Chapter XXIX

THE CREMATORIUMS WERE BEING readied. The men of the Sonderkommando were redoing the refractory surfaces of the furnace entrances, painting the heavy iron doors and oiling the hinges. The dynamos and ventilators were running all day long. A specialist made sure they were functioning properly. The arrival of the Litzmannstadt ghetto had been announced.

This ghetto, it should be noted, was established by the Germans in 1939. In the beginning it had housed some 500,000 souls, who worked in enormous war factories. In exchange for their work, they were paid in “ghetto Marks,” but only in sufficient quantities to buy a meager supply of food. Needless to say, the difference between the work effort furnished and the food consumed resulted in a high mortality rate. Numerous epidemics also decimated their ranks. Thus, by the fall of 1944, only 70,000 of the original half million were left.

And now the fatal hour had arrived for these remaining few. They arrived at the Jewish ramp in groups of 10,000. The selection sent 95 per cent to the left, only 5 per cent to the right.

Persecuted and tortured, physically and morally broken by five years of ghetto life, bowed by the knowledge of their accursed race’s tragic destiny, aged by forced labor, they arrived completely apathetic. Although they realized as they crossed the threshold of the crematorium that they were entering upon the last lap of their lives, there was an air of indifference about them.

I descended into the undressing room. Their clothes and shoes were strewn about the floor. But then, it would have been difficult to hang on coat hangers these scraps of leather and wood that passed for shoes. Nor did the cloakroom number they were assigned arouse their interest. They set their hand luggage down anywhere they happened to be. The men of the Sonderkommando whose job it was to sort their belongings opened a few packages and showed me their contents: a few biscuits made of corn flour, water and a bit of linseed oil, and, in some cases, three or four pounds of oatmeal; that was all they had.

When the convoys arrived, Dr. Mengele espied, among those lined up for selection, a hunchbacked man about fifty years old. He was not alone; standing beside him was a tall, handsome boy of fifteen or sixteen. The latter, however, had a deformed right foot, which had been corrected by an apparatus made of a metal plate and an orthopedic, thick-soled shoe. They were father and son. Dr. Mengele thought he had discovered, in the person of the hunchback father and his lame son, a sovereign example to demonstrate his theory of the Jewish race’s degeneracy. He had them fall out of ranks immediately. Taking his notebook, he inscribed something in it, and entrusted the two wretches to the care of an SS trooper, who took them to number one crematorium.

It was around noon. Number one was not working that day. Having nothing to do for the moment, I was in my room idling away the time. The SS soldier on duty came in and asked me to report to the gate. The father and son, accompanied by the SS guard, were already there. I took the message sent me, which read: “Dissecting room, number one crematorium: that these two men be examined from a clinical point of view; that exact measurements of the two men be made; that clinical records be set up including all interesting details, and most especially those relative to the causes which provoked the bodily deformities.”

A second note was enclosed for Oberschaarführer Mussfeld. Even without reading it I knew what it said. I entrusted it for transmission to a Sonder man.

Father and son—their faces wan from their miserable years in the Litzmannstadt ghetto—were filled with forebodings. They looked at me questioningly. I took them across the courtyard, which at this hour of the day was filled with sunlight. On our way to the dissecting room I reassured them with a few well-chosen words. Luckily there were no corpses on the dissecting table; it would have indeed been a horrible sight for them to come upon.

To spare them I decided not to conduct the examination in the austere dissecting room, which reeked with the odor of formaldehyde, but in the pleasant, well-lighted study hall. From our conversation, I learned that the father had been a respected citizen of Litzmannstadt, a wholesaler in cloth. During the years of peace between wars he had often taken his son with him on his business trips to Vienna, to have him examined and treated by the most famous specialists.

I first examined the father in detail, omitting nothing. The deviation of his spinal column was the result of retarded rickets. In spite of a most thorough examination, I discovered no symptom of any other illness.

I tried to console him by saying that he would probably be sent to a work camp.

Before proceeding to the examination of the boy I conversed with him at some length. He had a pleasant face, an intelligent look, but his morale was badly shaken. Trembling with fear, he related in an expressionless voice the sad, painful, sometimes terrible events which had marked his five years in the ghetto. His mother, a frail and sensitive creature, had not been able to long endure the ordeals which had befallen her. She had become melancholic and depressed. For weeks on end she had eaten almost nothing, so that her son and husband might have a little more food. A true wife and Jewish mother, who had loved her own to the point of madness, she had died a martyr during the first year of her life in the ghetto. So it was that they had lived in the ghetto, the father without his wife, the son without his mother.

And now they were in number one crematorium. Once again I was struck by the horrible irony of the situation. I, a Jewish doctor, had to examine them with exact clinical methods before they died, and then perform the dissection on their still warm bodies. So shaken was I by the situation, about which I was powerless to do anything at all, that I suddenly felt myself spinning close to the edge of madness. By whose will had such evil, such a succession of horrors been made to descend upon our wretched people? Could this be the will of God? No; I could not believe it.

By an immense effort of self-control I got hold of myself and examined the boy. On his right foot I noticed a congenital deformity: some of the muscles were lacking.

The medical term used to describe this deformity is hypomyelia. I could see that extremely expert hands had practiced several operations on him, but as a result one foot was shorter than the other. With a bandage and orthopedic socks, however, he could walk perfectly well. I saw no other deformity to be indicated.

I asked them if they wanted something to eat.

“We haven’t had anything to eat for some time,” they told me.

I called a man from the Sonderkommando and had some food brought for them: a plate of stewed beef and macaroni, a dish not to be found outside the confines of the Sonderkommando. They began to eat ravenously, unaware that this was their “Last Supper.”

Scarcely half an hour later Oberschaarführer Mussfeld appeared with four Sonderkommando men. They took the two prisoners into the furnace room and had them undress. Then the Ober’s revolver cracked twice. Father and son were stretched out on the concrete, covered with blood, dead. Oberschaarführer Mussfeld had faithfully executed Dr. Mengele’s orders.

Now it was my turn again. The two bodies were brought back into the dissecting room. So sickened was I by what had just happened that I entrusted the dissection to my associates and confined myself to recording the data. The dissection revealed nothing more than I had previously ascertained in my in vivo examination. The cases were banal, but could nevertheless very easily be utilized as propaganda in support of the Third Reich’s theory concerning the degeneracy of the Jewish race.

Late in the afternoon, already having sent at least 10,000 men to their death, Dr. Mengele arrived. He listened attentively to my report concerning both the in vivo and post mortem observations made on the two victims.

“These bodies must not be cremated,” he said. “They must be prepared and their skeletons sent to the Anthropological Museum in Berlin. What systems do you know for the preparation of skeletons?”

“There are two methods,” I said. “The first consists of immersing the bodies in lime chloride, which consumes all the soft parts in about two weeks’ time. Then the bodies are immersed in a gasoline bath, which dissolves all the fat and makes the skeletons dry, odorless and white. Then there’s a second method: by cooking. What you do there is boil the bodies in water until the flesh can easily be stripped from the bones. Then the same gasoline bath is applied.”

Dr. Mengele ordered me to use the quickest method: by cooking.

In the KZ orders were always cursory. How the prisoners should go about procuring the materials necessary for their execution was never specified. The order had to be carried out, and that was as much as was known. I was therefore faced with a serious problem: what could I have the bodies cooked in? I put the question to Oberschaarführer Mussfeld. I told him that I had two bodies that had to be cooked, but that I didn’t have any. . . .

Even he was horrified by my tale. He thought for a minute, then remembered that there were two iron casks in the courtyard which were generally used in the storehouse. He put them at my disposal and advised me to place them on bricks in the courtyard and to light an open fire beneath them.

The base was prepared, and the two casks, containing the bodies, placed upon it. Two Sonderkommando men were given the job of gathering wood and keeping the fire hot. After five hours, I tested the bodies and found that the soft parts were now easily separable from the bones. I ordered the fire to be put out, but the casks had to stay there until they cooled.

Having nothing else to do, I remained seated beneath a little arbor not far from the casks. A deep silence surrounded me. Some prisoner-masons were in the process of repairing the crematorium chimneys. Dusk was falling. The casks ought to be cold by now. I was just about to have them emptied when one of my men came running up to me and said: “Doctor, hurry, the Poles are eating the meat in the casks! ”

I took off as fast as my legs could carry me. Four men, dressed in the striped jerkin of prisoners, were standing beside the casks, struck dumb with horror. They were the Polish masons I had noticed earlier. They had finished their work and were waiting in the courtyard for their guards to come and take them back to Auschwitz I. Starved, they had been scrounging for some food when by chance they had come upon the casks, which had been left unguarded for a few minutes. Thinking it was the Sonderkommando meat which was being cooked, they had sniffed at it, then fetched up some pieces of flesh which were not covered with skin and begun to eat them.

They had not gotten very far, however, for the two Sonderkommando men detailed to supervise the cooking and watch the casks had seen what was happening and hurried back.

When they learned what kind of meat it was they had been eating, the Poles were sick, horrified, paralyzed. . . .

After the gasoline bath, the lab assistant very completely gathered up the bones of the skeletons and placed them on the same work table where, the evening before, I had examined the still living men.

Dr. Mengele was highly pleased. He had brought several fellow officers with him. They pompously examined certain parts of the skeletons and launched into high-sounding, scientific terms, talking as if the two victims represented an extremely rare medical phenomenon. They abandoned themselves completely to their pseudo-science.

And yet, far from being an extraordinary abnormality, it is common to hundreds of thousands of men of all races and climates. Even a doctor whose practice is limited has often come across it. But these two cases could, by their very nature, be exploited as useful propaganda. Nazi propaganda never hesitated to clothe its monstrous lies in scientific apparel. The method often worked too, since those towards whom these lies were directed usually had little or no critical faculty, and accepted as fact everything which bore the regime’s stamp of approval.

The skeletons were wrapped in large sacks of strong paper, and forwarded to Berlin, marked: “Urgent: National Defense.” I was relieved that they were finally out of my sight, for they had caused me many bitter hours, both while they were still alive and after their death.

At the end of a week’s time, the liquidation of the Litzmannstadt ghetto had been completed. A cold autumn rain replaced the sun that had warmed the waning days of October. Fog and mist shrouded the KZ barracks; my past and future also dissolved, as in a sea of mist. The rain continued for several days, and the wet cold, that penetrated to the bone, made my bitterness all the more acute. Everywhere I went, everywhere I looked, I saw only electrified barbed wires to remind me how vain it was to hope.

On the third day following the liquidation of the Litzmannstadt ghetto, the head of the Sonderkommando brought in a woman and two children, drenched to the skin and shivering with the cold. They had escaped when the last convoy had been sent to its death. Guessing what was in store for them, they had hidden behind the piles of wood that were used for heating and that, for lack of a better place, were stored in the courtyard. Their convoy had disappeared, swallowed by the earth before their very eyes. And no one had ever returned. Numb with fear and cold, they had waited there for some miraculous turn of fate to deliver them. But nothing had happened. For three days they had hidden in the rain and cold, with nothing to eat, their rags scant protection against the elements, till finally the Sonderkommando chief had found them, almost unconscious, while making his rounds. Unable to help them in any way, he had taken them to the Oberschaarführer.

The woman, who was about 30 but who looked closer to 50, had gathered her waning forces and thrown herself at Mussfeld’s feet, begging him to spare her life and those of her ten- and twelve-year-old children. She had worked for five years in a clothing factory in the ghetto, she said, making uniforms for the German army. She was still willing to work, to do anything, if only they would let her live.

All this was quite useless. Here there was no salvation. They had to die. Yet the KZ’s past must also have had its effect on the Ober; he sent another man in his place to perform the murder.

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