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Auschwitz: True Tales From a Grotesque Land

Translated by Roslyn Hirsch
Eli Pfefferkorn
David H. Hirsch
Copyright Date: 1985
Pages: 197
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  • Book Info
    Book Description:

    "From the moment I got to Auschwitz I was completely detached. I disconnected my heart and intellect in an act of self-defense, despair, and hopelessness." With these words Sara Nomberg-Przytyk begins this painful and compelling account of her experiences while imprisoned for two years in the infamous death camp. Writing twenty years after her liberation, she recreates the events of a dark past which, in her own words, would have driven her mad had she tried to relive it sooner. But while she records unimaginable atrocities, she also richly describes the human compassion that stubbornly survived despite the backdrop of camp depersonalization and imminent extermination.Commemorative in spirit and artistic in form,Auschwitzconvincingly portrays the paradoxes of human nature in extreme circumstances. With consummate understatement Nomberg-Przytyk describes the behavior of concentration camp inmates as she relentlessly and pitilessly examines her own motives and feelings. In this world unmitigated cruelty coexisted with nobility, rapacity with self-sacrifice, indifference with selfless compassion. This book offers a chilling view of the human drama that existed in Auschwitz.From her portraits of camp personalities, an extraordinary and horrifying profile emerges of Dr. Josef Mengele, whose medical experiments resulted in the slaughter of nearly half a million Jews. Nomberg-Przytyk's job as an attendant in Mengle's hospital allowed her to observe this Angel of Death firsthand and to provide us with the most complete description to date of his monstrous activities.The original Polish manuscript was discovered by Eli Pfefferkorn in 1980 in the Yad Vashem Archive in Jerusalem. Not knowing the fate of the journal's author, Pfefferkorn spent two years searching and finally located Nomberg-Przytyk in Canada. Subsequent interviews revealed the history of the manuscript, the author's background, and brought the journal into perspective.

    eISBN: 978-1-4696-0535-7
    Subjects: Sociology, History

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
    (pp. ix-2)
    Roslyn Hirsch

    The original Polish typescript of this book, dated 1966, is on deposit in the Yad Vashem Archive, where it was discovered by Eli Pfefferkorn. When I first undertook to translate a forty-page segment of typescript, supported by a generous grant from Mr. Sigmund Strochlitz, I knew nothing about the author, not even whether she was still alive. It took no more than a few minutes of reading for me to recognize that I was dealing with an author of unusual talent. It was not that the manuscript broke new ground on the general nature of the Auschwitz-Birkenau death factory, for...

    (pp. 3-7)

    I lay on the lowest bunk of a three-decker bed, wrapped in a blanket. I was not cold. I was not hungry. I had drunk enough cold water to quench my thirst. I had gotten rid of the lice. You might say that I felt happy. Around me people were asleep. A ray of hope crept into my heart. Maybe here, in Stutthof,* I would manage to last through the war. After three nights and three days of a terrible trip in a stifling, closed freight car, without food or water, we had stopped suddenly in a pine forest. A...

    (pp. 8-12)

    The head of the Stutthof camp looked us over carefully as we were being prepared for the transport. Since he was accepting only Jews it was clear that the trip was bad news. Rumors were flying everywhere that we were being sent to Treblinka to be gassed. Others whispered that they would not take us very far. They would just take us into the forest and shoot us.

    “Why are we being inspected like cattle?” we kept reflecting when they ordered us to march in pairs in front of the commandant’s fat face. While we were in Stutthof we wore...

    (pp. 13-16)

    At Auschwitz thezugangi(new arrivals) were at the bottom of the ladder. They were pariahs who were treated contemptuously by the other prisoners. They were beaten and kicked mercilessly and endlessly. They constantly tormented themselves over the orders and commands that were unfamiliar to them and that they could not understand.Zugangi—the new prisoners who did not know how to “organize”—did not know how or where to hide; they made themselves absurd trying to defend their human dignity. Just for fun thesztubowawould beat a new prisoner on the face for a long time, until the...

    (pp. 17-21)

    By now I had been on the block of the Jewishzugangifor a whole week. During this entire period I doubt that I had managed to get even as much as two bowls of soup for lunch. As soon as I would get close to the soup can I would be pushed away brutally. Those who were stronger took my portion. When I tried to object I was hit over the head with my own bowl. In the block with me was a young beautiful girl from Bialystok named Rarola. Every crumb of bread that she could get hold...

    (pp. 22-26)

    After that first week on the block of thezugangenI felt myself reaching the limits of my endurance. I knew that I would not be able to manage. I would simply be crushed by those who were stronger than I. I was hungry. All around me raged an animalistic struggle for existence, a battle for a little bit of watery soup, even for a little bit of water. I was cold during the day and cold at night. I hatched all sorts of plots in my sick head. I wanted to do something that would attract the attention of...

    (pp. 27-30)

    Suddenly a young girl appeared in front of me. Dressed in a sports coat, with a hood on her head, she went down the line asking, in a hushed voice, “Who is a friend of Sonia?” I became proud. Could they mean me? “That’s me,” I said, not completely sure that they really meant me.

    She looked at me quickly, as though she could read me completely with this one look. That is how people looked at each other in Auschwitz, as though they undressed each other with a glance. “Come with me,” she whispered. “How can I?” I replied....

    (pp. 31-35)

    I ran into Eva the day after the selection. I was very surprised that she would want to come to thezugangenblock, where grief reigned among those of us who were still alive. Since she was a clerk in the neighboring block, she belonged to the elite of the camp. That is why the chain of hands opened before her during the selection. Thanks to her position, she was allowed to move freely in the vicinity of the bath house.

    I looked at that sweet, likable young face, which to me appeared to be almost not of this earth....

    (pp. 36-40)

    I had been in the infirmary for three days. The day after “the chosen” were taken off to the death block, theschreiberkacame to see me. She told me to get ready, that she would take me to the infirmary, and that I would be admitted as a hospital patient. “I am not sick,” I protested. I was terribly afraid of the hospital. During the selection I had seen what was done to the sick and the weak in Auschwitz.

    “I am not asking you whether you want to or not,” she answered. “I have an order from Orli,...

    (pp. 41-42)

    Before I met Orli I had heard many different stories about her. Among the members of the anti-Fascist organization there was a wide range of opinion about this young, beautiful German who had been in prisons and concentration camps since 1933. As soon as Hitler came to power she was thrown into prison. At the time she was eighteen years old. She was sentenced to five years in prison for having been involved in some sort of manifesto. When the time came for her release in 1938, the Gestapo gave her a choice: either she could expose all the anti-Fascists...

    (pp. 43-44)

    Listen,” Masha said to me, “I will tell you how Orli saved my life. In the summer of 1943 an epidemic of spotted typhus raged through the camp. There were days when three hundred sick people would report to the area with that dreadful disease. Piles of corpses littered the space in front of every hospital block. At first the Germans did not pay much attention to the epidemic. Apparently they thought that the disease would ravage only the prisoners. But the lice were so impudent that they took to biting the SS men. More and more SS men started...

    (pp. 45-47)

    Sonia came from the Ural Mountains. She had been in Auschwitz since 1943. She had come here straight from, the front, one of a group of eleven nurses and one doctor—a surgeon known in Auschwitz as Dr. Lubow. They all managed to get to the area, but I do not really know how they all did it. The Russians were different from other prisoners. They were all broad, well built, and strong. Sonia was a very pretty girl, with a happy, smiling face. She was very kind. In fact, she was so good that she was somewhat helpless. It...

    (pp. 48-50)

    Erika Schneider was a German. On the sleeve of her uniform she wore a four-digit number, which showed that she belonged to the earliest group of prisoners to arrive in Auschwitz, and above the number was a red triangle, which showed that she was a political prisoner. Erika was a dyed-in-the-wool Communist. She had been in prisons and camps ever since Hitler took power. When I met her in 1944 she was about forty years old. She was possessed of a young, sweet face set off by short, gray hair.

    Erika did not like Orli. She criticized her attitude and...

    (pp. 51-52)

    There were no roll calls in our area, but morning and evening we could see the roll calls taking place on the other side of the hospital wire, and we were glad that we did not have to stand for hours in the cold and the rain. So we were very surprised when one day theblokowatold us that we were going to have a roll call and that all the functionaries, doctors, and nurses would have to gather in front of the infirmary.

    In Auschwitz we were panicked by any change in the routine. We knew from experience...

    (pp. 53-57)

    Rapportführer SS man Taube was famous in Auschwitz for his ability to kill a person in two motions. First he would hit the victim on the head to knock the person unconscious, and then he would put his foot on the person’s throat strangling her to death. I remember being a witness to one of his executions on thezugangenblock. One night Taube was in charge of the evening roll call, and that evening there was a number missing. Thesztubowewere sent scurrying through the camp to look for the lost woman while I stood there trembling with...

    (pp. 58-62)

    Lisette had a strange face. It was as if it consisted of two elements that did not match. Her chin and jaw were sharp. You would think that they were those of a crude person, even an evil one. But her cheeks were round and flushed. She had an upturned nose, happy hazel eyes, and while I cannot remember the shape of her mouth, I do recall that there was always a cheerful smile on her lips. I must admit that her smile actually annoyed me. I met Lisette in Auschwitz in 1944, at the most dreadful period, when the...

    (pp. 63-66)

    Odette was French. She was brought to Auschwitz in January 1944. At that time I was still on the block for newcomers. Odette was about fifteen years old, and her mother could not have been older than thirty. They resembled each other, and the mother was young enough so that they looked like sisters. They were both very pretty—slim, with brown eyes and prominent mouths. Since they spoke only French they did not understand the orders that thesztubowabarked at them, and as a consequence they absorbed many a beating. On several occasions I served as their interpreter;...

    (pp. 67-71)

    April 1944 was unusually sunny. In the air you could feel the warm breezes of spring. This year, in the neighborhood of the railroad tracks that led straight to the crematorium, the women were at work laying sidewalks and arranging bunches of flowers. The earth, which smelled of freedom, was freshly dug, and hope entered our hearts. Not far from the fence, new earth was piled up and topped with a floor. This was where the camp orchestra gave concerts and singers sang famous solos. Once a week, after lunch, those concerts took place in the area. Anyone who could...

    (pp. 72-78)

    For some people, Auschwitz was an ordinary term, but ow the word had taken on a completely new set of meanings. An unusually interesting psychological study might result if someone could demonstrate the way in which meanings passed beyond the accepted boundaries of conventional significance. Why a psychological study? Because the new set of meanings provided the best evidence of the devastation that Auschwitz created in the psyche of every human being. No one was able to resist totally the criminal, amoral logic of everyday life in the concentration camp. To some extent all of us were drawn into a...

    (pp. 79-80)

    The summer of 1944 was the worst of times. The death factory in Auschwitz was working at a frantic pace. Day and night trainloads of people were unloaded on the ramps. Most of them went directly to the gas chambers.

    The infirmary was located near the ramp, and though we were not allowed to leave the block, we managed, through the crack of the open gate, to see what was going on. On one occasion a freight train with a long line of locked cars arrived at the ramp. The SS men and the prisoners who made up thesonderkomando...

    (pp. 81-82)

    Every day of that macabre last summer of Hitler’s reign twenty thousand people were killed in Auschwitz. The crematoria were unable to burn all of the dead who were being gassed in Auschwitz. Large ravines were excavated next to the crematoria. The dead bodies were thrown into them, and then they were doused with benzine and set aflame. The flames leaped upwards, and the sky was turned red by the gigantic fire. At night the entire scene looked grotesque. We would go out to the front of the block and stare at the reddened sky. We were not so much...

    (pp. 83-84)

    The German doctors used to come about twelve o’clock. They would look over the sick who had checked into the hospital that morning, and then sign the so calledbeffkarte,which amounted to a permit to remain there for a day. Later, we were on our own. We cleaned and prepared dressings for the evening when thekomandoreturned from work. At such times we felt a little less tense.

    We were sitting in a little room in the infirmary when Marusia yelled, “Achtung!” We jumped up quickly and ran inside. We were standing at attention when Mengele walked in...

    (pp. 85-88)

    Karola was a registered nurse. Before the war she. worked in a hospital in Krakow. If it is true that the pracce of a profession influences a person’s outward appearance as well as a person’s psyche, then Rarola was an excellent example of the rule. All you had to do was take one look at her and you would instantly know what her profession was. The tranquil expression on her face, the calmness of her movements, her quick, light step, and the nobility of her figure all indicated that Karola must have been a wonderful nurse. When I first met...

    (pp. 89-93)

    A transport arrived from Hungary late at night. Since there was no one in the infirmary at that late hour, Mengele ordered the SS men to break down the gate and take the family of midgets to the room located in the rear of the infirmary. Only the women were taken there as the men had already been taken to the men’s camp.

    Early that morning we arrived at the infirmary as usual, before roll call. In the infirmary we found three female midgets, two normal women who were married to midgets, and a three-year-old boy who was the son...

    (pp. 94-97)

    Every day deathly undernourished women and hundreds of mortally sick people came through the doors of the infirmary to which was attached a little cottage that housed the personnel who worked in the infirmary. Actually, it was not really a cottage but a little shack without windows. The total area of the shack was about two by six meters. Inside there were two three-decker beds and a small table. We thought that it was the most wonderful habitation in the world. It was our corner, different from the terrible barracks.

    One sunny day we received a notice that hit us...

    (pp. 98-99)

    It is possible to put a price on life else’s life? I do not mean somebody else’s life but one’s own. Can a definite price be set on life, or is it priceless? That is, does life have a value beyond any price? If so, then it is all right knowingly to send other people to be gassed, those prisoners who had been deprived by the almighty Germans of the right to live. Moreover, when death is inevitable is there any point in fighting for life? Is there really such a thing as a meaningful death? Is it better for...

    (pp. 100-104)

    It was fall 1944. On that cloudy day the roll call dragged on endlessly. Every few minutes we would look through the wires only to see columns of tired women.RapportführerTaube, who had taken over the roll call that day, was running from one block to the other, checking and counting. The SS women ran in his footsteps, terribly nervous. Apparently not knowing what else to do, theblokowekept calling out, “Achtung!” The women braced themselves for the worst. Later, all theblokowewere called to therapportführerand issued some sort of order. They quickly returned to...

    (pp. 105-106)

    There came a day when Magda was ready to stand in front of the infirmary and shout at the top of her voice, “People, don’t let them deceive you. You are on the way to die in the gas chambers!”

    That day a transport arrived in the late afternoon. We heard the noise of the train and the whistles of the SS men. We closed the gate, but through a crack we watched what was happening on the ramp. We had become accustomed to watching the goings on, because the trains stopped in front of the infirmary. It was a...

    (pp. 107-109)

    During the summer of 1944 the transports used to arrive at Auschwitz at night as well as in the daytime. We often woke up because of the shouting of the SS men, the barking of dogs, the whistling of trainmen, the tamping of hundreds of feet, and the cries of desperation in different languages. At night the atrocities combined with our sleeplessness to give us a very vivid sense of existing in a factory of death. And yet, it all appeared unreal.

    This particular July night it was the shouting of the SS men and the barking of the dogs...

    (pp. 110-113)

    In October 1944 the whole hospital was moved to camp “C,” the old gypsy camp. That is when I met Mrs. Helena. She had been doing the same job I was doing, except that she was a clerk in the infirmary for non-Jewish prisoners. In the new block, the separate infirmaries were liquidated and combined into one. The new infirmary was located in a separate barrack. In addition to the reception room there was a beautiful room containing three bunk beds. Five of the beds were occupied by the workers in the infirmary: Helena and I, the clerks; Mancy and...

    (pp. 114-117)

    A cold, penetrating rain had been falling for a few days. Such rains were not unusual in Auschwitz. I opened the gate of the infirmary very quietly so as not to disturb the performance and listened. “Plop, plop,”—the drops continued falling without a stop. Outside it was dark and quiet. The lights on the ramp of the station were out. It had been a few days since the last trainload of victims had arrived at Auschwitz. Perhaps, I thought, they would not bring any more victims here.

    I sat down in the corner to watch the performance. It was...

    (pp. 118-120)

    Toward the end of 1944 Russian planes used to fly over Auschwitz more frequently, and the wailing of the air-raid sirens could be heard not only at night but also during the day. I remember especially one alarm that sounded at noon time. A young SS man came to hide in our infirmary, a little embarrassed by the fact that he was seeking safety among us, “because,” as he explained it, “the Russians won’t drop any bombs on you.” He was frightened to death, but we had to hide the joy we felt to hear the Russians bombing. That day...

    (pp. 121-122)

    One day late in November of 1944 we received a visit from Hans, an Austrian comrade. This summer the resistance had arranged to get him assigned to thekomandoworking on the train ramp. They wanted him to inform the new prisoners arriving in Auschwitz what was awaiting them in the showers. He barely escaped the gas chamber himself, because the skeptical prisoners began to question the SS men in order to corroborate the information he had given them. Having succeeded in eluding the SS, he had come, now, to visit us, cheerful and full of positive thoughts, as ever....

    (pp. 123-126)

    There was a line in front of the mirror hanging on the wall. Everyone wanted to look good tonight. We were all excited, as if we were going to a grand ball. We had to make a celebration of greeting the new year, 1945.

    In December we had already decided to celebrate the new year merrily. We were sure that the year 1945 would bring with it the defeat of Germany and that the Russian offensive would sweep away the camp in Auschwitz. Of this much we were certain, but it was difficult to foresee what would happen to us....

    (pp. 127-131)

    We were awakened by the sounds of rifle butts aanging on the gates of the infirmary and by the elling of the Germans.

    “Open! Quick!”

    We jumped out of bed. We put on whatever was at hand. We were so nervous that everything flew out of our hands. “Open up quickly!” they screamed from the other side of the gate.

    Dr. Roenig and a few SS men burst into the infirmary. They were dressed as if for a trip, with hats and rucksacks, and they were armed.

    “Give us all the documents! Sick charts, the admissions books, everything! Don’t hide...

    (pp. 132-136)

    We dragged ourselves along the highways for a few more days, until we reached a side station where flatcars were waiting for us, the kind that you ship lumber in. It is difficult for me to say how long the terrible walk lasted. I could no longer tell the difference between day and night. There was no food, and we quenched our thirst with snow, which was plentiful. At one point, someone in the escort brought the news that the Bolsheviks were getting closer. From that time on, the tempo of our wandering speeded up. Everybody mustered the last remaining...

    (pp. 137-141)

    In the afternoon we descended on Ravensbriick* like a swarm of locusts. Even here the word “Auschwitz” caused anxiety and fear. The prisoners here looked at us with fear in their eyes, because we were terrifying to see. The days of marching without rest, the terrible trip standing in the open railway car, hunger and thirst, the stink that hovered over our column—all this made us seem like shadows swaying down the road to Hell.

    I searched the column for acquaintances, and I staggered along the side of the column like a wounded bird. It was impossible to recognize...

    (pp. 142-145)

    A large military airport with underground hangars. Next to it stood about fifteen barracks buildings that once housed French workers who had been brought to Germany to do forced labor. They had worked as maintenance personnel. Later the workers had been sent elsewhere, because the German military was afraid of sabotage. The barracks had been standing empty for a year. They brought our transport from Ravensbrück to this barracks in Rostock.

    When we entered the gates of the new camp in the middle of February, we were greeted not only by the camp officers and the SS hierarchy but also...

    (pp. 146-150)

    You know what?” Wierka came running from the next room after breakfast. “I will tell you something wonderful. You will see. You will faint from excitement.”

    At that time we were sipping the hot dishwater, which burned our empty stomachs, and we paid no attention to her words. Wierka was a young, happy Ukrainian girl, a known prankster; she liked to tease us, to frighten and confuse us with unusual news.

    “You don’t want to hear?” she asked further. “I swear to God that I am not teasing. From now on they will have to give us the food packages...

    (pp. 151-154)

    In those last few months I happened to find myself in peculiar situations. These situations were so far from anything logical that I could not believe in their reality. First there was the bizarre New Year’s Eve celebration of 1945, when, surrounded by electric fences, we inmates of the concentration camp joined in camaraderie in singing the “Internationale.” Then there was the enchanted sled that theobersturmführerput me into when I could not walk any farther; and the blanket that warmed my freezing body, which was given to me by an outstretched hand in the darkness. And now, 1...

    (pp. 155-162)

    Do you know what,” the older lady from Lodz said to me, “I will tie your feet to these bars, because we could have an accident.” Through my sleep I felt her tying my legs to the bars with a scarf. “The car is open, and if it should give a sudden jerk you could go flying.” I heard her subdued voice through the roar of the wheels. “Mrs. is sleeping in a sitting position,” she said, “and there could be a misfortune because it is easy to fall off. But the scarf will hold you.”

    Actually, I was not...

    (pp. 163-182)
    Eli Pfefferkorn and David H. Hirsch

    The Holocaust left a legacy of fundamental questions that touch the core of human existence as it is reflected in Western, and primarily Christian, civilization, questions of God’s silence and of the indifference of those who professed to believe in a faith that affirmed the dignity of all human beings. Out of the ruins has emerged a bizarre tale, awesome in its irony—a tale worth telling and telling again. It is a story about the telling of a story, in fact about the telling of six million stories, or maybe six million tellings of one story of the implementation...

    (pp. 183-185)