Chapter XXXVI

MY DAYS PASSED QUIETLY, WITHOUT interruption. It was rumored that Dr. Mengele had fled Auschwitz. The KZ had a new doctor, and, what was more, from now on the area was no longer to be called KZ, but “Arbeitslager,” that is, “Work Camp.” Everything was breaking up and falling to pieces.

On the first of January a newspaper I happened to come across told of the beginning of the Russian offensive. The noise of heavy artillery rattled the windowpanes; the line of fire grew closer every day. On January 17th I went to bed early, although I was not tired. I wanted to be alone with my thoughts. Lulled by the agreeable warmth of a coke stove, I soon drifted off.

It must have been about midnight. I was awakened by a series of powerful blasts, the crackling of machine-gun fire, and dazzling flashes. I heard the sound of doors banging and footsteps running. I jumped out of bed and opened the door. The furnace room lights were on, and the doors of the SS’ rooms were wide open, witness to the speed of their departure.

The crematorium’s heavy gates were also open. Not a guard in sight. I glanced quickly at the watch towers. For the first time in months they were empty. I ran back to wake up my companions. We dressed in haste and got ready for the great journey. The SS had fled. We would not stay here a minute longer, here where for eight months Death had lain in wait for us every minute of every hour. We could not wait for the Russians, since we risked falling into the hands of the SS rear guard, who would not hesitate to execute us. Luckily we had excellent clothing—sweaters, overcoats, shoes—which meant a great deal, for the temperature was at least 10 below zero. We each took a two-pound can of food, and filled our pockets with medicines and cigarettes.

We left, filled with the feverish sensation of liberation. Direction: The Birkenau KZ, two kilometers from the crematoriums. Immense flames glowed along the horizon there. It was probably the KZ burning.

Crossing the furnace room, we passed in front of the room where the gold was stored. Boxes containing untold wealth still lay inside, but we did not even think of stopping to take some of it. What was money when one’s life was at stake? We had learned that nothing lasts and that no value is absolute. The only exception to that rule: freedom.

We left by the main gate. No one stopped us. The abrupt change seemed incredible. Our path led through the little forest of Birkenau, whose trees were covered from trunk to top with a heavy layer of glistening snow. The same path down which millions had walked on their way to death. . . . We passed beside the Jewish ramp, buried in the snow. And here they had climbed down from the boxcars for selection. . . . The image of the two columns, left and right, separated forever, gazing sadly across at those they had just left, came back to me. But for all of them, the matter had merely been one of chronological order: they were all dead.

Yes, the Birkenau KZ was on fire. Some of the guards’ rooms, in which the camp records were stored, were burning. A large crowd, perhaps 3,000, was gathered in front of the camp gate waiting for the order to leave. Without hesitation I joined their ranks. No one knew me here. I was no longer the bearer of unholy secrets, no longer a member of the Sonderkommando, and therefore did not have to die. Here I was merely another KZ prisoner, lost in the crowd. It seemed to me this was the best solution. My colleagues concurred. Everyone was fleeing Birkenau, but I judged it improbable that they would be able to take us very far. In a day or two the Russians would catch up with us. But sometime before that happened, the SS would desert. Meanwhile, our best bet was to march with the others between the two lines of fire.

It was about one o’clock in the morning. The last SS had left the camp. He closed the iron gates and cut off the lights from the main switchboard, which was located near the entrance. The enormous cemetery of European Judaism, Birkenau, sank into darkness. My eyes lingered for a long while on the barbed wires of the camp and the rows of barracks that stood out against the night. Farewell, cemetery of millions, cemetery without a single grave!

We set out, surrounded by a company of SS. We discussed with our new-found friends all that had happened, and what might happen now, trying to guess what the morrow would bring. Would the SS succeed in escorting our convoy to a new prison, or would they, as we hoped, desert us somewhere along the way?

We had walked for approximately five kilometers when our left flank became the target of a deadly fire. The Russian advance guard had seen us and, mistaking us for a military column, opened fire. They were using sub-machine guns and had the support of a light tank. The SS returned the fire and shouted for us to take cover on the ground. We crawled into the ditches on either side of the road. The fire was heavy on both sides. Then, in a little while, all grew quiet again and we resumed our journey across the sterile, snow-covered earth of Silesia.

Slowly it began to grow light. I estimated that we had covered about 15 kilometers during the night. But still we marched across the packed snow. All along the way I noticed pots and blankets and wooden shoes that had been abandoned by a convoy of women who had preceded us.

A few kilometers farther on we came upon a much sadder sight: every forty or fifty yards, a bloody body lay in the ditch beside the road. For kilometers and kilometers it was the same story: bodies everywhere. Exhausted, they had been unable to walk any farther; when they had strayed from the ranks, an SS had dispatched them with a bullet in the back of the head.

So I had not left murder and violence behind me. Apparently the SS had been ordered not to leave any victims behind. A discouraging thought. The sight of the bodies made a deep impression on all of us, and we quickened our pace. To walk meant to live.

Now the first shots began sounding in our own convoy as well. The bodies of two fellow-sufferers fell into the ditches. Unable to advance another step, they had sat down: a bullet in the neck. Ten minutes did not go by without the same thing recurring.

Towards noon we reached Plesow, where we made our first stop. We spent an hour in a sports stadium. Anyone who had some food ate a little. We smoked a cigarette, then set off again along the snowy road, feeling greatly refreshed. But a week went by, two, and still we walked. For twenty days we walked, till at last we reached a railway station. In all, we had covered over 200 kilometers, having had almost nothing to eat for three weeks. At night we slept outdoors, in the bitter cold. When we arrived at Ratibor only 2,000 of us were left. About a thousand had been shot along the way. We were all relieved to see the line of box cars waiting for us.

We climbed into the cars and, after an all-night wait, began to move. The trip lasted five days. I did not count the number of comrades who froze to death, but only 1,500 of us reached our destination, the Mauthausen KZ. Some of the missing 500 were not dead, however, for there were a few who, taking advantage of a propitious occasion, fled the convoy and perhaps escaped.

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