Friday, January 10, 2014

The second camp: a plumber's helper

(14th in a series)
     Whether it was in the main camp of Auschwitz-Birkenau or the satellite camps -- the coal mines named Jawischowitz and Janina -- where he spent much of his 2 1/2 years in concentration camp, my father's tales are gripping.
The Janina coal mine in south Poland: Still in operation, but in World War II,
 part of the Nazi concentration-camp network (from Wikimedia Commons).
     The punishment, the abuse, the starvation, the constant and desperate scramble for food and scraps, the smell and sight of death everywhere, human lives wasting away ... he covered much of it in his 1996 interview with the USC Shoah Foundation.
     From October 1943 to when the Nazis abandoned camp in late January 1945, he was mostly located at "Janina," a large coal mine facility located in the town of Libiaz. It remains in operation today; Poland still is much dependent on the mining of coal and, to a lesser extent, copper and silver.
     Rather than work in the Auschwitz main-camp tailor shop doing odd jobs or outside on street construction, Dad -- Louis Van Thyn -- "volunteered" to go to Janina shortly after the Germans, the Nazis turned it into a concentration-camp work area late in 1943.
     "It was a new camp, midden [in the middle] in a small town," Dad told his Shoah Foundation interviewer. "The street waar [where] the camp was, those were streets where people were living. The gates, people could see what [was] happening in the coal mines, in the camp."
     His job, he said, was a plumber's helper. I don't know what he knew about plumbing, but his view was that it was better than having to do the actual mining.
     "It was an old school building; when we come there, there was maar [but] 400 people over there, and we were the first ones there, and they asked if they was people who worked in the coal mines," he recalled. "And I was a coal miner" -- he had done that time at Jawischowitz months before -- dus [thus] they give me a better job."
     "I got a better job and better food," he said, laughing at the thought. "You know we could organize [to receive] more food until there came more people. ..."
     In the coal mine, he began work with a 10-man crew in the night shift and one of the men he assisted with plumbing "brought me some food. You know that's [one] reason I stay alive."
     Within the battle for survival itself was the challenge of working alongside the Germans.
     "In Janina, we were working first with three [German] civilians and one haftlinge (a German criminal made to work in the camps]," Dad said. "Later on, in '44, we were working with one civilian and three haftlinges, and they were all folk-Duitschers ... the leaders, the engineers, and everything. We had about 10 SS [guards] there; we walked every day [from the main camp] to the coal mines."
     The mines themselves meant tough work. But beyond that ...
     "The trouble was that we had to work eight hours in the coal mines, that was bad," Dad said.  "But not so bad. But when we come back in the camp, we had to do all kind of work nog [still], like working in the yard and making the beds -- that was a kick for the Germans, to have the beds straight like the military -- and then we had to do some cleaning in the camps.
     "First you had the school [to clean], then later on, they build six more buildings. We had a sick barrack, and we had a kitchen. They feed us two times a day, and I saved my bread all the time to go to the coal mines and eat it before I go in the mines. Sometimes I got some food, too, in the mines from the civilian workers."
     The interviewer asked him about the conditions in the mines. Dad's recall of that focuses mainly on the constant change in the population -- the people who disappeared, the dying ones.       
     "The conditions were that people had to work hard," he said, "and we had to change 200 people every two weeks; 200 people were sent back to Auschwitz. They were all muselmanns (according to the Internet, a camp term used to describe prisoners who were on the verge of death).
     "There were about 50 people that stay there [in the mines]; they were the ones that were already in the camps. The longer you were there [the better] ... the newcomers they were not used to the work. They were the ones that become white [pale], become skinny, become muselmanns.
     "Every two weeks there come a couple of trucks and they picked up [people]. We had to stay on appell [at attention], and somebody picked out the bad [ill people], with the ribs, and they were sent back to Auschwitz."
     With the ribs ... the ribs sticking out. No use any longer to the Nazis. And soon sent to the gas chambers.
     "We knew already what happened," Dad said. "We had not too many Germans over there. We had a transport from Holland, the second transport from Holland. We were transported [in] from Belgium; most there were from Belgium, and then in '44, we got a Greek transport in, some Greek boys, and they were real weak.
     "The Dutch people were real weak, too; that was well-known. We no spoke the language, and the Polish haftlinge spoke the Dutch language and they said, 'Yeah, the Dutchmen, they don't want to work.' The [Polish] spoke the [German] language with the civil workers, and they had the toughest jobs, and they were killed much faster."
     But through the physical and mental challenges, Dad was a survivor.  
     "We had sport; they called it sport," he said. "You had to walk and run, and do all kind of [physical] things. ... My saving is that I was military [he had been in the Dutch military].  I'd had boot camp; that helped me. And I did sports for many years. I think that a little bit helped me to stay alive."
     Next: A Dutch boxing hero, a camp hero



  1. From Tommy Youngblood: Another really remarkable story. Just unbelievable that your Dad survived.

  2. From Tom Arceneaux: Thanks, Nico. I could hear your dad’s voice in the story.