EARLY IN THE MORNING OF NOVEMBER 17th, 1944, an SS noncommissioned officer came into my room and informed me confidentially that, upon order of higher authority, it was henceforth forbidden to kill any more prisoners, by any means whatsoever, in the KZ. After having witnessed so many lies, I found it impossible to take him at his word, and expressed my doubts on the matter. But he reasserted forcefully that such were the instructions that had been received by radio only a short while before, both at the crematoriums and at the SS political kommando. We would soon see whether or not they were true. Personally, I feared it was only another trick.
Before the end of the morning, however, I had occasion to verify the truth of his statement. A train of five box cars bearing 500 sick and debilitated prisoners who thought they were being transferred to a rest camp stopped on the rails running between number one and two crematoriums. They were met by an SS political commission, who conversed at some length with the commandant and the SS guards accompanying the convoy. At last, before the gates of death, the train was turned round, and its occupants sent to the F camp hospital barracks.
This was the first time during my stay in the crematoriums that a convoy sent to Auschwitz’s “rest camp” had not been liquidated, either by gas or the Ober’s revolver, within an hour after its arrival, but had, on the contrary, been given medical attention and allowed to rest in the beds of the camp’s hospital barracks.
Scarcely an hour later another train arrived, bearing 500 Slovakian Jews: a group of old people, women, and young children. They got out of the cars. I watched carefully for what would follow. Lineup and selection were the standard order of procedure on the Jewish ramp. But what I now witnessed was completely out of keeping with practice. The weary travelers took their heavy luggage with them when they got down and without exception moved off to the right in the direction of D Camp. Mothers pushed baby carriages before them, and the young helped the aged to walk. My immediate reaction was one of enthusiasm. There could be no doubt about it: the crematorium gates had remained closed before the convoys sent to their death.
For the KZ prisoners the event was a good omen, giving rise to hope. For the Sonderkommando, however, the omen was bad, signifying that the end was near. I was quite sure that the liquidation would be carried out even before the end of the four-month period.
A new life began in the KZ. There were no more violent deaths, but the bloody past had to be hidden. The crematoriums had to be demolished, the pyre ditches filled in, and any witness to or participant in the horrors perpetrated here had to disappear. Fully conscious of our impending doom, we greeted the change with a mixture of joy and resignation.
Of the millions of souls sent here from the four corners of Europe, by order of the demented Führer, the pyromaniac of the Third Reich, to be assembled less than an hour before their death on unloading ramps ominously lighted by the butchers of Maydanek, Treblinka, Auschwitz, Birkenau, a few thousand would come out alive.
Feeling uneasy, I paid a return visit about noon to the SS radioman who had informed me of the good news earlier in the day. I wanted to know what decisions had been made in the course of the morning. Had any decision been made concerning the Sonderkommando, and, if so, what? Luckily he was alone in the room and I could talk to him freely.
“The Sonderkommando? Why yes,” he said affably. “In a few days you’ll all be sent to work in an underground war plant not far from Breslau.”
I did not believe a word of what he said. For once, however, I knew that his lies were not intended to lull me into a false sense of security. He merely wanted to spare me the bad news, for not so long ago I had cared for him and cured him of a serious illness.