Chapter XXVIII

I AWOKE DEPRESSED AFTER A NIGHT OF troubled sleep. My nerves were more shot than ever: even my colleagues’ whispered conversation, the sound of their footsteps, grated on me like sandpaper.

I was in a foul mood as I went with my associates once again into the dissecting room. En route we had to cross the incineration room. The unfriendly concrete floor extended to the very edge of the ovens. They had finished the job of cremating our comrades by midnight last night. The cooling ovens gave off a feeble warmth. The thirty new Sonder men, stricken by the tragedy they had been made to witness on the day of their arrival, were sitting or lying in deadly silence on the beds of the deceased.

But this condition lasted for only a few days. Life soon resumed its normal course, as evidenced by their desire for a good meal and cigarettes, and especially for brandy, the blessed remedy of all Sonderkommando men, the panacea for crematorium sickness. After having gone without clothes in the KZ barracks, they enjoyed the comfort of decent ones. Personal hygiene was once again a reality: showers, plenty of water and soap, towels in abundance. I watched them as an old sergeant might watch a group of new recruits. They would get used to all this before long.

In the dissecting room, for lack of something better to do—ut aliquid videatur—I invented some jobs to keep my colleagues occupied. I had them clean the surgical instruments till they shone like display pieces, then sort them and put them away. The mosquito netting, after the battle of the previous day, was also in need of repair. As for myself, I was seated at the table, my head swathed in bandages and adhesive tape, mentally compiling a list of complaints and requests I wanted to present to Dr. Mengele at the earliest possible opportunity.

For one thing, I planned to tell him that none of the crematorium rooms was suitable as a dissecting room, for the simple reason that, no matter where you happened to be here, you could not escape the heart-rending screams of the deported on their way to death, screams that pierced to the very marrow of your bones. Whether it was the gas chamber or a bullet in the neck, the screams were the same. It was impossible for me to concentrate properly on my work here. Since the day of my arrival, when I had learned the fate of the eleven preceding kommandos, I had lived in a world of constant dread: four months of nerve-racking tension, waiting, day by day, for the moment when our kommando would meet with the same fate.

I also planned to ask him to be lenient with my work in the future if it proved to be inaccurate. Why? Because, no later than yesterday, October 6th, 1944, when I had been ordered to perform an autopsy on the body of a Russian officer and to prepare the dissection report, number three crematorium had blown up before my eyes, and we had been attacked by a battalion of SS troops. Howitzers had been brought up and police dogs unleashed against us. Hand grenades had exploded around us. SS soldiers, with fixed bayonets, had charged into this so-called scientific institute I was supposed to direct and run us into the courtyard, striking and kicking us as we went. Then we had been made to lie down in the mud. I had come within a hair’s breadth of being transformed from a coroner into a subject for dissection myself. It was true that Dr. Mengele had saved me from this fate and rescued me from the rows of the damned, but only to be returned to this house of sorrow for a new reprieve of four months. I would ask him to admit, frankly, what an impossible situation ours had been yesterday afternoon and evening. For even after the worst was over, I had yet had to give first aid to two SS non-coms who five hours earlier had kicked and struck me unmercifully and then waited, their guns aimed at my head, for the signal to pull the trigger.

Such were the complaints I intended making to my chief. But principally I wanted to prevail upon him to have the dissecting room and its personnel transferred to some place in the KZ better suited to research.

Just as I reached this point in my musings, Dr. Mengele opened the door. As the rules prescribed, I rose and came to attention and, as the senior member present, announced: “Captain, three doctors and one lab assistant at their posts.”

He looked quizzically at my bandaged head.

“What happened to you?” he asked with an enigmatic smile that seemed half-serious, half-joking. The nature of his question gave me the impression that he would have liked to pretend that yesterday’s events had never occurred. So I did not answer him. My list of complaints withered, till only the one obsessing request remained.

“Captain,” I said unconvincingly, “this environment is highly unsuitable for scientific research. Wouldn’t it be possible to transfer the dissecting room to a better place?”

He looked at me steadily, his expression hardening. “What’s wrong?” he said coldly. “Getting sentimental?”

I regretted having let myself go, having momentarily forgotten the discretion I usually displayed in his presence. I had dared criticize the one place, the one environment where my soft-brained superior really felt at home: the blazing glow of the pyres and the spiraling smoke of the crematorium stacks; the air heavy with the odor of burning bodies; the walls resounding with the screams of the damned and the metallic rattle of machine guns fired pointblank; it was to this that the demented doctor came for rest and relaxation after each selection, after each display of “fireworks.” This was where he spent all his free time; here, in this man-made hell, the fiendish physician of Auschwitz made me cut open the bodies of hundreds of freshly murdered people, whose flesh was also used for the cultivation of bacteria in an electric incubator. Obsessed with the belief that he had been chosen to discover the cause of multiple births, here, within these bloodstained walls, Dr. Mengele sat hunched for hours at a time over his microscopes.

Today, however, I noticed that he appeared tired. He had just come from the Jewish unloading platform, where he had stood for hours in a biting rain, selecting the inhabitants of the Riga ghetto. As usual, though, “selection” was no longer a very applicable term, for everyone had been sent to the left. Both crematoriums still in operation were full, as was the immense pyre ditch. To cope with this new influx the ranks of the new Sonderkommando had been increased to 460 men.

Dr. Mengele approached the table without bothering to take off his coat and kepi, which were soaked through. In fact he did not even seem to notice them.

“Captain,” I said, “let me take your hat and coat into the oven room. They’ll be dry in five minutes.”

“Never mind,” he replied, “the water won’t get any farther than my skin anyway.”

He asked to see the dissection report on the Russian officer. I handed it to him and he began to read. After reading three or four lines he handed it back to me.

“I’m very tired,” he said. “You read it.” But after I had proceeded only a few lines he interrupted me again. “Let it go,” he said, “that won’t be necessary.” And his gaze wandered to the window, out of which he stared absently.

What could have happened to this man? Could it be that he had had enough of all this horror? Or had he received some bad news informing him that henceforth all this was meaningless? It was also possible that the strain of the preceding months had at last begun to take its toll.

During our numerous contacts and talks together, Dr. Mengele had never granted me what I might call a private conversation. But now, seeing him so depressed, I screwed up my courage. “Captain,” I said, “when is all this destruction going to cease?”

He looked at me and replied: “Mein Freund! Es geht immer weiter, immer weiter! My friend, it goes on and on, on and on . . .” His words seemed to betray a note of silent resignation.

He got up from his chair and left the laboratory, his briefcase in his hand. I accompanied him to his car.

“During the next few days you’ll have some interesting work,” he said, and with these words he climbed into his car and drove away.

I shuddered at the thought. No doubt this “interesting work” meant a new group of twins.

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