IN MY ROLE OF SONDERKOMMANDO doctor, I was making my morning rounds. All four crematoriums were working at full blast. Last night they had burned the Greek Jews from the Mediterranean island of Corfu, one of the oldest communities of Europe. The victims were kept for twenty-seven days without food or water, first in launches, then in sealed box cars. When they arrived at Auschwitz’s unloading platform, the doors were unlocked, but no one got out and lined up for selection. Half of them were already dead, and the other half in a coma. The entire convoy, without exception, was sent to number two crematorium.
Work was accelerated during the night, so that by morning all that remained of the convoy was a pile of dirty, disheveled clothes in the crematorium courtyard. I gazed sadly at the hill of rags which, little by little, grew wet and soggy beneath a fine autumn rain. Glancing upward, I noticed that the four lightning rods placed at the corners of the crematorium chimneys were twisted and bent, the result of the previous night’s high temperatures.
Today, during my rounds, a serious case awaited me in number four. One of the Sonderkommando chauffeurs had tried to commit suicide by taking an overdose of sleeping tablets. This was the most common method of committing suicide at Auschwitz. The men of the Sonderkommando had no trouble procuring sleeping tablets, for they found large numbers of them every day when they went through the belongings of the dead.
Approaching his bed, I was moved and chagrined to see that the patient was none other than the “Captain.” That was what everyone called him, for no one knew what his real name was. A native of Athens, he had been a captain in the regular army and tutor to the children of the royal family of Greece. He was a polite, intelligent man, with three years of KZ behind him. His wife and children had been sent to the gas chamber as soon as they had arrived. Now, having lost consciousness, he was sleeping peacefully. He had probably taken the sleeping tablets several hours earlier, and yet I found that, for the moment at least, he was in no real danger. The men of the Sonderkommando grouped around his bed asked me softly, and with resignation, “to let the captain go.”
“Don’t save him,” one of them said. “You’ll only be prolonging the agony. And you can see for yourself he wanted to escape it now, instead of waiting for the firing squad in a few weeks.”
Others offered much the same argument, but I silently went about preparing my instruments. Seeing that their arguments had had no effect, and that I was preparing to inject the antidote, some of the men lost their tempers and spared no words as they told me what they thought of my action. Nevertheless I finished the injections and left the room. Unless he contracted pneumonia during the next five or six days, the Captain would live. Then for several weeks he would continue to stoke the furnaces that burned the bodies of thousands upon thousands of his fellow men, tortured and killed by gas. Till one day the Sonderkommando’s final hour would toll, and he and his companions would line up outside the crematorium. A machine-gun blast and all would be over. He and the others would fall, their eyes filled with horror and astonishment.
Now that I was no longer beside his bed, now that his face no longer called forth the doctor in me, the purely human side of my nature was forced to admit that the Captain’s friends had been right. I should have “let him go his way,” not in front of the cold steel barrel of a machine gun, but in the pleasant narcosis that now enveloped him, where he was free from all moral and physical pain.
I finished my rounds and returned to number one. I glanced around the dissection room and saw that my new colleagues were busy working, with the zeal of neophytes, on the dysentery-racked bodies provided by Dr. Wolff. They were clean shaven and were wearing spotless smocks, new clothes and decent shoes. They looked human again. To see them standing around the dissection table in their white smocks and rubber gloves, anyone unacquainted with the work that went on here might easily have taken this to be the laboratory and dissecting room of some serious scientific institute. But I who had worked here for three months knew that it was not an institute of science, but of pseudo-science. Like the ethnological studies, like the notions of a Master Race, Dr. Mengele’s research into the origins of dual births was nothing more than a pseudo-science. Just as false was the theory concerning the degeneracy of the dwarfs and cripples sent to the butchers, in order to demonstrate the inferiority of the Jewish race. To be sure, all this was not to be propagated immediately, for the German people were not yet ready to swallow it. But when the race of Supermen had achieved final victory, having won the war and acquired the territory vital to its needs, then the skeletons of these cripples and dwarfs who had been murdered here would be put on display in the spacious halls of great museums, along with a descriptive plaque giving their name, age, nationality, occupation, etc. Then, on the anniversary of Victory Day, thousands of students of this Third Reich, built to endure a thousand years, would be led through these halls by their professors, to pay homage to their illustrious forebears. Their forebears who, by this victory, and the realization of the sacred mission which History had entrusted to the Master Race, had pushed the surrounding peoples—French, Belgians, Russians, Poles—into the niches corresponding to their inferiority. Better still, they would have completely annihilated one European people, the Jews, who had a long history behind them, a history of 6,000 years, but who had no right to exist a few centuries longer. Why? Because in the course of its long history the Jewish race had degenerated into a people of dwarfs and cripples. By mixing with other races, they had sullied, and threatened to contaminate with degeneracy, the only pure race: the Aryan.
Because of their blood, the Jews were harmful to that great race. Moreover, they were dangerous because their teachers, their artists, their merchants and financiers had become so powerful they threatened to enslave the whole of Europe. By destroying this race the Third Reich’s first Führer had given his name immortal stature, and gained the respect and gratitude of all the civilized nations of the world.
It was on the basis of these nonsensical theories that the Nazis waged their war against the rest of the world and destroyed, after deportation, literally all of Europe’s Jews, down to the lastborn, suckling babe.
Everything in Germany was false. They called this war a crusade. In their eyes the whole of Russia was a savage steppe, peopled by Mongolian barbarians, themselves a threat to civilization. France was a syphilitic nation, well on its way to dissolution. The English, from their Prime Minister on down, were all incurable alcoholics, suffering for the most part from delirium tremens. While the Japanese, on the other hand, whom most people would be inclined to classify as Mongolians, were considered respectable Aryans, because the exigencies of the moment demanded it.
Their whole outlook on life was a lie. Their daughters and war widows could bear children by any man and receive the thanks of the State for doing so. Children so born could take the name their mother chose for them from among the names of those men, often numerous, to whom she had given herself. The multiplication of the race demanded it. Their cynicism was complete and terrible: details, like the lying signs outside the underground chambers of the crematoriums that announced in seven languages, “BATHS,” whereas in reality they were gas chambers; the boxes of cyclon gas,5 which were labeled, “POISON: FOR THE DESTRUCTION OF PARASITES,” the parasites being, of course, the untold thousands of innocent Jews murdered in the space of a few minutes. Who knows just how far the lie went? Perhaps indeed the signs on the KZ’s electric barbed wire also lied; perhaps there was really no 6,000-volt current running through it. But no, that was no lie, for I remembered having seen Oberschaarführer Mussfeld’s giant wolfhound run into the fence one day, at a point not far from the crematorium gate, and die instantly, electrocuted.
While on the subject of signs, I should not forget to mention the one, read by all prisoners, that was posted at the entrance of the camp. It exhorted them with these words: “FREEDOM THROUGH WORK.” Here is a concrete example of what those words really meant. One day a line of box cars stopped at the Auschwitz unloading platform. The doors slid open and 300 prisoners climbed down. Their skin was a lemon yellow color, and they were emaciated beyond all description. When they entered the crematorium courtyard I had a chance to converse with some of them. This is the essence of what they said:
“Three months ago we were shipped away from Auschwitz to work in a factory that manufactures sulphuric acid. When we left there were 3,000 of us, but many died of various and sundry illnesses. Now only 300 of us are left, and we’re all suffering from sulphuric poisoning.”
They had been told, before being sent back here, that they would be sent for a cure to a rest camp. Half an hour later I saw their blood-spattered bodies lying in front of the crematorium ovens. “Freedom through work!” “Rest camp!” How diabolic can one get? And that is just one of many examples. To cite another: during the months of June and July thousands of postcards were distributed to the inmates of overcrowded barracks, with instructions that they be sent to friends or acquaintances of the prisoners. It was strictly specified that the cards should in no circumstances be headed either “Auschwitz” or “Birkenau,” but “Am Waldsee,” which is a resort town located not far from the Swiss border. The cards were duly sent, and numerous replies came back. I saw these replies burned, some 50,000 of them according to reliable reports, on a pyre set up in the middle of the crematorium courtyard. To have distributed them to the addressees was quite out of the question, for the latter had preceded the former, that is, the addressees had been burned before the letters. That is the way the matter had been arranged. The purpose of this little scheme had been to allay the fears of the public at large and put an end to the rumors that were rife concerning camps like Auschwitz.