THE MAUTHAUSEN KZ SAT ON TOP OF A hill overlooking the ancient city of the same name. This extermination camp, which resembled a fortified town, was made of granite blocks. With its bastions, its towers and loopholes, it looked from afar like a medieval castle.
This picture would have been a rare and beautiful one if only the stones had been covered with a century-old growth of lichen, or streaked gray from the constant play of wind and rain and snow through the years. Instead, they presented a façade of dazzling white that clashed with the surrounding landscape, which was crowned with dark forests. For the “castle” had only recently been built and its walls were not yet marked with that austere beauty of ancient buildings. The Third Reich had had it constructed as a KZ. Forty thousand Spanish Republicans, refugees in France, had been brought here after the occupation, as well as hundreds of thousands of German Jews. It was they who had worked in the Mauthausen quarries cutting the blocks; it was they who had carried the finished stones along the seven-kilometer path up the mountain, where formerly only wild goats had grazed. And it was they who had constructed the powerful walls around their house of sorrow, which was composed of wooden barracks. They had finished the castle at the price of unbelievable suffering, but they had never lived to occupy it. In the midst of this great mass of stone and concrete they had all perished, like the slaves in ancient Egypt.
The camp had not remained unoccupied for very long, however. Thousands who had fought in the Yugoslav underground, as well as members of all the various resistance movements throughout Europe—plus, of course, Europe’s doomed race, the Jews—had flocked here by the tens of thousands, filling the fortress’ barracks in a matter of days. There they had lived during the brief period preceding their death.
Now another convoy, ours, decimated by the long trip and the insufferable cold, slowly wended its way up the arduous, snow-covered mountain path. Our strength all but gone, we at last entered the gates of the KZ and lined up, in the gathering dusk, on the “Appelplatz.”
I looked around for my companions. Fischer, the lab assistant, was missing. I had not seen him since Plesow. Then he had been lying in the snow, his strength completely spent. From his contracted facial expression, I had suspected that his end was near. He was fifty-five and had spent five years in the KZ, so it was not surprising that his organism had been unequal to the long walk and paralyzing cold. Dr. Korner was in pretty good shape, but Dr. Gorog, on the other hand, was in a critical condition. His mental troubles had steadily worsened, and even in the days of the crematorium keeping his condition a secret had been a source of constant worry to me. I had done all I could to make sure he never ran into Dr. Mengele. Mussfeld had also been dangerous. If either one had noticed his condition, his life would not have been worth a penny.
Before leaving the crematorium he had already informed me of his last wishes.
“Nicholas,” he had said, “you are a strong-willed person and one day you’ll manage to get out of all this alive. As for me, I know I’m finished.” I had tried to protest, but he had waved my words of encouragement aside and gone on: “I have proof that my wife and daughter both died in the gas chamber. But I left my twelve-year-old son with the monks of the Koszeg cloister. If you ever do get home, fetch him and bring him up as your own. I say this in full possession of all my faculties, knowing I haven’t long to live.”
I had promised him that I would faithfully carry out his wishes, in the event I escaped and he did not.
Now, happily, we had left the site of certain death far behind. To die now, so near to the end of the road, just when the hope of freedom had filled our hearts, would be truly tragic.
Following roll call, we were sent through a tortuous passage to the baths. There we joined groups newly arrived from other camps: there must have been 10,000 of us crammed into this small area. A strong wind whistled between the walls of the castle. The mountain on which the camp was perched marked the beginning of the Alps, and the winters here were extremely rigorous. We learned that we would be taken into the baths in groups of forty. At that rate, I calculated it would take three days for everybody to bathe.
The guards stationed here had been recruited from among German criminals, men serving terms for murder, larceny and the like. Needless to say, they were the faithful servants of the SS. Today their job consisted of grouping the deportees for the baths. Aryan prisoners went first. In fact there were so many Aryans that I figured the Jews’ turn would not come before the third day. To wait here for two days became a matter of life and death, for a prisoner could not enter the barracks and get himself enrolled on the list of those to be fed without first passing through the baths. For a person who was already exhausted, a two-day wait without food would mean almost certain death, for either his legs would buckle or his eyelids would yield to sleep, and he would sink into the hard-packed snow, never again to rise. Already about a hundred prisoners were lying on the ground around me. No one was paying any attention to them, for each had all he could do to save himself. This was our final sprint towards the finish line of Life.
Reflecting on my situation, I decided that I could not spend the night outdoors without seriously imperiling my chances for survival. I had to get into the baths today. Poor Denis was wandering aimlessly about, hatless, without his glasses, like a man asleep. His gaze was troubled and he was muttering unintelligible words to himself as he walked. I took him by the arm and dragged him with me, hoping that I could somehow get us both into the baths. But before we had gone more than a few steps he slipped away and was lost in the seething mass of humanity. I called his name, shouting at the top of my lungs, but to no avail. The wind was so strong I could hardly hear my own voice.
Sensing the danger, I forced my way through the crowd and approached the steps leading down into the baths. At last I worked my way to the front row. Several SS armed with rubber clubs were guarding the entrance. A group of forty people was already assembled, waiting to go in. They were all Aryans.
Once again I made a snap decision: leaving the crowd I approached an SS Oberschaarführer and addressed him in a self-assured tone of voice:
“Herr Oberschaarführer, I’m the doctor for the Auschwitz convoy. Let me into the baths.”
He looked me over. My respectable clothes, perhaps my determined manner, or, more likely, my perfect command of German seemed to make an impression on him. At any rate, turning to his colleagues posted near the entrance, he said:
“Let the doctor go inside.”
I descended alone, preceding the group of forty who were waiting beside the stairway. Safe! And how easy it had been! Yes, sometimes it pays to make up one’s mind on the spur of the moment.
The warm air of the baths soon lent new strength to my almost frozen legs. After days and days of cold, at long last a warm room! The bath itself also did me a world of good. Our clothes were considered contaminated, and we had to give them up. I was sorry to hand over my overcoat, my suit and my warm woolen sweater, but at least was happy to see that they let me keep my shoes. A good pair of shoes could easily be an important factor in saving one’s life in the KZ.
I put my shoes back on and rejoined the group that had just finished bathing. Otherwise naked, we started back towards the path leading to the baths, where we waited for half an hour till there were enough of us to fill an entire barracks. After a warm bath, to remain outside in an icy wind, with the temperature close to zero, was to flirt with death.
At length another group of forty joined us and we started off. The SS guard made us keep in step as we walked, but after marching only 50 yards we reached Barracks 33 of the quarantine camp.
A prisoner, wearing the familiar green insignia of a criminal offender, was posted in front of the entrance: our barracks chief. He handed every newcomer a fourth of a loaf of bread; a little farther on a clerk slapped a spoonful of margarine, made of meat fat, on the bread. We were also given half a pint of steaming hot coffee.
After 10 days of privation this seemed like a royal feast. Having downed my food, I looked around for a likely place to lie down, and finally settled on a secluded corner, where I judged that my chances of being walked on would be fairly slim. I lay on the floor, for there were no beds in the quarantine camp. Nevertheless, I slept soundly until reveille.
Waking, my first thoughts were for those still standing—provided they were still able to stand—in the freezing cold, waiting to get into the baths.
We stayed in Barracks 33 for three days, during which we had nothing to do. Our food was not too bad and we were thus more or less able to recuperate from our three-week march.
On the third day of our stay an SS officer, accompanied by a general, visited our barracks and ordered anyone who had formerly worked in the Auschwitz KZ to step forward.
My blood froze in my veins. Methodical race that they are, the Germans no doubt had a muster list containing the names or numbers of those who had worked at Auschwitz. It seemed likely. And yet . . . thinking about it, I came to the conclusion that this was merely a ruse, an attempt to single out from the mass those capable of revealing the sordid mysteries of the crematoriums. If they had really had a list all they would have had to do was to check our tattoo numbers. No one knew me here. I waited, the blood pounding in my ears; there was complete silence in the barracks as the seconds ticked slowly by. And then they left. I had won again. Once again the wheel of death had spun and passed me by.
That night we were given the striped jerkin of prisoners and taken by the mountain path to the Mauthausen railway station. There we were loaded into the inevitable boxcars, 7,000 souls in all, and sent to the Melk an der Donau concentration camp. It was only a short journey and, for a change, fairly comfortable, that is, we were not stacked in like sardines but had room enough to sit on the floor. Three hours after we had climbed into the cars we climbed down again.
The Melk KZ, like that of Mauthausen, sat on the crest of a hill overlooking the surrounding countryside. Originally a prison, bearing the name of Freiherr Von Birabo, its immense barracks were large enough to accommodate 15,000 criminals at a time. The picturesque beauty of the countryside mitigated our pain and discomfort: the enormous, baroque-style monastery projected from the rocky hill, and, below, the Danube wound sinuously on its way, forming a picture of unforgettable beauty. The Danube was a river we associated with our home and country. Seeing it now made us feel that home was not quite so far away.