Chapter I

MAY, 1944. INSIDE EACH OF THE locked cattle cars ninety people were jammed. The stench of the urinal buckets, which were so full they overflowed, made the air unbreathable.

The train of the deportees. For four days, forty identical cars had been rolling endlessly on, first across Slovakia, then across the territory of the Central Government, bearing us towards an unknown destination. We were part of the first group of over a million Hungarian Jews condemned to death.

Leaving Tatra behind us, we passed the stations of Lublin and Krakau. During the war these two cities were used as regroupment camps—or, more exactly, as extermination camps—for here all the anti-Nazis of Europe were herded and sorted out for extermination.

Scarcely an hour out of Krakau the train ground to a halt before a station of some importance. Signs in Gothic letters announced it as “Auschwitz,” a place which meant nothing to us, for we had never heard of it.

Peering through a crack in the side of the car, I noticed an unusual bustle taking place about the train. The SS troops who had accompanied us till now were replaced by others. The trainmen left the train. From chance snatches of conversation overheard I gathered we were nearing the end of our journey.

The line of cars began to move again, and some twenty minutes later stopped with a prolonged, strident whistle of the locomotive.

Through the crack I saw a desert-like terrain: the earth was a yellowish clay, similar to that of Eastern Silesia, broken here and there by a green thicket of trees. Concrete pylons stretched in even rows to the horizon, with barbed wire strung between them from top to bottom. Signs warned us that the wires were electrically charged with high tension current. Inside the enormous squares bounded by the pylons stood hundreds of barracks, covered with green tar-paper and arranged to form a long, rectangular network of streets as far as the eye could see.

Tattered figures, dressed in the striped burlap of prisoners, moved about inside the camp. Some were carrying planks, others were wielding picks and shovels, and, farther on, still others were hoisting fat trunks onto the backs of waiting trucks.

The barbed wire enclosure was interrupted every thirty or forty yards by elevated watch towers, in each of which an SS guard stood leaning against a machine gun mounted on a tripod. This then was the Auschwitz concentration camp, or, according to the Germans, who delight in abbreviating everything, the KZ, pronounced “Katzet.” Not a very encouraging sight to say the least, but for the moment our awakened curiosity got the better of our fear.

I glanced around the car at my companions. Our group consisted of some twenty-six doctors, six pharmacists, six women, our children, and some elderly people, both men and women, our parents and relatives. Seated on their baggage or on the floor of the car, they looked both tired and apathetic, their faces betraying a sort of foreboding that even the excitement of our arrival was unable to dispel. Several of the children were asleep. Others sat munching the few scraps of food we had left. And the rest, finding nothing to eat, were vainly trying to wet their desiccated lips with dry tongues.

Heavy footsteps crunched on the sand. The shout of orders broke the monotony of the wait. The seals on the cars were broken. The door slid slowly open and we could already hear them giving us orders.

“Everyone get out and bring his hand baggage with him. Leave all heavy baggage in the cars.”

We jumped to the ground, then turned to take our wives and children in our arms and help them down, for the level of the cars was over four and a half feet from the ground. The guards had us line up along the tracks. Before us stood a young SS officer, impeccable in his uniform, a gold rosette gracing his lapel, his boots smartly polished. Though unfamiliar with the various SS ranks, I surmised from his arm band that he was a doctor. Later I learned that he was the head of the SS group, that his name was Dr. Mengele, and that he was chief physician of the Auschwitz concentration camp. As the “medical selector” for the camp, he was present at the arrival of every train.

In the moments that followed we experienced certain phases of what, at Auschwitz, was called “selection.” As for the subsequent phases, everyone lived through them according to his particular fate.

To start, the SS quickly divided us according to sex, leaving all children under fourteen with their mothers. So our once united group was straightway split in two. A feeling of dread overwhelmed us. But the guards replied to our anxious questions in a paternal, almost good-natured manner. It was nothing to be concerned about. They were being taken off for a bath and to be disinfected, as was the custom. Afterwards we would all be reunited with our families.

While they sorted us out for transportation I had a chance to look around. In the light of the dying sun the image glimpsed earlier through the crack in the box car seemed to have changed, grown more eery and menacing. One object immediately caught my eye: an immense square chimney, built of red bricks, tapering towards the summit. It towered above a two-story building and looked like a strange factory chimney. I was especially struck by the enormous tongues of flame rising between the lightning rods, which were set at angles on the square tops of the chimney. I tried to imagine what hellish cooking would require such a tremendous fire. Suddenly I realized that we were in Germany, the land of the crematory ovens. I had spent ten years in this country, first as a student, later as a doctor, and knew that even the smallest city had its crematorium.

So the “factory” was a crematorium. A little farther on I saw a second building with its chimney; then, almost hidden in a thicket, a third, whose chimneys were spewing the same flames. A faint wind brought the smoke towards me. My nose, then my throat, were filled with the nauseating odor of burning flesh and scorched hair. —Plenty of food for thought there. But meanwhile the second phase of selection had begun. In single file, men, women, children, the aged, had to pass before the selection committee.

Dr. Mengele, the medical “selector,” made a sign. They lined up again in two groups. The left-hand column included the aged, the crippled, the feeble, and women with children under fourteen. The right-hand column consisted entirely of able-bodied men and women: those able to work. In this latter group I noticed my wife and fourteen-year-old daughter. We no longer had any way of speaking to each other; all we could do was make signs.

Those too sick to walk, the aged and insane, were loaded into Red Cross vans. Some of the elderly doctors in my group asked if they could also get into the vans. The trucks departed, then the left-hand group, five abreast, flanked by SS guards, moved off in its turn. In a few minutes they were out of sight, cut off from view by a thicket of trees.

The right-hand column had not moved. Dr. Mengele ordered all doctors to step forward; he then approached the new group, composed of some fifty doctors, and asked those who had studied in a German university, who had a thorough knowledge of pathology and had practiced forensic medicine, to step forward.

“Be very careful,” he added. “You must be equal to the task; for if you’re not . . .” and his menacing gesture left little to the imagination. I glanced at my companions. Perhaps they were intimidated. What did it matter! My mind was already made up.

I broke ranks and presented myself. Dr. Mengele questioned me at length, asking me where I had studied, the names of my pathology professors, how I had acquired a knowledge of forensic medicine, how long I had practiced, etc. Apparently my answers were satisfactory, for he immediately separated me from the others and ordered my colleagues to return to their places. For the moment they were spared. Because I must now state a truth of which I then was ignorant, namely, that the left-hand group, and those who went off in cars, passed a few moments later through the doors of the crematorium. From which no one ever returned.

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