Chapter IX

IT WAS ALREADY LATE, AND GROWING dark. Dr. Mengele had left and I was alone with my thoughts. Mechanically I arranged the instruments used for the autopsy and, after washing my hands, went into the work room and lighted a cigarette, hoping to find a minute’s peace. Suddenly I heard a scream that sent chills up and down my spine. Then, immediately afterwards, a thud that sounded like a falling body. I listened, my nerves taut, for what the following minutes would bring. Before another minute had passed I heard another scream, a click and the fall of a body. I counted seventy screams, clicks, thuds. Heavy footsteps retreated and all grew quiet.

The scene of the bloody tragedy that had just been enacted was the room adjoining the dissecting room. The hall led directly into it. It was a half-darkened place, with a concrete floor and barred windows that looked out onto the back courtyard. I used it as a storeroom for corpses, keeping them there till it was their turn for dissection, then returning them there after the autopsy till they were sent to be burned. Used, dirty women’s clothes; battered wooden shoes; glasses; pieces of stale bread—the normal run of KZ women’s articles—lay piled before the entrance to the room. After what I had heard I was prepared for something extraordinary. I entered the room and glanced quickly around. A terrifying scene gradually unfolded: before me were sprawled the naked bodies of seventy women; curled up, bathed in their own blood and in the blood of their neighbors, they lay in utter disarray about the room.

As my eyes grew more accustomed to the dim light I discovered to my horror that not all the victims were dead. Some were still breathing, moving their arms or legs slowly; with glazed eyes, they tried to raise their bloody heads. I lifted two, three heads of those still alive, and suddenly realized that, besides death by gas and chloroform injections, there was a third way of killing here: a bullet in the back of the neck. The wound revealed that a six-millimeter bullet had been used: there was no exit hole. From these cursory observations, I concluded that it had been a soft lead bullet, because only this type bullet will imbed itself in the skull structure. Unfortunately I knew something of such matters and was able to size up the situation quickly in all its horror. There was nothing surprising in the fact that these small-caliber bullets did not cause instantaneous death in all cases, although they were fired—the powder burns on the skin proved it—from a distance of only an inch or two, right into the spinal medulla. It appeared that in some instances the bullet had deviated slightly from its path; thus death had not always been instantaneous.

I took note of that as well, but meditated no further; I was afraid of going mad. Stepping out into the courtyard I asked a member of the Sonderkommando where the women had come from.

“They were taken from C Section,” he said. “Every evening a truck brings seventy of them. They all get a bullet in the back of the neck.”

My head spinning, struck dumb with horror, I walked along the gravel path which divided the well-kept lawn of the crematorium courtyard. My gaze wandered to the evening muster of Sonderkommando. This evening there was no change of guard. Number one crematorium was not working today. I glanced in the direction of numbers two, three and four: their chimneys were spewing flame and smoke. Business as usual.

It was too early for dinner. The Sonderkommando brought out a football. The teams lined up on the field. “SS versus SK.” On one side of the field the crematorium’s SS guards; on the other, the Sonderkommando. They put the ball into play. Sonorous laughter filled the courtyard. The spectators became excited and shouted encouragement at the players, as if this were the playing field of some peaceful town. Stupefied, I made that mental note as well. Without waiting for the end of the match, I returned to my room. After supper I swallowed two sleeping tablets of ten centigrams each and fell asleep. A badly needed sleep, for I felt my nerves stretched to the breaking point. In such cases, sleeping tablets were the best remedy.

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