Chapter XXXIII

IT WAS 2 P.M. I HAD JUST FINISHED lunch and was seated by the window of my room, staring at the sky and clouds, that bore the promise of an early snow, when a strident yell from the oven-room passageway broke the silence:

“Alle antreten, alle antreten!”

This was an order we were accustomed to hearing twice a day, in the morning and evening, for muster. Coming at this hour, however, it augured no good.

“Antreten, alle antreten!” the order rang out again, this time more peremptory and impatient than before.

Heavy footsteps resounded just in front of our door. An SS opened it a crack and shouted again: “Antreten, antreten!” With sinking hearts we headed for the crematorium courtyard, where a group of well-armed SS already encircled a group of kommando men as we walked up to join them. There was neither surprise nor the faintest sign of protest from anyone. The SS, their machine guns leveled, waited patiently till the last stragglers had joined the group. I glanced around for the last time. The motionless pines that formed a little tunnel at the end of the courtyard were blanketed with snow. All was quiet and very peaceful.

In a few minutes, an order: “To the left, to the left!” We left the courtyard, but instead of going along the road, our guards had us walk towards number two crematorium, directly opposite. We crossed the courtyard of number two, knowing that this would be the last walk we would ever take. They led us into the crematorium furnace room, but none of the SS guards remained inside with us. Instead, they spread out in a circle around the building, stationed at intervals near the doors and windows, their guns poised, ready to fire. The doors were shut and the windows covered with heavy iron bars, completely thwarting any possibility of escape. Our comrades from number two were also present, and a few minutes later they unlocked the door and sent in the kommando from number four. Four hundred and sixty men in all, waiting to die. The only thing we did not know for sure was the method that would be used to exterminate us. We were specialists in the matter, having seen all methods in operation. Would it be in the gas chamber? I hardly thought so, not with the Sonderkommando. Machine guns? Not at all convenient in a room like this. Most likely they intended killing two birds with one stone, that is, blow up the building and us along with it. A plan worthy of the SS. Or perhaps they would toss a phosphorous bomb through one of the windows. That would be an equally effective method, one that had already been tried before, on the deportees from the Milo ghetto. What they had done then was load the deportees into box cars that were so dilapidated as to be of no further use, then toss a bomb inside.

The men of the Sonderkommando were sitting on the concrete floor of the furnace room wherever they could find room, waiting anxiously but silently for the next move.

Suddenly the silence was broken. One of the kommando crew, a thin, sickly, black-haired man about thirty years old whose eyes were magnified by a pair of thick glasses, jumped to his feet and began to speak in a voice loud enough for everyone to hear. It was the “Dayen,” the rabbi of a small church community in Poland. A self-taught man, whose knowledge was vast both in the spiritual and temporal realms, he was the ascetic member of the Sonderkommando. In conformance with the tenets of his religion, he ate sparingly, accepting only bread, margarine and onions from the well-stocked kommando larder. He had been assigned to the cremation kommando, but because of his religious fanaticism I had talked the Ober into excusing him from this frightful work. The argument I had used with the Ober had simply been that this man could not be of much use for the heavy work involved in cremation, since he was weak from his self-imposed, ascetic diet. “Besides,” I had argued, “he only slows up the work by pausing over each body to murmur prayers for its salvation. And there are often several thousand souls a day to pray for.”

These had been my arguments, but they had sufficed, strangely enough, and the Ober had assigned him to burn the pile of refuse which was forever accumulating in the courtyard of number two. This refuse, called “Canada” by the SS, was composed of objects that had once belonged to the deportees, objects of such little material value that they were considered not worth being salvaged: various foodstuffs, documents, diplomas, military decorations, passports, marriage certificates, prayer books, holy objects and Bibles that the deportees had brought with them into captivity.

This little hill called Canada daily consumed hundreds of thousands of photographs—pictures of young married couples, elderly groups, charming children and pretty girls—together with innumerable prayer books, in many of which I found carefully inked notations recording the dates of important events—births, marriages, deaths—in the lives of the various families. Sometimes there were flowers, culled from the graves of beloved parents in all the Jewish cemeteries of Europe, pressed between the pages and piously preserved. Prayer beads and odds and ends of all sorts rounded out the smoldering hill.

This was where the “Dayen” worked, or rather, where he did not work, for all he did was watch the fires burn. Even so he was dissatisfied, for his religious beliefs forbade him from participating in the burning of prayer books or holy objects. I felt sorry for him, but could do nothing further to help him. It was impossible to obtain an easier job, for we were, after all, only members of the kommando of the living dead.

This then was the man who began to speak:

“Fellow Jews. . . . An inscrutable Will has sent our people to its death; fate has allotted us the cruelest of tasks, that of participating in our own destruction, of witnessing our own disappearance, down to the very ashes to which we are reduced. In no instance have the heavens opened to send showers and put out the funeral pyre flames.

“We must accept, resignedly, as Sons of Israel should, that this is the way things must be. God has so ordained it. Why? It is not for us, miserable humans, to seek the answer.

“This is the fate that has befallen us. Do not be afraid of death. What is life worth, even if, by some strange miracle, we should manage to remain alive? We would return to our cities and towns to find cold and pillaged homes. In every room, in every corner, the memory of those who have disappeared would lurk, haunting our tear-filled eyes. Stripped of family and relatives, we would wander like the restless, shuffling shadows of our former selves, of our completed pasts, finding nowhere any peace or rest.”

Flames burned in his eyes; his thin face was transfigured. Perhaps, as he spoke, he was already in touch with the beyond. Dead silence filled the room, interrupted only by the occasional scratching of a match as someone lighted a cigarette. Now and then a heavy sigh expressed a last farewell bid by one of us to the living and to the dead.

The heavy doors swung open. Oberschaarführer Steinberg entered the room, accompanied by two guards, machine guns in hand.

“Ärzte heraus. All doctors outside!” he shouted impatiently.

My two colleagues and I, and the lab assistant, left the room. Steinberg and the two SS soldiers halted halfway between the two crematoriums. The Ober gave me a sheaf of papers he had been holding in his hand on which there was a list of numbers and told me to find mine and strike it out. The papers contained the tattoo numbers of every man in the Sonderkommando. I took out my pen and, after hunting for a while, found my number and drew a line through it. He then told me to do the same for my comrades. This done, he accompanied us to number one gate and told us to return to our room, and not to leave it. We did as ordered.

The following morning a five-truck convoy arrived in the crematorium courtyard and dumped out its cargo of bodies, those of the old Sonderkommando. A new group of thirty men carried them to the incineration room, where they were laid out in front of the ovens. Terrible burn scars covered their bodies. Their faces and clothing were so charred that it was all but impossible to identify them, especially since their tattoo numbers had disappeared.

After death by gas, on the pyre, by chloroform injections, by a bullet in the back of the neck, by phosphorous bomb, here was a sixth way of killing which I had not previously discovered.

During the night our comrades had been taken into a nearby forest and killed by flame throwers. That we four were still alive did not by any means signify that they wanted to spare us, but simply that we were still indispensable to them. In allowing us to remain alive, Dr. Mengele had merely granted us another reprieve. Once again, the thought gave us neither comfort nor joy.

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