THE SONDERKOMMANDO WAS AWAITING the final blow. Day after day, week after week, month after month, terror had hovered over our heads, suspended by the thinnest of threads. And now, in a day or two, it would descend bringing with it instantaneous death, leaving in its wake only a pile of silvery ashes. We were ready for it. Hourly we awaited the arrival of our SS executioners.
Early in the morning of October 6th, 1944, a shot rang out from one of the watch towers, killing a KZ prisoner who had strayed outside the neutral zone into the area between the first and second lines of guards that surrounded the camp. The prisoner, an ex-Russian officer, had been sent here for trying to escape from a prisoner-of-war camp. In all probability he had been trying to escape again when the guard had fired on him.
A political commission headed by Dr. Mengele proceeded to the spot to make the customary investigation. If the victim had been Jewish his body would have been shipped directly to the morgue and thence to the crematoriums, and that would have been the end of the matter. But since this was a Russian officer, whose name and personal data were duly inscribed in the camp records, the same procedure could not be followed. An autopsy report would be required to explain his death. Following his on-the-spot investigation, Dr. Mengele had the body taken to the crematorium, with orders that an autopsy be made. The report was to be ready by 2:30 P.M. Dr. Mengele would pick it up and check the findings by personally examining the body.
It was 9:00 A.M. when Dr. Mengele left the dissecting room. I had the body placed on the table, and would have completed the autopsy in thirty or forty minutes if the date had not been October 6th, the last day but one of the Sonderkommando’s allotted life span. We were not certain of anything, but I felt the imminence of death.
Since I was unable to work, I left the dissecting room and went to my room, planning to take a healthy dose of sleeping tablets. I smoked cigarette after cigarette, my nerves completely shot. Unable to stay put, I crossed into the incineration room, where I found the Sonderkommando crew working half-heartedly, despite the fact that several hundred bodies were stacked up in front of the ovens. Small groups had formed and the men were talking in whispers. I went upstairs to the kommando’s living quarters and immediately noticed that something was amiss. Normally, after morning muster and breakfast, the night shift turned in. Now, however, at 10 o’clock, everyone was still up. I also noticed that they were dressed in sport clothes, with sweaters and boots, although the room was bright with a warm October sun. Here too many of the men were huddled, talking in whispers, while others moved about feverishly, arranging and packing their clothes in suitcases. It was obvious that some sort of plot was being hatched. But what? I entered the small room that housed the kommando chief and found the various leaders of the night shift seated around the table: the engineer, the mechanic, the head chauffeur and the chief of the gas kommando. No sooner had I taken my seat when the kommando chief took an almost empty bottle from the table and poured me a large glass of brandy. It was a strong Polish eau-de-vie, the famous cumin brandy. I downed my glass in one gulp. Now, in the waning hours of the Sonderkommando’s fourth month, it might not be a life-prolonging elixir, but it was none the less an excellent remedy for dulling the fear of death. My comrades presented me with a detailed account of our situation. All evidence seemed to indicate that the Sonderkommando’s liquidation would not take place before the following day, and perhaps even the day after. But careful plans had been made for the 860 members of the kommando to try and force their way out of the camp. The break was scheduled for that night.
Once out, we would head for the loop of the Vistula two kilometers away. At this time of year the river was very low and could easily be forded. Eight kilometers from the Vistula there were vast forests, extending to the Polish border, in which we should be able to live for weeks, even months if necessary, in relative safety. Or perhaps we would run into some partisans along the way. Our supply of weapons was adequate. During the preceding few days a shipment of about a hundred boxes of high explosives had reached the camp, sent from the Unio factories of Auschwitz, a munitions plant that employed Polish Jews as workers. The Germans used it for blowing up railroad lines. Besides this stock, we had five machine guns and twenty hand grenades.
“This should suffice,” said one of the group. “With the element of surprise on our side, we can disarm the guards using only our revolvers. Then we’ll take the SS by surprise in their dormitories and force them to come with us until we have no further use for them.”
The signal to attack would be given by flashlight signals from number one crematorium. Number two would immediately transmit the signal to number three, which would in turn alert number four. The plans seemed all the more feasible to me for the simple reason that the only crematorium working was number one. And even it would knock off work at 6:00 P.M., which meant that the Sonderkommando night shift would not go on duty that evening. Whenever this happened, the SS guards tended to relax their vigil. There were three SS guards in each crematorium.
We adjourned the meeting until the evening, the order being that, until the moment the signal was given, everyone should accomplish his task as usual, scrupulously avoiding any act liable to arouse suspicion.
Returning to my room, I again passed through the oven room. The men seemed to be working even more slowly than before. I informed my two colleagues of the plan, but refrained from mentioning it to the lab assistant. He would inevitably be drawn into it once it began, but I saw no need to inform him of it for the present.
Time moved forward on leaden feet. Lunch time arrived. We ate slowly, then went into the crematorium courtyard to warm ourselves in the slanting rays of the autumn sun. I noticed that the SS guards were nowhere to be seen. But there was probably nothing unusual about that; it had happened more than once before. They were no doubt in their rooms. The gates were closed. Outside, the camp SS on duty were at their posts. So I accorded no importance to the absence of guards inside. I smoked my cigarette in peace. To know that within a few hours we would be outside these barbed wires and free again lifted a dark cloud from my mind, a cloud that had hovered there since my first day in the KZ. Even if the attempt failed, I would have lost nothing.
I looked at my watch. Half past one. I got up and asked my colleagues to join me for the autopsy, so we could be ready with the report when Dr. Mengele arrived to pick it up. They followed me silently into the dissecting room, and we began the autopsy immediately. Today one of my associates was performing the dissection, while I recorded his findings on my typewriter.
We had been working for about 20 minutes when a tremendous explosion rocked the walls. In the echoing silence, the steady staccato of machine gun fire reached our ears. Peering through the green mosquito netting that covered the main window, I saw the red-tiled roof and supporting beams of number three crematorium blow off, followed by an immense spiral of flame and black smoke. No more than a minute later, machine gun fire broke out just in front of the dissecting room door. We had no idea what had happened. Our plans called for tonight. Two possibilities occurred to me: either someone had betrayed us, thus enabling the SS to step in and break up the planned escape, or else a considerable force of partisans had attacked the camp. The dismal wail of sirens began in both Auschwitz I and Auschwitz II. The explosions grew louder and louder, and the rattle of submachine guns more and more persistent. Then we could hear the harsher staccato of field machine guns. I had already made up my mind what to do. Whether it was a question of treason or of a partisan attack, it seemed best for the moment to remain in the dissecting room and see how the situation evolved. From the window I saw 80 to 100 trucks arriving. The first one pulled up in front of our crematorium. Half a company jumped out and formed up in battle formation in front of the barbed wire fences.
I began to see what had happened. The Sonderkommando men had taken possession of number one crematorium and, from every window and door, were spraying the SS troops with bullets and grenades. Their defense seemed effective, for I saw several soldiers drop, either dead or wounded. Seeing this, the besiegers decided to resort to more drastic methods. They brought up 50 well-trained police dogs and unleashed them on the Sonderkommando entrenched behind the walls of number one. But for some strange reason these dogs, usually so ferocious and obedient, refused to budge: ears back, tails between their legs, they took shelter behind their SS masters. Perhaps it was because the dogs had been trained to deal with prisoners wearing striped burlap, whereas the Sonderkommando never wore this “uniform.” Or perhaps, too long used to dealing with weakened, unarmed prisoners, they were momentarily frightened by the smell of powder and scorched flesh, the noise and confusion of a pitched battle. In any case, the SS soon realized their mistake and, without letting up on their fire, began to haul some howitzers into position.
It was impossible for the Sonderkommando to hold out against such numerical and material odds. Shouting exultantly, they erupted through the back gates of the crematorium. Firing as they went, they poured through the electrified barbed wires that had been cut ahead of time, and headed for the loop of the Vistula.
For about ten minutes the fighting was heavy on both sides. Loud machine gun fire from the watch towers mingled with the lesser blasts of the sub-machine guns, and interspersed could be heard the explosion of hand grenades and dynamite. Then, as suddenly as it had begun, everything became quiet.
Then the SS stationed in front of the crematorium advanced, leaving behind the two howitzers, which they had not used. With fixed bayonets, they attacked the building from all sides, and scattered through the rooms in the basement and ground floor. A group of SS entered the dissecting room. Guns leveled, they surrounded us and drove us, under a rain of blows, into the courtyard. There they made us lie down on our bellies, our faces hard against the ground. The order rang out: “Anyone who makes a move, or raises his head, will get a bullet in the back of the neck!” A few minutes later I could tell from the sound of footsteps that another SS group had rounded up and brought back a considerable number of Sonderkommando men. They too were made to lie down beside us. How many of them could there be? With my head pressed against the ground it was impossible to tell for sure. Three or four minutes later another group arrived and was made to lie down behind us.
While we were lying there inert on the ground, a hail of kicks and blows from the guards’ clubs fell on our heads, shoulders and backs. I could feel the warm blood trickling down my face, till its salty taste reached my tongue. But only the first blows really hurt me. My head was spinning, my ears were ringing, my mind was a blank. I could no longer feel anything. I had the impression I was slipping into the indifference that precedes death.
For some twenty or thirty minutes we lay on the ground waiting for the bullet from the SS guards standing behind us. In this position, I knew it was with a bullet in the head that they intended to kill us. The swiftest of deaths at least, and in these circumstances the least horrible. In my mind I imagined my head blown off under the tremendous impact of the bullet fired point-blank, my skull exploding into a thousand pieces.
Suddenly I heard the sound of a car. It must be Dr. Mengele, I thought. The political SS were awaiting his arrival. I didn’t dare lift my head to look, but I recognized his voice. An order, from the lips of an SS: “Doctors, on your feet!” All four of us got up and stood at attention, waiting for what would follow. Dr. Mengele made a sign for us to approach. My face and shirt were bloody, my clothes covered with mud as I appeared before him. Three high-ranking SS officers were standing beside him. Dr. Mengele asked us what part we had played in all this.
“No part,” I replied, “unless carrying out the orders of the Hauptsturmführer could be construed as guilt. We were dissecting the body of the Russian officer when the incident occurred. It was the explosion that interrupted our dissection. The unfinished autopsy report is still in the typewriter. We did not leave our posts and were there when they found us.”
The SS commander confirmed our words. Dr. Mengele looked hard at me and said: “Go wash up and return to your work.”
I turned and left, followed by my three companions. We had got no more than twenty steps when a burst of machine guns sounded behind us. The Sonderkommando’s life was over.
I did not look back; on the contrary, I increased my pace and returned to my room. I tried to roll a cigarette but my hands were shaking too much and kept tearing the paper. Finally I got one rolled, lighted it, inhaled deeply several times, and, on unsteady legs, made for my bed and lay down. Only then did I begin to feel the aches and bruises that racked my whole body, the result of the SS kicks and blows.
So much had happened today, and yet it was only 3:00 P.M. The fact that I had come away with my life gave me neither comfort nor joy. I knew it was only a reprieve. I knew Dr. Mengele, and I knew the mentality of the SS. I was also fully cognizant of the importance of my work: for the moment I was indispensable. Besides myself, there was no physician in the KZ qualified to meet Dr. Mengele’s requirements. And even if there were, they would be careful not to reveal themselves and make public their professional abilities, for to do so would be to fall into Dr. Mengele’s hands, and so bring their lives to an end: like every member of the Sonderkommando, they too would find themselves condemned to a life span of four months.
When my nerves became calmer, I got up and went to look around. I wanted to know exactly what had happened this afternoon. Was there really a traitor among us? And did the SS really suppress the revolt by destroying the Sonderkommando? Even if they had been hunting for a pretext, they could never have found a better reason to liquidate the kommando. It was quite likely that today merely marked the expiration of our allotted four months, and the SS had received orders to liquidate us. They had probably set out to execute their orders, but had discovered, to their surprise, that the twelfth Sonderkommando had no intention of lining up in the courtyard. Nor were they to be lured by the pretext that this assembly was merely to make some routine announcement, or for muster. Our kommando, quite aware that the SS had come to exterminate us, had apparently chosen to go down fighting.
Now my comrades were lying naked in long rows, in front of the cremation ovens. One after the other I identified the bodies of those I knew; at least they had died believing that freedom was only around the corner. They had been brought back on pushcarts from the spot where they had fallen, somewhere inside the outer line of guards. Those who had been executed in the courtyard as we were walking away were also here. After all resistance had been crushed, the bodies had been removed from number two, three and four crematoriums and brought for cremation to number one, which was manned by thirty new, hastily recruited Sonderkommando men.
I found myself standing beside an SS noncom, who was busy recording the tattoo numbers of the dead. Without my asking, he informed me that twelve Sonder men were still missing. Of the others, all but seven were dead. Those seven were myself and my two associates, the lab assistant, the engineer in charge of the dynamos and ventilators, the head chauffeur, and the “Pipel,” that is, a jack-of-all-trades assigned to the SS personnel, whose duties included taking care of their clothes and boots, cleaning their kitchen and answering the phone. It was he who gave me a detailed account of the day’s events. It had not been a case of treason. Here is the “Pipel’s” tale:
At 2:00 P.M. a truckload of political SS arrived at number three crematorium. Their commander ordered the Sonderkommando to assemble, but no one moved. He must have had an inkling of what was brewing. In any event, he apparently figured he would get better results if he tried lying to the Sonderkommando, and God knows the SS were past masters in the art of lying. Stopping in the center of the courtyard, he gave a short speech, worthy of the SS:
“Men,” he shouted, “you have worked here long enough. By orders of my superiors, you are to be sent in a convoy to a rest camp. There you will be given good clothes, you’ll have plenty to eat, and your life will be easier. Those whose tattoo numbers I call out, step forward and line up.”
Then he began the roll call. He first called out the numbers of the Hungarian members of number three Sonderkommando, 100 in all. The KZ’s “youngest” prisoners, they lined up without further protest. More fear than courage was visible in their expressions. A detachment of SS immediately took charge of them and removed them from the courtyard, then marched them to D Camp and crammed them into Barracks 13.
Meanwhile, in number three crematorium, roll call continued. Now it was the turn of the Greeks, who failed to show a similar alacrity in lining up, but nevertheless obeyed. Next, a group of Poles. Grumbles and muttered protests swelled to a surly roar. The SS called another number. Silence; no one moved. When the officer raised his head and frowned a bottle of mineral water fell at his feet and exploded. Seven SS, including the group commander, fell dead or wounded. The bottle had been thrown by one of the Poles. The SS opened a deadly fire on the rioters, who retreated and took up defensive positions inside the crematorium. Thus protected, they began tossing other explosive-filled bottles into the courtyard. A burst of machine-gun fire from some of the SS mowed down the Greeks, who were still lined up in the courtyard. A few tried to escape, but were killed as they reached the gate.
Without letting up on their fire, the SS moved in towards the crematorium entrance. It was no easy job, for the Poles put up a stout defense. Their cascade of bottles succeeded in keeping the SS at a respectful distance. Just then, a tremendous explosion rocked the area, felling those attackers who had moved in close to the building. The crematorium roof blew off, sending a shower of beams and shingles flying in all directions, while smoke and flames billowed skyward. Four drums of gasoline had exploded, reducing the building to rubble and burying the Sonderkommando men inside. A few of those who escaped with their lives tried to carry on the fight, but the SS machine guns made short work of them. Others, wounded but still able to walk, headed towards the door with their hands up, but another burst tumbled them as well. They expected what they got, but fire was gutting the building and they chose the easier death. At the same time, the hundred Hungarians were hastily returned to the courtyard and executed on the spot.
Thus the riot began in number three. In number one, work continued as usual till number three exploded. The sound of the explosion brought the tension, already at a high pitch from the wait, to a paroxysm. No one knew exactly what happened during the first few minutes. The men working at the ovens left their posts and gathered at the far end of the room, where they tried to figure out what was going on and what steps to take.
They did not have long to puzzle, however, for the SS guard came over and asked who had given them permission to stop work and leave the ovens. Apparently the work boss’s reply failed to satisfy him, for he dealt the man a withering blow on the head with the curved end of his cane—each of the SS guards carried one, the better to encourage the Sonder men in their work. Rumor had it that a second Sonder man also had his head split open by the same cane. But the work boss, the toughest man in the kommando, was only staggered by the blow. His face was covered with blood, but he was still on his feet. He quickly drew a sharp knife from the top of his boot and thrust it into the guard’s chest. As the guard fell two alert members of the kommando grabbed him, opened the door of the nearest oven, and shoved him headfirst into the flames.
The whole incident happened in the space of a few seconds, but another SS guard, drawn by the crowd, apparently arrived just in time to see the booted feet disappear into the oven. He knew it could only have been a Sonder man or an SS guard, but before he had time to learn which, one of the Sonder crew floored him with a sharp uppercut. With the help of a buddy, he shoved the second SS guard in beside the first.
After that it took only a few seconds to break out the machine guns, hand grenades and boxes of dynamite. Firing broke out, the SS stationed at one end of the room, the Sonderkommando at the other. A hand grenade tossed into the midst of the SS killed seven and wounded a number of others. Several kommando men were also killed or wounded, and the situation of the survivors was becoming increasingly desperate. But when a few more SS dropped, the remainder, about 20 in all, took to their heels and ran for the crematorium door. There they were met by reinforcements, more than enough to turn the tide of battle in their favor.
The rest was history. Seven of us were left in the crematoriums. The twelve fugitives were rounded up during the night. They had succeeded in crossing the Vistula, but were completely worn out and had sought shelter in a house they thought might furnish them with at least a temporary hiding place. But the owner had informed an SS detachment combing the area, and all twelve had been ambushed and recaptured.
I was already in bed, almost asleep, when a new burst of machine-gun fire roused me from my state of semiconsciousness. A few minutes later heavy footsteps echoed in the hallway. My door opened and two SS staggered in, their faces covered with blood.
The twelve prisoners had attacked the patrol that had brought them back to the crematorium courtyard, in a desperate effort to seize their weapons. The twelve had had only their fists to fight with; the result had been swift and sure: all twelve had been quickly killed. But they had succeeded in badly mauling the SS guards, who now asked me to treat their wounds. I mutely carried out their orders.
The loss of these twelve companions was a terrible blow to me. After so much effort and loss of life, still no one had succeeded in escaping to tell the world the full story of this hellish prison.
Later I learned that news of the revolt had nevertheless reached the outside world. Some of the KZ prisoners related the story to the civilians who worked with them. And besides, the tongues of certain SS guards were said to have wagged.
It was indeed an historic event, the first of its kind since the founding of the KZ. Eight hundred and fifty-three prisoners, and seventy SS were killed. Included among the latter were an Obersturmführer, seventeen Oberschaarführer and Schaarführer and fifty-two Sturmmänner. Number three crematorium burned to the ground. And number four, as a result of damage to its equipment, was rendered useless.