Chapter XXI

I HAD BECOME USED TO SEEING A TRUCK enter the crematorium gate every evening about seven o’clock, carrying 70 to 80 men and women on their way to be liquidated. Coming from the barracks hospital, they represented the KZ’s daily selection. Prisoners for several years, or at least for several months, they were fully aware of the fate awaiting them. When the truck entered the courtyard the walls resounded with the screams and cries of the damned. They knew that at the foot of the crematory ovens all hope of escape dissolved.

Not wanting to witness that daily scene, I generally withdrew to the most remote corner of the crematorium courtyard, where I sat down under an arbor of pines. The crackling of the revolvers and the screams were deadened by the time they reached me.

One evening, however, my luck ran out. From five o’clock on I was working in the dissecting room. I had to examine the suicide case of an SS Oberschaarführer whose body had been sent me from Gleiwitz. An SS captain—one of the court-martial judges—and a clerk sat in on the dissection.

About seven o’clock, while I was dictating the affidavit to the SS clerk, the heavy truck loaded with prisoners entered the courtyard. Two windows, barred and covered with metal mosquito netting, looked out on the crematorium’s rear courtyard. All the occupants were extremely calm. From this I deduced that they had been selected not out of the barracks, but from the hospitals. They were all seriously ill, too weak to scream or even to climb down from the raised platform of the truck.

The SS guards became excited and began to shout, urging them to get down. No one moved. The driver also began to lose patience. He climbed back in the truck and started the motor. Little by little the truck’s immense dump began to rise, till suddenly it spilled the occupants to the ground, a writhing, slipping, frantically grasping mass. As they fell they bumped against each other, striking their heads, their faces, their knees against the concrete. Then at last a horrible, collective cry of pain burst forth and echoed throughout the courtyard.

The SS court-martial judge, drawn by the moans and shouts, interrupted his investigations to ask me: “What’s going on in the courtyard?” He came over to the window, where I explained to him just what was happening. Apparently he was not used to such scenes, for he turned his head away and said disapprovingly, “Nevertheless, they shouldn’t do that!”

The Sonderkommando stripped them of their clothes and piled the discarded rags in the courtyard. The victims were led into the incineration rooms and put in front of the Oberschaarführer’s revolver barrel. Mussfeld was today’s killer on duty. Standing near the ovens, wearing rubber gloves, he held his weapon with a steady hand. One by one the bodies fell, each yielding his place to the next in line. Within a few minutes he had “tumbled” —that was the term in general usage—the eighty men. Half an hour later they had all been cremated.

Later Mussfeld paid me a visit and asked me to give him a physical check up. He suffered from heart trouble and severe headaches. I checked his blood pressure, took his pulse, listened to his heart with a stethoscope. His pulse rate was slightly high. I gave him my opinion: his condition was no doubt the result of the little job he had just performed in the furnace room. I had wanted to reassure him, but the result was just the opposite. He became indignant, got up and said:

“Your diagnosis is incorrect. It doesn’t bother me any more to kill 100 men than it does to kill 5. If I’m upset, it’s merely because I drink too much.”

And so saying he turned and walked away, greatly displeased.

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