Dragged and Condemned to Death
We Build For Ourselves a Slave Labor Camp
From the central sorting-out camp of Kaiserwald, near Riga, they transported us, a group of several hundred Jews, to a place in Kurland, Latvia, that was called Popervaln (or in Latvian, Popvale). This was an out-of-the-way spot, wooded and swampy, not far from the narrow-gauge railroad station Popervaln, Talsen Circle on the railroad line Talsen-Vindave. About thirty kilometers away was the village of Dundaga, with a few Jewish camps around it. But here, in Popervaln, there was not yet any sign of a camp. We had to build it ourselves. We were going to be pioneers in the Popervaln woods and swamps. And we were all the more distinguished because we were the first Jewish arrestees that the local inhabitants had ever encountered, the first beings in gaudy red-and-white-striped concentration camp rags. These simple peasant folk looked and saw in their eyes an amazing sight: Strange creatures had come down into their quiet and peaceful woods to do something, to create something, to build...a new concentration camp!
We had arrived in Popervaln before nightfall, in mid-November, 1943. Winter was in the air. Here, not far from the Baltic Sea, it was always damp and windy, and at night it was already very cold. There were only a couple of barracks, just enough for the leaders and overseers. The question of where we ourselves should sleep they solved quickly: They told us to simply lie down on the wet bare ground, or, if we preferred, to remain standing in place. Very late at night, when we were already soaked through to our bones and our teeth were chattering, they did permit us to make a few bonfires to warm ourselves, however. It had occurred to them that if we got sick, they would lose the work capability that was needed here.
First thing in the morning they assembled us for the roll call. I had supposed that after the two weeks of roll call study in Kaiservald, I had already learned all of it by heart, but how mistaken a person can be! It turned out that neither I nor the others had even begun to learn. Our new leader refused to acknowledge our previous training. He had his own education methods and maneuvers, and he promised that he would very quickly teach us the true fundamentals of roll call. He would make an orderly unit out of us-out of the Got verfluchte zeles (God cursed souls), by thunder, one more time!
No bread or coffee had yet been brought for us, and for the first days we were obliged to be satisfied with chewing over the memory of food from former times. We learned once more how good it is to be thrifty, and we commended the cleverness and foresight of those who had saved bread portions from Kaiserwald to bring along with them.
We needed our strength, because we were faced with the vast domain of a half-cut-down forest, which was where the camp was to be built. The place was full of trenches, stones, and old abandoned trees, as well as deeply rooted tree stumps and young offshoot trees. Our first task was to clean up and level out the entire area, fence it in with barbed wire, and put up little structures for us to sleep in.
We got to work. But do I really have to tell you about our techniques for digging out and rolling huge stones, for stretching out thick barbed wire, or for tearing out old deep-rooted stumps, almost with our bare hands? Do you actually need to know how to dig pits, drag trees, and do other back-breaking work when you are hungry, broken, soaked through, and sleep deprived? I have already taught you how to make persons into non-persons; should I also teach you how to build a slave camp for them? Are you, God forbid, going to occupy yourselves with such business?
To put it briefly, in two weeks that clearing in the woods was no longer recognizable. All around it was a high barbed-wire fence with a gate and watch towers, and barracks for the guards. In the middle were a few dozen round Finnish tent dwellings made of special compressed materials. There were also some well-trodden paths, a huge latrine, a level roll call area, a sick bay tent, a kitchen, a dining tent, and all the other attributes of a slave labor camp. In every one of the tent dwellings they housed fifteen to sixteen of us (normal for such a tents would be six to eight), and in the middle they set up a little tin heater. We slept in our clothes on a bit of straw on the ground, covered with our coats, and so closely pressed together that we didn't feel the cold.
Instead there was something different-dirt, mange, and...lice, lice, lice. Should anyone be so careless as to contract the plague of lice, that person would soon infect everyone else in the tent. There was no remedy during the first months we were there. Scratch yourself as much as your heart desires, you cursed dirty Jews! we were told. It was not possible to talk about getting washed like human beings. There was no water in the camp, and what little we had was carried in pails from a distance, from peasant homes, and rationed. We had barely enough for drinking and making coffee. And yet the camp authorities did show some concern for our health and cleanliness: They used to drive us to the lake three to four kilometers from the camp so that we could bathe in whatever water there had not frozen solid and...take pleasure in our lives.
How bitterly disappointed were those of us who had hoped to end up in a good camp! It quickly became clear that our camp was not only not good but the worst of the worst. And yet perhaps I am again mistaken, because was there at that time a way to measure badness? Could there have been a limit to bitterness?
Our Own Oppressors and Slave Drivers
What, by the way, were we supposed to be doing there in Popervaln, in that faraway comer of Kurland? We soon learned. It seemed that the Germans were getting ready for a long life in Kurland, and they wanted to establish a place for themselves there. In our vicinity they had set up living quarters for several battalions of young S. S. troops, and the leaders of those troops, highranking officers decorated with glittering medals and ribbons, had settled in a nearby lordly manor. Gestapo units, field gendarmery, military police, and bloodhounds were not in short supply, either.
Our German masters informed us that we would be building no fewer than sixty huge barracks for more soldiers and S. S. troops. The masters themselves laughed at the grandiose building plans, which were quite unrealistic. Nevertheless, the numbers of Jews, which were expected to reach at least two thousand, did increase significantly. At the start we were only a few hundred men and a few dozen women, but we eventually included a whole ingathering of the exiles. We were Jewish slaves from Latvia, Lithuania, Germany, Czechoslovakia, Austria, Holland, Hungary, and a few Polish and Romanian provinces.
Little by little there grew up around the camp a complete village with barracks, workrooms, and machine shops. A hundred Dutch workers were brought in, and dozens of German masters, engineers, surveyors, building contractors, overseers, servants, and other parasites. And all of them had authority over us, to say nothing of our direct bosses-the camp commandant with hisS. S. men and watchmen. Even the few dozen Russian carpenters and locksmiths who were dragged in from their homeland later had authority over us, and did not hesitate to exercise it with ugly, mean insults and attacks.
Of the entire rotten, parasitical machinery, we were the lowest. We, the broken-down, always-hungry slaves were obliged to dig, chop, drag, build, and run; to carry out every idiotic order and every useless and senseless task. Besides the stick, and slaps and kicks, we also experienced more effective methods of punishment: whippings on our naked backs and a whole torture system that included hangings on the camp gate and shootings in the nearby woods.
But the saddest, most painful part was the treatment we had to endure from our own Jewish overseers and slave drivers. At first our camp leader was a Jewish fellow from Germany, someone named Rudy. But he was considered too weak, and his roll calls and commands were not making the appropriate impression. So they made him the kitchen leader, and in his place they appointed someone named Scheinberger from Riga, a former sub-officer in the army. He gave commands in a loud, barking voice, and he could also knock your teeth out. Such great merits, taken together, were especially pleasing in the eyes of the German commandant.
Scheinberger had already held power over Jews in other work places. From
the first day on, he had been striving to become the camp elder here, too. When he had at last met that goal, he immediately displayed so much zeal and loyalty, such complete discipline and skill in barking orders, executing maneuvers, and torturing his brother arrestees that the camp commandant could not praise him enough. And to ensure that he remained in high esteem, keeping his good position with its food privileges, Scheinberger got cleverer every day in torturing and murdering his Jews. He carried out every insignificant order even more stringently and more painfully than was demanded of him. Scheinberger was a good student, and he made diligent efforts to exceed his high-ranking Nazi teachers.
Unfortunately, Scheinberger and his servants-the Jewish camp police and enforcers-were not the only ones of their kind. Every camp had its own police and enforcers, headed up by its own brutish Scheinberger, and in every camp their brother Jews had to endure from them bloody blows, beatings until breakdown, official and unofficial executions, wild torture, degradation, deprivation of food, denunciations, and whatever other outrages those titled outcasts would permit themselves.
Torture by Jews and by Jewish elders-that is a separate and tragic chapter in the history of Jewish martyrdom under Hitler. It was a clever and masterful accomplishment of the Germans, this technique of controlling great masses of slaves through their own brothers. Trained like loyal, devoted dogs, and encouraged with an extra little bone thrown to them now and then, the Jewish slave drivers carried out in the worst possible way every order of their bosses, and were ready to do everything to the guilty and the not guilty, without any mercy and without qualms of conscience. No sentiment, no feeling of pity, no shame, and no conscience existed for such people; only power existed. It was not important what kind of power it was or how it was earned. Power itself and power alone was important, for the simple reason that it was what allowed one person to prevail over the other.
All servants of the Germans, including our Jewish ones, were trained in that kind of morality. It became the basis of their lives and determined the way they conducted themselves with everyone. Clinging to the high offices they occupied, the Jewish servants of the Germans were prepared to kill their own father and mother if that's what they had to do to retain their power and the good food and other privileges their power had given them.
I would be unjust if I did not mention that there were exceptions among the Jewish camp elders and work supervisors, the kind who did not lose their human face. Some Jews in power made every effort to lighten the life of their brothers, to the extent that the conditions allowed. But such exceptions were isolated instances and became a lot less frequent as time went on. As a group, the Scheinbergers had to dominate in the camps. And in fact, I later became convinced that our Popervaln Scheinberger was by no means the worst.
Two Slaves Disappear From Camp
The most painful hours of our day-to-day camp life were in the early morning. We would just barely make it to the evening, and then, having stilled our hunger with a piece of bread and some stinking coffee, we would nestle ourselves under our rags in our narrow little comers. Broken, totally exhausted, we still looked forward to glistening thoughts and dreams, or at least some sleep-but it would seem we had no sooner settled ourselves than we heard, in the darkness of the wintry morning, a whistle blowing, a clatter through the thin walls of the tent, and wild animal outcries: Everybody up! Up! Up! Everybody up!
That would be the night watchmen. Oh how hard it was to get up-to straighten our frozen limbs and crawl out from under the rags, to open our poor tired eyes and encounter once more the reality of camp life! We had to begin another senseless and hopeless day of suffering exactly like yesterday, like the day before yesterday, and like tomorrow, the day after tomorrow, and who knew how much longer? Oh my, how bitter were our hearts on such early mornings!
We would proceed to breakfast. Then, before we even had a chance to swallow our dirty imitation coffee and our tiny piece of bread with its lick of margarine, we would hear another whistle blowing: Line up for roll call! Quickly, quickly, everyone out of the tents! Quick, quick, line up, straighten out the rows and wait for the arrival of our Jewish boss, the camp elder!
From his comfortable tent, where only he and the doctor and the head cook lived, Scheinberger would appear-a small, well-built soul wearing fancy boots (which Jew did he pull them off of?), his pointed little face like that of a cunning predatory animal. He would examine us for a few minutes quietly and angrily, and then the first barking, howling words would fall from his lips, in a German language that sounded like the Yiddish Bible for women (called tseneh-reneh). He might single out an elderly Jew first:
You! How are you standing? Not finished sleeping? Should I perhaps bring you a cushion with a blanket?
Then he would tum his attention to other offenders:
Who is that who is talking in the second row? How many times have I said-stand straight and don't talk!Yes, you brothers made pigs of yourselves again yesterday. You went to the farmers again....
With this, a reference to those of us who had smuggled food from the local peasants, Scheinberger would launch into a lengthy morality speech, one of those speeches that we heard every morning and every evening. We would stand there in our short, thin, tom coats, cold and damp, wanting to think about something different, something far, far from this place-perhaps something from the past, which for us was like a sweet dream gone by-and instead our brains would be assaulted by the Jew Scheinberger's self-righteous rant:
And you think I don't know that people are bringing into the camp all
kinds of things behind my back? And if you get caught, who then is responsible-not I? How can you dare to do such swinish things, and....
The more he went on, the more overheated he would get. There would be an hour, or an hour and a half, before the camp commandant would arrive, so Scheinberger would have time not only for speeches, but also for military drills, exercises with caps off, caps on, and many other clever things.
One day, in the middle of one of his speeches, he suddenly became even more angry than usual, and his tone of voice changed:
What? Who is talking there? Who dares to talk against me?
He jumped across to someone in the first row and slapped him. But this time Scheinberger had picked the wrong person. He got back a couple of healthy punches. Blood appeared on his nose and mouth, and he ran away to his tent, leaving us to his assistants-the international police as we called them, because they consisted of young Jewish underworld types from Latvia, Germany, and Lithuania. They wanted to drag the slugger out from the ranks and take their revenge on him, but the low, angry rumbling throughout the crowd changed their minds. They let him alone. After a while, Scheinberger returned and muttered, Just wait, we will have more to say to you!
When the camp commandant arrived and saw what had happened to Scheinberger's face, he just gave a crooked smile, as though to say, Go ahead, tear each other, bite each other, bang each other's heads against the wall, you cursed Jews! Then they distributed work assignments just like every day, as though nothing had happened. But we all knew that Scheinberger was preparing an act of vengeance against the man who had hit him.
That evening when they reassembled us for roll call and number check, we learned that two Jews had disappeared. They were the courageous slugger, who was a young butcher named Bidman, and Klemer, a buddy of his. They had gone looking for these two in the surrounding woods but so far had found no trace of them. As for us, the camp commandant kept us on roll call till very late at night. He delivered fiery morality speeches, and threatened to shoot every tenth one of us as a punishment for the flight of our Jew-comrades.
It was a great pleasure for most of us that our two comrades had succeeded in running away, and we wished them luck. But there were some inmates who warned that we shouldn't allow such things to happen because the Germans might retaliate by doing who knows what to the rest of us. And my friends and I thought again of how profoundly low some people had sunk, how depleted their morale was. We wondered how anyone could have such a self-centered apprehension of the world that they would denounce those courageous and bold enough to run away from slavery.
Scheinberger was more furious than anyone else. In his devotion to the Germans, which had attained the level of idiocy, he made every effort he could think of to frighten us. At least ten times he announced that the runaways had been caught (although we hadn't heard any solid information about that). He
would always add that they had been hanged and shot. I do not know whether these announcements kept anyone from running away from camp, but Bobrov and I and three other friends were even then making concrete plans to run away. We were just waiting impatiently for the arrival of warmer weather, for spring.
What a bitter end Scheinberger himself had! And at the hands of his own German friends, whom he had served so loyally. May such a fate befall all enemies of the Jews, and all Jews like Scheinberger!
Hunger Breaks Iron and...Concentration Camp Laws
Hunger and the drive to satisfy it is, in every living creature, stronger than fear. That's the way it was also with the people in our camp. Ignoring the frequent warnings, the killings, the harassment during roll call, and other punishments, many inmates would pursue every opportunity to come into contact with the farmers of the region and get a bit of food. And often they were successful. They might secure cheese, beets, a potato, a piece of bread, sometimes meat or butter. They would smuggle it into the camp and hide it in a hole in their tent. To get food or anything else was known in the camp lingo as organizing, and the people who did such things were called organizators. One had to be capable and skilled to be a good organizator.
In the early days, the water carriers, or again in the camp lingo the water detail, had the best opportunities for organizing. Since there wasn't any water in the camp, two or three groups of a hundred people would carry water from the farmers' wells each day. Under the supervision of the S. S. officers, long lines of concentration camp inmates would stretch over the roads, each inmate carrying a single pail or two kettles of water. (These containers would splash on all sides, so that one could go sometimes two or three kilometers from camp and come back with only half a pail of water.) While this substantial chore was underway, some of the nicer supervisors would allow the water detail to beg for food from the farmers (asking, in return, for the best of it-the meat and butter), or the water detail would simply beg from the farmers on their own. In that way, these organizators became the rich people of the camp.
It had to happen one day that a German officer from the field police rode by and encountered the water detail going for water and, probably, getting food from the farmers at the same time. He reproached our commandant for inadmissible indulgence toward the Jews, and the commandant immediately asked for help from the S. S. staff. When the group came back, a couple of dozen S. S. officers, specialist fighters, were waiting at the gate.
The group, about three dozen Jews, were first unofficially beaten up and battered till they lost consciousness. Then they were revived with cold water, and each received his official punishment: twenty-five strokes with rods and sticks. Then they were revived with cold water once again, and the S.S. men forced them to line up in the middle of the courtyard and remain standing
there for five hours, until late into the night. Like half-frozen mummies with butchered, swollen faces and bodies, they stood there, poor things, falling off their feet, and in the morning they were driven to the hardest jobs, and then...they became healthy again. From that kind of trivial punishment one did not die in those days.
I often wondered where people obtained the physical and mental strength to endure such torture and stress, which, in normal times, would cause a human life to break apart almost immediately. I did not understand until I had felt it myself on my own hide-until I learned from my own experience that people in those circumstances possess an extraordinary vitality. I discovered that one could indeed hold out against an extraordinary amount of suffering before coughing up one's soul.
Hunger can break iron, says a proverb, but in our life hunger had broken not only iron but all restraints, surveillance measures, and steel-hard concentration camp laws. Soon after the atrocious punishment of the water detail, two young boys were caught committing the same offense. Their German overseer let them off (in exchange for a percentage of the food they got), but unfortunately, an S. S. man who was passing by later that day saw them organizing and he reported them.
The outcome was that the two fun-loving boys-Radler from Vienna and Soloveichick from Riga-were brought to a nearby little hill where a sizeable camp cemetery had already grown up, and there the commandant himself honorably and in person shot them dead. Short and sharp-shot for wanting to eat and wanting to live.
Here's the song I wrote about the incident. It circulated in camp, and Elke Lacus from Dvinsk, our chief singer of ghetto and camp songs, adapted the sad motif of the Russian tune Umer Bednyaga to it. The whole camp often sang it with feeling, with a specifically Jewish mournfulness. Scheinberger himself, in kingly fashion, once invited Elke Lacus to his tent, treated him to potato pancakes, and asked him to sing it, although that gave me no pleasure.
|There have fallen two great trees in full bloom,
Two young men who were but nineteen years old.
They were beaten, tortured and shot
Publicly, in cold-blooded murderer's style.
Young and full of life, strong and sturdy men
|The life of the camp's tent-dwellers.
Exactly like all of us, like those still living,
Boys still young, without father and mother,
One from Austria, the other from Latvia
Bitter was their labor like horses in harness,
There is, after all, no law and no judge
Murderous bullets made holes in their heads...
Quickly on the small hill, the camp's cemetery,
It is painful to realize that it was not as heroes
Rest, then, comrades in our mother, earth!
|And sleep your eternal sleep!
Your fate has already been determined and sealed,
How we will end is not yet clear!...
You are, after all, sacrifices for a whole people,
(Written in Popervaln-Dundaga concentration camp, February,l944. It was sung to the tune of the Russian song Umer bednyaga v Balnitze voyennoy ...)
A Saintly Man Turns Up In Our Camp
I came to know new and interesting people in both the work places and the camp, sometimes in the close quarters of my own tent. Among the wittiest and most remarkable was a certain Levin, a blond, thirty-odd-year-old man from Riga whom l wholeheartedly befriended.
Highly educated in juridical and biological knowledge, an excellent authority on German language and literature and a few other European languages as well, Levin had been all his life a freethinker, far from religiously observant and not particularly caught up in Jewish interests. But from the first days of his life in the Riga ghetto, when he came into closer contact with more observant Jews and with ordinary folks, he began to steep himself in Judaism. That was when he began his journey to God, to faith, and to Jewishness.
When I met him in the Popervaln camp he was a deeply religious Jew, a firm believer in the foundations of Jewish belief. A quiet, thoughtful person, he could conduct hours-long discussions about Jewish religious and national problems, and he could convince you of God's existence, God's power over nations and peoples, and the necessity of fulfilling God's written and unwritten commandments. He prayed three times a day, either alone or, in the evening, with a minyan (quorum) that he would pull together. Twice a week-Mondays and Thursdays-he would fast, giving his food portions to the weak and the sick.
It was noteworthy how the Jew Levin resisted the temptations of our lowfallen, bitter existence. He lived not for himself but for others, wishing only to help them and lighten their load. For himself he needed nothing and demanded nothing. What self-sacrifice he was capable of! And how willing to risk his own life to help a fellow human being!
Levin had established himself as the kapo, or leader, of a group that went every day to the S. S. headquarters to chop wood, deliver coal, and perform all kinds of back-breaking labor for the officers and staff. Levin himself used to take on the heaviest tasks, and despite his emaciated physical condition, he
was quick and strong in action. Thanks to his originality and his outstanding knowledge of German language and literature, he also won a few friends among the German military, and they used to converse with him quite often.
During the time when I too was working in the headquarters, I was occasionally astonished at how openly Levin expressed his political opinions. It was equally incredible to see the interest with which his friends the Germans used to listen to his words. I would wonder, Where does a Jew get that boldness, that chutzpa?
But the main reason Levin valued working at headquarters had nothing to do with stimulating conversation. He was interested in the leftover food that remained in the kitchens and other facilities there almost every day. It would include soup, cereal, marmalade, and pieces of bread, potato, and fish. Levin used to bring those leftovers back into camp, thereby risking his life. Every evening dozens of the faint and famished waited in their tents for their second helping, as they used to call it. And with what modesty and joy Levin used to distribute every morsel of food, serving all who are in need (the traditional Aramaic phrase that opens the Passover Seder). He himself did not take any at all.
Another important benefit of Levin's work at headquarters was that we became much more knowledgeable than we ever could have managed otherwise. While his German friends pretended not to notice, Levin would listen every day to the military front reports on their radio. He would also take their newspapers away with him and, putting himself in great personal danger, bring them to us to read. Thanks to Levin, we were constantly informed about what was happening on the battle fronts, and even got a little bit of world news.
At that time, as I have said, Germany was already suffering military defeats and retreating to safety. The reports on the radio and in the newspaper did not say that, of course; they were unclear, veiled, and often full oflies. But we had learned how to read between the lines, and we would draw out from what we heard and read the most attractive news, which used to cheer us up and renew our strength. Often we would get together with Levin in a tent, and he would hold forth on political, worldly, and Jewish matters. What clarity of mind he had! Living under such brutal conditions as we all were, he was nonetheless able to think through the deepest problems in the most straightforward, incisive way.
But for everything there comes a time. At the beginning of spring, when I had already started working at headquarters myself as a gardener, my boss, the head gardener, called me over and told me in secret that things were going badly for Levin. He had been denounced, I learned. He was suspected of being a spy. I was to let him know that at any moment he could be arrested and shot, and that he would be wise not to come to headquarters any more, to go and work somewhere else.
I barely survived till evening when I could transmit the message to Levin.
He absolutely did not take it to heart. He had felt for a long time that it could end that way. He had just one chief concern: How do we continue to bring leftover food for the hungry people in camp? He did not want to renounce his post, but when the other inmates who worked at headquarters pointed out that he would be putting their lives at risk also, he finally relented.
This time something happened that was like a miracle: They arrested Levin, held him for a short time, made an investigation into him, and...let him go free. They did not shoot him. But he did not go to headquarters any more, and the leftover food there was no longer brought into the camp.
A few weeks later I encountered Levin in another camp, a tattered and torn person who was praying with a minyan of Jews. Still later, on the way from camp to camp, I saw him sadly smiling and looking ten times more hungry than everyone else. My tent-mate Hamburger and I had had the opportunity to organize a few pieces of bread and butter, and I gave some to Levin. He took two bites and distributed the rest to those around him.
That's the kind of person he was-Levin the saint, as we used to call him in the camp, and not only jokingly. A saintly person, a modest man, full of profound scholarship, and unbendingly obstinate in his reticence and restraintperhaps one of the 36 saints (lamed-vovnicks) upon whom rest the foundations of human decency, according to Jewish belief.
I don't know what happened to him in the end, after he was transported, along with others, back to Germany.
Are you alive, you modest, self-sacrificing, honest, God-fearing saint? You, Levin, who devoted the sad days of your life to helping your brother humans: Are you alive?
When the Wild Beast Triumphs Over Humans...
On the tiny hill not far away, our camp cemetery was growing from week to week, from day to day. There had been laid to rest not only those who had been shot and those who had been hanged, but also quite a few people who had died a natural death. In those days, that meant expiring from hunger and weakness, from blows and whipping punishments, from torture, from superhuman physical exertion, and from illnesses that used to seep, bit by bit, into our exhausted bodies. There on that hill they would throw into the graves, like so much trash, people about whom no one would ever hear anything more.
Would it occur to anyone that here, on this tiny hill, rests the well-known legal scholar and jurist from Prague, Tureck, who in his last days seemed to be out of his mind and was shot?
Who would know that here lies the rich Kovno pharmacist, the owner of the Green Pharmacy on Vilna Street, Shabashevitch, who expired from hunger and weakness?
Would anyone note that this is the eternal resting place of Goldberg, the prominent engineer and banker from Riga, along with a couple of famous
rabbis from Germany, a highly regarded Viennese engineer, and many others-well known and unknown Jews from a dozen different countries?
If any close relatives of those people are still alive today somewhere in this wide world, will they ever learn what happened to them?
In truth, we felt ourselves to be cut off, isolated, and brutally relegated to disappearance from the world. Would anyone ever know what happened at Popervaln? And would humanity forever allow unrestrained bloodthirstiness to triumph over decent human souls? At times we lost hope that there would be even the least rumor about our suffering. We despaired that not one peep about us would at any time reach the great wide world.
Thinking such thoughts once during a long morning roll call when the execution of a few guilty Jews was taking place, I noticed a huge bird flying freely, circling, dropping down and then rising up over our camp. A bird flying free in the free heavenly void and looking down upon us, the enslaved, the bound and tortured humans. It got me to thinking about a variety of things, which I wrote down in the following poem.
|A bird is flying over woodlands,
It looks down from above.
It sees: A great army is standing there
With deeply bowed heads.
It sees a camp, deep in the woods:
Cabin-like tents are arrayed there,
A high fence made of barbed wire
Cuts it off completely from the world.
In the plaza the people are waiting,
And a fifth one, with a stick
|Screams with all his might, screams...
The camp Commandant looks on
Then two more victims were led in.
So first they gave the two a beating
The army must now stand and watch...
-Will humankind believe later,
|About our final slaughter?
Will wild beasts and mass murderers
Remain forever unpunished?...
A bird is still flying over woodlands,
Bird of freedom! Our witness
You must tell how far have fallen,
You must tell how beastly humans,
You must tell the whole world
|Men and women, mother and child!
Massacres, slaughters, mass murders!...
Cities and towns are lying dead.
Mass graves-bear silent witness
Strewn all over with human flesh!
Tell how we are the victims
Wake up the conscience of decent men!
Angry instincts, hate and blood-thirst,
Decent man, you should be shaken up
Fly then, little bird, over woodlands,
Over all of the whole wide world
And tell everything freely and openly,
That you have seen and heard!
(Written in the Popervaln concentration camp, March, 1944.)
Can Anyone Imagine?
Can you imagine? A wet, swampy, muddy fall with cold, cutting winds. A freezing winter with deep snow and blizzards. And we are living in thin, cold tents, full of holes and cracks. We are dressed in old, tom rags and rotting shoes with holes in them, or wooden clogs. We have no socks, no gloves, no laundry. And can you imagine that in every kind of weather, in a biting frost, in snow, in storm and rain, in mud, they still drive us outside to do the wildest and most useless kind of slave labor? They leave us standing for hours outside, and can you imagine why? For the most meaningless roll calls.
They would do whatever they needed to do to keep us always occupied, employed, without an extra minute to rest and recover. If there wasn't really enough work for such a large number of people, they would invent some. They would drive out hundreds of us to drag trees from the forest and lay them on or around the roads. They would force us to shovel sand or snow from one place to another. We would have to dig unnecessary holes or graves, and afterwards we would carry stones, machines, entire walls for barracks on our backs. We would be ordered to chop down, without any reason, entire forests.
One deep purpose of keeping us constantly very occupied was to justify the presence of the numerous military and semi-military parasites who were wandering around. These people wanted to demonstrate to the high command and to each other that there were enormously important rush jobs being done. They knew that if anyone figured out how superfluous they were, they might be sent to the battle fronts to smell gunpowder, and of that they wanted no part.
The Germans, just like every one of us Jews, knew that this business of building barracks and digging artesian wells and cutting down forests and dragging around heavy machinery and construction tools was a sham. They knew that today or tomorrow everything would crumble and that whole charade was for the devil. Even so, they made a big fuss and pretense right up to the last moment. And of course we, the helpless slaves, were obliged to go along with it, showing how important and terribly busy they, the parasites, murderers, and wild animals, were.
Can you imagine how we, hungry and exhausted, almost corpses, were feeling under such grim conditions?
I apologize for suggesting that you can't really imagine it, because...I myself, living now under decent conditions, can't imagine it either. In my current life I can relax in a warm room in wintertime. I have warm clothing and un-
derwear, gloves and socks, and proper shoes, instead of wooden concentration camp shoes that twist your feet outward. And on top of that, I've had enough sleep, I'm not beat up, and I'm free of those lice that eat at you (brrr!). I have no hunger pangs, and no mindless backbreaking labor to perform. Not so long ago I carried a whole heap of calamities on my shoulders, but I can't quite remember exactly what it was like or how I endured it. Of one thing I can assure you, however: One did not catch colds or suffer frostbite in those days, and if we did, we did not go to see any doctors.
I must pause here and give due credit to our Jewish camp doctors.
For the first few months, our camp doctor was a certain Yakobson from Baisk (Latvia), a veterinarian. It's possible he really was a good animal doctor, but at the same time he was a wild cynic, with an idiotic way of laughing. In fact, his countenance and his wild whinnying and baring of his teeth were distinctly horse-like, and always reminded us what his real background was.
He would boast constantly that he had once earned money in the surrounding villages by healing not only horses, cows, and pigs but also people, and it used to give him pleasure whenever we called him Dr. Yakobson. Wearing on his sleeve a large red cross, he would wander around the camp and by the tents of the sick bay just like a regular doctor. Not that he could actually help a sick person or even wanted to-he was satisfied with his idiotic laughter and his magic formula:
Oh, go on! You are not a horse, that I should go heal you and make you healthy. In a concentration camp one doesn't dare to be sick! Remember that, and tell the others!
Eventually a new party of Jews from Kaiserwald arrived, and with them came Rogalin, a former doctor from Talsin. He had once had a reputation as a serious doctor, and was by nature a good, sympathetic person. In the tents of the sick bay, there were a couple of dozen almost hopelessly sick, weak people, and Dr. Rogalin set about trying to help them with all the means at his disposal. In an illegal fashion, he improved their nourishment a little, and also got certain medications for them from the S. S. staff. I am sure that a few of those patients were rescued from death by Dr. Rogalin.
But how much could a Jewish doctor really accomplish in a slave camp? The conditions were filthy, and even illegal access to nourishment, medications, and personnel for those who had fallen ill was unreliable at best. And at that time, what was a human life worth anyway? When the number of sick and weak inmates reached forty or fifty and they seemed in no hurry to die a natural death, the Germans used to just transport them back to Kaiserwald. It was easy enough to guess what kind of camp they went to after the sorting-out procedures there.
For a certain time Dr. Rogalin took care of both us and the Germans in the surrounding population. But only for a certain time. One day a high-ranking S. S. officer, a doctor, came for an inspection visit. He found a great many
faults. He did not like our open, roofless latrines, among other things. He stuck his nose in everywhere, and unfortunately found a plate of shredded potato in Dr. Rogalin's tent, hidden under the bed. What a scandal! That showed not only a lack of hygiene, but even worse-a lack of camp discipline! At the great festive roll call, the S.S. doctor delivered a stern reprimand to Dr. Rogalin for being so unsanitary. He held up in his hand, as evidence, the plate of squeezed-out potato, and he concluded by smashing it right in the face of his colleague. From that time on, Dr. Rogalin's star began to fall, and a little later, on his way from camp to camp, the Germans dealt him not only the kind of ordinary blows that we all got, but also special blows, as if to extend the grandeur of his not-very-long stint as a camp doctor.
At that point you had to concede that the best medical advice was veterinarian Yakobson's slogan: In a concentration camp one doesn't dare to be sick. If you were weakened or painfully ill, you would have extreme difficulty with the rigors of camp life, and you were unlikely to survive. That truth each one of us felt with all our senses. And it was not for nothing that a few of us, and I among them, used to go devotedly to obtain a personal half-bucket of water. We would warm it up on the little stove during the night, while everyone else was asleep, and right inside the tent, or just outside it, we would wash ourselves all over at least once a week. What other way did we have to keep our bodies clean?
Fortunately, we had little susceptibility to colds, inflamed lungs, stomach aches, food poisoning, and the dozens of other ailments that torment people in normal circumstances. Perhaps camp life had caused us to build up an extraordinary amount of immunity. Or perhaps medical science can offer a more fundamental explanation.
Bright Moments in a Sea of Darkness
In the bloody sea of our torture and suffering, in the deep, dark abyss of our enslavement and degradation, there would, from time to time, emerge brighter moments. Those were the evenings-mostly Sundays, which were only half workdays-when we would get together secretly in a tent to share words of comfort and throw a beam of light into our bewildered and tortured hearts.
I could never stop marveling at our distinctly Jewish feeling for cultural society, for communing with one another on the subject of the higher emotions. Everything had been taken from us-fortune, health, home, families, freedom, even, it often seemed, life itself-but we kept to the very end our drive to share a word, an opinion, a thought with those around us, with the community. That's the kind of people we were, and no persecutions, no degradations, not even the worst living conditions could stop us. Our community assemblies simply confirmed what we, as Jews, already knew: that a Jewish settlement, even one on its way to physical annihilation and spiritual strangulation, will seek out every opportunity to come together. It was that very instinct to uphold
the human spirit, the soul within us, that the Nazi beast could not kill off, not in Popervaln and not in other camps.
Our assemblies used to feature speeches, poems, recitations, and singing, as well as discussions about politics, literature, and the community itself. The tent was lit only by a tiny oil lamp or a piece of smoldering wood. A few dozen people would be standing, sitting, or half-reclining in the semi-darkness of the narrow space, and one could see from their thin faces and their burning eyes that their hearts yearned for a brighter, more encouraging message-a word from outside the limits of camp life.
The speaker would usually be Levin-Levin the Saint, whom I told about earlier. Hamburger, the engineer Margolis, the jurist Tureck from Prague, and I might also talk, and sometimes others, too. We used to read German newspapers or listen to radio news, and we would put together weekly reports about political, strategic, and international events. Levin's speeches about world news and Jewish problems were always the most interesting and witty. He would first say the evening prayers collectively with his followers and afterwards stand for a few minutes saying nothing. Then he would quietly begin his substantial, well-thought-out speech, as though before an auditorium of normal people in normal times.
During our more literary evenings, we would present the songs, poems, and other works we created in camp. A few writers, among whom I was included, used to read aloud fresh new songs or whatever else, and right on the spot a hearty melody would be adapted to the composition, usually from an old Russian song. The audience would sing it through a few times in lowered voices, sometimes with tears streaming from their eyes. The engineer Margolis (born in Dvinsk but last living in Riga) was the one who usually arranged the literary evenings; the lead singer and composer was Elke Lakus (from Dvinsk); and at the head of the recitations and artistic presentations there stood Shulman, a Riga baker, and Smargansky, a former artist of the Jewish theatres of Riga and Kovno. The songs of one writer, a Lithuanian Jew named Gafanovich, had no success with us, and he would take it very much to heart; as a result, the poor man suffered double torture in camp.
The spiritual pleasure, the exaltation and enlightenment we used to feel in our community assemblies is impossible to describe. Through some kind of psychological mechanism that I myself cannot comprehend, we would actually forget, for a while, the nasty plagues of hangings and shootings and the entire slave life.
Regrettably, though, the bright and elevated moments were few and infrequent. With the approach of spring, the mood became more nervous and more excited, not only among us but also among the Germans and their hangers on. At the fronts, major events were taking place and the mighty Nazi army was clearly going downhill. We were ceaselessly tortured by painful thoughts, and we used to ask one another questions:
What's going to happen to us? Will they send us out of here? Will they perhaps leave us in peace? Or in time do away with us? Shoot us? Load us onto boats? Drown us?
With the first clear days of spring, my own thoughts began to become clear. The plans to run away from camp had been thought through and were ripe for execution. At every suitable opportunity, I would quietly discuss those plans with Bobrov and a few others who shared in them. We were only waiting for the right moment to carry them out. I was determined not to consider any kind of danger.
Spring had awakened in us such an acute longing for freedom, for movement, for broad, wide stretches of land. The cool, clear evenings with their quiet sunsets and illuminated skies, the gnawing and fluttering in our heartsit was enough to drive us crazy! I couldn't find any place for myself in our narrow quarters-not in the tent, not in the camp, not in the work place.
Here is the song that took shape in me then, during the first days of spring:
|And again the sun caresses us gently,
And again there are birds singing.
Rivers are running, freed of their ice
Spring is on the move, in full stride.
Earth is breathing with the scents of spring,
The heart is drawn, it longs for freedom,
I am, after all, behind barbed wire!...
I lift up my head to the free sky:
|-Birds! Fortunate as you are!
I envy you, I, a prisoner,
I, a slave of the latest slavery era!
-I am locked up in a narrow camp,
-I have now become a stray dog
A mild wind brings a breath of spring,
Memories pop up, pictures
Those were youthful dreams then,
Then there grew small children
And now...all that has long been lost.
Do you also shine for me, spring?
|Oh, spring again! flowers in bloom again...
A bird flies to the old nest...
I alone, the man, am lonely, homeless!
have lost all! ...no remnant remains...
(Written in Popervaln concentration camp, April, 1943.)
(drawing by a former catsetnick)
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