Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Working in the mines

(13th in a series)
         It wasn't exactly a consolation prize that my Dad went to work in Jawischowitz, a sub-camp to the famed Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp, but it beat a couple of alternatives.
         One, he was alive, even to take the grueling 10-mile or so walk that he described in the previous installment of this series. Two, it took him out of the main camp, where thousands and thousands of Nazi prisoners were systematically eliminated -- many on the day they arrived.
The Jawischowitz coal mine entrance
 (photo from
         So perhaps he felt as if the immediate danger was a bit less being at Jawischowitz. In fact, after he was returned to the main camp after a few months, he volunteered -- I guess that's the word for it -- to return to the coal mine.
         I could add a bit of levity here and say that I have this in common with Loretta Lynn and Mickey Mantle -- my dad was a coal miner. (That probably won't mean anything to my Dutch friends, who might not be familiar with those American celebrities.)
         But this isn't a subject for levity, is it?
         In the many years after he became a Holocaust survivor, Dad (Louis Van Thyn) kept a positive attitude toward life. He really was happy to be here, to be able to have the second chance the rest of his original family didn't get. And he even looked at Jawischowitz as a positive.
          "I started working in the night shift in the coal mines," he told the interviewer in his taped 1996 USC Holocaust testimony.  "Now the night shift was a different shift als [from] the day shift. The night shift was much better than the day shift ... well, you say better.
          "The night shift did the repair work in the coal mines. They did all the extensions from the railroad in the mines, the air ducts. The two day shifts, they shoveled coal all day in the back, they had to work eight hours. We got breaks all the time, you know, om dat [because] it was not a steady job and there was lots less men in the night shift than in the day shift."
          If you knew my Dad, or listened to him, you know his broken English was sprinkled with Dutch words. In this piece, I am leaving in some of the Dutch for effect and because I had to look up the translation. Such as the word "straf," which means punishment or penalty.
          And here's why. Because, as Dad explained in the testimony, "I worked [in the mine] for about a month and one morning I was called out and put in a straf commando. I find that out later, after three days I find out that was a mistake.
          "I had to work on a railroad; I was a special straf commando, and there were two kapos [the trustee inmates the Nazis used to oversee their fellow prisoners) over there. And one kapo came later on -- I talk later with him -- to our camp. I know their names nog [still] -- Otto and Bill, I nimmer [never] forget dat [that]."
          So Dad was able to convince them that he was in the wrong place.
           "I could tell somebody that I was put up in there; they had the wrong number," he explained. "There was one [person] that wasn't working right, and they took my number, the wrong number. For my lucky break, somebody report it, and I was back in the coal mine again."
          And back in the coal mine, he became in effect a railroad worker. Part of the Nazi plan was to build roads and railways to transport the materials coming out of the mines for the war effort.
         "I was working on the railroad," Dad said. "[We] put a new railroad together there. We were with 20 men, and they [the guards] were hitting, and they were real rough with us. Real rough. And it was not the SS; [this] was the German inmates. They had the lead over there."
          Then, it was back to where he started. Unfortunately, it would not last.
           "But they put me back in the coal mines again," Dad said, "and I worked there about six months. ... We saw every day changing people; they were killing [prisoners] over there [in the gas chambers at Auschwitz], and we had to work in the camp again. But the night shift was a little better all the time.
          "Then they took 25 men one morning. They said 25 men have to go on the side, and we were sent back naar [to] Auschwitz. The 25 men were all diamond cutters from Antwerp. They were planning -- and that is what they were telling us -- to go back to Auschwitz and from there sent back to a camp in Germany and go start working on diamonds."
         It wasn't the truth. It was the usual Nazi deception.
        "We were sent back on a truck to Auschwitz and came in the tailor shop in Block One," Dad said. "There I find out what happened in Auschwitz itself met [with] the crematorium and gas chambers. We saw many Dutch men in Auschwitz."
        Asked about his family already being in Auschwitz, he answered, "Yeah, I find that out. Maar [but] I nimmer [never] find where. I find some cousins from my brother's [family]; he was married, and I find a cousin. After I was there a while, we saw some more Dutch transports coming in, and we find things out what happened in Holland. Maar [but] nobody knows what happened with the people.
       "Maar in Auschwitz itself, if you were sick ... in the coal mines, people were being sent back; there were muselmanns [camp prisoners on the verge of death], they were sent back to Auschwitz. They said they went to the sick barracks; that's all what we know."
         The interviewer: How did he know that his family had been in Auschwitz?
        "We knew that already in Malines [the Belgian holding camp]," he said. "There were people there who knew my family ... and they told us they were already sent to Auschwitz before I came back to Malines. And I think we got a letter."
          Interviewer: When you came to Auschwitz, did you think you would find them, you were going to be reunited?
          "No, no," Dad answered. "I find already out there was not much hope over there, that there were people alive. You not saw much people over there at all. You not saw the children; there were no women over there. The first women [were] in Block 10. They came net [just] in ... a week or two weeks before I was sent to the second camp."
            But instead of being sent to Germany [remember, Auschwitz was in Poland], he remained in the main Auschwitz camp. 
            "We find out we [are] not going to be diamond cutting, and they put us in outside commando," Dad recalled, "and we had to work on a street or something outside the camp but still inside the electric fence. We were with three boys, three friends of mine, all from Antwerp, and we stayed together all the time. And we were all sent back."
             Also, they worked inside in the tailor shop in Block One.
           "Block One was the best barrack in Auschwitz," Dad said (again the positive view). "There were 22 barracks, and that was the best one was that want [because] they were all tailors, and they were sitting inside. Now they [the Nazis] did some things, too, in that tailor shop. If somebody did something bad, you had to take a little stool and sit on your knees -- like the catcher here in baseball -- and sit for an hour or two. But I nimmer [never] had to do that."
             Then, another "break," a chance to leave the dismal, devastating days in Auschwitz.
            "One day that we were in the outside commando, in October 1943, they asked us if we wanted to go to a coal mine, if there were volunteers," Dad said. "And we were working already in the coal mines, and I say, I take that job.
           "You know, you took gambling [gambles]. And we were sent on a truck, after we were finished in Auschwitz."
            Dad called the second camp Janina. The official name, according to the Auschwitz-Birkenau web site, was Janigagrube, located in Libiaz, Poland --  but it is also referred to as the Janina mine, and the work camp was established in September 1943.
           It was liberated in January 1945. So was Dad. But there's more to tell before we get to that point.
           Next: The second mining camp


  1. From John Andrew Prime: Nico, this is a particularly good, fine read. Good work. It was an honor to have known and written about both of your parents, bless their souls.

  2. From Kent Dailey: Wow, great article. I have a better understanding of what it was actually like to be there. A very strong and brave man.

  3. From Donna Park Mummery: My husband visited Auschwitz twice. Good article.