> Holocaust Studies > People

Initiation Into Labor Camp Life

August 2, 2012 | by

I started on the lower bunk. As more people were killed, space opened up on the upper bunks.

When I walked through the gates of the camp, I saw terrible sights. German soldiers peered down at us from watchtowers, machine guns in hands. All the inmates – about fifty or so Russians, a hundred or so Poles, and thousands of Jews – were absolutely filthy. Everyone wore a two inch by two inch cloth square – the Russians and Poles a red one, the Jews a yellow one – and all were so thin they looked half-dead. The men moved around the yard of trampled dirt as if they were sleepwalking. For many, though the body lived on, the spirit was already gone.

Our group was stopped at the entrance and a German officer stood tall before us, scanning the group contemptuously. He cleared his throat dramatically before addressing us.

"You are to hand over your watches, rings, any other jewelry, and money that you have on you. If we find something that hasn't been turned in, you will be shot immediately."

I looked at his mean face and well-oiled gun, knowing there was no choice but to comply. As I took off my watch and went through my pockets for loose coins and bills, the German soldiers continued to lash out at us with a club to the stomach, a slap across the face. They never interrupted this sadistic amusement.

Line-up in the Snow

Once the confiscation of valuables was over, we were marched toward the central yard of the camp. In that we had not had anything to drink in days, the light snow that remained on the ground looked incredibly inviting. The problem was that directly underfoot there was no snow; the little that remained was close to the barbed wire fence about two or three feet away.

We were steered in another direction. One man standing before me in line could not contain himself. Overcome with thirst, he took a couple of steps out of line towards the snow. No sooner had he stepped away from the formation and bent his back than he was shot to death!

The German and Ukrainian guards laughed at the look of horror on our faces; they were thoroughly amused by our fear. They seemed to take great pleasure in terrifying us and certainly wanted us all to see who was master in Kamionka and who was the slave. A man died for stepping out of line, for trying to scoop up a handful of snow, for attempting to quench his dry mouth and throat. This act posed no direct military or political threat. He was no spy sending signals or a soldier reaching for a weapon. He was a totally defenseless man, a creature in need of hydration.

But it was precisely because he wanted to take care of a physical need on his own, and not when the "masters" dictated, that his innocent act was considered criminal. In this way, the monsters who controlled our fate informed us what our lives were worth to them: nothing.

Wooden Planks

That first evening, after gulping down one tin cup of "soup," we were taken back to the barracks. It is hard to describe the wretchedness of the place. Originally built for animals, the only modification the stables underwent to accommodate human beings was the installation of three or four levels of long, horizontal planks of unfinished wood for beds. The wind blew through the cracks in the old walls. The place was infested with lice, and within a matter of hours all of us were dirty with them too. Soon enough I learned to live with lice. Even though lice carried typhus, in comparison to other aspects of the camp, they were a small problem.

There were no mattresses on the wooden planks, no straw (as later I heard people had at Auschwitz and other camps), and certainly no blankets. For many of the 16 months I was there, I used a short coat I had brought with me as my blanket. Hundreds of people were crammed into each of the barracks, and they slept on the planks, the floors, anywhere they could find space. We each had less than two feet to lie in, and if one person wanted to turn over, everyone on either side of him on the long planks had to turn over as well.

After being awakened at 5:30 in the morning, we were given two minutes to dress. If someone was not ready, he was badly beaten. Only after everyone in the barracks was ready were we allowed to stand in line for a cup of ersatz coffee, which was really dirty warm water. They also gave us a piece of bread (whose flour had been mixed with sawdust), often so hard and moldy that it could hardly be eaten.

Since this was our entire food ration for the day, some people saved the bead for "lunch" while others, unable to abide the gnawing hunger in their stomachs, chewed on it immediately. I tried to save mine for later in the day, knowing that as hungry as I was upon waking, I would become much more so as the day wore on and the hours of physical labor took their toll on my body's limited resources.

After this meager meal, thousands of camp inmates were made to stand outside in the yard, in straight lines, from six until eight in the morning. It did not matter if the brilliant summer sun was shining, or the deathly winds of winter were blowing; we had to stand still for two hours. Rain, snow, withering heat. It was the second phase of torture routinely worked into every day.

Guard Dog

A few minutes before eight, the haupsturmfuhrer, Paul Rebel, would come into the yard with his dog and watch Mr. Koltz, the lagerfuhrer (who was also a Jew), delegate work details. In groups of 250 or 500, we were taken to work. Some men went to the steinbrochen, the stone chopping corps, others to the strassenbau, the road crew where the road was swept and cleared of snow and debris, and the rest went to the eisenbahn, the railroad corps.

No matter which group I was in, there was always an eight, 10, or 12-kilometer walk to the work site. Often we had to carry heavy tools back and forth. No matter what the weather conditions, we had to walk, and always, "Schnell! Schnell!" ("Fast, fast!") The Germans wanted us to do things quickly so we wouldn't have time to think, so we wouldn't have a moment's rest.

After about two months, my job was switched and I was sent to the stone works. I was given a sledgehammer to chop stone for road repairs. Today in America, in Europe, in most countries, this kind of work is done by machine. But there, on the Berlin-Kiev road, just like our ancestors before us in Egypt, Jewish labor created the bricks for the empire.

We worked seven days a week, from eight in the morning, until seven in the evening, except for Sunday when we would stop work at one o'clock in the afternoon, after which most people collapsed into sleep.

Considering these conditions, it's a miracle any of us survived. Most did not. So many people died as a result of the beatings they were given while working on the road, while chopping stone, while standing around inside the camp, that in my barracks about 15 or 20 men (out of the hundreds that lived there) would rise earlier than was necessary in order to gather together a minyan to recite the Kaddish for the dead. Later, after I learned of my father's death in Belzec, I joined the minyan and said Kaddish every morning.

Poles and Ukrainians

Not only Jews worked on the road. Since all Jews had to wear a yellow, two-inch square sewn onto their clothing, it was easy to differentiate Jew from Gentile. The Poles and Ukrainians who were interned in the camp for some sort of criminal conduct in civilian life, from a bar fight to bad debts, wore a red patch. The local population could be sent to the labor camps as a punishment, like a prison sentence. They would be worked for a few months and then let go, but they were not treated any differently than the Jews.

They were given the same barracks conditions, the same meager amount of food, and the same back-breaking work. Most of them, being farmers, were accustomed to difficult physical labor and managed to get through their quota of work more swiftly and efficiently than us. It was to the Jews' detriment that we had little experience working so hard with our bodies. What we lacked in experience, though, we made up in spirit.

After three months when everyone's endurance had been tested, the Jews proved they could learn to work quickly and survive while many Poles and Ukrainians were fading away, unable to maintain their physical stamina with little food. And, as with the Jews, the first show of weakness for the Polish or Ukrainian inmates would mean death at German hands.

For no reason at all, literally at random, any one of the SS or Ukrainian policemen who watched over us all day would single out a man and beat him practically to death. One Pole named Janek was especially vicious. Pleasure glowed in his face when he brutally beat a weak Jew. He was a sadist who had never had so much fun in his life.

I would watch out of the corner of my eye as I continued hammering the rock with a sledgehammer and wonder how a person was able to tuck away his soul to such an extent that he could treat another human being as if he were a rock in the quarry. The Germans and Ukrainians ruling our lives acted as if we, like the stone we worked on, felt no pain. They seemed to believe that we existed to fulfill their needs and desires, as if the meaning of our lives was to provide them with props for their evil drama. They treated their dogs and horses with greater compassion and gentleness.

Sometime later, I was sent to lay railroad track for the Berlin-Kiev line. By hand we had to drag enormously heavy railroad ties into place. The Germans permitted us a half-hour break during the day to rest. Here, too, there were guards who seemed to thrive on spilling Jewish blood. They enjoyed beating us with their own hands. The direct contact, flesh against flesh, was far more satisfying to them than a bullet from a gun, though there was no shortage of that either.

Red with Rage

One day, my friend Zigale Freisinger from Kopychince, was working by the railroad when a Ukrainian police officer told him to lift one of the very heavy rail ties. Zigale was still a boy and was weak and tired. Not thinking clearly about his future and how he might best survive the war, he simply answered the Ukrainian's order: "I can't do it."

The Ukrainian hit him with a shovel and repeated his order. "Lift it!" he thundered at Zigale. And then Zigale shouted back at him, "You shouldn't hit me. The Russians are coming, and then you'll be sorry." Everyone around him shuddered with fear. We had all heard news from the ghetto that the Russian front was advancing, but it certainly was not very wise to throw this information in the face of a Ukrainian police officer who had everything to lose and everything to hide from his enemy.

The Ukrainian grew red in the face with rage and started to pound Zigale with his shovel, time after time after time, only stopping when Zigale's body lay motionless on the ground, curled up in a fetal position, like a small boy sleeping. He was dead, killed for voicing the hope that all of us carried within us like a burning torch – the hope of liberation, of survival.

The local headquarters for the Firma Otto Heil was located in the town of Kamionka, which was the large German construction company, from Bad Kissingen, that was in charge of the road works. The firm was helping the war effort with its work on this critically important road link. And the SS were doing its part by supplying the Firma Otto Heil with slave labor, meaning Jews. The Firma Otto Heil was by no means the only large German company to move operations to Polish soil to reap greater war-time profits. I.G. Farben had a large chemical factory in Monowitz, part of the Auschwitz complex.

Primo Levi, the Italian writer and chemist, wrote about his experience working as a concentration camp inmate at this factory. German and Ukrainian civilians were also employed at these factories as were local Poles. Whenever the claim is made that no one knew about the death camps and exploitation of Jewish labor, it should be remembered that these giant companies, many still in business, made use of this labor and that thousands of their employees worked right alongside the dying, skeletal Jews.

When I first came to camp, I had to sleep on the bottom bunk. The longer someone stayed in the camp, the more people were killed, the more space opened up on the upper bunks, and a person would eventually work his way up. The major drawback of the bottom bunk was that dust and dirt from other people sleeping on the upper planks always fell through the sizable cracks and onto my face while I slept. But the one advantage to sleeping on the bottom bunk, in fact the only advantage, was that it was close to the floor where a small board had been pried loose to create a cubby hole where small items could be hidden.

Punishable by Death

During the days when I still received packages, my father had sent me a little wooden box, and I hid it in the cubby hole. Also, it was in there, in the box in the cubby hole, that I would put the contents of anything sent to me from home: some bread, shoes, a pair of pants. And I wasn't the only one. A few of us would use this secret place beneath the floorboards to hide prized possessions. Anything left lying around casually on the bunk or on a hook would inevitably be stolen.

Ours was a desperate situation, and men who in normal times would never commit a crime, even a petty one, were driven to do things that they would have never considered previously. After all, another pair of pants might mean the difference between freezing to death and staying warm; a piece of bread could mean the difference between surviving another day and succumbing to death.

One late afternoon in October, right after the holidays, I returned to the barracks after work. I saw that the floorboard I had used as a locker had been nailed shut. Not only had our things been taken, but we could be identified since our names were in the box. The other men who also had placed things inside there for safekeeping were wondering, like me, what was going to happen next. We knew this sort of offense was often punished by death, and we supposed all we could do was to wait for the guards to point to us, march us outside into the yard, and then kill us in full view of the other inmates to teach them a lesson about maintaining personal possessions. Needless to say, I was tense with anticipation.

The next day when I returned to the barracks, one of the older men came up to me. He no longer worked outside because he was too weak and was basically waiting for the order to be killed. In the meantime, he had been given the task of cleaning toilets.

"You have to report to the main office," he said blandly.

This was it. I expected the worst; death had come to greet me.

When I reached the main office, I quickly found out that another one of the men, Abba, the ritual slaughterer's son from Chorostkow who had kept things under the floorboards with me, had asked for his possessions back. He had also tried to explain to the Germans why he had hidden them. But when he began to speak, they hit him. The more he spoke, the more terrible were the blows. They were not interested in explanations or reasons; rather, they hated him even more for his efforts.

They did not want to be reminded of his humanity, so they silenced him. He would fall down from the blows, then get up, and would be hit some more. When he could no longer move, they made him lie on his stomach and gave him 25 lashes on his back. Among the men who did the whipping was a Jewish kapo named Zuckerman. Zuckerman, who always wore his World War I lieutenant's uniform, was alternately vicious and compassionate to fellow Jews.

I knew then, when it was my turn, that explanations would not help, that they would, in fact, only make matters worse. So I said nothing more than answer their questions.

"Are you Shmerko Halpern?" I was asked.

"Yes, I am Shmerko Halpern."

"Is this your box?" they asked.

"Yes, it is my box."

"Lie down," they said.

I lay down on my stomach, and they began to strike me with a heavy wooden stick. I did not cry out but absorbed the pain as quietly as possible. Each blow was so painful I thought I would faint. I did not expect to live through it. When the Germans were through with me, my backside was bruised as black as a leather shoe, a solid plane of ruptured blood vessels. The entire area was numb from shock, and I could barely walk and certainly could not sit. Then they gave me what amounted to a death sentence. The Germans said I was too sick and hurt to go to work. Everyone in camp knew that whoever didn't work was sure to be killed.

However, two friends from my barracks assured the authorities that I could still work. They helped me walk the eight kilometers to where the rail ties were being laid, discreetly holding me in the middle so the German guards on the road would not notice. I was in extreme pain, thinking all along that I wouldn't make it, that at any moment I would collapse on the road and a German bullet would put an end to my suffering. My friends, Itzhak Goldfliess among others, wouldn't let me drop off, though. They were determined to give me a chance to live and held onto me tightly. I was very lucky that they cared; otherwise, things would probably have ended for me right then.

Infections and Gangrene

I was also fortunate in that the German officer on duty that day knew me as a good worker. He appreciated that I was young and strong. The Germans, for all their evil, continued, even in these hellish circumstances, to respect hard work. People who demonstrated this quality sometimes received a little better treatment, and in the camps, a little better treatment could mean the difference between life and death, as it did that day.

This German came over to me when he saw I could barely walk, that I could hardly straighten up, and asked what had happened. I told him the entire story, about hiding small things under the floorboards, about being beaten with the heavy wooden stick. I stopped short of showing him my blackened skin. Miraculously, he was sympathetic. While everyone else worked laying ties on the railroad track, he permitted me to rest on the ground. "Rest," he said, "today you will not work."

A couple of days later, I went to one of the Jewish doctors who treated the inmates to show him how black my skin still was. I was worried, as was everyone else who got sick in the camp, about infection and gangrene.

"Look," the doctor said to me after examining the area. "Today it's black, later it will be blue, and after that it will be red. Thank God you're alive. In a few days, you'll be able to walk better."

And he was right. It took a while, but after the skin was black, it turned to blue, and then to red, and with each change, walking became a little easier, until finally, after two months, I was fully healed. I was fortunate, very fortunate.

Anyone who survived knew himself to be fortunate. One never knew when a random shot would end his life. One Sunday afternoon in June during our only afternoon off, I was bathing in the outdoor shower that, after months without any water for personal use, had been installed. This was our only opportunity to bathe ourselves, and whoever wasn't too tired, took advantage of it. On this particular Sunday afternoon, many of us were standing outside naked, waiting to feel the clean water on our bodies, when the SS Scharfuhrer Miller came by with his girlfriend.

They stood there watching us and laughed and laughed. We were very embarrassed to be standing naked in front of a woman, and even though we could tell they were both drunk, we were still humiliated and nervous. The affair did not end there, however. Suddenly Miller took out his gun and shot one of the men who was standing just a few feet away from me. For no reason at all, he just pointed the gun at one man's head and pulled the trigger.

It was like a man who goes out into the forest to hunt animals just because he has the power to do so. Miller was trying to impress his girlfriend with his power over Jewish life. I was paralyzed by this callousness. For the life of me, I could not understand how a man could take out his gun and kill another in cold blood, on a whim, and indifferently observe the thin, naked body collapse onto the dirt. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. Dear God, how did these monsters permit themselves such cruelty? Miller and his girlfriend laughed some more when they saw our expressions. Then they got into his car and drove away to enjoy what remained of their Sunday afternoon. These Germans never forgot to remind us of how worthless our lives were to them.

However, most of the people in the infirmary died from typhus; others were shot when the gangrene in their legs and feet was discovered. One day seventeen people with gangrene were taken out and executed. Quite a few were my friends, like Freyke Gurtman. We had spent months together, nursing each other back to health. They knew where they were going and what would happen to them.

"If you survive, remember all this, and tell the story," one man said to me as he hobbled toward the door. Another said, "Tell the world what these devils did to our people."

Infected Limb

In truth, there were times when I did not know whether anyone would survive. Hitler and his henchmen killed right and left, young and old, and children. Nonetheless, I promised these men that I would not betray their lives, that I would recount the kiddush Hashem (sanctification of God's name) that these deaths represented. I begged God for the opportunity to tell the world what the German people did to us.

Among the seventeen men with gangrene who were killed were Freyke Gurtman from Chorostkow and Dr. Bloch. I had become fond of the doctor, and I watched with great pain as he was taken outside to be shot. The Germans boasted that it was more efficient to kill a Jew with gangrene than amputate the infected limb. As Dr. Bloch was being led to his death, he decided to tell the Germans his story, and in an elegant German he said:

"I am a professor of philosophy from Vienna. I was an officer in Kaiser Franz Josef's army during the First World War. I was a loyal supporter of the Hapsburgs. I helped many people in Vienna, Christian and Jew, rich and poor."

Then he paused, even though they were about to kill him, and he had nothing to lose.

"You really think you are going to win the war? You think by shooting me, one little Jew, it will help you win this war? Well, I will tell you, with this act you will not win the war. In fact, not only are you going to lose this war, you are already losing it."

We all stopped working momentarily, and those of us who understood German listened to his brave words. We knew his speech would anger the SS, that the truth would make them nervous. I am convinced that many Germans volunteered for the SS because they considered themselves good, loyal Germans and thoroughly believed Hitler's doctrines. But others saw the SS as a way to avoid serving on the Eastern front and thereby increasing their chances of surviving the war. The last thing they wanted was to be reminded of the collapse of the German war effort. Nonetheless, Dr. Bloch persisted, speaking aloud what we had already heard from the Hungarian officer and in hurried gossip and whispered rumors.

"You have been repelled at Stalingrad. Hitler knows, as well as anyone, that the war is over, that he has lost. Like Napoleon, you lost because you took on too much. Russian in the Russian heartland – you cannot beat them there. They wounded your depleted forces, and now it is only a matter of time. The Russians are advancing, and it will not be long before Germany is forced to surrender, with Russia bearing down on the Eastern front and the Americans and British on the west. You can shoot as many of us as you want, but it will not help you win the war. It is over."

Then the soldiers dragged him forward and put a gun to his head. I looked away as one of them pulled the trigger.

Some time after the event, we in the camp learned that during Sukkot of 1942 the SS had again raided Chorostkow. They had planned an Aktion and immediately killed a hundred Jews on the streets. Then they took over a thousand Jews, which represented fifty percent of the entire Jewish population of the town, and placed them in cattle cars as they had done with my group and me.

The intention of the SS was to make Chorostkow Judenrein (Jew-free). Whoever was not transported managed to survive by hiding in underground bunkers or attics, which everyone had built by then in anticipation of another, more thorough aktion. The survivors, my mother and brother Arie among them, were later ordered to leave Chorostkow for other ghettos. Almost all of them went to the ghetto in Trembowla.

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