differently, more gently? No! The bloodthirsty male German beast had a worthy counterpart in the female, who had to have a wide field of her own. And that field lay in the camp division where the Jewish women were locked up. It was there that the delicate Gretchens, Margaretas, and Annchens could show who they really were and what they could do.
The German female overseers in the camps absolutely did not lag behind their brothers and fathers, not in brutal murders and cruelty, and not in small sadistic refinements. On the contrary, they often exceeded the men. And no matter how much I had heard about that, I could not believe any of it until I had seen it myself in Kaiserwald.
By chance I once went over close to the women's camp. I looked through the high, double-rowed barbed-wire fence and saw a gruesome scene in the courtyard. A few hundred Jewish women were standing for a roll call, dead tired and frightened after having been chased around on a long run and put through a collective torture session. Like wild, infuriated she-wolves, a couple of dozen German women were rummaging around among them with wires and blackjacks in their hands. They threw themselves at the Jewish women, draped the wires around their necks, and dragged them out onto the plaza. There they slid them onto the ground and beat them. They struck them with their blackjacks, kicked them, dragged them by their hair or tore it out, choked them with the wires, and sat on their backs and rode them, screaming as though possessed. The lamentations, the shouts and tears of the victims were indescribable. Watching, I could only think:
-God in heaven! How low the German people have sunk, that their women, the delicate creatures, have become so inhuman! And how ugly is the whole murder mechanism that German culture has created! Where are you, Goethe, Schiller, Nietzsche, Kant, and what do you have to say about your people and your Superman, about your beauty and your soul?
They Teach Us Honesty
After they had introduced us to the roll call ceremony that first day, we did
finally receive small quantities of coffee-water in rusted and dirty tin cans. We then went back to our barrack, where they gave us each our daily portion of bread-a quarter of a heavy, trashy loaf, about half a pound The bread portions were lying on the table, and each person had to go over, take one without choosing, and carry it to the other side of the barrack.
Now I had another opportunity to observe that when someone in our circumstances was fated to land in trouble, it could come quite unexpectedly. Outlandish accusations could be leveled at even the most honest, humble inmate, walking the most straight and narrow path. And who could have been more honest, more humble, and more frightened than the old tinsmith from Dvinsk, Berl Lacus-the very Berl Lacus who had been in my work unit, and who had deafened everyone with the sound of his hammer as he pounded away at pieces of tin, fashioning coffee cans, kettles, drums, ash trays, and other artistic objects for the Germans?
That same Berl Lacus now went to the table and, just as he was supposed to, took not one portion of bread but two-one for himself and the other for his son Elke, who was also there together with us. Lacus had just picked up his bread portions when we sw the barrack leader, our senior overseer, jump up on the table, leap over everyone's head, and, treading on bread and people alike, grab a bench. He began to beat poor Lacus with it.
Hat You thief, you outcast, you traitor! You steal bread from your own fellow Jews! You want to eat two portions of bread? And what is the person whose portion you are stealing supposed to eat? Ha? I ask you! I have been waiting for you for a long time, you thief, you God-forsaken soul, and now I have caught you! Stealing, stealing bread from your own Jewish comrades! There, that's what you get; there, that's what you get!
And after each word there came a whack with the bench, and again a whack with the bench.
When Lacus had been beaten up and butchered like an apple, and was completely soaked in blood, the barrack leader stopped for a while to catch his breath. Lacus's son and another couple of bystanders took advantage of that moment to carry the badly beaten man away to the side. Then this overseer addressed all of us in a fatherly manner, taking credit for denouncing our grievance:
I will not permit anyone to steal from my arrested inmates! That is how I shall punish everyone who dares to steal from his comrades! Honesty and order I absolutely must have in my barrack!
That is what he asserted, as Honesty itself came screaming out of his mouth. From some unknown source a streak of boldness suddenly arose in me, and without thinking, I pushed myself forward and addressed him in approximately these words:
Mister Barrack Leader! Permit me to say to you, the elder Lacus did not steal the second bread portion, but took it for his son. There is his son, stand
ing over there. His name is Elke Lacus. Lacus is not a thief. Just the opposite. He is a very honest man. Everyone knows that. Please, Mister Barrack Leader, you can....
Yes, yes, Lacus is not a thief, a couple of dozen voices interrupted, in order to confirm my statement. The barrack leader had again taken hold of the bench, but he immediately stopped himself, not knowing, apparently, whose head and shoulders to come down on first. After a little while, when Lacus had come to somewhat, and his restrained groans had reminded us that he was still alive, the barrack leader went over to him, examined his smashed and swollen face, and addressed himself to him with a reproach:
No one dares take two portions. But you could have said that the second portion was for your son. How should I know that?
And as a kind of compensation, our good and honest barrack leader permitted Lacus to be laid down on one of the sleep-berths that were reserved for his assistants.
The sixty-year-old Berl Lacus, who had been as strong, healthy, and nimble as a young boy, was never again the same person. I was afterwards together with him in other camps. He had become a helpless cripple, with a split face and beat-up lungs. Who knows whether the old tinsmith is still pounding out tin with his hammers somewhere, or whether he has left this earth without a trace?
I don't remember if we slept well or poorly for the couple of hours we spent on the ground, packed one on top of the other, in the barrack that first night, but early, before dawn, in semi-darkness, they were already shouting Everybody up! and kicking us in the head and sides. It was barely daybreak when we found ourselves, sleep deprived and completely broken in spirit, standing outside again for the roll call. They started off by reviewing the ritual of caps off, caps on, eyes left, eyes right, and other drills. And with that, the routine of our normal daily life in the Kaiserwald concentration camp had begun.
We Become Pensioners in Kaiserwald
Kaiserwald was a central sorting-out camp. That is, hundreds of thousands of Jews were driven there from various places, such as Latvia, Lithuania, Germany, Austria, Czechoslovakia, Poland, and Hungary, to be divided up into groups and then transported elsewhere. The elderly and weaker people, and also the children, were mostly sent at once to annihilation camps, and the others, those who were capable of working, were sent to the so-called work camps in Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, Germany, and Austria.
In 1943, when the Germans had received their first serious blows from the Russian army and had begun to retreat from the occupied territories, they took to liquidating the ghettos and concentration camps in insecure locations. Any Jews who might still be useful to them were sent farther from the battlefronts.
In both Germany and the occupied lands there grew up hundreds of work camps where Jews did the heaviest and most meaningless kinds of work, and were subjected to the wildest experiments and humiliations. They were held in the most inhumane conditions, enduring hunger, dirt, cold, and terror, and in the end, after their last bit of strength was gone, they were done away with in gas chambers and crematoria, if they had not already met a timely death from natural causes such as starvation, exhaustion, or various epidemic illnesses, mostly typhus.
I was now standing with my Kaiserwald comrades at that very crossroadin one direction, a certain and speedy death in an annihilation camp, and in the other, a slow, exhausting death in a work camp. We were waiting our turn to be sorted out. In the meantime, we were living for a few weeks like pensioners, like idlers and loafers. They did not, however, just let us walk around without any kind of occupation. No, they kept us primed with beatings, torture, roll calls, military drills, and collective punishments for the smallest sins of individuals. From time to time, they also used to take a group and drive us to any kind of work at all-mostly useless, senseless, worthless work.
One day they drove us, a group of about fifty men, out to a place where we were supposed to get rid of the grass that was growing there. It was a fine fall day-comfortably warm and sunny. The green-yellow-red-brown leaves were still holding onto the trees, or had just fallen from them. Out of the blueness of the heavens came armies of birds; they flew off and their sounds dissolved in the air. I recalled that such bright, still days as this had once filled my heart with joy and pleasure. They had spoken to me of the ripeness of nature, and at the same time they had awakened in me a quiet sorrow at the decline of summer, a longing for something that has vanished into eternity and will no longer return.
But all that was in the past. Now we were slaves lying on the ground, the lowest of the low, forced to perform a meaningless, useless task. We were tearing at the green grass with our hands, scratching and pounding at it with wood and iron. I tore out blade after blade, and I saw that this was a futile labor. It wouldn't last long. When the time came, the roots would send up thick, living, juicy green grass again. I did my pointless slave labor, and in my brain thoughts arose, and visions, from a quite different world....
Here is what came into my thoughts while I was tearing up the green grass, and what I later wrote down secretly on a piece of crumpled paper in the crowded, noisy camp barrack:
|The sun in the heavens smiles to you as always,
And the earth has remained unmoved;
As though nothing happened, in the death-camps
They were leading a people-us-to the slaughter.
|No grass should there be on the roads out of camp!
Those were the orders the camp commandant gave us.
We work quickly and diligently: we chop and tear out
The greengrass from the road along its border.
It doesn't take long for the grass to turn green again
People trample and trod on the weak greengrass,
I look at the greengrass and think how life,
That people, like greengrass, is scattered far and wide
A people goes on its historical way,
Pogroms, harsh decrees, mass annihilations
This people has suffered, bled, groaned
Those angry and stormy powers
|But then in each land they put down roots
And there they planted a new life.
This people, forced from their old home,
It's true we are a people like greengrass
For, like greengrass, both weakness and strength
Though you dark powers wish to destroy us,
Root us out, tear us out roots and all,
Although you, the old-new historical killers,
|(Written in the Kaiserwald concentration camp, near Riga, Fall 1943)|
We Are Sorted Out and Transported Away
In the end, the day came when they proceeded to deal with the basic fact of our being there-sorting us out, Who for life and who for death, as we say in the Yom Kippur service. In the morning we were told to take with us all our things. (A small hand towel, a piece of yesterday's dry bread, and what else?) They carefully counted us again, and right after the roll call, they herded a many-thousand-headed crowd over to wait in the camp's great public square. There we listened to a variety of news and rumors. The old camp
residents related that there were different work camps-good and bad-and fortunate were those who landed in a good camp. But, they said, you couldn't tell in advance which camps were good and which were bad; you had to sense it on your own skin when you were there.
Finally the higher-ups of the camp command arrived, and the sorting-out procedure began. They called out the names of the arrested inmates, and when your name was called you had to answer Jawohl, give your arrestee number, and run to the sorting-out place. Woe betide you if you were a bit late to call out your number or to start running-there would be no shortage of blows from sticks or lashes from whips. Once you arrived at the sorting-out place, they would quickly inspect you, and then someone would point in the direction of the group you were to join.
Oh, that eternal sorting out and selecting, as though we were pieces of goods, like rags, or like horses, sheep, animals! How easy it was with just one gesture to send living, vibrant human beings straight to their death, or to slave labor, to torture. To send them to a slow death or to a quick death; to be shot, to be gassed, to be burned, or to be starved. To send them to good camps or to bad camps, or-to the devil! How low and inhuman, how helpless and devastated decent live souls felt themselves to be in such hellish procedures! And when would it come to an end, this eternal sorting out that ate into our brain, our soul, and our rattled nerves?
Bobrov and I were standing close to each other, and praying to God for only one thing: that we should land together in one camp and in one place, whether it be good or bad. If only we could be together! We were by then so closely bonded in friendship that the worst, it seemed to us, would be to be separated, and to remain all alone, driven away far from home, without even one close friend.
After awhile, Bobrov's name was called. Then I saw, from a distance, that he had been sorted out and was standing in a group. What kind of group it was-a good or a bad one-that I didn't know.
The sorting out went on for a quarter of an hour, half an hour, and my name had not been called. The longer it went on, the more uneasy I became. It was possible that they wouldn't sort me out at all that day, and then there would no longer be any hope of being together with Bobrov. Then an hour went by, and more, and in my heart everything went gloomy and sad. They had already called out almost all those we knew. They were leaving me, apparently, for the next day. Who knew what demons I would fall to if I ended up in a group without even one acquaintance?
Suddenly I heard them call out a name that sounded similar to mine. Instinctively I shouted Jawohl! Number 16787! and ran to the sorting-out place. A dozen eyes of wild beasts and murderers pierced right through me; they were quickly weighing whether I was still capable of performing their slave labor, or whether I need to be immediately liquidated. At last the com-
mandant tipped his head in the direction of a group. I ran to the group full of doubt, my heart pounding, but from a distance I heard Bobrov's voice:
Ei, Yakov! You are going with us! They are sending us to Dundaga!
In that moment I felt myself to be lucky, if the word luck is at all applicable to us.
In our new group there were a few people who claimed to know for a fact that they were sending us to Dundaga, in Kurland, and that that was fortunate. It is a very good camp, they said. You see, those people, a second group, are being sent to Eastland, and there things are very bad.... The mood in our group rose. We were, after all, going to the better camp. But then it turned out that others had also heard about Dundaga, and according to them, it was a very bad camp, a place where they tortured people to death. So the mood in our group fell. We didn't know who to believe, the optimists or the pessimists, and we all became very confused and doubtful....
In the final analysis, I thought to myself, what is there to take to heart? A good camp, a bad camp-what does it matter? Are we not like those fall leaves that are tom from the trees and carried by the wind-who knows where? We have everywhere the very same prospects of dying. If we aren't shot like stray dogs, we will fall like exhausted work horses. What, after all, does good mean, and what does bad signify in our circumstances? Let what is destined to happen come, but do not lose your head. Look with open eyes, and do not
forget the main thing-to run away, to run away at the first best opportunity!
I shared my thoughts with Bobrov. He acknowledged that he was in agreement with me. He had also begun to believe in destiny, and in the unavoidability of fate. And oddly enough, our hearts felt lighter after our conversation. We were traveling to a new concentration camp, let it be called Dundaga or by some other name. We were going to new torture and suffering, to new temptations from our fate. But we were going with calmed temperaments.
That same day they loaded our whole group of arrestees onto a couple of dozen freight trucks, and under the strong supervision of S.S. men, they dragged us through woods and swamps, deep into Kurland. Any of us who thought we were headed for Dundaga, however, was greatly mistaken.
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