Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Living the nightmare in the camps

The main gate at Auschwitz
(12th in a series)
     My Dad's first day at the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp, in early October 1942, had to be the most horrific day of his life (he was 23).
     The second day was the next horrific day.
     Think about it; in the 33 months he was a prisoner of the Nazi war machine -- the final 28 at Auschwitz or the surrounding area -- there couldn't have been "good" days, only some that weren't as severe as others.
      Face it, for thousands and thousands -- including members of our family -- there was no second day in the camp. The first day was a trip to the gas chambers.
      So for the survivors, every day was the next day to endure whatever torture was ahead.
      In his 1996 interview with the USC Shoah Foundation, Dad recalled the arrival by train, the overbearing German/Nazi military presence, the rifles, the police dogs, the women and children separated from the men, the unhealthy and elderly men also separated, the standing at attention for seemingly hours, the shooting of a man for disobedience, the order to shed his clothes and possessions, the shaving of all his hair, the numbered tattooed on his left forearm -- his identity for the next couple of years.
      That was the first day, and a night spent in one of the many barely equipped barracks. What was ahead? Who knew? Only the Nazis. But Louis Van Thyn and his fellow prisoners must have known it wouldn't be good.
      "The next morning they put us together and they stand us in line, and they gave us some blue-and-white clothes, and they walked us," Dad said in his interview. "The only thing we could save was our belt and our shoes, and I had my military shoes on. But they took my socks away, too.
     "So we walked from Birkenau to Auschwitz. We came in the gate with [the] 'Arbeit Macht Frei' [sign]."
     It was only the beginning of the day.
      Auschwitz was the largest and most deadly of the Nazi concentration camps; the overhead photo of the camp layout, which ran with the previous chapter of this series, "The Gates of Hell," shows the scope of it.
      Here is some basic information on the camps from, the web site of the official Auschwitz Memorial and Museum:
      The camp opened in former Polish army barracks in June 1940, and 20 brick buildings were adapted -- six two-story, 14 single-story. At the end of 1940, prisoners began adding second stories to the single-story blocks and the following spring, they started erecting eight new blocks.
The barracks at Auschwitz (from
      By mid-1942, it was a complex of 28 two-story blocks, most used to house prisoners. Each block was designed to hold about 700 prisoners; in reality, they housed up to 1,200. There were three-tiered bunk beds, but many had to cram more than three people in them.
     In the first months, the prisoners drew water from two wells and relieved themselves in a provisional outdoor latrine. After the rebuilding of the camp, each building had lavatories and toilets, but very basic and very public, and very unsuitable for the number of prisoners involved.
      Plus, there were more than 40 sub-camps in the area -- founded at various German industrial plants and farms -- in which the prisoners were used as slave laborers. The most significant of these for this series was Jawischowitz, where my Dad spent much time, working in the coal mine.
       After that walk from Birkenau into the main Auschwitz camp, with the infamous sign, Dad and a group of his fellow prisoners were made to keep walking ... to Jawischowitz -- the camp located just outside the village of Jawiszowice.
        "I cannot remember, moet [must] be 10 miles or something from Auschwitz," he said in the testimony. "And we come in a camp and there was already a Dutch commando over there, and he was telling that we had to work in the coal mines."
         According to the list of Auschwitz sub-camps on the Auschwitz web site, the camp existed from August 1942 -- just a couple of months before Dad arrived -- to the liberation on Jan. 17, 1945. It was a site for coal mining and surface construction work at the Brzeszcze-Jawischowitz mine, with 1,988 prisoners involved.
        It was part of the Reichswerke Hermann Göring, the economic conglomerate for the Nazi cause -- dealing primarily in mining the ore and producing the steel needed for the war effort, and named for and headed by Göring, considered the second most powerful man in Germany to Hitler.  
        All the walking left Dad in pain -- and without shoes.
        "But after a day that I walked from Auschwitz to Jawischowitz, I had no socks on, and I had blisters on my legs [feet]," he recalled. "Thus the next day I go see the doctor, and you could not keep your shoes on, you had to set them in the hall. And when I come back from the doctor, my shoes were gone.
        "That was one thing I still had from my own, so I had some wooden shoes that were wood underneath and leather backs. And we had all kinds of clothes we used for socks ... tallises [Jewish prayer shawls]. I remember we cut tallises. For the vroom [Orthodox] Jews, that was real bad. That was really, really bad."
        Before the work began, before they really learned what this camp was about, there was more humiliation.
        "The next day we had to go on a field in Jawischowitz, we had to make sport -- they called it sport," Dad said. "We had to run around, or sit down, or lay down, [whether or not] there was mud or nothing.
       "Those were kapos that did that," he pointed out. The kapos were -- according to the definition from the web site Jewish Virtual Library -- trustee inmates who supervised the prisoners, carried out the will of the Nazi camp commandants and guards, and who were often as brutal as the SS itself. And some of them -- almost unbelievably -- were Jewish.
      If it wasn't the kapos, Dad added, it was "the haftlinge -- those were the criminals from Germany. That were our leaders, the criminals from Germany. Many people don't understand that today, that Germany took all the criminals out of prisons, and made them the leaders in the camps.
      "There were block elders, block fuehrers [they were SS]. But we no saw too much SS; we saw the commandos from the block. You saw the block fuehrer going around. He let the inmates be the leaders over there, and they were terrible."
      Next: Working in the mines


  1. From Dale Brown: I have been to Auschwitz and had a wide range of motions. Your father gave you fantastic genes. This makes me sick, they were evil SOBs and I hope all of them suffer in hell. I know to forgive is a virtue, but not with these crazed monsters. Hope God understands my feelings about these scumbags.

  2. From Mary Marshall Cobb: Thank you so much for sharing these stories with us. Your parents were truly amazing.

  3. From Teri Spinks Netterville: Nico, this is heart-wrenching to read. Painful to imagine. And unfathomable to believe that our world allowed this to happen to these precious people....(and for the length of time that it happened.). It hurts me to think about. I must tell you, however, that the courage and strength your parents possessed, to not only live through this travesty, but then to recognize the importance of reliving and sharing this painful time, inspires me beyond anything else in the world. My parents had a deep love and respect for your parents. They most definitely felt that your parents' desire to use their life-journey as a "teaching tool" for others was a gift beyond any measure. You must feel utterly amazed and awe-inspired by those two precious souls, whom you were lucky enough to call "Mom" and "Dad." What an incredible legacy. Truly remarkable.

  4. From Ed English: You are on a roll. I really enjoyed the George Stone piece . . . and I always find the stories on your parents compelling, especially those dealing with the Holocaust. How your dad beat the odds at Auschwitz is flabbergasting. Keep up the good work.

  5. From Christy Bickham: So very painful to read, but to live through to tell the story ... heartrendering. It must be told and retold and never forgotten ... never to be repeated!