University of Minnesota
Center for Holocaust & Genocide Studies
chgs@umn.edu
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CHGS

Hunsfeld and Hirschberg

After a long time, I'm guessing more than a year, a Czyniec, a group of prisoners, including my friend, the barber, and I, were sent to Hundsfeld, or Dog's Field, in Germany. While my previous camps were forced labo camps, I knew immediately that this was a concentra tion camp. First, there were two fences, one electric, the other covered by straw or bamboo to prevent passersby from seeing the horrors inside. Second, while regula German soldiers oversaw forced labor camps, Hitler's Secret Service reigned supreme here, calling us Untermenschen, or Subhumans.

This was a rough camp, a rough camp. Despite the fact that only men were prisoners, every night I hear screams. In time, I learned that an S.S. officer, a sadis tic Nazi, would find old Jewish men in their bunks a night, cover them with a blanket and drag them to the shower building where he would choke them to death. Every week five or six men would be found lying dead b; the showers. Meanwhile, the head of the S.S. carried an Oxenzimmer, or whip, which he used to deliver sever beatings that often caused prisoners to lose control c their bowels. I remember him smiling, saying, "I am delighted when my whip is full of shit."

The Judenselster (the Jewish prisoner in charge of the prisoners), Bolek Piekarski, was from my hometown. There, his family had owned a chocolate factory. He was several years older than me, and I remember once as a boy carrying his soccer shoes home for him as a favor. He had been an excellent soccer player. He would excel here too, at brutality.

His mascot, Joseph Scheineman, was also from Sosnowiec. Joseph helped take care of the Judenselster, shining his boots and keeping his room tidy. Over time, Joseph and I became good friends.

Luckily for me, the Piekarskis (his older brother had arrived at the camp along with me) knew I could sing and would request that I visit their barracks on Sunday nights to perform for them and the KAPOs. While they lived in half of one of the barracks, the rest of that barrack and one more housed the remainder of the prisoners. The SS, plus two large German shepherds, lived in a third barrack outside the fence.

This camp's job was to build brick homes for a local company. The company then would sell them to German officers and their families, who were fleeing bombed„out cities. Prisoners worked from early morning until late in the day, hauling bricks and cement on railroad cars. Meanwhile, our once-a-day meals consisted of cooked grass, literally grass, and one-quarter pound of bread - hardly enough for such backbreaking, outdoor work.

One day, unexpectedly, the SS entered our camp, accompanied by the company's commissioners. It's like,7 that they discovered the lack of food in the kitchen or perhaps the grass cooking. This would have quickly explained our lack of progress on the houses for which he camp had been commissioned. The company officials immediately pulled their financial support out of he camp (we prisoners guessed that the SS had been pocketing it) and Hundsfeld was liquidated.

About 50 of us, including myself, the Piekarskis and Scheineman, were sent, again by train, to a disciplined concentration camp in Hirschberg, along the German Czechoslovakian border in Germany. Here, the leaders veren't Jewish, but German prisoners, wearing red triangle patches, which identified them as Communists.

These German KAPO leaders were roughnecks. They ,trip searched us, checked all of our bodily cavities Oust n case we were hiding something - ridiculous at this Joint), noted any gold teeth to be pulled after death, and distributed our white-and-blue-striped uniforms.

At Hirschberg, the Piekarskis held no seniority and received no protection from the Jewish prisoners they previously had abused. Within days, both were sent to Auschwitz where they were prisoners until liberation.

Most prisoners worked at a paper factory across the street from the camp. Trains arrived at the mill transporting tree stumps to be made into paper. Prisoners were forced to dump the lumber onto conveyors and then put it into bins where the wood was chopped. "Schnelier, schneller!" "Faster, faster!" the SS shouted constantly. Over the months, many prisoners grew weaker and weaker. When young Jewish prisoners arrived from Hungary, the work pace picked up and the SS became angry with the older prisoners, thinking they'd been sabotaging the work. But after three months, the Hungarian prisoners began dying out, so many of them refusing to eat the food, while the older prisoners continued to work.

Scheineman and I, along with about 25 others, didn't work at the paper mill. We were instead sent on a daily 45-minute hike to a Bausteller, or building development. We marched four or five abreast, and an SS officer marched alongside every 10 feet of so, each watching our every move and each carrying a rifle with a bayonet. To prevent the officers from slinging the guns over their shoulders, the straps had been removed. To this day I always look behind me when I walk to see if someone is watching. I've been doing it for 50 years; I can't get away from it.

Here we were also building houses for German families. Fortunately for me, Scheineman was a house painter by trade and was selected to paint the inside of these homes with a large commercial sprayer, a two-person job, and he asked me to be his second. I pumped and Joseph painted. While that meant working indoors, away from bad weather, and somewhat less physically demanding hard work, it didn't save us from harsh punishment. I remember one sadistic German foreman, a half„blind SOB, who took his shovel handle off and beat the hell out of Joseph and me for no reason. I will never forget the look of pleasure on his face.

But the worst experience at the Bausteller came when Joseph accepted a gift from a much more kindly German foreman, a local resident also working on site. He secretly gave Joseph a bag of 10 small potatoes. Joseph hid them in his pants, praying that the SS would not frisk him (which sometimes happened) at the end of the day. Unfortunately, Joseph was not that lucky.

When the SS discovered the smuggled food, they ordered the KAPO to whip him 50 times. The KAPO could have given him 25 lashings and claimed it was 50, but they beat him mercilessly with a whip across his buttocks until they were bleeding and black like tar. That night I ran back and forth from the shower building to his bunk with cold compresses to ease the pain and prevent his likely death. For days, he could not move.

Strange as it may seem, I continued to sing, sometimes for myself, sometimes for the KAPO, both individually and with a group.

At the end of 1944, the order came down to evacuate Hirschberg. By then, I had been imprisoned four years and was 18 years old.

The next morning we were given bread and sent on a march into the mountains. To keep warm, I tied a blanket on my head with a rope. As we walked, many prisoners, believing this march to be their only chance to escape, jumped into the river below, hoping to swim to freedom. The SS shot them all from above, like target practice, and the river was soon red with their blood. Any who survived the shooting drowned in the cold icy water.

For two days we marched. All prisoners with extra clothing, two of any article, were ordered to give up the extra. I defied the orders, taking a chance on keeping my extra pair of pants. I was lucky and the SS never checked. Many prisoners who gave up their extra clothing died from exposure.

At the end of the march, we were ordered onto open railroad cars filled with heavy snow. Another prisoner had once warned me that if I was ever placed on a freight car to run to a corner and place my back against the wall. That way, I'd be able to defend myself against other prisoners. I took this advice and soon we were packed so tightly that we couldn't sit. We traveled like this, in the open and cold, for eight days and eight nights. The only thing we ate was the snow that fell from the sky. There was no food, no water, no toilet. The stench was appalling. We were sick and weak, dehydrated and hungry. When some prisoners died, others turned to cannibalism.

Words cannot describe these days, but I survived. I can only say that I was young and that I had the will to go on - no matter what. That's how I got through those days, the worst so far.