Chapter XI

MY NEXT VISIT TOOK ME TO NUMBER two crematorium, which was separated from number one by a path through some fields and by the Jewish unloading platform along the railroad tracks. It was built according to the same plans as number one. The only difference I noticed was that the space corresponding to the dissection room in number one was here used as a gold foundry. Otherwise the layout of the undressing room, the gas chamber, the incineration room and the living quarters of the SS and the Sonderkommando was exactly the same.

It was to the foundry that all the gold teeth and bridgework collected in the four crematoriums were brought, all the jewelry and gold coins, the precious stones and platinum objects, the watches, the gold cigarette cases and any other precious metal found in the trunks, the suitcases, the clothes, or on the bodies of the dead. Three goldsmiths were employed here. First they disinfected the jewelry, then sorted and classified it. They removed the precious stones and sent the settings to the foundry. The gold teeth and jewelry supplied each day by the four crematoriums produced, once smelted, between 65 and 75 pounds of pure gold.

The smelting took place in a graphite crucible about two inches in diameter. The weight of the gold cylinder was 140 grams. I knew that figure to be exact because I had weighed more than one on an accurate scale in the dissecting room.

The doctors who removed the teeth from the bodies prior to cremation did not throw all the precious metal into the bucket filled with acid, for a portion—sometimes a fair amount, sometimes only a little—went into the pockets of the SS guards when these morbid treasures were being collected. It was the same for the jewelry and gems sewed into the linings of the clothes, and the gold coins left in the undressing room. In the latter instance, however, it was the Sonderkommando entrusted with the job of going through the luggage who profited. An exceedingly dangerous game, though, for the SS guards were ubiquitous, and they kept a close watch on this newly acquired property, which henceforth belonged to the Third Reich. Needless to say, they kept an especially close watch on the gold and jewelry.

At first I did not understand how, from a judicial or moral point of view, the Sonderkommando could bring themselves to pocket the gold. But a few days later, once I had a better grasp of the situation, I was inclined to agree that it was indeed the Sonderkommando who should—if anybody should—be considered the sole heirs and legal proprietors of the treasures which fortune had brought their way.

The men of the Sonderkommando also turned their gold over to be smelted. Despite the strictest supervision there were always ways of getting it to the goldsmiths and of later retrieving it in the form of 140 gram “coins.” But putting this gold to work, that is, exchanging it for useful goods, was a more difficult job. No one dreamed of hoarding his gold, for he knew that in four months’ time he would be dead. But for us four months was a very long time. To be condemned to death and yet forced to perform jobs such as we had to perform day after day was enough to break the body and soul of the strongest among us, and to drive many to the brink of insanity. It was thus necessary to make life easier, more bearable, even for a few weeks’ time. With gold you could do that, even in the crematoriums.

Thus was born, in the days of the first Sonderkommando, a unit of exchange: the 140 gram gold cylinder. This same unit was still being used by the twelfth Sonderkommando. The goldsmiths did not have any crucible of a smaller diameter, so there was no way for them to make a smaller “coin.”

In the crematoriums an object had no “value” in the ordinary sense of the term. Anyone who paid for something with gold had already paid with his life the day he entered here. But the person who gave something in exchange for gold doubly risked his neck, once when he brought the articles that were hard to come by, even on the outside, through the SS barricades and check points, and again on his return trip carrying the gold he had received in payment. For both coming in and leaving one was always searched.

On its way out the gold was carried in a Sonderkommando man’s pocket as far as the crematorium gate. There it changed hands. The man carrying the gold approached the SS guard on duty and exchanged a few words with him. The latter turned and sauntered away from the gate. On the section of railway track that passed in front of the “Krema” a team of from 20 to 25 Poles was working. At a sign from the Sonderkommando man, their work boss arrived with a folded sack and took the gold, which was wrapped in paper. So the sack containing the desired articles was safely inside the crematorium.

The Sonderkommando man entered the guardhouse, which was near the gate. He took about a hundred cigarettes and a bottle of brandy from the sack. The SS trooper entered and quickly pocketed both the bottle and cigarettes. He was of course extremely pleased, for the SS received only two cigarettes a day and no alcohol at all. And yet both were indispensable here. The SS guards drank and smoked heavily; so did the Sonderkommando.

Other necessary items, such as butter, eggs, ham and onions, were smuggled in by this same method. Nothing of this sort arrived with the deportees. Since the gold was procured through a collective effort, the distribution of the merchandise received in exchange was made on this same basis. Thus both the crematorium personnel and the SS non-coms received an ample supply of food, liquor and cigarettes. Everyone shut his eyes to this traffic, for it was to everyone’s advantage that it continue. Taken individually, any SS guard in the crematorium could be bought. They distrusted only themselves, knowing that the Sonderkommando had never betrayed anyone and never would. That was why the food, liquor and cigarettes were turned over to one SS guard by one “confidence man” from the kommando.

By this same underground route the official organ of the Third Reich, the Völkischer Beobachter was brought every day to the crematorium by a different railroad worker. A monthly subscription cost one 140 gram gold cylinder. Anyone who risked his neck thirty times a month bringing his newspaper to a KZ prisoner deserved the sum he received.

Since my arrival in the crematorium I had been the first one to receive this smuggled copy. I read it in a safe hiding place, then related the day’s events to one of the prisoner-clerks, who in turn passed on the news to his companions. Within a few minutes everyone had heard the latest news.

The Sonderkommando was an elite group; its advantages and privileges have already been noted. In contrast to the prisoners in the camp proper, who writhed in lice-filled boxes, who, mad with hunger, battled furiously for a scrap of bread or a piece of potato, its lot was indeed good. Fully aware of this unbalanced situation, the Sonderkommando distributed food and clothing to their less fortunate comrades whenever they could.

For the past several days a woman’s kommando of about 500 road workers had been busy not far from the crematorium gate. They were guarded by two SS and four police dogs. Their job consisted of carrying rocks to be used in the construction of a road. Several men from the Sonderkommando, with the permission of their own guards, approached the two SS guarding the women and slipped them each a pack of cigarettes. With that the deal was concluded. Then three or four women, loaded with stones, walked over to our gate, as if their work had brought them there, and immediately gathered up all the clothing that had been prepared for them. They also got some bread, bacon and cigarettes. In turn, they were replaced by others in the kommando, till each had received her share. There was never any favoritism shown by the Sonderkommando, for none of us knew any of the women personally. Overjoyed with their “presents,” they returned to their work. The next day a different group replaced them and the same scene was re-enacted.

The crematoriums’ enormous storeroom contained great quantities of clothes and shoes awaiting shipment, and I would estimate that several thousand women prisoners were aided in this manner by the Sonderkommando. I also tried to do my bit: loading my pockets with vitamin pills, sulfa tablets, bottles of iodine, bandages and anything else I thought might be useful, I handed them out as the women passed. When my stock was depleted, I returned to my room and refilled my pockets; for those who received them, these medicines often meant the difference between life and death. At least for a little while.

After finishing in number two, I visited number three and number four crematoriums. In number three, besides the Greek and Polish members who made up the majority of the kommando, I noticed that there were already about a hundred Hungarian deportees. In number four the kommando consisted largely of Poles and Frenchmen.

In all these death factories work was in full swing. From the Jewish unloading platform, which was divided into four large finger-like projections, similar to the delta of some flooded river, the victims spilled to their death with maniacal fury. Horrified, I noted with what order and robot-like precision the murders were perpetrated, as if these factories were here for all eternity.

If by chance I ever get out of this place alive, I thought, and have a chance to relate all I’ve seen and lived through, who will believe me? Words, descriptions are quite incapable of furnishing anyone with an accurate picture of what goes on here. So my efforts to photograph in my mind all I see and engrave it in my memory are, after all, completely useless.

With this discouraging thought running through my mind, I completed my first day’s tour of the four crematoriums.

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