The remnants of the Radom Jews were now divided between two forced labor camps: about 2,000 men worked in the munitions plant on Szkolna Street and lived in the nearby barracks; close to 3,000 (about one-quarter women) were imprisoned behind a wall and barbed wire on Szwarlikowska Street. These were employed in various industries in and around Radom and performed services at German installations. A large group of women, for example, worked at the Korona warehouse. They sorted and cleaned huge piles of clothes, linen, shoes, silverware, etc., collected in Jewish homes after the liquidation of both Ghettos. All items were crated and shipped to Germany for distribution to Nazi families. The job at Korona lasted nearly a year, from August 1942 till July 1943.
Jewish Property Shipped to Germany
Three Jewish accountants were summoned to the office of the district chief of the S.S. to count the money confiscated from Jews. The job lasted for two solid months. Over five million zlotys, neatly packaged, were sent to Germany, addressed to the Winter Relief Fund for the German people.
Incidentally, this amount did not include the proceeds from the auctions of Jewish property carted out of the Ghetto. Furniture and household items were amassed outdoors, on Old City Square, and sold to Germans ad Poles at a fraction of their value. The sale had been advertised in the local newspaper for several days.
Life Goes On
The labor camp on Szwarlikowska Street existed from August 1942 until November 1943, when it was closed and the remaining Jews were transferred to the Szkolna camp. In the intervening fifteen months the inmates had more than their share of pain, fear and executions. It is amazing how much man can endure, if upheld by a dream of freedom.
There was never a dull moment in the camp. The busiest men were the S.S. officers in charge of Jewish affairs and especially S.S. Stumfuchrer Kapke as head of the Ukrainian Kommando, specially assigned to conduct executions. Three Jewish drivers worked around the clock to deliver corpses to the cemetery in the camp's only horse-cart; on their return trips they would pick up food supplies for the camp.
Everyone had to do some work of work, from morning till night, except on Sundays. If one was caught at home during working hours, it meant execution by Kapke's Kommando. People became hard and cynical, with a desire to survive so intense that everyone looked out for his own interest, believing that with a little more stamina he would live to be free. Meanwhile life had to go on, sustained by sheer will and determination to see the end of German oppression.
In the chilly morning hours of Sunday, November 22, 1942, all 3,000 inhabitants of the camp (also called the Little Ghetto), were awakened by shouting S.S. units and Jewish police and were rushed outside the Ghetto into the nearby City Hall Square (Rynek). Their orders wee to leave behind all personal belongings. The people were lined up in five long rows, in military fashion, which was not an easy task, because the majority wanted to stand in the two back rows. Experience taught them that the front rows were always subject to more abuse or selection. The S.S. and gendarmes, old hands at clubbing Jewish crowds, succeeded in finally mustering them into parade-like units. No less than the district chiefs, headed by Gen. Boettcher, came to review the remnants of Radom Jews. He was assisted by staff officers Blum and Guennewig.
Everyone sighed with relief when it became obvious that this Sunday assembly was only for the purpose of counting the Jews a physical inventory of potential slave laborers. But the Germans could not resist the temptation and utilized this opportunity to enrich themselves by plundering the Jewish quarters vacated for the day. The demolished furniture ripped beddings and tore down wallpaper in search of hidden valuables and currency.
When the Jews were finally permitted to return to the camp, they were forced to deposit all the money they had into trunks especially prepared for this purpose at the gate.
A Group Leaves for Palestine
In November of 1942 a ray of hope penetrated the camp: the Gestapo had ordered a number of men and women to be ready for a trip to Palestine. Almost everyone interpreted this as another treacherous way of luring Jews before the firing squad.
For those involved, however, it was an answer to their prayers, and they strongly believed that their close relatives in Palestine had moved heaven and earth to get them out of the camp. Many of the people named by the Gestapo had been dead by then, and the Elder of the Jews agreed to let others with the same surnames who had relatives in Palestine take their place.
As soon as the group left the camp, the Germans treated them with courtesy; they were permitted to walk on the sidewalk and to remove their armbands with the Star of David. Sometime later authentic news reached the camp that the whole group reached Palestine. It was from them that the people of Palestine learned for the first time the whole truth about the deportations and massacres in Poland.
Registration for Palestine
Shortly after the departure of the few fortunate ones, Schoeggel, Gestapo chief for Jewish affairs, ordered the camp administration to register a maximum of 1500 Jews who had relatives in Palestine to be exchanged for Germans in British prisoner-of-war camps. The news electrified the camp and hopes ran high. Everyone in the camp wanted to be on the Palestine list. Thousands beleaguered the council offices for days, to make sure they would not be omitted. Mr. Abram Goldberg, who helped at the registration, relates that the Zionist leader, Yechiel Frenkel of Tel Aviv, was listed by at least eighteen persons, complete strangers to him, as their brother. At the insistence of Schoeggel, the Elder of the Jews, Dr. Szenderowicz, kept the final number of registrants to the limit of 1500. Dr. Szenderowicz was at the time widely accused of favoritism, in deleting certain names from the list and substituting others.
The hopes in connection with the registration never materialized. The Germans, however, later used the list as a decisive factor in the January 13thWednesday, January 15, 2014day's ma deportation, when it made the difference between life and death.
The relative quiet and the absence of particularly brutal excesses since August gave the camp population some sense of security. The popular belief was that the Germans were in need of slave laborers for their war effort and would therefore leave the camp unmolested. To support this theory, the bloodless counting operation, the sensational departure of families for Palestine and a pending large-scale exchange for German prisoners were cited. It was speculated that the Germans had relented under the pressure of world opinion. All this sparked a light of hope in the hearts of the Jews. But not for long.
For in the midst of a several winter a series of cruel actions followed that all but broke the spirit of the Jews.
The Resettlement to Szydlowiec
On the third of December at five o'clock in the morning the Little Ghetto was surrounded, and the S.S. and police drove everyone out into the street. Some people managed to hide. The S.S. beat everyone horribly as they were lined up alongside the buildings. S.S. officer Schippers conducted a selection. Gestapo employees and army installation workers were set free and remained in the Ghetto. Eight hundred others were marched off on the road to Szydlowiec.
It was a cold and icy December night, and people kept on falling. Ukrainians beat and drove them on for a distance of thirty kilometers. The people ran as fast as they could, grabbing handfuls of snow and melting it in their mouths, in order to alleviate their exhaustion.
They arrived in Szydlowiec around midnight. The once happy bustling Jewish town no longer existed. The resettlement to Treblinka had taken place here, even before it happened in Radom.
The group from Radom joined some 6,000 Jews from the surrounding communities, who were assembled near the old cemetery. After a screening, young men and women were transported as slave laborers to the munitions plants in Skarzysko and Starachowice. Children and older people were killed on the spot. The majority, however, were deported to Treblinka.
Scores of Radomers escaped that same night and returned to the Little Ghetto.
Murder on New Year's Eve
To celebrate the New Year of 1943, the Germans amused themselves by murdering Jews.
On New Year's Eve the Gestapo took five Jews out of their houses and shot them at the Ghetto gate. That night the Elder of the Jews, Dr. Fastman, was arrested and sent to Auschwitz (he survived the war). Dr. Zabner and his wife were also arrested. Dr. Szenderowicz was appointed Camp Elder.
The January Deportation
In the early morning hours of January 13th, all the Jews of the Little Ghetto were herded into the square, under the guard of two hundred S.S. troops. Gestapo officers Schippers and Henschel were sitting at a table; Dr. Szenderowicz and his secretary Zameczkowski stood next to them and were assisted by two Jewish policemen. The latter knew every Jew by name. The policemen called out the names
of the Jews and the Germans held the so called Palestinian list and checked to see that no one sneaked through, except those called by name. Anyone who did not approach the table fast enough remained in the square. It happened that one brother ran and another arrived at the table a little later; he was beaten and sent back. Those who got past the table were lined up in rows of five on Szwarlikowska Street.
About 1500 people were called from the list. The names did not fully correspond with the ones entered during the November registration. Many people with pull, due to their employment at Gestapo installations, were added to the list, though they had no relatives in Palestine. It was clear that these 1500 were destined to remain in Radom. On Schippers' orders, they were joined by fifty Korona girls, who were to continue sorting and packing Jewish property; and by the Szkolna Street construction workers, who were building new barracks. In the last moment, the Austrian munitions plant managers arrived and were permitted to choose one hundred strong-looking men for slave labor in the factory. The remaining 1600 persons were marched under heavy guard to the gate, to be loaded on trains to Treblinka.
Near the gate many attempted to escape and mix with the Palestinian group; they were, however, driven back by S.S. guards. Leib Rychtman (now in Israel) jumped to safety into a nearby courtyard. Samuel Kurtz followed him, but was killed instantly by a shot in the head. Israel Lipshitz and his two sons (now in the U.S.A.) escaped earlier in the day from the square, through an adjoining building, when they realized that their names were stricken from the Palestinian list.
The deportees were driven to the train and loaded aboard freight cars bound for Treblinka. A considerable number succeeded in jumping off the train and returning to the Ghetto. Many others were shot by the S.S. guards or ground to death by the train wheels.
Executions for Sabotage
A week later, on January 20th, the following persons were executed in the courtyard of 18 Szwarlikowska Street: the former candle manufacturer Itzkowicz, the baker Borenstein, and Szlomo Gottlieb, a brick manufacturer, with his wife and son. Mrs. Gottlieb was taken to the execution from her sickbed; she had been confined due to typhoid fever. It was the first and only case where the Germans announced the reason for the execution: sabotage.
The January 13th deportation of nearly half the camp population had shocked the remaining Jews and left a state of depression and apathy. Life was not worth living. The few who preserved enough stamina escaped the Ghetto and attempted to join groups of Polish partisans in the woods. However, the Jews were not only rejected but also terrorized by the anti-semitic bands and were either killed or forced to return to the Ghetto.
The labor card no longer held the key to life, so some decided not to report to work. One day Schippers came to the Little Ghetto with a squad of Ukrainians and executed every tenth person not at work.
A Train from Paris
On a winter day in 1943, a train with French Jews en route to Treblinka collided with another train as it was passing through Radom. Many people were killed and wounded. The wounded were brought to the Ghetto hospital; the dead were turned over to the Jewish police for burial.
Jews from the Ghetto were ordered to clear the tracks. They spoke with some French Jews who asked naively whether it was far to the labor camp at Treblinka.
Several days later S.S. troopers came to the hospital and shot the wounded.
Someone forgot to disconnect an electric iron in the tailor shops; a piece of material was burned and part of the table was charred. For this act of sabotage, Messrs. Schwartzbart and Zucker were executed in the courtyard of 18 Szwarlikowska Street.
* * *
Eight hundred Jewish men and women were employed as turf cutters in the marshlands around Radom. The turf, or peat-blocks, was used in lieu of fuel to heat the barracks and workshops. Turf cutting was an agonizing job; it was considered one of the worst in the Ghetto. The workers spent most of the day in the marshes and were therefore susceptible to frequent colds and fever.
In the spring of 1943, some workers of the turf-brigade were hospitalized on doctor's orders. Ten of them were then shot by the Germans as work dodgers.
* * *
Three Jews, whose names were Katz, Grinfeld and Sternfeld, were overheard by a Polish passerby as they discussed world politics while working. He reported the conversation to a German guard, who had them promptly executed.
Internment of Foreign Citizens
In March of 1943 orders reached the Ghetto stating that all Jews holding foreign passports were
to be transferred to detention camps for an exchange with German nationals held by the All.ied powers.
From the Little Ghetto the following were interned: Selig Goldberg with his wife and two sons, Rabinowitz with his wife and her parents, Zameczkowski, Mrs. Cemach with her mother and three children, and others.
The internees were kept for some time in the Hotel Polski in Warsaw and were treated well, awaiting the outcome of exchange negotiations with neutral governments. When these failed, the internees were sent to concentration camps in Germany. All but the Cemach family survived the war.
Massacre of Intellectuals
The belief that Germans were negotiating with neutral powers for an exchange of Jews was given credulity by sporadic news about the actual release of a few individuals. This optimistic attitude had disastrous results, for when the Nazis requested Dr. Szenderowicz to prepare a list of thirty intellectuals, and that they be prepared for a long journey, it was widely interpreted as another Palestinian list. The order called for professionals and other college graduates; some people did everything humanly possible to be on the list. In an effort to save the remaining children of the camp, parents arranged to attach their children to the families slated to leave. Thus, instead of the thirty requested by the Germans, the list grew to 180, including fifty children.
It was a balmy spring day, Purim of 1943. The four Ghetto streets were lively, filled with excitement. The lucky ones, dressed in their best clothes, bid goodbye to friends, promised to give regards to their relatives in Eretz Israel, and marched toward the camp gate to the waiting trucks.
Two minutes later there was no doubt as to the fate of the exchange prisoners. The trucks headed not for the railroad station, but in the direction of Szydlowiec, and were followed by a truckload of SS and Ukrainians, known to be the executioners.
Several men jumped off the trucks and managed to escape; two were killed by bullets from the escorting guards. The trucks reached the Szydlowiec cemetery, thirty kilometers from Radom, where mass graves were prepared. The people in the first truck were forced to undress and, with the help of the local Polish police, were herded into the open graves. The Ukrainians then threw in hand grenades. Here and there someone still moved; a few Ukrainian bullets soon put an end to this, too.
Then came the turn of the second truckload. Real-
Here is a partial list of the victims of that day's massacre:
Dr. Banker-Den, her husband Leon, and their daughter and son.[Page 62]
Mordechai Den, and his son, Judge Alexander Den.
Dr. Ludwig Finkelstein with his wife, and a child named Josepha Rochman.
Dr. W. Finkelstein with his wife, daughter and granddaughter.
Dr. A Fried.
Dr. Gerstein with his wife and daughter.
Mr. and Mrs. Mark Ginsberg and mother, Mrs. Lotte.
Engineer B. Goldberg with his wife Bala, high school mathematics teacher, and a niece.
The widow of Dr. Hertz, and her child.
Jacob Kagan, musician.
Engineer Meyer Korman with his wife Anna, their son Jacob, and nieces Esther and Ariela Salbe.
Dr. S. Korman with his wife, and their daughters, Irka and Eva.
Engineer David Levin.
Mr. and Mrs. Elias Lustigman.
Attorney Opatowski with his wife, mother, two sisters and brother.
The widow of Dr. Rosenblum.
Mr. and Mrs. Israel Rosenberg, with their daughter Henia and son.
Prof. Elchanan Schuetzer and his wife.
Mr. and Mrs. Isaac Stelman with their daughter and son-in-law, E. Kenigsberg.
W. Stelman, bacteriologist.
Mrs. Taub with her two children.
Attorney Trachter and his son.
Mr. and Mrs. Felix Wainapel.
Stanislaw Wainapel, bacteriologist, and his son.
W. Weisfuss, attorney.
Joseph Wiener, attorney, with his wife, Julia, her parents, Mr. and Mrs. Mintz, and her sister Rita.
Dr. Severyn Witonski.
Judge Jacob Zaidenweber.
Rabbi Yeschaya Zlotnik and his wife Alta.
Dr. Witold Zung and his wife, daughter Genia and a friend's child, Ilyana Kaltman.
Nurses: Helen Alter with her daughter Dziunia; Mrs. Horowitz; Dina Rosenberg with her son David; Irka Schlaferman and Guta Zucker.
izing now what happened to the first group, many men attacked the SS. Dr. Anatol fried wrestled a rifle away from an SS man and knocked him down to the ground. Before he could make use of the weapon, he was shot in the head by a Ukrainian. Mr. Felix Wainapel put up a heroic fight with several Ukrainians before he was killed. Mr. Wladek Weisfuss and many other men, whose names have not been ascertained, fought off bravely the savage Ukrainians and ran toward the cemetery fence; they were all mowed down by a barrage of bullets.
In the ensuing confusion Bela Friedman and her brother Tuvia approached Kapke, the SS officer in command, and begged to be spared on the ground that they were not listed. Kapke agreed to let them live and ordered them to step aside, near the trucks. While the Ukrainians were busy looking through the clothing of the killed victims, searching for valuables, thirty more people, mostly women, pushed themselves through the guards and joined the Friedmans.
One hundred fifty men, women, and children were brutally murdered on that Purim day. During the night Kapke brought the Friedmans with the group of thirty back to the Ghetto. Among these were the three Zlotnik sisters, Bela Buch, Halina Den, and Rose Ackerman (all now in the United States), Mrs. Witonski (now in France), and Lola Mikowski (now in Australia).
A feeling of shock and depression descended on the Ghetto as a result of this brutal liquidation of Radom's remaining leading families. The joyous holiday of Purim had ended in tragedy. The little happiness of seeing a few children in the Ghetto and hearing their laughter was now lost.
The murder of the intellectuals was understood to be an attempt by the Germans to crush any eventual plans of organized resistance in the Ghetto.
Murder in Wolanow
Over twenty prominent men were arrested by the Nazis on April 28, 1943. Among them was Dr. Szenderowicz, the Elder of the Jews, who was replaced by the head of the Jewish Police, the lawyer Leon Sytner. Several of this group were shot on May 1st in the Gestapo cellar. Mr. Moshe Korman escaped through a window and walked away unrecognized among the Polish passersby. He remained in the Polish section of the city and survived the war.
Seventeen of the arrested group were driven to the village of Wolanow and executed. Their names were: Shlomo Fishman, Cemach Bojman, Engineer Marek Bojman, Abraham Silberstein and his son, Michal Tauber, Yehuda Kaufman, Jacob S. Hendel, Joseph Lastman, Moshe Wercheizer, Moshe Neihaus and his son, Abraham Gutstam, Bravman, Steinowitz, Ackerman, and the attorney Fishbein.
Dr. Szenderowicz and three other men remained under arrest for some time and were then sent to the Auschwitz concentration camp. After liberation from the camp, dr. Szenderowicz committed suicide.
100 Printers from Majdanek
In May of 1943 one hundred men and women were brought to the Little Ghetto from the concentration camp of Majdanek in eastern Poland. To the Jews in Radom they were a frightening example of what a concentration camp could do to its prisoners; their emaciated figures and ashen complexions bore witness to the sufferings they had been subjected to. The Ghetto inhabitants had a chance to see, for the first time, the official concentration camp garb: striped gray-blue suits, matching caps, and wooden shoes. On the back of every prisoner's jacket were painted in big red block-letters the initials KL; a white bull's-eye was painted on the pants.
The Jews in the Ghetto did their utmost to make the Majdanek prisoners as comfortable as possible. Miriam Biederman, a survivor of this group, writes in her memoirs:
To the Jews in Radom we must have looked like people from another planet. Though they lived in crowded conditions and hardly had enough food for themselves, the Radomers fed us delightfully and set us up comfortably in decent quarters, gave us clean linens and clothes. Everyone was very kind to us . .
Most of the new arrivals were former printers and print-shop owners, who had been deported to Majdanek from the Warsaw Ghetto. The whim of a Nazi official to establish a printing plant in Radom had saved them from the gas-chamber. Shortly after the arrival of the printers, the SS hauled from Warsaw truckloads of printing machines formerly owned by Jews. The printers then installed the machinery in a confiscated Jewish-owned factory building outside the Ghetto and were employed there by the SS until July 1944, when all the equipment was shipped to Germany.
The End of the 'Little Ghetto'
On November 8, 1943, all Ghetto inhabitants were taken out of Szwarlikowska Street on a two-hour march to the Szkolna Street barracks, near the armaments factory. As they passed the gate of the camp, all their bundles were ransacked for jewelry, money, valuables of any kind. Everyone underwent a thorough personal search for hidden items, even coat linings were ripped apart.
It was a cold day and the people were exhausted from the march and lack of food. SS Sturmbann-
fuehrer Blum, the white-gloved chief of the day's operation, announced that he would open the nearby barracks, but only for women and children. When the building filled up, it was immediately surrounded by armed Ukrainians and sealed off from the rest of the camp.
A few people made heroic attempts to get through the lines of Ukrainian guards in order to free members of their families from the barred building; one person was shot to death. A young man named Joseph Frenkel, a former member of the Jewish Police, risked his life several times trying to enter the building. He finally succeeded in pulling out two children through a back window. He miraculously carried them to safety under his coat, past the Ukrainian guards.
The women and children from the building were soon loaded into trucks and driven to Biala Street for execution. They were joined by a group of men and women selected from among the Steyer munitions plant workers as unfit to work, and some older persons dragged out at random from the barracks at the last minute. About 200 people were executed that day on Biala Street.
The following morning several trucks arrived on Biala Street from nearby labor camps, such as Starachowice, Skarzysko, Pionki and Blizyn, with a cargo of laborers deemed unfit to work: these were mostly people who at one time or another had been taken from Radom as slave laborers for armament factories. They were then lined up at the edge of a ditch and shot in the back. However, the trucks did not return empty they were filled with young men rounded up in the Szkolna Street barracks as replacements.
Following this action, the Germans destroyed the buildings of the former Little Ghetto. All contents, as well as the bricks, were carefully salvaged and sold to Poles. The proceeds were sent to Germany for the purpose of the Winter Relief Fund for the German People.
Concealing the Evidence
In the fall of 1943 the Germans took special measures to remove all traces of brutal massacres. A Sonderkommando consisting of sixty Jewish men was engaged in the highly secret job of unearthing and cremating the bodies of mass execution victims. The ashes were then scattered over the fields. The group of sixty was never allowed to return to the Ghetto or speak to any outsiders. They worked behind camouflage nets to protect the site from view. After completing the job, the entire group was executed.
K.L. on Szkolna
The initials stand for Konzentrations Lager. The vestiges of Radom Jews living in the Szkolna camp believed themselves to be fortunate because the concentration camp came to them instead of the usual German procedure of transporting prisoners to the camps. In those days transports were feared more than anything else.
A detachment of SS troops, specially trained in the art of organizing and supervising concentration camps for Jews, arrived from Lublin in January, 1944, and immediately took over from the previous SS management. In twenty-four hours the Szkolna Street camp was turned into K. L. Radom, with all the rules and regulations that went with the new name. The troops had brought with them truck-loads of regulation striped uniforms with matching caps for the prisoners; also wooden shoes and gallons of red enamel paint. The prisoners had to change into the new garb and paint on each other's backs the letters K.L.
Overnight all 3,000 inmates of K.L. Radom wee to lose their identity and be known by number only. To avoid memory lapses, number tapes had to be sewn on the striped jackets.
Security measures were enforced to follow the book of instructions from Berlin: watchtowers at a prescribed distance, a double row of barbed wire fences. S.S. men with machine guns kept a twenty-four watch over the camp from their observation posts. Labor brigades leaving the camp daily for outside work were heavily guarded.
The camp consisted of twenty wooden barracks to
house the prisoners; the men were separated from the women. The prisoners slept on straw-sacks, in cubicles arranged in three decks from floor to ceiling. The majority was employed in the armaments factory adjoining the barracks. Others worked in the furniture and tailor shops located within the camp limits.
A new routine was introduced in the camp under the new management. The major events of the day were the morning and evening roll-calls, called Appells, dreadful prolonged affairs, especially in the winter months. The people were awakened daily at five o'clock by a bugle call and given fifteen minutes to assemble at the Appellplatz. All prisoners, except those in sick-bay, had to line up in military fashion in five rows, forming a square around the Appellplatz. The barracks were searched by the Jewish Kapos to make sure no one was missing. Chil Friedman, the Jewish Camp Elder, assisted by a staff of Kapos and secretaries, would then count the assembled prisoners and after issuing the command Attention, hats off! he would report the number to Hecker, SS officer in charge; he in turn would report to Hauptsturmfuehrer Sigman, the camp Kommandant. The report would then be double-checked with the office records. This procedure would sometimes take hours, causing people to faint; many people died due to exposure during Appells.
Deportation to Majdanek
In March of 1944, the SS carried out a surprise action in the camp. During the Appell, Hecker hastily selected several hundred men and women, who were immediately driven to the railroad station. It was later learned that their destination was the extermination camp in Majdanek, near Lublin. A small group of this convoy survived the war. The detailed story of their experiences will be found in one of the following chapters, entitled A Modern Odyssey.
Joining the Guerillas
At one of the afternoon Appells the prisoners went through an agonizing ordeal waiting into late at night to be dismissed from the Appellplatz: the Kommandant could not reconcile his figures, for one person was missing. It was later learned that Isaac, the butcher, had escaped and joined the Polish partisans.
In that period there were several attempts by Jews to join the Polish underground, hidden in the forests around Radom. The partisans never welcomed Jewish volunteers. As a matter of fact, some Jews who enlisted as guerilla fighters were killed by the Polish partisans or forced to return to the concentration camps.
Tunnels to Freedom
A heavy, sand-loaded truck halted on the road outside the camp: one of its wheels had sunk into the soft mud. While the drivers worked to free the wheel, they noticed that the ground collapsed even more. The Kommandant soon came to investigate and ordered them to dig further. They found a hollow passage, reinforced by boards, and noticed beams of light originating somewhere below Barracks No. 1 in the camp.. Within minutes the building was surrounded by SS troops. The officers, led by Kommandant Sigman, went inside and ordered the floor boards ripped apart. They soon found the entrance to an elaborate bunker and, after a while, returned with its occupants, four men and one woman.
The stunned inmates of the camp gazed at the five creatures, whom they could hardly recognize. They had lived in the underground bunker for almost three months, without fresh air or a ray of sunlight. Their skin was ashen, their clothes had an abominable smell. They could hardly walk erect from so many weeks of living in such limited space. When they were brought outside the building, they were blinded by the burst of sunlight.
The group had prepared the bunker for an emergency hideout and as a starting point for digging a tunnel to the outside world. They had entered it in January, 1944 when Szkolna Street was turned into a concentration camp, taking with them some crude tools with which they planned to dig the tunnel. They also had constructed beds, installed electricity and drawn running water through an extension of the building's main lines. They even had a stove and kitchen utensils underground. The woman had cooked and washed, while the men worked all day to extend the tunnel. Relatives living in Barracks No. 1 had supplied them with food and other necessities. It had been agreed that in due time, after completion of the tunnel, everyone in the camp would be given an opportunity to escape during an emergency.
Unfortunately, the group had lacked the know-how and the necessary equipment to successfully complete construction of the tunnel. When they reached the point beneath the road outside the camp, the tunnel was dangerously close to the surface and, without the proper timber for support, was discovered, though only by accident.
No one doubted that the five bunker heroes would be executed. However, the Jews could never comprehend the workings of the German mind, for
the woman and her companions got away with a relatively mild punishment; they were flogged at the next Appell, in the presence of all 3,000 camp inhabitants. The Kommandant had a special contraption built for this occasion, resembling the methods used during the Middle Ages: a stool that immobilized the victim's hands, feet and head, exposing only the lower back for lashing. After this public display, the Kommandant sent the victims to the sick-room for treatment.
Of the five discovered in the underground bunker, three have survived the war: Ben Wercheiser and Mania Zuckerman-Gelber now reside in New York; her brother, Meyer Zuckerman lives in Sweden. The two Bonk brothers made another heroic attempt later to escape from the K.L. Radom by cutting the barbed wire, but were caught and killed on the spot.
Advance of Soviet Army
More people now searched for avenues of escape; they attempted to build underground tunnels, to be ready in case the Germans decided to liquidate the camp. For this was the early summer of 1944 and signs of German defeats on the battlefields were evident. There were widespread rumors of the Soviet armies advancing into Poland. These rumors were given more credence when the camp inmates witnessed the arrival of SS troops in complete disorder, wounded and beaten, obviously directly from the front lines. In July it was not a secret anymore; the rumble of Russian artillery could distinctly be heard in the camp coming from the east. The families of the SS guards were hurriedly packing the loot they had accumulated and leaving for Germany. There followed a complete breakdown in the German supply lines. Everyone knew by now that the Red Army had reached the Vistula River, perhaps forty miles from Radom.
The camp, however, was in the tight grip of the SS guards, their number tripled by troops who lost their units during the evacuation from the East. Prisoners were not permitted to work anymore outside the camp; armament factory workers were taken off their jobs in the middle of the day and sent to their barracks. A few individuals remained at the factory, where they had prepared hiding places for themselves. Two days later they escaped through the sewers into the nearby forests.
No More Jews in Radom
The Jews in the camp lived through the exciting days with mixed feelings of hope and fear. The long and anxiously awaited defeat of the Germans was imminent, but the fate of the Jewish prisoners seemed to be hopeless. Some optimists argued that in view of the advancing Red Army and lack of means of transportation, the Germans would escape and leave the Jews behind.
The SS Kommandant soon dispelled any doubts. He ordered all prisoners to be ready the following day for evacuation to Lodz. All night the Germans worked feverishly to destroy any evidence of evil doings in the camp; they demolished machinery and equipment, to prevent it from falling into Russian hands.
The next day all Jews were taken out of Radom: 2450 men, 500 women and about 20 children.
That was July 26, 1944.
On the Road to Auschwitz
In the afternoon the column began to march through the well-known streets of Radom. The Polish population of the city crowded the sidewalks to watch the procession. Following behind the column were horse carts loaded with sick persons. About 300 SS guards and Lithuanian nationals in SS uniforms, carrying automatic weapons, walked on either side of the marchers in close formation. Despite this, the Berkowitz brothers and five women: Ackerman, Bleichman, Goldberg, Sankiewicz and Zucker, managed to escape into the buildings. Several more ran away at the outskirts of town, but two were killed. Their bodies were dragged alongside the column for everyone to see, as a warning.
After a short rest for the night in the fields near Wolanow, the march continued. The heat was unbearable; the clouds of dust raised by thousands of feet added to the people's discomfort. There was no drinking water; the peasants in the villages alongside the road refused to help. Several people were shot trying to reach for rain-water in the ditches. Another night came and with it a slight respite from the suffering, a relief for the march-worn injured feet.
During the night, two Cyna brothers dug a shallow trench in the ground and covered themselves with a thin layer of soil. At dawn the SS pressed the people again to the road, after thoroughly inspecting the area. The two boys were not discovered and survived the war.
Murder in the Woods
The third day of the march was the most tragic one. With no food and hardly any water, the people were extremely exhausted. Then they noticed that the horse cart carrying the sick and aged had turned off the road into the forest, escorted by the known murderer SS Rottenfuehrer Skonetzny. Several shots were heard and the cart soon returned, empty. Yeschaya Fershman had jumped off the cart before it entered the woods. Among those killed were the philanthropist Israel Goldberg and the Gutman brothers, former industrialists.
The people marched on, despite fatigue and despair. With parched lips and blistered feet, they clung to the last ray of hope. Families stayed together, helping each other; younger people lent a supporting arm to the elders. The SS checked the convoy for the weak, crippled and aged and forced them into the horse carts. The carts made several side trips to the woods that day; all passengers were shot by Skonetzny and his eager helpers. Some people could not stand the rigor of the march and the suffering; they volunteered to board the horse carts and were murdered.
There were renewed attempts to escape, but almost all ended in death. Eva Garfinkel succeeded in getting away that day. (She now lives in the United States.)
Retreating German soldiers joined the SS escort to augment the guard over the Jews. They reported about armed Polish partisans in the woods along the road. The Jews hoped, in vain, of miraculously being saved by their compatriots.
A Rare Case
During the entire forced march of about 120 kilometers, there was only one instance of compassion shown by the peasants. In the village of Krolowa Wola, near Tamaszow, an old woman carrying a holy picture approached the SS guards warning them to stop the atrocities in the woods; she was chased away. The peasants of that same village brought drinking water for the Jews.
By the time the marchers reached the industrial town of Tomaszow, there had been a total of sixty Jews killed by the S.S.
Seven Days of Misery
On arrival in Tomaszow, the women were forcibly separated from the men, amidst heartbreaking scenes of parting. The women were taken to the local jail and locked in the attic, under the most in-human conditions. The 2400 men were kept in a factory hall, among textile machines, normally with a maximum capacity of 300.
The stay in Tomaszow was the lowest point of degradation ever experienced b y the remnants of the Radom Jews. The fact that they survived the suffocating seven days in Tomaszow bears witness to the unusual stamina and will to live on the part of both the men and women of this tortured group.
They all sighed with relief when they were finally loaded into cattle cars for the trip to Auschwitz.
In the Extermination Factory of Auschwitz
In the early morning hours of August 6th the train arrived at a small railroad terminal; the sign on the station house read Oswiencim. This marked the end of all speculation as to the destination of the transport. The boxcars had been closely guarded during the trip; inside each car were several SS men watching the prisoners from their boarded-off compartments. In addition, SS guards armed with machine guns were posted on the car roofs, thus eliminating any possibility of escape.
The train left the station towards the camp a city in itself, consisting of hundreds of barracks, surrounded with tall barbed wire enclosures and numerous observation towers. Inside the concentration city intense activity could be observed, with thousands of prisoners in striped clothes all milling around. The train halted on a spur track; the sign on the platform announced New Palestine.
The women were taken out of the cars, marched off into barracks adjoining the crematorium and told that they were going to take a shower and be disinfected. They were stripped naked and their hair was cut short or shaven. The SS medical officer, Koenig, accompanied by troops, then made a selection of older women, children with their mothers, and the sick. These were immediately led off to the gas chambers. A young woman tried desperately to cross the line to join her doomed mother, but the SS man pushed her back. We don't take volunteers here, he shouted. Another woman, Ruta Oknowska, vehemently attacked an SS man who took her son away. She was knocked down and carried away. The survivors of the selection were sent to the barracks to join the ranks of slaves in the camp.
Meanwhile, the men of the Radom convoy had been kept in the sealed cars, unaware of the fate of the women or even the fact that they had been traveling together. Soon the cars were unsealed and the men driven out onto the platform with blows and curses and subjected to a rapid selection. The SS medical officer walked swiftly along the rows of men and, guiding himself by their appearances or bearing, pointed his thumb at a few older men and young boys. The guards immediately picked out the victims and loaded them into a waiting truck, to be taken to the gas chamber.
It should be noted at this point that, on arrival in Auschwitz, the prisoners were completely unaware of what lay in store for them. At that time, none of them believed that they were standing in the midst of a huge factory for the slaughter of human beings.
The men were taken back to the train, which was to carry them through Vienna and across Germany into the concentration camp of Vaihingen, near Stuttgart. On the way they consoled one another to keep up their spirits. They had no idea about the extermination process in the Auschwitz camp, where they had left their wives, mothers and children. They had heard about Auschwitz before as merely a detention camp, and they now considered their families safe, especially in view of their own uncertain destination.
Introduction to Camp Life
The women who were spared from the selection, however, soon faced the reality of imprisonment in Auschwitz. They met there many people from Radom who had been deported some time ago and had even achieved prominence as old-timers. Among them was Yeschaya Eiger, an inmate of Auschwitz since its inception in 1942, and Jurek Den who arrived in 1943. In addition, the new arrivals were now reunited with relatives and friends who had been, at one time or another, taken away from Radom as slave laborers to factories in Pionki, Skarzysko, Ostrowiec, Starachowice, and arrived in convoys to Auschwitz only days or weeks before.
Mr. Eiger, then joined by his wife and daughter, was able to give considerable help to the newcomers from Radom. Many Auschwitz survivors claim that they owe their lives to the assistance given them by Yeschaya Eiger. The new arrivals from Radom now learned the truth: they saw the smoke-stacks of the crematoria, whose glare reddened the night sky. The fate of their mothers or children became clear to them, at the same time as their own.
This was not the end of their suffering. After the shock of the selection on arrival, the women were initiated into their new life by a series of
ordeals that soon undermined their capacity for physical and moral resistance. Stripped of their belongings, deprived of even the smallest personal object or souvenir, with only a serial number tattooed on the forearm, they lost their identity and became cogs in the camp machinery, losing every vestige of their previous life. They were forced to undress in public, and to endure the interminably prolonged roll calls, whatever the weather or season, exposed even to the rigors of the Polish winter. They were subject to periodic selections, which reduced their ranks considerably.
The cruel agony of the Auschwitz prisoners resulted in variable individual reactions and attitudes. Many found themselves on a terrible path of physical and moral decline; some reached the limits of physical endurance and were classified as Moslems. This was the name used in the camp to describe the prisoners who arrived at a stage of incredible emaciation which preceded death. There were some, however, who, in spite of the misery, preserved their individual humanity. Under the circumstances, their heroism could be expressed in little more than a stoic and resigned acceptance of a fate worse than death. And when death came, they faced t with calmness and courage.
Transports to Work Camps
Early in November, 1944, groups of women were taken out of Auschwitz and shipped as slave laborers to German factories. Representatives of Siemens Motors had come to Auschwitz to select workers, and a group from Radom was the first to leave. They worked in the Oberaltstadt plant in northern Czechoslovakia until their liberation by the Russians on May 7, 1945.
In the fall the evacuation of Auschwitz began. Transports were rushed, mostly by train, in all directions, deep into Germany. With a few exceptions, the prisoners were sent as slave labor for the war industry. The one verified exception was the transport of two hundred women (many from Radom) sent to Stuthof, near Danzig; they were massacred and thrown from a cliff into the Baltic Sea. The only survivors of the tragic transport are the two Liberbaum sisters of Radom.
A Modern Odyssey
The Jewish people from Radom had been split into more than a dozen groups, after their removal from their home town. In addition, men were separated from women and scattered to distant places. It would be impossible to chronologically follow their experiences. Transported from one camp to another, they crisscrossed the face of Poland and Germany. In their strategy of decimation, the Germans decided to utilize Jewish manpower for their war machine; at the same time, the unremitting hard labor imposed upon the prisoners served as an effective instrument of annihilation.
We will attempt to briefly record the Odyssey of the men and women from Radom, with special emphasis on the largest group of over two thousand men who traveled to a forced labor camp in Vaihingen, on the German western frontier, 1200 kilometers away from their former homes.
Let us begin with one of the most agonizing journeys that of a group of 600 abducted by the Nazis from Radom on March 1, 1944.
Convoy to Majdanek
Located near Lublin, in eastern Poland, Majdanek was known to be one of the major extermination camps the terminal point of many transports of Jews from all over Europe. Due to the advancing Russian front, the Germans had ceased the extermination process at about the same time that the group of 600 from Radom arrived. They were the first inmates to be officially registered in the camp records.
The group consisted of two hundred women and about four hundred men, mainly from the Szkolna Street concentration camp and from the liquidated tailor shops on Rynek. In Majdanek the women were separated from the men and worked primarily in the camp warehouses, sorting articles of clothing, jewelry and personal belongings of the tens of thousands of victims who had perished there. The men were put to work at hard labor.
Despite the absence of gas chambers, 150 Radomers lost their lives in Majdanek: starvation and
disease were the prime killers. In addition, Nazi doctors conducted experiments on the camp inmates and many died of injected typhoid bacteria.
In April of 1944, the Germans began to evacuate the camp. The men and women of Radom were transferred to the Plaszow camp, near Krakow. Its barracks housed over 20,000 Jewish prisoners; it was in the grip of an extremely brutal SS unit. The inmates were subjected to killings, beatings, tortures, indignities and starvation to such an extent that many committed suicide. After the day's work in the camp, the prisoners, including women, were forced to work at night in the stone-quarry and to donate blood for wounded German soldiers.
In June, several thousand prisoners, including 1500 children, were sent to die in Auschwitz; many Radomers were in that transport.
In July, one hundred men and women of the Radomer group were transferred to Wieliczka; they were put to work in the former salt mines, 1200 feet below the ground, where the Heinkel-Werke had attempted to establish a factory for airplane parts.
In August, 1944, the Plaszow camp was evacuated. Ten thousand women were shipped to Auschwitz; of these, Dr. Mengele selected two thousand and put them to death in the gas chamber. Among them were several Radomer victims. The men of Plaszow were transferred to the Mauthausen concentration camp in Austria.
To Labor Camps in Austria
The convoy of six thousand to Mauthausen included 250 men from Radom, who had gone through Majdanek, Plaszow and Wieliczka. During the ensuing months, conditions in the German camps deteriorated; life had become unbearable. The diet consisted of a little watery soup and moldy bread. The slave workers, their numbers reduced daily by starvation, illness and brutal treatment, were strained to the limits of human endurance. Still they had to perform hard labor, twelve hours a day. During the winter the group from Radom was transferred again form more slave labor at the nearby Messerschmidt airplane factory in Gusen.
The prisoners' only hope and consolation during those days of despair were the frequent raids by Allied bombers. Despite orders to run for cover, the prisoners would gather outside and cheer the planes.
* * *
In the spring, as the Allied armies approached the area, the Nazis began to evacuate Jewish prisoners; the Radomers were taken with a group to be executed in the woods, but were liberated by U.S. Army troops before the order could be carried out.
To most of the prisoners liberation came too late. From the several hundred Radomer men who had started on this Odyssey from camp to camp, only twelve lived to be free.
From Auschwitz to Bergen-Belsen
Winter and spring of 1945 brought more disaster to the tired and starved camp prisoners. The hardships of evacuation and transfers from camp to camp caused more death than ever before. The Third Reich was already collapsing, but this did not prevent the Germans from torturing Jews. The roads in Germany were filled with prisoners being driven from place to lace, and all roads led to a concentration camp, each successive camp worse than the one before.
Most of the Radom women from Auschwitz were brought to Bergen-Belsen, in northern Germany. To many this was the end of the road they died there of sheer exhaustion. To others it was only a stop-over on their Odyssey.
A convoy of 750 women, including a large group of Radomers who had gone through the camps of Pionki and Auschwitz, was taken from Belsen to Elsing as a supply of slave laborers for the production of bombs and grenades. On April 20, 1945, the group was evacuated by train. At one of the stations the train was hit by Allied bombs and 350 women were burned to death. The remainder escaped to the woods; only 150 of them lived to be liberated by the Russians.
Rescued by the Swedish Red Cross
Another group of Radomer women was transferred from Auschwitz to Ravensbruck, and hence to a labor camp in Malhof. They were forced to work in a munitions plant, under very exacting conditions, until April 28, 1945. On that day all inmates were taken by the Red Cross trucks to Denmark and by boat to Sweden. They were free again!
Count Bernadotte of Sweden had been conducting negotiations for the International Red Cross, aiming at the release of Jewish prisoners. Days before the collapse of the Third Reich, Bernadotte succeeded in obtaining permission to transfer ill Jewish women to Sweden. The rescue, however, came too .ate to be of any significant aid to the masses of half-dead, starved prisoners in hundreds of labor camps and on the roads of Germany.
Vaihingen and Dachau
After a seven-day trip from Auschwitz, the train carrying 2187 Jewish men from Radom arrived at the newly completed camp on August 13, 1944. It was located outside the small town of Vaihingen, twenty-six kilometers from Stuttgart, the capital city of Wurttemberg.
As a general rule, concentration camps were built on swampy, unhealthy terrain that could not be utilized for any worthwhile purpose. The site of the Vaihingen camp was even worse it was not suited for human habitation. It consisted of five wooden barracks, one primitive open-air latrine and a wash-basin in the center of the camp square. To reach these without slipping into he mud one had to learn the skills of a tightrope walker, for one could only move around by walking on the narrow boards placed over the mud to serve as bridges.
There was a shower booth outside the camp with room for ten persons. Each prisoner had his chance to take a one-minute shower once in two months; he had to undress in the barracks and run naked, even in the winter, the distance of 1000 feet to the showers. The camp was infested with lice and soon disease began to takes its toll. With the growing number of typhoid cases, Barracks No. 5 was designated for typhoid-stricken prisoners and quarantined. More than half the camp inmates were ill and had been quarantined there at one time or another, without medical care or treatment of any kind.
The camp was guarded by the same two hundred SS men who had accompanied the prisoners from Radom to their new location. The camp supervision by Jewish personnel was also left unchanged.
The prisoners were put to forced labor on the construction of an armaments plant on the site of a deep abandoned stone quarry. The Jews sabotaged the work as much as they could under the circumstances; as a result, the building was never constructed further than its foundations. Many, however, paid for this slowdown with their lives; they were pushed to their deaths from the scaffolds by the German engineers and supervisors.
Hunger took the greatest toll of the Vaihingen prisoners. The burial brigade had to be increased to handle the growing number of dead. The Germans ordered the brigade to dig large ditches to hold 500 bodies each.
On the way to or from work, the prisoners picked up rotten apples from the roadside, or turnips that grew near the road. After a farmer complained, two men were shot to death for this crime.
The camp in Vaihingen was gradually being emptied of Jews and replaced with prisoners of all European nationalities. In October, 1944, a convoy of 500 Radomers were transferred from Vaihingen to a camp in Hessental to repair the nearby airport, damaged by Allied bombs. Hunger and brutal treatment by the airmen decimated their ranks. To replenish the labor force, another 350 Jews were sent in from Vaihingen. Of both transports only fifty men survived the war, after living through the agony of a forced march to Dachau, a distance of about 300 kilometers.
In November over five hundred Radomers were transferred from Vaihingen to the nearby camp in Unterriexingen. Their job was to build a landing strip for fighter planes, but it was never completed. Conditions in Unterriexingen were unbearable; three hundred Jews died there within two months. One hundred fifty Radomers were sent from there to Kochendorf; all but a few perished in the camp and during the forced march to Dachau. Of the twenty-five men sent to the airplane factory in Leonberg, only two survived.
A convoy of half-dead Poles arrived in Vaihingen from the concentration camp of Schoemberg, eighty kilometers away. As an exchange, the Germans sent to Schoemberg close to five hundred Jews from Vaihingen. Conditions in Schoemberg were so intolerable that only seven men lived to be liberated by the French army.
Evacuation from Vaihingen
Toward the end of March, the French armies advanced rapidly into Germany; their artillery fire could be heard distinctly in the camp. Panic broke out among the guards, but they still would not release their grip on the camp, whose inmates were mostly incapacitated by typhoid fever or extremely weakened by starvation.
By April 2nd, all prisoners able to walk were evacuated to Dachau by all available means of transportation. 800 sick prisoners of sixteen different
nationalities, were left behind in the barracks of Vaihingen. This number included 320 of the original men abducted from Radom. With them remained a few SS men and the Jewish doctors and camp attendants.
On April 7, 1945, the concentration camp of Vaihingen was liberated by the French forces.
The French officers and soldiers who entered the camp were horrified and shocked by the sight of the emaciated prisoners and piles of corpses. They had never seen anything like it before; Vaihingen was one of the first death-camps to fall into French hands. They immediately began to work feverishly to save the ill and starved prisoners. The seriously ill were taken to nearby hospitals.
A group of 250 Jews, the remainder of the convoy from Radom, was transferred to the village of Neuenburg in the German province of Baden. The German population of the tiny village had been evacuated the day before and told to leave behind most of their belongings and livestock. Along with the Jews a French medical team moved in to care for the sick. Joseph Frenkel, thanks to his knowledge of French, was selected by the liberated prisoners to be their spokesman and liaison with the liberators.
A Dramatic Reunion
As soon as the ambulances with the Jews arrived in Neuenburg, a jeep drove up; a woman in a medical officer's uniform stepped out and hastily approached a group of liberated Jews.
Is anyone here by any chance from Radom? she inquired.The woman was flabbergasted. She had just arrived from the front lines where she had heard about the liberation of Polish Jews from a death-camp. She introduced herself:
We're all from Radom! they said.
I am Dr. Sara Diament, the daughter of Israel Diament and granddaughter of Israel Frenkel of Radom. Would you have any information about These were her cousins, Joseph and Israel Frenkel.
Before she had a chance to complete her question, she was embraced by two boys.
Two hundred men surrounded them and wept with joy. Somehow, in the succession of events after the liberation they had found o vent for their accumulated emotions; but now, moved by the sight of the first familiar face from home, everyone was overcome with tears. And everyone asked himself the same question if he would ever experience a reunion with his loved ones.
|Dr. Sarah Diament-Kleiner
While the survivors of Vaihingen were enjoying the taste of freedom and good food and the beneficial spring sunshine at Neuenburg, their relatives and friends who had been taken out of the camp prior to the liberation were being herded into the trains to Dachau. The trip, which normally would have lasted five hours, took six days, due to constant air raids and destroyed tracks. During the six days the prisoners were hardly given food; many died of hunger. When they finally reached the famed Dachau camp on April 9, 1945, they sighed with relief. For after the routine check for hidden objects, a quick shower and change of clothes, the prisoners received bread and soup.
The Torah Scroll
The story goes back to the Szkolna street camp in Radom. An SS-man had brought a Torah scroll to the camp and was making preparations to burn it. Jacob Lowenthal, a kitchen worker, approached the German and offered to make better use of the scroll by burning it in the kitchen stove as fuel.
Naturally Lowenthal hid the Torah and, with the help of his fellow prisoner, Gabriel Bergman, had guarded it through all the camps and death-marches. The scroll was opened and read during secretly held services on Yom Kippur in the Vaihingen concentration camp. It took an enormous amount of ingenuity to hide the Torah during searches and transfers from camp to camp.
No trick on earth could have saved the Torah at the Dachau reception barracks. Jacob Lowenthal was heartbroken when he was forced to part with the scroll after so many years of intense devotion.
U.S. Army Approaching
Dachau was a high camp with tens of thousands of prisoners. As the American Seventh Army was converging on this factory of death, the SS began to evacuate the inmates, Jews first.
On April 22, 1945, over two thousand Jews, including the group from Radom, were loaded onto a train; 36 hours later a locomotive arrived to pull the train out of camp.
The following story, reprinted from the Jerusalem Post, gives a vivid and accurate account of the group's experiences on its way to freedom.
Journey to Life
by Alfred Lipson
The train had been stopped at the platform for hours. Through the windows we could see the tiny station and the washed-out sign above the door Seefeld-Tirol, Elevation 2450 meters. The late April sun was warm and we shielded our eyes from its blinding reflection in the snow.
The word whipped through the crowded prisoner train like a flash fire: Something must be wrong!
Outside the train was a cluster of SS officers and men, their polished boots sloshing through the melting snow piles. They were being briefed by their commanding officer. We couldn't hear what they were saying but their faces told us what we had feared. This was the end of our journey.
The tracks ahead had been completely ruined twisted into an endless chain of steel snakes by a recent Allied bombing attack.
We were to be unloaded, and then . . . .
I did not care.
Was death to come finally, after all the years of suffering in the concentration camps and ghettos? I did not care.
All that seemed important was that I was at last able to get out of the unbearable conditions on the train. For the last six days, since we had been loaded onto the train at Dachau, we had endured more discomfort than during all the years in the camps. When we entered the once luxurious Pullman cars (was it only six days ago?) we were each given Red Cross food parcels. We did not believe our own eyes.
Pullman cars? Our seemingly eternal Odysseys had always before been in sealed box cars.
Red Cross parcels? For five years camp rules had forbidden their distribution to Jewish inmates.
We must be witnessing the collapse of the German Reich. Otherwise such concessions would never take place.
We threw ourselves on the small food parcels in the manner of the SS dogs trained to attack prisoners. I spread a thick layer of margarine on a piece of cake and topped it with a mound of strawberry jam. This was followed by a can of sardines and a chocolate bar.
The food proved to be a vicious killer. Hundreds of my co-travelers, their stomachs dehydrated by years of starvation diets, couldn't stand the rich food and quickly died. The corridors were crowded with bodies.
Those still alive were terribly ill. I was tortured by hiccoughs which lasted for 24 hours without a minute's letup. I begged for a few drops of water, but this was an unheard of commodity aboard a prisoner train. My hiccoughs subsided, however, after my turn came for a little floor space on which to stretch out and nap.
As soon as I was able, I made my way to other compartments and heard persistent rumors concerning our destination. One man said he overheard our guards discuss the gas chambers at Linz. A railroad worker tapping the wheels beneath the windows confirmed this rumor, another man told me.
I brought the news back to my compartment. No one seemed surprised or shocked. No fate could be worse than life on this death-train, they said. But I believe that deep inside, everyone was as terrified as I was. After years of living through beatings, starvation and inhuman treatment, death seemed, at last, to have cornered us.
My thoughts went to my wife. Where was she? Would she ever find out what had happened to me?
Or had she, too, been packed on a crowded train and handed a Red Cross food package? The thought was so terrifying it made me numb and put a temporary end to my rational thinking.
Suddenly I was in a pushing, milling crowd as we were unloaded. As I took my first breath of clear air in nearly a week I saw that we were in a scenic paradise.
One carload of prisoners was assigned to carry their dead comrades some 200 of them from the cars, across the tracks into an adjoining forest. There a group was already busy digging a huge mass grave.
But we were hardly moved by what was going on around us. We were idling about in the balmy sun, intoxicated by the beauty of Seefeld a valley surrounded by the peaks of the Alps. Red and green houses were scattered on the snow-covered mountainsides, like blobs of paint thrown on a huge canvas. It seemed so unreal. Here we were sitting at a railway station at an exclusive resort as though waiting for a taxi to carry us to the hotel.
A huge truck drove up. It was filled with yes loaves of bread. The scenery faded as the familiar hunger pangs clutched at my stomach. The loaves were distributed, not as usual one to ten prisoners. Each loaf was to be split only four ways.
Oh, what a day! All could not be well with the Third Reich. Such a feast could be equated only with the imminent defeat of Germany. In our hands the large chunks of brown bread felt like a passport to freedom a promise of more miracles to come. And come they did in a swift succession of events.
It must have been close to noon. I unbuttoned my striped prisoner's tunic and let the sun's rays fall on my tired body. Just at that time we were ordered to form a column and march. Escorted by a line of SS guardsmen, we stumbled down the narrow street into town. The streets were deserted but the townspeople could be seen peeping through windows and closed doors.
They looked frightened and confused by this mass descent of ghosts on their quiet little village.
The column of marchers was moving slowly. The melting snow turned to black slush under thousands of dragging feet. I kept losing my wooden sandals in the mud.
Auf! Auf! a guard screamed at me angrily, when I tried to get the sandals out of the muck. A rifle butt slammed into the small of my back convinced me to leave the sandals behind.
Suddenly the column halted. The line of marchers closed ranks and as I looked back I saw a sea of shaven heads reaching back to the square. In the middle of the square was a large pump on a circular stand. A German officer mounted the stand and raised his hands for silence.
Kameraden, he started, very loudly, I have very important news for you. Hitler is dead! You are free! You are free to go where you please. The war is over!
I was thunderstruck.
It was the day I had prayed for for five years. When it came, it seemed too much for my mind to bear. I couldn't speak. I wept. Others wept, too. Through all the years, through all the hardship and humiliation there had been no tears. Now we embraced each other, kissed one another. I stumbled over abandoned rifles and fell into the slush.
Abandoned rifles. The guards were nowhere to be seen. Some of the more enterprising prisoners had entered private homes demanding food and shelter, while we romantics evaluated the great moment, spinning plans for the happy days ahead.
Suddenly the familiar whistles of the SS men broke through our daydreams. In minutes we were surrounded by them. The stragglers were rounded up and pushed into the street.
We were prisoners again.
The war wasn't over, the SS men told us. The officer who set us free was misled by propaganda from a foreign radio, they said. He had been arrested.
Our hearts sank. There must be some mistake, we whispered to each other. Soon will come official word of a German defeat.
We were marched down a side street back to the railway station. There an old engine, under full steam, was waiting on a narrow side track. Already people were being loaded into the single car attached to the engine. Seconds later the engine left the station and disappeared into a pine forest.
Where did the cog engine go? Where would we be taken? There was wild speculation among the prisoners.
-- They will hand us over to the Americans on the other side of the mountain.Meantime, the train returned and took on a fresh load of prisoners. I kept to the rear of the crowd, trying to delay my departure as long as possible. Finally I was packed aboard and after a 15-minute ride up hill, we were pushed out of the car into a large clearing. More than a thousand prisoners were there, surrounded by guards.
-- They will put us in a nearby concentration camp.
-- They'll drown us in a mountain lake.
-- They are trying to escape with us to Italy through a mountain pass.
It was cold there; the trees shut out the sun-
shine. I found some rags and wrapped them around my bare feet. The snow was deep.
Finally the last of the prisoners were unloaded and after them four machine guns and ammunition cases.
Now we knew our fate.
The Kommandant was personally supervising the setting up of the guns. In his rimless eyeglasses, he looked like a college professor. He was short and stocky with a tiny face that looked ridiculous beneath an oversize cap. But I did not smile.
He was loudly cursing his aide for being slow in setting up the guns. The Kommandant himself lifted a belt of ammunition from the case, fitted it to one gun. He knelt in the snow, aimed at us, and adjusted the range.
Suddenly, from nowhere, it seemed, a woman appeared. She dropped to her knees before the Kommandant and begged him to spare us. She was a handsome woman, dressed in a Persian lamb coat, black riding boots and a black fur hat. The Kommandant tried to free his legs from her embrace. Cursing, he shot his fist into her shoulder. She fell to the ground. Still she begged, Shoot me, but save these innocent people. The Americans are only a few miles away. They will take revenge on the whole town if you kill these prisoners. They will die, anyway.
The Kommandant raised his hand to quiet the woman. He thought for a few seconds and then yelled, Let one of you who speaks German come forward. We urged Dr. Cohen to step up.
Tell your people, said the Kommandant, this woman has saved their lives. Everyone is to get down in the snow. Anyone who raises his head will be shot down. Now, quickly!
The sun had disappeared behind the tall pines and dusk was falling. A light snow blanketed the forest. It was cold. We beat our arms and rubbed each other's backs to keep from freezing. Some of my comrades said death by bullets would have been more merciful. I, somehow, felt elated. The American Army, I told my comrades, is only a few miles away. Endure only a few more hours and the Americans will be here.
A friend came to my side. He handed me a pair of shoes he had removed from a dead prisoner. He told me the guards were gone. We crawled to the edge of the clearing. No guns, no SS. Insignia torn from German uniforms was strewn on the ground. We recruited a small group to walk down the mountain and try to reach the American lines. We soon came to a road and stopped a man on a bicycle. He directed us to the nearest town in American hands. Only 12 kilometers. We would make it.
Halt! Two German guards stepped into the middle of the road, their rifles pointed at our stomachs.
We were standing next to a bridge on the country road. A bent iron sign nearby told us our destination was only eight kilometers distant. An officer appeared and told us the bridge would soon be blown up, after the retreat of the German army. The Americans were then expected to advance and occupy this territory. In hours this quiet spot would be a battle zone and we had o chance of escape not by the road. He advised us to hide in the mountains.
Another hike. At the point of exhaustion, we spotted a small log cabin on a hillside, formerly used by some farmer to store hay. Inside, sheltered from the snow and wind, we lay down on the icy floor and fell asleep.
An earth-shaking explosion awoke us. It must be the little bridge. Then, more explosions. These we recognized as artillery fire. The shells seemed to be passing over our little shelter and we hugged the floor. Suddenly there was silence for several hours not a sound. We didn't move. We hardly breathed. Then there came a faint sound from the hills, a rattling sound.
Closer and closer, the sound came. And louder and louder, like a thousand horses trotting on cobblestones. We could stand the suspense no longer. One other fellow and myself left the cabin and decided to take a look outside. We came to a plateau from which we could see the road below.
There they were. Beautiful, colossal tanks, with big white stars painted on the sides. They reached as far as I could see, moving slowly and majestically in an orderly row. I stood rooted to the spot, forcing my mind to believe what my eyes saw. My comrade had notified the others and they all came running, yelling wildly, Amerikaner!
We couldn't keep our balance running down the steep hill. For the soldiers below this must have been a view to behold, this avalanche of human snowballs. When we reached the road the tanks had stopped and the men were looking out of the open hatches with amazement.
They recognized by our striped uniforms that we were prisoners. They threw food at us oranges, candy bars, cigarettes, K-rations.
You Jewish? yelled one soldier.We came, as one, to attention and joined him in singing the Zion anthem.
Yes, we chorused.
KOL OD BALEVAV PNIMA . . . he sang.
As the tanks moved on and disappeared around a bend in the road, the mountains echoed the rumbling of the machines of war and of the Hatikvah, the Song of Hope.
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