EARLY ONE MORNING I RECEIVED A phone call ordering me to report immediately to the “pyre” for the purpose of bringing back to number one crematorium all the medicines and eyeglasses that had been collected there. After being sorted and classified they would be shipped to various parts of Germany.
The pyre was located about five or six hundred yards from number four crematorium, directly behind the little birch forest of Birkenau, in a clearing surrounded by pines. It lay outside the KZ’s electric barbed wire fence, between the first and second lines of guards. Since I was not authorized to venture so far from the actual confines of the camp, I requested some sort of written permission from the office. They issued me a safe conduct good for three persons, for I planned on taking two men with me to help carry the material back to the crematorium.
We set off in the direction of the thick twisting spiral of smoke. All those unfortunate enough to be brought here saw this column of smoke, which was visible from any point in the KZ, from the moment they first descended from the box cars and lined up for selection. It was visible at every hour of the day and night. By day it covered the sky above Birkenau with a thick cloud; by night it lighted the area with a hellish glow.
Our path took us past the crematoriums. After showing the SS guards our safe conduct, we passed through an opening cut in the barbed wire and reached an open road. The surrounding countryside—a patchwork of bright green, grassy clearing—seemed peaceful. But soon my watchful eyes discerned, about a hundred yards away, the guards of the second line, either lounging on the grass or sitting beside their machine guns and police dogs.
We crossed a clearing and came to a small pine forest. Once again we found our way blocked by a fence and gate strung with barbed wire. A large sign, similar to those on the crematorium gates, was posted here:
ENTRANCE IS STRICTLY FORBIDDEN TO ALL THOSE WHO HAVE NO BUSINESS HERE, INCLUDING SS PERSONNEL NOT ASSIGNED TO THIS COMMAND.
In spite of this sign, we entered without the guards even asking us for our pass. The reason was simple: the SS guards on duty here were from the crematoriums, and the 60 Sonderkommando men who worked at the pyre were also crematorium personnel from number two. At present the day shift was on. They worked from seven in the morning till seven in the evening, when they were replaced by the night watch, which also consisted of 60 men, taken from number four.
Passing through the gate, we reached an open place which resembled a courtyard, in the middle of which stood a thatched-roof house whose plaster was peeling off. Its style was that of a typical German country house, and its small windows were covered with planks. As a matter of fact, it no doubt had been a country house for at least 150 years, to judge by its thatched roof, which had long since turned black, and its often replastered, flaking walls.
The German State had expropriated the entire village of Birkenau near Auschwitz, in order to establish the KZ there. All the houses, with the exception of this one, had been demolished, and the population evacuated.
What, in fact, must this house have been used for? Had it been meant to be lived in? In that case partitions must have divided the interior into rooms. Or had it originally been one large room, without partitions, meant to be used as a hangar or storeroom? I asked myself these questions, but was unable to supply the answers. In any case, it was now used as an undressing room for those on their way to the pyre. It was here that they deposited their shabby clothes, their glasses, and their shoes.
It was here that the “surplus” from the “Jewish ramp” was sent, that is, those for whom there was no room in the four crematoriums. The worst kind of death awaited them. Here there were no faucets to slake the thirst of several days’ voyage, no fallacious signs to allay their misgivings, no gas chamber which they could pretend was a disinfecting room. Merely a peasant house, once painted yellow and covered with thatch, whose windows had been replaced by planks.
Behind the house enormous columns of smoke rose skyward, diffusing the odor of broiled flesh and burning hair. In the courtyard a terrified crowd of about 5,000 souls; on all sides thick cordons of SS, holding leashed police dogs. The prisoners were led, three or four hundred at a time, into the undressing room. There, hustled by a rain of truncheon blows, they spread out their clothes and left by the door at the opposite side of the house, yielding their places to those who were to follow. Once out the door, they had no time even to glance around them or to realize the horror of their situation. A Sonderkommando immediately seized their arms and steered them between the double row of SS who lined the twisting path, which, flanked on either side by woods, ran for 50 yards to the pyre, which till now had been hidden by the trees.
The pyre was a ditch 50 yards long, six yards wide and three yards deep, a welter of burning bodies. SS soldiers, stationed at five-yard intervals along the pathway side of the ditch, awaited their victims. They were holding small caliber arms—six millimeters—used in the KZ for administering a bullet in the back of the neck. At the end of the pathway two Sonderkommando men seized the victims by the arms and dragged them for 15 or 20 yards into position before the SS. Their cries of terror covered the sound of the shots. A shot, then, immediately afterwards, even before he was dead, the victim was hurled into the flames. Fifty yards farther on a scene similar in all respects was being enacted. Oberschaarführer Molle was in charge of these butchers. As a doctor, and as an eye-witness, I swear that he was the Third Reich’s most abject, diabolic and hardened assassin. Even Dr. Mengele showed from time to time that he was human. During the selections at the unloading ramp, when he noticed a healthy young woman who above all wanted to join her mother in the left-hand column, he snarled at her coarsely, but ordered her to regain the right-hand group. Even the ace shot of the number one crematorium, Oberschaarführer Mussfeld, fired a second shot into anyone whom the first shot had not killed outright. Oberschaarführer Molle wasted no time over such trifles. Here the majority of the men were thrown alive into the flames. Woe to any Sonderkommando by whose action the living chain, which extended from cloakroom to pyre, was broken, with the result that one of the members of the firing squad was forced to wait for a few seconds before receiving his new victim.
Molle was everywhere at once. He made his way tirelessly from one pyre to the next, to the cloakroom and back again. Most of the time the deportees allowed themselves to be led without resistance. So paralyzed were they with fright and terror that they no longer realized what was about to happen to them. The majority of the elderly and the children reacted in this way. There were, however, a goodly number of adolescents among those brought here, who instinctively tried to resist, with a strength born of despair. If Molle happened to witness such a scene, he took his gun from his holster. A shot, a bullet often fired from a distance of 40 to 50 yards, and the struggling person fell dead in the arms of the Sonderkommando who was dragging him towards the pyre. Molle was an ace shot. His bullets often pierced the arms of the Sonderkommando men from one side to the other when he was dissatisfied with their work. In such cases he inevitably aimed for the arms, without otherwise manifesting his dissatisfaction, but also without giving any previous warning.
When the two pyres were operating simultaneously, the output varied from five to six thousand dead a day. Slightly better than the crematoriums, but here death was a thousand times more terrible, for here one died twice, first by a bullet in the back of the neck, then by fire.
After death by gas, by chloroform injections, and a bullet in the back of the neck, I had now made my acquaintance with this fourth “combined” method.
I gathered up the medicines and glasses left behind by the victims. Dazed, my knees still trembling with emotion, I started for home, that is, for number one crematorium, which, to quote Dr. Mengele himself, “was no sanatorium, but a place where one could live in a pretty decent way.” After having seen the pyres, I was inclined to agree with him.
Once home, I entered the room, but instead of arranging the medicines and spectacles, I took a sedative and went to bed. Today’s dose was 30 centigrams, sufficient, I hoped, to counteract the effects of funeral pyre sickness.