FOR THE MOMENT MY SITUATION WAS tolerable. Dr. Mengele expected me to perform the work of a physician. I would probably be sent to some German city as a replacement for a German doctor who had been drafted into military service, and whose functions had included pathology and forensic medicine. Moreover, I was filled with hope by the fact that, by Dr. Mengele’s orders, I had not been issued a prisoner’s burlap, but an excellent suit of civilian clothes.
It was already past midnight, but my curiosity kept me from feeling tired. I listened carefully to the barracks chief’s every word. He knew the complete organization of the KZ, the names of the SS commanders in each camp section, as well as those of the prisoners who occupied important posts. I learned that the Auschwitz KZ was not a work camp, but the largest extermination camp in the Third Reich. He also told me of the “selections” that were made daily in the hospitals and the barracks. Hundreds of prisoners were loaded every day onto trucks and transported to the crematoriums, only a few hundred yards away.
From his tales I learned of life in the barracks. Eight hundred to a thousand people were crammed into the superimposed compartments of each barracks. Unable to stretch out completely, they slept there both lengthwise and crosswise, with one man’s feet on another’s head, neck, or chest. Stripped of all human dignity, they pushed and shoved and bit and kicked each other in an effort to get a few more inches’ space on which to sleep a little more comfortably. For they did not have long to sleep: reveille sounded at three in the morning. Then guards, armed with rubber clubs, drove the prisoners from their “beds.” Still half asleep, they poured from the barracks, elbowing and shoving, and immediately lined up outside. Then began the most inhumane part of the KZ program: roll call. The prisoners were standing in rows of five. Those in charge arranged them in order. The barracks clerk lined them up by height, the taller ones in front and the shorter behind. Then another guard arrived, the day’s duty guard for the section, and he, lashing out with his fists as he went, pushed the taller men back and had the short men brought up front. Then, finally, the barracks leader arrived, well dressed and well fed. He too was dressed in prison garb, but his uniform was clean and neatly pressed. He paused and haughtily scanned the ranks to see if everything was in order. Naturally it was not, so he began swinging with closed fists at those in the front rank who were wearing glasses, and drove them into the back rank. Why? Nobody knew. In fact you did not even think about it, for this was the KZ, and no one would even think of hunting for a reasonable explanation for such acts.
This sport continued for several hours. They counted the rows of men more than fifteen times, from front to back and back to front and in every other possible direction they could devise. If a row was not straight the entire barracks remained squatting for an hour, their hands raised above their heads, their legs trembling with fatigue and cold. For even in summer the Auschwitz dawns were cold, and the prisoners’ light burlap served as scant protection against the rain and cold. But, winter and summer, roll call began at 3:00 A.M. and ended at 7:00, when the SS officers arrived.
The barracks leader, an obsequious servant of the SS, was invariably a common law criminal, whose green insignia distinguished him from the other prisoners. He snapped to attention and made his report, giving a muster of those men under his command. Next it was the turn of the SS to inspect the ranks: they counted the columns and inscribed the numbers in their notebooks. If there were any dead in the barracks—and there were generally five or six a day, sometimes as many as ten—they too had to be present for the inspection. And not only present in name, but physically present, standing, stark naked, supported by two living prisoners until the muster was over. For, living or dead, the prescribed number of prisoners had to be present and accounted for. It sometimes happened that when they were overworked, the kommando whose job it was to transport the dead in wheelbarrows failed to pass by for several days. Then the dead had to be brought to each inspection until the transportation kommando finally arrived to take charge of them. Only then were their names crossed off the muster list.
After all I had learned, I was not sorry to have acted boldly and tried to better my lot. By having been chosen, the very first day, to work as a doctor, I had been able to escape the fate of being lost in the mass and drowned in the filth of the quarantine camp.1
Thanks to my civilian clothes, I had managed to maintain a human appearance, and this evening I would sleep in the medical room bed of the twelfth “hospital” barracks.
At seven in the morning: reveille. The doctors in my section, as well as the personnel of the hospital, lined up in front of the barracks to be counted. That took about two or three minutes. They also counted the bed-ridden, as well as the previous night’s dead. Here too the dead were stretched out beside the living.
During breakfast, which we took in our rooms, I met my colleagues. The head doctor of barracks-hospital number 12 was Dr. Levy, professor at the University of Strasbourg; his associate was Dr. Gras, professor at the University of Zagreb; both were excellent practitioners, known throughout Europe for their skill.
With practically no medicines, working with defective instruments and in surroundings where the most elementary aseptics and antiseptics were lacking, unmindful of their personal tragedy, unconscious of fatigue and danger, they did their best to care for the sick and ease the sufferings of their fellow men.
In the Auschwitz KZ the healthiest individual was given three or four weeks to collapse from hunger, filth, blows and inhuman labor. How can one describe the state of those who were already organically ill when they reached the camp? In circumstances where it was difficult to forget that one was a human being, and a doctor besides, they practiced their profession with complete devotion. Their example was faithfully followed by the subaltern medical corps, which was composed of six doctors. They were all young French or Greek doctors. For three years they had been eating the KZ bread made from wild chestnuts sprinkled with sawdust. Their wives, their children, their relatives and friends had been liquidated upon arrival. Or rather, burned. If by chance they had been directed to the right-hand column they had been unable to stand up under the ordeal for more than two or three months and, as the “chosen,” had disappeared into the flames.
Overcome by despair, resigned, apathetic, they nevertheless attempted, with the utmost devotion, to help the living-dead whose fate was in their hands. For the prisoners of that hospital were the living-dead. One had to be seriously ill before being admitted to the KZ hospital. For the most part they were living skeletons: dehydrated, emaciated, their lips were cracked, their faces swollen, and they had incurable dysentery. Their bodies were covered with enormous and repulsive running sores and suppurating ulcers. Such were the KZ’s sick. Such were those one had to care for and comfort.