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Last Stop Auschwitz
My Story of Survival from within the Camp
By Eddy de Wind
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In 1943, Jewish doctor Eddy de Wind volunteered to work in Westerbork, a transit camp for the deportation of Jews in the east of the Netherlands. From Westerbork, inmates were sent on to concentration camps, including Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen. Eddy had been told that his mother would be exempted from deportation in exchange for his work—in fact, she had already been sent to Auschwitz. At Westerbork, Eddy met a young Jewish nurse named Friedel. They fell in love and married at the camp. Then, in 1943, they were transported to Auschwitz on a freight train.
Unlike so many people arriving at Auschwitz, they were not killed immediately. But they were separated: Eddy ended up in Block 9, as part of the medical staff; Friedel in Block 10, where sterilization and other medical experiments were conducted by doctors, including the notorious Josef Mengele and the gynecologist Carl Clauberg.
Somehow, both Eddy and Friedel survived.
When the Russians approached Auschwitz in the autumn of 1944, the Nazis tried to cover their tracks. They fled, taking with them many prisoners, including Friedel, who were ordered to walk toward Germany. These walks, which later became known as the Death Marches, were intended to eradicate all evidence of the concentration camp’s atrocities.
Eddy hid and remained in the camp; it would take months before the war ended. He joined the Russian liberators. By day, he treated the often very ill survivors the Nazis had left behind and the Russian soldiers. In the evenings, having found a pencil and a notebook, he began to write with furious energy about his experiences at Auschwitz.
In his traumatized state, he created the character of Hans to be the narrator of his own story. Other than in a few instances, the horror of his experience was still so raw he couldn’t find the words to describe it in the first person.
This is Eddy’s story.
How far is it to those hazy blue mountains? How wide is the plain that stretches out in the radiant spring sunshine? It’s a day’s march for feet that are free. A single hour on horseback at full trot. For us it is farther, much farther, infinitely far. Those mountains are not of this world, not of our world. Because between us and those mountains is the wire.
Our yearning, the wild pounding of our hearts, the blood that rushes to our heads—they are all powerless. Because of that wire between us and the plain. Two parallel fences of high-voltage barbed wire with dim red lights that glow above them as a sign that death is lurking there, lying in wait for all of us imprisoned here in this rectangle enclosed by a tall white wall.
Always the same image, the same feeling. We stand at the windows of our blocks and look into the enticing distance while our chests heave with tension and impotence. We are eleven yards away from each other. I lean out of the window while longing for that faraway freedom. Friedel can’t even do that; her imprisonment is more complete. I can still move freely through the Lager. Friedel can’t even do that.
I live in Block 9, an ordinary hospital block. Friedel lives in Block 10. There are sick people there too, but not like in my block. Where I am, there are people who have fallen ill from cruelty, starvation, and overwork. Those are natural causes that lead to natural diseases that can be diagnosed.
Block 10 is the experimental block. The women who live there have been violated by sadists who call themselves professors, violated in a way that a woman has never been violated before, violated in the most beautiful thing they possess: their womanhood, their ability to become mothers.
A girl who is forced to submit to an uncontrolled brute’s savage lust suffers too, but the deed she endures springs from life itself, from life’s urges. In Block 10 the motive is not an eruption of desire—it is a political delusion, a financial interest.
All this we know as we look out over this plain in the south of Poland and long to run through the fields and marshes that separate us from the hazy blue Beskid Mountains on the horizon. But that is not all we know. We also know that for us there is only one end, only one way to be free from this barbed-wire hell: death.
We know that death can come to us here in different forms.
He can come as an honorable foe that a doctor can fight. Even if this death has base allies—hunger, cold, fleas, and lice—it remains a natural death that can be classified according to an official cause. But he won’t come to us like that. He will come to us just as he came to those millions who have preceded us here. When he comes, he will almost certainly be stealthy and invisible, almost odorless even.
We know that only subterfuge hides death from our view. We know that this death is uniformed because the gas tap is operated by a man in uniform: SS.
That is why we yearn so, looking out at those hazy blue mountains, which are just twenty-two miles away, but for us eternally unattainable.
That is why I lean so far out of the window toward Block 10, where she is standing.
That is why her hands grip the wire mesh on her window so tightly.
That is why she rests her head on the wood, because her longing for me must remain unquenched, along with our yearning for those tall, hazy blue mountains.
The young grass, the swollen brown chestnut buds, and the radiant sun that was growing more glorious with every passing day seemed to promise new life. But the Earth was covered with the chill of death. It was spring 1943.
The Germans were deep in Russia and the fortunes of war had yet to turn.
In the West, the Allies still hadn’t set foot on the Continent.
The terror raging over Europe was taking fiercer and fiercer forms.
The Jews were the conquerors’ playthings. It was a game of cat and mouse. Night after night, motorbikes roared through the streets of Amsterdam, jackboots stamped and orders snarled along the once so-peaceful canals.
Then, later, in Westerbork, the mouse was often released for a moment. People were allowed to move freely around the camp, packages arrived and families stayed together. Everyone wrote an obedient “I am fine” letter to Amsterdam, so that others in turn would also surrender peacefully to the Grüne Polizei.
In Westerbork the Jews were given the illusion that everything might not turn out too badly, that although they were now excluded from society, they would one day return from their isolation.
“When the war is done and everyone
Is on the way back home…”
was the start of a popular song.
Not only did they not see their future fate, there were even some who had the courage—or was it blindness?—to start a new life, to found a new family. Every day Dr. Molhuijsen came to the camp on behalf of the mayor of the village of Westerbork, and one magnificent morning—from April’s quota of nine fine days—Hans and Friedel appeared before him.
They were two idealists: he was twenty-seven and a well-known doctor at the camp; she was just eighteen. They had got to know each other in the ward where he held sway and she was a nurse.
“Because alone we are none,
But together we are one”
he had written in a poem for her, and that was exactly how they felt. Together they would win through. Maybe they would manage to stay in Westerbork until the end of the war, and otherwise continue the struggle together in Poland. Because one day the war would end and a German victory was something nobody believed in.
They were together for half a year like this, living in the “doctor’s room,” a cardboard box in the corner of a large barracks with one hundred and thirty women. They didn’t have the room to themselves, but shared it with another doctor and, later, two other couples. Definitely not the appropriate surroundings for establishing a young married life together. But none of that would have mattered if there hadn’t been any transports: one thousand people every Tuesday morning. Men and women, young and old, including babies and even people who were ill.
Only a very small number were allowed to stay behind, when Hans and the other doctors were able to prove that they were too sick to spend three days on a train. Also exempt were those with a privileged status: the baptized, the mixed marriages, alte Kamp-Insassen who had been interned since 1938, and permanent members of staff like Hans and Friedel.
There was a staff list of a thousand names, but there was also a steady influx of new arrivals from the cities who needed to be protected, sometimes on German orders, sometimes because they really had been worthy citizens, but mostly because of longstanding connections with the notables on the Jewish Council or with the alte Kamp-Insassen, who had a firm grip on the key positions in the camp. Then the list of one thousand would be revised.
This was how it came about that an employee of the Jewish Council came to Hans and Friedel on the night of Monday, September 13, 1943 to tell them that they had to get ready for deportation. Hans dressed quickly and made a round of all the authorities, who worked under high pressure on the night before the weekly transport. Dr. Spanier, the head of the hospital, was furious. Hans had been in the camp for a year. He had worked hard; there were many others who had arrived later and never done a thing. But Hans was on the Jewish Council staff list and if they couldn’t keep him on it, the health service couldn’t do anything about it either.
At eight o’clock they were standing with all their belongings next to the train, which ran through the middle of the camp. It was tremendously busy. The camp police and the men of the Flying Column were carrying baggage to the train and two wagons were loaded with provisions for the journey. The male nurses from the hospital came trailing up with the patients, mostly elderly, who couldn’t walk. That wasn’t sufficient reason to let them stay—next week they would be no more mobile than they were now. Also present were friends and family who were staying in the camp; they stood behind the cordon, twenty or thirty yards away from the train, often crying more than those who were leaving.
At the front and back of the train were carriages with SS guards, but they were very fair, and tried to keep people’s spirits up, because it was essential to keep the Dutch from finding out how “their” Jews were really being treated.
Half past ten: departure. The doors of the goods wagons were bolted on the outside. A last goodbye, a last wave through the hatches in the roof of the wagon, and then they were on their way to Poland, exact destination unknown.
Hans and Friedel had been lucky and were in a wagon with only young people, old friends of Friedel’s from the Zionist group she had belonged to, friendly and accommodating. Altogether there were thirty-eight of them. That was relatively few and, with a little reorganization, hanging baggage from the ceiling, there was room for them to all sit down on the floor.
The fun and games started during the trip. At the first stop, SS men came into the wagon demanding their cigarettes, and later their watches. The next time it was fountain pens and jewelry. The lads laughed it off, giving them a few loose cigarettes and claiming it was all they had. A lot of them were originally German; they’d had dealings with the SS often enough before. They’d come through it alive then too, and they weren’t going to let themselves be bullied around this time either.
They weren’t given any food in those three days and they never saw the train’s provisions again. But that didn’t matter! They still had enough with them from Westerbork. Now and then a couple of them were allowed to leave the wagon to empty the small and overflowing toilet barrel. They were delighted when they saw signs of bombing raids in the cities, but otherwise the trip was uneventful. On the third day they found out their destination: Auschwitz. It was just a meaningless word, neither good nor bad.
That night they reached the Auschwitz railway yard.
The train stood still for a long time—so long they grew impatient and wished they would finally get some clarity, that they would finally see what Auschwitz was. The clarity came.
At the first sign of dawn, the train started moving for the last time, only to stop again a few minutes later at an embankment in the middle of flat countryside. Standing beside the embankment were groups of ten to twelve men. They were dressed in blue-and-white-striped clothes with matching hats. A great number of SS men were walking back and forth in an incomprehensible flurry of activity.
The moment the train was at a standstill, the costumed men stormed up to the wagons and pulled the doors open. “Throw out the baggage. In front of the wagon. All of it.” They were terribly shocked because they realized they had now lost everything. Quickly they tried to slip the most essential items under their clothes, but the men had already leapt into the wagons and begun tossing out baggage and people. All at once they were outside, where they hesitated for a moment. But that hesitation didn’t last long. SS men came at them from all sides, pushing them toward a road that ran parallel to the railway track, and kicking anyone who didn’t move fast enough or hitting them with their sticks, so that everyone hurried as quickly as they possibly could to join the long lines that were forming.
Only then did Hans know for certain that the two of them were going to be split up, that men and women were being separated. He hurried to kiss Friedel—“Till we meet again”—and then it was over. An officer with a stick was standing at the front of the lines as they slowly marched toward him. He cast a fleeting glance at each person and pointed with his stick: “Left. Right.” Old men, invalids, and boys up to about eighteen went left. The young and sturdy went right.
Hans reached the officer, but wasn’t paying attention. He only had eyes for Friedel, who was standing in her line a few yards away and waiting until it was the women’s turn. She smiled at him as if to say, Be patient, it will be all right. That was why he didn’t hear the officer—who was a doctor—ask him how old he was. Annoyed at not being answered, the doctor gave Hans a blow with his stick that immediately sent him flying to the left.
He was standing among the weak and infirm: old men, a blind man next to him, and a youth on the other side who looked like an imbecile. Hans bit his lip with fear. He realized that only the strong stood any chance of staying alive and he didn’t want to share the fate of the children and the elderly. But it wasn’t possible to cross over to the other line, as there were SS men everywhere, guns at the ready.
Friedel was directed to the young women. Older women and all women with children were put in a separate line. In this way four lines formed: approximately 150 young women and just as many young men; the other seven hundred were standing in their own lines on the side of the road.
Then the medical officer returned and called out to the elderly men, asking if there were any doctors among them. Four men leapt forward. The officer turned to Van der Kous, an elderly Amsterdam GP: “What kind of diseases were there in the camp in Holland?”
Van der Kous hesitated and then told him something about eye diseases. Annoyed, the officer turned away.
Hans saw his opportunity: “You probably mean contagious diseases. There were sporadic instances of scarlet fever, which followed a relatively benign course.”
“No, not a single case.”
“Good. Back in line, all of you.” And then, turning to his adjutant: “We’ll take him.”
The adjutant beckoned Hans and took him to the end of the line of young men. He felt that he had escaped a great danger. And, sure enough, trucks had arrived in the meantime and the old men and women were being loaded onto them.
He saw now for the first time what it was really like under the SS, who began shoving, kicking, and beating people. Many found it difficult to climb up onto the beds of the high trucks. But the Sturmmann’s sticks guaranteed that all of them did their very best.
An elderly woman was bleeding badly from a blow to the head. A few people were left behind; they couldn’t possibly get up onto the trucks and those who tried to come to their aid were chased away with a kick or a snarl.
The last truck drove up and two SS men took an unfortunate old man by the arms and legs and threw him into the back. After that the women’s line began to move. He had lost sight of Friedel, but knew she was there somewhere. When the women were a couple hundred yards away, the men started walking too.
The columns were heavily guarded. Soldiers were marching on both sides, guns at the ready. There was one guard for approximately every ten prisoners. Hans was fairly close to the end of the line. He saw the guards to his left and right signal each other. They looked around for a second, then the one on his left came up to Hans and asked him for his watch. It was beautiful and had a stopwatch. His mother had given it to him for his doctor’s exam.
“I need it for my profession. I’m a doctor.”
A grin passed over the guard’s face. “Scheisse, Arzt… A dog, that’s what you are! Give me that watch!” The man grabbed him by the arm to pull it off. For an instant Hans tried to resist.
“Escape attempt, huh?” the man said, bringing up his rifle.
Hans realized how powerless he was and handed over the watch. He had no desire to be shot “attempting to escape” on his first day in Auschwitz.
When they were crossing the railway track, he saw Friedel in the bend of the road. She waved and he sighed with relief. After the railway line they passed a barrier with sentry posts that seemed to mark the grounds of the camp proper. There were storage depots for building materials, sheds, and enormous stacks of bricks and timber. There were small trains moved by manpower. Wagons, dragged by men. Here and there along the road were larger buildings, factories with the hum of machinery coming from the inside. And then more timber, bricks, and sheds. A crane, lifting up cement buckets. There was building going on everywhere, and everywhere was alive. But more than cranes and small trains, one saw the men in their thieves’ costumes. There was no motorization here; this was the work of thousands, of tens of thousands of hands.
Steam is practical; electricity is efficient, able to be put to work hundreds of miles away; gasoline is fast and powerful. But people are cheap. That was clear from the hungry eyes. It was clear from the bare chests with ribs standing out like cords holding their bodies together. One saw it from the long lines of men carrying bricks, shuffling along in wooden clogs or, often enough, in bare feet. They trudged on without looking up or around. Their faces remained expressionless. No reaction to the new arrivals. Now and then a tractor pulling wagons full of bricks. The engine thumped slowly: oil engines. Hans couldn’t help but think of the evenings he’d spent on the water, lying back on his boat and listening to the freighters chug by. What life had been like back then, the things it had promised him! He steeled himself. He felt that he couldn’t start brooding now. He had to fight. Maybe he could make that old life come back one day.
Then they were standing in front of the gate and seeing the camp for the first time. It was made up of large, brick barracks. There were about twenty-five of them. They were two stories high with pitched roofs and small attic windows. The streets between the buildings were well kept. There were pavements with tidy paving stones and small strips of lawn. Everything was clean, well painted, and shining in the bright autumn sun.
It could have been a model village: a camp for thousands of laborers working on a great and useful project. Above the gate, in cast iron, the concentration camp slogan. Suggestive but dangerous: “ARBEIT MACHT FREI.” A suggestion that was intended to calm the unending multitudes who entered here. Here and through many similar gates in other parts of Germany. But it was only an illusion, because this gate was a gate to hell and instead of “Work sets you free,” it should have said “Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.”
Because the camp was surrounded by electric fences. Two rows of concrete posts, neatly whitewashed, three yards high. Barbed wire on the insulators. The wire looked strong, hard to get through. But what was even worse was invisible: 3,000 volts! With nothing but little red lamps glowing here and there to show that the electricity was on. And every ten yards a sign mounted on the fence with a skull and crossbones and the word “stop” in German and Polish: Halt, Stój. Still, no barrier is sufficient unless every part of it can be kept under fire. That was why small watchtowers had been built every hundred yards, manned by SS guards with machine guns.
No, there was no way out of this place, unless by a miracle. The people they encountered in the camp said the same thing, because now that they were inside the wire, they were much less strictly guarded; the SS men had mostly handed over the task to prisoners. Prisoners, to be sure, who looked very different from the thousands at work outside the camp. These ones were wearing striped linen uniforms that were cleaner and well-fitting. Often they were dressed almost elegantly, with black hats and tall boots. On their left arms they wore red bands with numbers on them.
These were the Blockälteste, the heads of the various buildings, who organized everything in their block, running their own administration with the help of a clerk and distributing the food. They themselves did not go without; you could tell from their moon-shaped faces. They were all Poles and Reich Germans.1
But there were also a few Dutch prisoners around. The SS and the Blockälteste kept them at a distance because the newcomers still had all kinds of valuables on them. Nonetheless a few managed to come forward. They asked for watches and cigarettes: “You’re going to lose it all anyway.” But most of the new arrivals still didn’t believe it and kept everything in their pockets. Hans gave a Dutchman a packet of cigarettes, but an SS man was watching and hit him. The Dutchman had already run off; he’d seen it coming in time.
A man appeared, small but with a herculean build. He was apparently held in great respect.
“So, lads, when did you leave Westerbork?”
“Three days ago.”
“Do you already know about the landing in Italy?”
“Of course, we read the paper. How are things in Holland?”
What could they say to that? They were more interested in hearing how things were here in Auschwitz, what their future would be.
“Who are you?” asked one of the newcomers.
“Leen Sanders, the boxer. I’ve been here a year.”
The newcomers were momentarily reassured. So it was possible to live here.
“Are there still a lot of people from your transport here?” asked Hans, who was already growing skeptical.
“Don’t ask too many questions. You’ll see,” the boxer answered. “Keep your eyes and ears open and your mouth shut.”
“But you look fine.”
Leen gave a wise smile. “That’s a boxer for you.”
“What will we have to do here?”
“You’ll be assigned to the Kommandos that work outside the camp.”
Again Hans saw the people outside before him, those work-machines, lines of them carrying bricks and cement, their expressionless faces, dead eyes, and emaciated bodies.
“What happens to the old people they took away in trucks?”
“Haven’t you ever listened to the BBC?” Leen asked.
“Well, then, you should know.”
Then Hans knew everything. He thought of Friedel, whose line he had lost sight of. He thought of his mother, his brother, of everyone he had seen leaving for Auschwitz. He thought of his studies, his practice, his ambitions. He thought once again of Friedel and their plans for the future. They were the thoughts of someone who was convinced he was going to die.
And yet, doubts were already appearing. Maybe he would be lucky, maybe. He was a doctor—no, he didn’t dare hope, but he had to. He couldn’t believe that he would die here, but he couldn’t believe in life anymore either.
A snarl brought him back to his senses. “Aufgehen!” They walked down Lagerstrasse between the big blocks. There were a lot of people out on the streets. Glass plates were mounted over the doors of some of the blocks:
Sitting in front of the hospital door were men in white suits with red stripes on the backs of their coats and along the seams of their trousers. They looked fit and healthy and must have been the doctors. These men hardly glanced at the new arrivals, but Hans saw that their lack of interest wasn’t the same as the indifference of the thousands outside. With all those work slaves it had been the exhaustion, the deep despondency, that had prevented any mental effort. With these handsome men it was a kind of arrogance. After all, they were privileged, the camp “prominents.” And what were they, the newcomers? Everyone was free to abuse and ridicule them.
They arrived at Block 26, the Effektenkammer. Leen explained what that meant. It was here that the prisoners’ personal effects, clothes and other valuables, were stored. Above the windows you could see long lines of paper bags, each containing the property of one man. If somebody was going to be released from the camp, he’d get it all back.
Their clothes would not be stored. Jews were never released. There weren’t any legal proceedings involving them. As they hadn’t been sentenced to any punishment, they couldn’t be freed.
Sure enough, between Blocks 26 and 27 they were ordered to undress. All of their clothes and everything they had on them was loaded onto a wagon. They were only allowed to keep a leather belt and a handkerchief. Hans tried to hold on to a few of his best instruments, but they were on to him in no time. A scrawny man with a band on his left arm—Lagerfriseur—was checking everyone. Those who had tried to keep something back had to surrender it after all and got a blow for good measure. Hans asked if he could keep his instruments. The man grinned and pocketed the lot.
There they stood. Now they had lost everything. The process had been slow, but now it was complete. Had not Schmidt, the Commissioner-General for Public Security in the Netherlands and Rauter’s2 representative for Jewish affairs, once said, “The Jews will return to the land they came from, as naked as when they arrived here”?
- On Sale
- Jan 21, 2020
- Page Count
- 240 pages
- Grand Central Publishing