For how long did you remain in Auschwitz?
I remained in Auschwitz for one week, but to us it seemed like a year.
From there I was transported to Durnau concentration camp in Germany. When I first arrived, the commandant was preoccupied with getting rid of the disgusting lice plague. He insisted that we bathe often in order to stop it. He was quickly replaced by a cruel officer who ended the bathing and within two days the lice came back worse than ever.
There were those among us who did not even know they were Jews. They were not religious at all; being transported to the concentration camp identified them as Jews as nothing else had done in the past.
The Germans took away my name. I was no longer Leiby, I was just a number.
The commandant would announce daily, “Anyone who brings me three dead Jews will be rewarded with three days of vacation.” Those Jews were not to be killed with bullets, but by blows. There were those who gleefully hurried to fill his orders.
It’s difficult to talk about what happened to me at Durnau. The commandant would stand with a whip in his hand. Everyone was ordered to line up in an appointed spot. The commandant would inflict endless lashes on our backs. I cannot recall how many lashes I received. I cannot describe the painful lacerations. There were times I got hit for their entertainment. I did not know when to expect it.
We were forced to move heavy bricks from one end of the camp to another. There was no point to this work other than to degrade us and wear us down. The Germans would cock their pistols and shoot every other prisoner at whim. At one time, one of the guards aimed his rifle at me. I prepared myself in a second to die, when suddenly something happened to his gun.
Wake-up time was three o’clock in the morning. We were commanded to get up quickly in the dark and cold. I can’t describe to you how exhausted I was when they screamed at us with the dreaded, “Heraus, heraus!” I just wanted to close my eyes and sleep. The Nazis were very exact in their timing; they were never late.
We were marched out in the bitter cold where we were counted and received what they called breakfast — some black water that no one could possibly call coffee. That was our only “meal” for hours. Then we marched to our workplace. My group decided to sing on the way to work. A very intelligent Jew, whom I knew from Munkacs, was the one who started the song with text from the Gemara. I recognized the melody and joined in. We arrived at work tired and freezing, starving and weak physically, but we stood straight and gained strength from the song.
Arriving at the work area, I had to go down into a pit of about 16 meters where we would lift heavy rocks, climb back out and bring the rocks to a different place. Another group of prisoners would bring the rocks right back and throw them into the pit for us to start the work all over again. I don’t know how I survived what I went through in Durnau. I and all who slaved in Durnau had nothing but hard, torturing labor, day after day. Our hard work was for nothing. The stones were not used for anything; totally useless and another way to break our spirits. I kept on day after day because I needed to live to tell the world about it. I lived another day so that one day I could tell you my story.
At eight a.m. we were given watery pea soup. Those who had the job of dishing out the soup would give the people they knew first. The peas were clumped at the bottom of the pot. Those who were lucky enough to get more substance lived a little longer. This is the food that was to sustain us for an entire day of exhausting, bone-chilling work. This situation was not one that lasted a week or a month, but for the entire duration of my time in the camp. We survived one day at a time.
Sometimes I hear people around me comment that they are hungry because they haven’t eaten in a few hours. These people have no inkling what it’s really like to be hungry. I was there; I experienced with my blood what it was like to know hunger. I ate frozen potato peels to stay alive. Only because of my youth was I able to hold onto life.
to be continued…
These survivors’ memoirs are being compiled by Project Witness.