Chapter X

IN THE MORNING I AWOKE WITH A hangover. I crossed to the shower which had been set up in a neighboring room and let the icy waters of the Vistula splash over me for half an hour. It refreshed my tired nerves and chased the heaviness caused by the sleeping pills.

How well the Germans cared for us! They had built a beautiful ten-man shower, made of gleaming tile, for the exclusive use of the Sonderkommando members. Those who worked with corpses had to wash frequently, so showers were mandatory twice a day, a regulation to which we all gladly submitted.

I checked the contents of my medical bag. It had been brought to me from the storeroom by a Sonder man and had probably belonged to one of my medical colleagues, who had checked it with his clothes in the cloakroom before entering the gas chamber. In it I found a stethoscope, an apparatus for taking blood pressure, some good syringes, a number of other essential instruments and drugs, and several ampoules for emergency injections. I was happy to have it, for I knew that it would come in handy during my “visits.” Here, in the Sonderkommando, “visits” meant making the rounds of the four crematoriums.

I began with my own building. First I stopped at the SS living quarters, planning to examine anyone who showed up, for there were always a few. In the crematoriums everyone feigned illness from time to time in order to get a short respite from his exhausting and nerve-racking labors. There were also more serious cases upon occasion, but we had no trouble taking care of them: as for medical supplies, we could have vied with the best-stocked drugstore in Berlin.

A special kommando was given the job of inspecting the luggage left in the gas chamber lobbies and recouping all medicines before the clothes and shoes were shipped away. These medicines were then turned over to me to be arranged and classified according to their type and purpose. It was no easy job, for people were brought to Auschwitz from all over Europe, and the medicines they brought with them were naturally labeled in the language of the country of origin. So I found labels written in Greek, Polish, Czech and Dutch, all of which I had to decipher. I might mention in passing that the majority of medicines found on those who had been brought to the KZ belonged to one of several kinds of sedatives. Sedatives to quiet the nerves of Europe’s persecuted Jews.

Following my visit to the SS, I proceeded upstairs to the Sonderkommando’s living quarters. While I was there I treated a few cuts and bruises, common among chauffeurs. The Sonderkommando men seldom had any organic illnesses, for their clothes were clean, their beds were provided with fresh linen, and their food was good, sometimes even excellent. Besides they were all young men, hand-picked for their strength and good physical constitution. They did have, however, a general tendency to nervous disorders, for it was a tremendous strain on them to know that their brothers, their wives, their parents—their entire race—were perishing here. Day after day they took thousands of corpses and dragged them to the crematory ovens, where they loaded them with their own hands into the incineration cases. The result was acute nervous depression, and often neurasthenia. Everybody here had a past which he looked back on with sorrow, and a future he contemplated with despair. The Sonderkommando’s future was tightly circumscribed by time. Four years’ painful experience had shown that its life span was four months. At the end of that period a company of SS appeared. The entire kommando was herded into the crematorium’s rear courtyard. A machine-gun blast. Half an hour later a new Sonderkommando squad arrived. They undressed their dead companions. An hour later only a heap of ashes remained. The first job of every Sonderkommando crew was the cremation of its predecessor. During my visits there was always someone who took me aside and begged me to give him a swift, sure poison. I invariably refused. Today I am sorry I did. They are all dead. Their death was swift and sure all right—not self-administered as they would have preferred, but at the hands of the Nazi butchers.

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