Chapter XXVI

THREE DAYS LATER I RETURNED TO C Camp to check and make certain my wife and daughter had indeed departed. They were gone all right, with one of the two convoys consisting of 3,000 prisoners. I did not know what the future might hold in store for them, but I was nevertheless relieved, for here they were headed towards certain death. Now, with a little luck, they might escape with their lives. Indications that the war was drawing to a close were becoming increasingly evident. The Third Reich’s grave was already being dug. I had a feeling that, at this point in the game, a prisoner’s chances of survival were roughly proportional to his distance from camps such as Auschwitz. Which meant that my own chances were growing slimmer every day.

Whatever my fate, however, at least I could end my days knowing that my family was now far from the paths leading to the funeral pyres. It was neither fear nor despair that kept the thought of death uppermost in my mind, but rather the memory of the eleventh Sonderkommando’s bloody end, presaging our own, plus a coldly objective attitude, untainted by any sentimentality.

As I left C Camp, I let my gaze linger in farewell upon the rows of dilapidated barracks. It was with a mixture of sadness and compassion that I looked once more upon the grotesque spectacle of our women and girls: they who had once been so attractive, so meticulous in their toilet and dress, were now shaven and emaciated, dressed like scarecrows, stripped of all human dignity, ghosts of their former selves.

As I returned to the crematoriums I found myself shivering, and suddenly realized that autumn was here: it was already the end of September. The north wind, sweeping down from the already whitened summits of the mountains, sang through the barbed wires and made the shutters creak ominously. The only bird that inhabited this god-forsaken region, the crow, flashed against the leaden sky. From the crematoriums, built to endure forever, the wind bore clouds of smoke, and with them the characteristic, familiar odor of burning hair and flesh.

My days were spent in idleness, my nights were sleepless. I was terribly depressed; all desire had left me. Since my family’s departure, I had been filled with loneliness and haunted by my own inactivity. For the past several days silence and boredom had weighed heavily on Auschwitz. A bad sign—and my intuition was just about infallible—merely the herald of more bloody deeds to come. The twelfth Sonderkommando had almost lived out its four months. The sands of our allotted time were fast running out. We had only a few days left—at most a week or two—to live.

Dr. Mengele’s decision to liquidate C Camp had been carried out. Every evening fifty trucks brought the victims, 4,000 at a time, to the crematoriums. A horrible sight, this caravan of trucks, their headlights stabbing the darkness, each bearing a human cargo of eighty women who either filled the air with their screams or sat mute, paralyzed with fear. In slow succession the trucks rolled up and dumped the women, who had already been stripped of their clothes, at the top of the stairway leading down into the gas chamber. From there they were quickly pushed below. They all knew where they were going, but the rigors of their four months captivity, the corporal punishment they had been made to endure, and the disintegration of their nervous systems, had reduced them to such a point that they were no longer capable of putting up any resistance, or even of feeling pain. They were herded passively into the gas chambers. Weary of being hunted and persecuted, of living in constant fear, they dumbly awaited the hand of the sure physician, Death. For them life had lost all meaning and purpose. To prolong it would merely have prolonged their suffering.

And what a long road they had traveled in coming here! How filled with unimaginable sorrow each lap of that journey! First, their warm, comfortable homes had been invaded and pillaged. Then, together with their husbands, children, and parents, they had been taken to the brick-kilns on the far edge of town, where for weeks they had been made to live and sleep in the swamps born of the spring rains. These were the “ghettos,” from which, in small groups, they had been taken every day to the specially designed torture chambers, outfitted with all the latest instruments conducive to making people “talk.” There they had been questioned, until, half dead with pain, they had confessed either the hiding place of their valuables, or the name of the person to whom they had confided them. Many had died from these interrogations. Those who survived had been almost relieved to find themselves being loaded into boxcars, eighty or ninety to a car, for it had meant they were leaving the torture chambers far behind.

Or so they had thought. For four or five days they had lived in these cars, watching the dead pile up around them, till at last they had reached the Jewish ramp of the Auschwitz concentration camp.

We already know what happened to them here. Heartbroken at being separated from their husbands and children, frantic with fear, sent, at “selection time,” into the right-hand column, they at last reached C Camp. But before entering the foul, disease-ridden barracks, they were made to submit to another humiliation, designed to divest them of any lingering vestiges of human dignity: the baths.

Ungentle hands cut their hair and stripped them of their clothes. After the bath they were given rags that no self-respecting beggar would ever have touched. In these clothes they received their first dividend under the Third Reich: lice.

After this reception, they began their life of confinement behind the KZ barbed wire, their life of the living dead. The food they received, more like dirty dishwater than anything else, was sufficient to keep them from dying, insufficient to keep them really alive. Albumin was completely lacking in their systems, causing their legs to become as heavy as lead. The absence of fats made their bodies swell. Their menstruations ceased. As a result, they became irritable and increasingly nervous, had migraines and nosebleeds. The lack of Vitamin B caused perpetual drowsiness and partial amnesia: often they could no longer remember the names of the streets where they had once lived, or their house numbers. Only their eyes were still alive, but even they no longer sparkled with intelligence.

These were the circumstances in which they submitted to the daily roll calls and musters, which lasted several hours. When they fainted and were rudely revived with a bucket of cold water, their eyes invariably turned towards the clouds of smoke that covered the KZ, or towards the flames belching from the crematorium stacks. These two signs, smoke and flames, reminded them, day and night, that they were living at the gate to the other world.

The C Camp inmates had lived for four months in the shadow of the crematorium gate: it took ten days for all of them to pass through it. Forty-five thousand tormented bodies rendered up their souls there. Upon C Camp, whose wire stands had enclosed as many poignant tragedies, a dismal silence descended.

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