In contrast to this kindness, during the lunch breaks, some of the civilians treated me as if I were an animal, hurling vegetable peels different distances to watch me scurry and scramble to retrieve them. I have wondered whether they did this as a foil to protect themselves in the event that they were caught or if they enjoyed this heartless play. The man I worked with threw vegetable scraps that were thicker than those thrown by others. He did not tease or badger me, rather he avoided any eye contact and thus minimized the chances of being observed by others. Every night as I left the factory, I thanked him and said good night.
At night in the barracks, the inmates who had pilfered potato peels would put the peels in a can with water and cook them in the oven. The inmate who was in charge of watching the fire received some of the cooked peels for looking the other way.
There were people of many different nationalities in the camp. French, Germans, Hungarians, Poles and Russians. Jewish inmates had few privileged positions working within the camp, such as those coveted in the kitchen, disinfection rooms, infirmary, latrines, or in the yards. My Kapo was a Polish Jew and was merciless.
I prayed every night before I went to sleep, hoping that a miracle would occur. I thought we would return to the outside world and it would be possible for things to be as they once were.
We, the inmates, had a day off every second Sunday. On that day, Aplicing – so named because we were supposed to wash ourselves to get rid of the lice. We were given the much needed opportunity to go through our clothes and check for lice. It was almost impossible to avoid catching lice in these crowded conditions, where people lived on top of each other, swarming in a mass of bodies. The only thing that differentiated us was our numbers. We were all slave laborers without families, names, or anything that distinguished us as individuals. If any of these beings were so badly infected with these disease-bearing creatures, I would attack him to keep him away from my social space – that crucial arm’s length that is too great for a louse to vault. Its hard resistant body, which gained in endurance and strength from the inmates, is a testimony to natural selection. These little creatures were my enemy number two, after hunger and before man.
Oddly enough, I engaged in a kind of play with these animals. During the Aplicing, we, the inmates, enjoyed our leisure time…engaged in our own kind of destruction, crunching lice. In my delirium, each crack was cause for rejoicing for I reigned victorious over a thwarted attempt on my life. This bug held within its nature, control over my life. It was able to determine whether I would live or die, not with the gesture of the hand, but simply by being. I enjoyed this activity, the execution of louse, because it was a form of play and so different from the usual daily routine of submission. The merit and pleasure was derived almost exclusively from distraction.
We washed our uniforms and took a cold shower in a disinfecting room. If we were were lucky, we had kerosene to wash ourselves and our clothing. I sprinkled kerosene on the seams of my clothes and anywhere the lice could be hiding. If people did not go early to the laundry room, they would not have time for their clothes to dry, so they avoided washing them. But, if you did not wash your clothes, the number of lice bites during the next two weeks would become unbearable. I wanted to avoid scratching myself at the work bench. I was afraid my Polish work mate would not tolerate me assisting him if he knew I had lice. Sometimes, I chose to not wait for my food ration on Sunday morning, because I desperately wanted to shower and disinfect my uniform. During these selections, the SS would look for scratch marks on the inmates and these people were among the first to be removed.
Peter Kleinmann next to the “washing facilities” he used during the Aplicing, 66 years earlier in 1944. (Photo: Naomi Kramer)
Former kitchen in the Gross-Rosen concentration camp. In 1995, the reconstructed bunks were placed on display here, as none of the barracks remained standing. It was in front of here that Peter saw the truck unloading beets. (Photo: Naomi Kramer)
As more people were interned in the camp, the frequency of the selections increased. The selections were always the same. Usually at night after returning from work. During roll call, as we stood in line, an order was made to remove our clothes. Two SS men walked up and down the rows examining us, one in front and one from behind motioning, usually with a whip, to those who did not pass the inspection. These men formed another group, which increased in number as the group being inspected became smaller. The SS had the power to decide with a glance, the fate of a man. The only indication that a selection was taking place, was that the count took place in front of the barracks and not at the usual Appelplatz. The selections made among those working in the Messerschmidt factory resulted in fewer men being removed than in those made among people from other work places. Skilled labor in the factory was more difficult to replace than manual labor. Rumors circulated concerning the fate of those who were selected. I did not know for sure what became of these people then, but I was sure of this: it was better to be in a place you knew, that to go somewhere new.
Guard House, May 1941 – February 1945, Gross-Rosen.
One night after I returned to work and after we had been counted, I saw a truck unloading beets. I ran to grab as many as I could, eating them while stuffing them in my pants. I traded all the beets I could for a cap or a piece of bread. The caps were valuable for repairing holes in shoes. The bread was not as bulky as the beets, and therefore, not as visible. It was also easier to conceal the bread overnight. The next morning when I went to the latrine, I noticed my urine was red. I was sure that it was blood. If you were sick in the camp, you were brought to the infirmary and didn’t have to go to work that day. And depending on your state of despair, perhaps fortunate to never return. It was a risk that I took, and one that the inmates took only when there was no other option. I thought I was bleeding, so I went to the Kapo and told him I wanted to go to the infirmary. He sent me. I encountered an SS man and two inmates wearing white coats. They came to me and first asked for my number, questioned the nature of my illness, and then demanded a urine sample, which I had to produce on the spot. Before the next morning, the diagnosis was given. Two men came and attacked me with clubs saying, “you stole beets and ate them! Where did you get them?”
The men who beat me were soldiers, not the doctors. If you faked an illness, they really made you suffer. I went back to the barracks all bloody and washed myself. The Kapo asked me what happened and I told him I ate something bad. Had I told him the truth, I would have gotten another beating.
The hours of the inmates’ clandestine trading market was restricted to evenings after we returned to the barracks. I did not smuggle anything of value into the camp, so the only materials I could use for bartering were the clothing and shoes I was able to remove from the bodies of those who died in the night. This required the cooperation and strength of other inmates. Once the clothing was stripped off, we had to remove the body from our bunk so the Kapo would not be able to identify the area from which the corpse came. The people in the vicinity were at serious risk. Removing bodies was permissible and obligatory. We would lay the pants or jacket on top of the corpse in order not to be discovered stealing. Had we taken the clothes outside, we would have risked being caught. Shoes were the most valuable items, jackets were never touched. It was too dangerous to be caught with anyone else’s identity. This was punishable by death.
The day was Yom Kippur. Jews prayed with such intense fervor, it reminded me of the cry of prayer I had heard in shule on Yom Kippur. According to Jewish tradition, on the Day of Atonement, the fate of everyone is sealed in the book of life. That night, I repeated the words of prayers recited on this holiest day of the year:
On Rosh Hashanah their destiny is inscribed, and on Yom Kippur it is sealed. How many shall pass away and how many shall be brought into existence? Who shall live and who shall die? Who shall come to an untimely end? Who shall perish by fire and who by water? Who by sword and who by beast? Who by hunger and who by thirst? Who by earthquake and who by plague? Who by strangling and who by stoning? Who shall be at ease and who shall wander about? Who shall be at peace and who shall be molested? Who shall have comfort and who shall be tormented? Who shall become poor and who shall become rich? Who shall be lowered and who shall be raised?
Execution wall in Gross-Rosen. (Main Commission for the Investigation of Nazi War Crimes, after February 13, 1945, R. no. x 78, x 248, x 264, Neg. no. 3399)
As I repeated each way of dying, I imagined that this might be my death and this would be the last time I would say this prayer. How could it be that only a year before, I was with my family in a synagogue reciting the same prayer? At that time, more than 50 years ago, it was impossible for me to comprehend how differently I was to understand the meaning of this prayer in only a year. In Munkacs, only a year earlier, the words “who shall live and who shall die…”, had no meaning within the context of my destiny.
Piles of shoes found after the liberation of Gross-Rosen. About half of the shoes belonged to children. More than 1,200,000 Jewish children were murdered during the Shoah. (Main commission for the Investigation of Nazi War Crimes, after February 13, 1945, R. no. x 260, x 265; Neg. no. 3416)
In Munkacs on Yom Kippur, I repeated within a communal setting, the prayers reminding man that his fate is not in his control. At this time of the year, all men are obliged to make amends with their enemies. It is a time of reconciliation. On Yom Kippur in Gross-Rosen, I was reminded in memory that one’s fate is sealed for the coming year, but this year I knew and realized this truth because of the reality that surrounded me. Those who are convinced of their beliefs do not need reality for confirmation of their beliefs. They are comforted with their faith. Years later when reflecting on this incident, I recognized that interpretation and reality are indelibly woven.
The ration that day was not the usual soup. It was a milk soup with what appeared to be noodles. Yom Kippur is a day on which Jews abstain from all food and drink. Since I was a Bar Mitzvah and had publicly declared my responsibilities as a member of the community, I had always fasted on this most sacred of days. The Nazis, in their cruel, torturous manner, tempted us with this soup. In this same vein, they punished the observant among us who did not violate their religious obligations and consume the soup.
The crematorium remained after the building housing was blown- up at the time of liberation. The stone foundation is still evident. (Photo: Naomi Kramer)
Several hundred Jews had been prisoners in Gross-Rosen between 1940 and 1943. In late 1943, a mass influx of Jews swelled the prisoner population. Starting in October of that year, and continuing until January of 1945, as many as 60,000 Jewish prisoners were deported to Gross-Rosen. Most of them came from Poland and, after March 1944, from Hungary. Some came from western and southern Europe. A large number of these Jews came from 28 forced-labor camps which had been part of the Organization Schmelt system in Silesia.
Ruins and debris of the crematorium blown-up by the Russian troops in Gross-Rosen. (Main Commission for the Investigation of Nazi War Crimes, after February 13, 1945, R. no. x 249; Neg. no. 3385)
Other incoming prisoners were distributed within the Gross-Rosen subcamp system in order to be put to forced labor in support of the war effort. Many of the prisoners worked for companies such as Krupp, I.G Farben, and Daimler Benz. Jewish prisoners did not begin arriving in the camp until the fall of 1944, with the evacuation of Auschwitz.
One of the better-know subcamps of Gross-Rosen is Bruennlitz, a subcamp established in an empty former textile factory through the efforts of Oskar Schindler. After the close of that camp at Krakow-Plaszow, 1,100 Jewish prisoners who had worked there for Schindler were transported for labor at the new camp at Bruennlitz, where they were able to survive the war.
THE LIBERATION OF GROSS-ROSEN
As Soviet forces approached in January 1945, the Germans began to evacuate the Gross-Rosen complex. The subcamps on the eastern bank of the Oder River were dissolved. In early February 1945, the main camp was evacuated, followed by additional subcamps. About 40,000 prisoners, half of whom were Jews, were forced on death marches, marching west on foot under brutal conditions. Some of the survivors were then transported by rail to Bergen-Belsen, Buchenwald, Dachau, Flossenburg, Mauthausen, Dora-Mittelbau, and Neuengamme – camps in the German Reich. Many prisoners died during the evacuations due to the lack of food and water. SS guards killed prisoners who became too weak to continue. Soviet forces liberated the main Gross-Rosen camp on February 13, 1945.
It is estimated that of the 120,000 prisoners who passed through the Gross-Rosen camp system, 40,000 died either in Gross-Rosen or during the evacuation of the camp.
Monuments in Gross-Rosen commemorating the deaths of various victim groups of the Nazi regime and their collaborators. (Photo: Naomi Kramer)
Source: United States Holocaust Memorial Museum