A Story of Survival Through the Nazi Storm
crucible of terror
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Three years had elapsed since "Crystal Night." I stood stripped of my rights and my dignity, exposed to the whim of the "Master Race." On the main gate of Sachsenhausen, one could read the mocking words forged in iron, "ARBEIT MACHT FREI" (work makes you free). Other young Jews had also been summoned on this cold November day. An SS officer told us that we had been chosen to go to a work camp called Neuengamme.

We agreed among ourselves that working would be better than having to squat for hours in the miserable barracks. The guards never seemed to tire of finding ever more sadistic tortures to pass the time. Our work detail might escape the deadly Strafsport exercises. Nevertheless, we knew that the SS and the Kapos would drive us to our last drop of blood.

Neuengamme, November 19, 1941. Different camp, same routine. Here too they shaved us completely and doused us with a disinfectant that stung our armpits and private parts. Afterward, we had to run naked in the cold to the next barrack, where a hot shower and dressing room awaited us. As in Sachsenhausen, the Kapos here wore the green triangles of criminals or the red triangles of political prisoners, mostly Communists. They also wore the same twisted smirk, which told us that the more ways they found to brutalize us, the more favors they could get from the SS guards.

Finally we were fit to be ushered in to the Kommandant. Standing at attention with caps off, 30 young German Jews with stone faces listened tensely to the haranguing from our new taskmaster. We understood only too well that crushing labor awaited us. "These 30 Jews to the barracks of the Bibelforscher," he bellowed with contempt. "They both have the same God!" At once, a flicker of warmth crept into my sagging heart.

As we stepped into our assigned barrack, our mouths dropped open in disbelief. The whole place was scrubbed meticulously clean. The bunks had bran mattresses—one to each man. What a luxury to be able to stretch out and turn over at will! We felt human again, at least in our bunks. No more sharing a straw sack with the sick, dying, and dead. We were told that in the short time between the morning bell and the roll call, we had to "build" the bed—carefully flattening the top and forming sharp edges, with the blanket folded neatly on top. The prisoner in charge of this barrack warned us that one unkempt bunk would mean punishment for all.

It took a little while before it dawned on me what else made this barrack markedly different—the atmosphere. An air of respect and cooperation replaced the stealing and loud quarreling that normally filled the barracks. Somehow camp life had not robbed these men of their dignity and human kindness.

Being the youngest, I claimed a top bunk. In the next bunk over was a Bibelforscher, Ernst Wauer. After work, when we could rest in our bunks, he and I talked. Many of the inmates in this barrack wore the purple triangle of the Bibelforscher, or Jehovah's Witnesses. They seemed to have some authority to make certain rules in the barrack.

The work routine quickly overtook our lives. The Kapos cruelly drove the 300-man Dove Elbe work unit on a forced march every morning to one of two distant work sites, the Kaimauer Canal or the Klinker-Werk brick factory. Under a shower of blows, our work unit left the roll call at 7:00 a.m., marching in time to the work songs they sang. "Left-right, left-right," in rows of five, marching for over an hour. At 6:30 p.m. we returned, loaded down with the dead, trembling with exhaustion. Everyone had to be present for the evening roll call, even the corpses.

As we anticipated, the work assignment demanded the impossible of healthy men, let alone walking skeletons. We had to excavate the Kaimauer Canal, enlarging it to allow barge traffic. The huge crater had several levels. Some prisoners dug trenches and laid out small planks on top of the mud. Others, like me, pushed wheelbarrows. We formed a human assembly line in this clockwork system. The rhythm of labor was calculated so that no one could stop. Prisoners were lined up along the planks, and each in turn, would dump a shovelful of sand into my wheelbarrow as I pushed it across the planks. In the deepest part of the hole, I had to push through the wet sand with all my might. The last shovelful filled the heavy wheelbarrow to the brim. I held the handles of the wheelbarrow in a death grip, knowing that if I stumbled or let my backbreaking load tip over, it could be all over for me. Even a brief pause to catch a breath could attract the ire of the SS or the merciless strokes of a Kapo who continually shouted "schnell, schnell!" (faster, faster!).

The skies over Neuengamme frequently poured down water, mirroring the gloomy terrain below. We spent the workday soaked to the skin. Our shoes were falling apart, with nothing at hand to repair them. Our stiff hands reluctantly grasped our tools. Buttoning and unbuttoning our thin, tattered jackets was a major feat. When nature called, we perched precariously on a plank above a trench. Easing nature became a serious and frightening undertaking because falling into the latrine meant sure death by drowning in excrement.

We struggled just to hold the spoons for the meager soup that was distributed at noon from huge cauldrons at the work site. The nagging pains of hunger mingled with frustration as the aggressive ones pushed us forward once again so they could be last in line and get the few pieces of kohlrabi lying at the bottom of the pot.

We lived for Sundays, when we could finally take refuge from the slave drivers. What a contrast between the weekday routine and the Sunday meal in our barrack! The soup tasted the same, and the pains of starvation still nagged at us. But how different was the distribution of the food. Men stood quietly waiting their turn, while the one ladling out the soup stirred the pot before dipping out each bowlful.

One day an announcement blared over the loudspeaker. The Kommandant said that we should expect a special visit. We had to clean and polish everything in our barracks—floor, tables, and even ourselves. The next day, flowerpots appeared on the barrack windowsill. The soup cauldron even had some pieces of meat swimming in a savory broth. The high-ranking visiting official stomped through the camp, grunting his satisfaction over the great accomplishments of the Kommandant, who had civilized us prisoners, the Untermenschen (subhumans). The next day, our normal life resumed—complete with rotten-turnip soup.

On occasion, an SS man stepped into our barrack for surprise inspection. We jumped to attention until he shouted "Weitermachen!" (resume your work!). Seldom would he find a reason to punish us. Not that he was reluctant to do so. But the Bibelforscher believed it their Christian duty to obey the camp regulations. I found it rather curious that, on the one hand, they would usually follow the camp rules to the letter, even if no one supervised them. On the other hand, when they decided that a rule was against God's law, they dug in their heels like stubborn children and refused to obey. Only this was no game. The SS threatened them, tortured them, and worse. But no amount of abuse could make them give in.

For instance, I found out that the execution that had been the talk of Sachsenhausen when I first arrived was that of a purple triangle. His name was August Dickmann. Three days after the start of the war, Dickmann had been ordered to sign his military induction slip—a ticket out of the living hell. Yet, he refused to join the military. For him, killing was out of the question. He believed in a commandment I knew well, "Thou shalt not murder." The whole camp had to gather on the assembly grounds to watch him die by firing squad.


From Chapter 6 ©Arnold-Liebster Foundation. Sauchsenhausen: Serge Clauss (www.multimania.com/expokz). Neuengamme: Nederlands Instituut voor Oorlogsdocumentatie

  ©2003 Arnold-Liebster Foundation. All rights reserved.