After the ghetto was cleaned out we waited for the next horrific scene to begin. We were loaded into the infamous cattle cars — my mother, my brothers, my sisters and my great-grandfather Reb Shlomo Zalmen, the Chimper Rav’s father. We were crammed body to body into those windowless trains. My grandfather, who was in his 80s, was squashed right next to me. There was one pail in the middle, for people to tend to their bodily functions. Since it was impossible to reach the bucket due to the overcrowding of men and women, elderly, children and babies, there was a constant suffocating odor. It was difficult to retain any sense of human dignity. The smells are ingrained in my mind forever. I remember touching the freezing metal of the train; to this day my fingertips still have marks on them.
People shared whatever food they had brought. My mother managed to grab a few cookies for us to eat on the way. Yet, due to the constant, terrible odors permeating the air, it was impossible to eat anything. Every so often the train would stop and lifeless bodies were thrown out the door. My great-grandfather died along the way. I don’t know and I don’t want to know what happened to his body.
The inhumane death trip to Auschwitz took three to four days. I don’t know exactly, for there were no windows with which to mark time. Each day the conditions deteriorated.
What greeted you upon your arrival to Auschwitz?
We arrived dazed, shocked and exhausted. German soldiers were screaming, “Heraus! Heraus!” The dogs accompanying them were straining at their leashes and barking as if to attack us. We were marched over to Joseph Mengele, who was in charge of looking over the prisoners and deciding their fate. He was dressed in a spotless uniform and was frightening in his coldness. With a flick of his finger he sent people to the right or to the left. I had no idea what that meant; all I knew was that I wanted to follow my mother. When Mengele flicked his finger at her I started to run after her. A man standing near me caught me by my shirt and whispered urgently, “Pretend you are older and strong enough to work.” In essence, he saved my life.
I attempted to look as strong as I possibly could after that grueling trip. I stared straight ahead as Mengele looked me over. I did not realize then the significance of what he said, nor did I know that I would never see my sister Faigie, and brothers Benzion and Yisrael, ever again. I did not know then that they had been gassed immediately as I went on to live.
The first time I heard about the smoke and the crematorium was when I came out of the train. Working among the guards were prisoners assigned to get the newcomers off the trains as quickly as possible. In confusion, I asked one of them, “What happens now?” He pointed to the distant smoke coming out of the chimney and replied, “You see that? That is where you will come out.” I had no idea at the time what he was talking about; my brain could not process that such brutality could possibly take place among human beings.
We were forced to stand naked, shivering in the cold. Our heads were shaved and we were assigned numbers. We had no names, just numbers. We were given rags to use as cover-ups, clothes that did not fit us, thin striped pajamas which did nothing to protect us from the bitter cold. We grabbed shoes from the pile and ended up with shoes that did not fit; big clogs for smaller people and small clogs for big people. Hunger pains chewed our insides and it was all we could think about, but there was nothing to eat.
I was overcome with exhaustion by the time I got to the barrack, bunker number 13. We slept five of us sideways on a narrow wooden shelf. When one turned we all had to turn. I fell asleep with terrible hunger gripping every bone of my body; chilled and frozen, wondering where my mother and siblings were and if they were feeling the same.
I had the good fortune to meet a man by the last name of Gottesman. He took me under his wing. He was a serious individual who had a lot of practical advice for me. He knew how to handle the lice we all suffered from. Another ray of light for me was the tefillin that a brave man had smuggled into the barracks. We passed it from person to person. For a few minutes a day we felt like a ben melech. Had the Nazis performed one of their searches and found the tefillin, we would have been executed in public and not one of us would have been spared. Giving the Nazis that information would have earned the informant an extra bowl of soup, yet no one in our barracks gave us up to the Nazis. In those days, when men were not worth more than animals and were starved and beaten until they lost their humanity, this was nothing short of a miracle.
to be continued…
These survivors’ memoirs are being compiled by Project Witness.