THE SONDERKOMMANDO—THIRTEENTH in the history of the crematoriums—had thus been annihilated. Now our days slipped by in utter silence and boredom. At loose ends, we wandered among the cold, forbidding walls. The ringing of my footsteps in the silence was painful to my ears. We were given no orders, had nothing to do. At night we lay in bed, unable to sleep. Only four of us were left in the building. The thirty men who worked in the crematorium were not members of the Sonderkommando, but were quartered in the KZ itself and came here every day only to burn the bodies of those who had died in the hospital.
Silent, introspective, prostrate with grief, we awaited our end. It was a bad sign that Oberschaarführer Mussfeld, as if he had become a different person, studiously avoided meeting us. Perhaps he felt that he had finished playing his role: the bloody tragedy was over, and soon it would be time for the fate that governs the bearers of forbidden secrets to strike him as well. For days at a time he remained locked in his room, drinking, with an apparently unquenchable thirst, to forget both the past and the darkly looming future.
One day Dr. Mengele arrived unexpectedly and came looking for us in our room, since he guessed that we would not be in the dissecting room, now that business was slow. He announced that orders from above had been received that the Auschwitz KZ would be completely destroyed. No, in the present instance he was not referring to its inhabitants, but to the institution itself. Two of the crematoriums would be demolished, the third would serve temporarily for the cremation of the hospital’s dead. The dissecting room, and we along with it, would be transferred to number four, which would continue in operation. Numbers one and two would be destroyed at once. Number three, of course, had been completely demolished during the October revolt.
It was both an historic and happy moment when, the following morning, a kommando of prisoners arrived in the courtyard and, split up into two groups, began the demolition of the buildings. Seeing the red brick walls tumble one after the other under the effect of the dynamite blasts, I had a presentiment of the Third Reich’s own destruction. Jews had built it. Jews were tearing it down. Never had any KZ prisoners worked with an intensity such as I saw on the faces of those men, whose expressions reflected the hope of a better life to come.
In the dissecting room, everything movable was packed. As for the dissection table, only the marble slabs were dismantled, and replaced by concrete supports. The moving was finished in a few hours and we spent the night in number four. After arranging the equipment and setting up the table—placing the pedestals and cups in position—the dissecting room was once again ready to function.
For ten days nothing happened. Our indolent life continued. More and more often our SS guards sought refuge in drunkenness. It was rare that they had their wits about them for more than a few minutes a day.
One evening while we were eating dinner, Oberschaarführer Mussfeld entered unsteadily, leaned drunkenly on the table and said: “Guten Abend Jungs . . . Ihr werdet bald alle krepieren, nachher aber kommen wir.” (Good evening, children, soon you’re going to die, but afterwards our turn will come.) By these words, spilled from the lips of a drunken man, I learned a truth I had already suspected. Our guards were going to disappear with us.
I offered a glass of tea with a shot of hot rum in it to the Ober, who emptied the glasses as fast as we could fill them, with obvious satisfaction. He sat down at our table and, as though he wanted to make up for his past silence, began to talk. He told how his wife had been killed during an air raid, and that his son was on the Russian front.
“It’s all over,” he said. “The Russians are barely 40 kilometers from Auschwitz. The whole of Germany is in exodus on the highways. Everybody is leaving the frontier areas to seek refuge in the West.”
His words did our hearts good. And seeing the Ober’s despair, a ray of hope began to grow inside me. Perhaps we would after all succeed in leaving here alive.