Translated from Polish for the “Let’s Reminisce About Witold Pilecki” (“Przypomnijmy o Rotmistrzu”) initiative, by Jacek Kucharski
Thus, I am expected to describe bare facts only, as my colleagues want it. It was said: “The more strictly you will adhere to nothing but facts, relating them without comments, the more valuable it will be”. So, I will try… but we were not made of wood… not to say of stone (but it seemed to me that also stone had sometimes to perspire). Sometimes, among facts being related, I will insert my thought, to express what was felt then. I do not think if it must needs decrease the value of what is to be written. We were not made of stone – I was often jealous of it – our hearts were beating – often in our throats, with some thought rattling somewhere, probably in our heads, which thought I sometimes caught with difficulty… About them – adding some feelings from time to time – I think that it is only now when the right picture can be rendered.
On 19 September 1940 – the second street round-up in Warsaw. Several people are still alive, who saw me walk alone at 6:00 a.m. and stand in the “fives” arranged of people rounded up in the street by SS-men. Then we were loaded into trucks in Wilson Square and carried to the Cavalry barracks. Upon registration of our personal data and taking away any sharp-edged tools (under threat of shooting down if just a safety-razor blade was found on anybody later) we were carried into a manege, where we stayed during 19 and 20 September.
During those several days some of us could get acquainted with a rubber baton falling down upon their heads. Nevertheless it was within the limits of acceptable measures, for people accustomed to such ways of keeping law by guardians of order. In that time some families bribed out their loved ones free, having paid huge sums to SS-men. In the night we all slept side by side on the ground. A large reflector placed by the entrance lit the manege. SS-men with machine guns were arranged in the four sides.
There were one thousand eight hundred and several tens of us. I personally was upset by the passiveness of the mass of Poles. All those rounded up became imbibed with a kind of a psychosis of the crowd, which in that time expressed itself in that, that the whole crowd was similar to a herd of sheep.
I was haunted by a simple idea: to agitate the minds, to stir the mass to an action. I proposed to my companion Sławek Szpakowski (I know he was alive until the Warsaw Uprising) a common action in the night: to get the crowd under our control, to attack the posts, in which my task would be – on my way to the toilet – to “brush against” the reflector and destroy it. But the purpose of my presence in this environment was quite different, while the latter option would mean to agree to much smaller things. In general, he considered this idea to be out of the sphere of fantasy.
On 21 September in the morning we were loaded into trucks and, accompanied by escort motor cycles with machine guns, we were transported to the West Railway Station and loaded into goods-vans. Apparently, lime had been transported by those vans before, as the whole floor was scattered with it. The vans were locked up. We were on transport the whole day. Neither drink nor food was given. After all, nobody wanted to eat. We had some bread given out to us on the preceding day, which we did not know how to eat and how to value. We only desired something to drink very much. Under the influence of shocks, lime was getting powdered. It was rising into the air, excited our nostrils and throats. They did not give us any drink. Through interstices of planks with which the windows were nailed up, we saw we were transported somewhere in the direction of Częstochowa. About 10:00 p. m. the train stopped in some place and it continued its way no more. Shouts, cries were heard, opening of railway vans, barking of dogs.
In my memories I would call that place the moment in which I had done with everything what had existed on Earth so far, and began something which was probably somewhere outside me. I say it not to exert myself to some weird words, descriptions. On the contrary – I think I do not need to exert myself to any nice-sounding but inessential words. So it was. Not only the gun butts of SS-men struck our heads – something more struck them also. All our ideas were kicked off in a brutal way, to which ideas we had been acquainted on the Earth (to some order of matters, i. e. law). All that fizzled out. They tried to strike us most radically. To break us mentally as soon as possible.
The hum and clatter of voices was approaching gradually. At last, the door of our van was opened vehemently. Reflectors directed inside blinded us.
– Heraus! rrraus! rrraus! – shouts sounded out, while SS-men’s butts fell upon the shoulders, backs and heads of my colleagues.
We had to land outside quickly. I sprang off and, exceptionally, I did not get any blow of a gun butt; while forming our fives I happened to get to the centre of the column. A pack of SS-men were beating, kicking and making incredible noise “zu Fünfte!” Dogs, set on us by the ruffian soldiers, were jumping at those who stood in the edges of the fives. Blinded by reflectors, pushed, kicked, assailed by dogs being set on us, we were suddenly placed in such conditions, in which I doubt if anyone of us had been placed before. The weaker of us were bewildered to such a degree, that they formed a really thoughtless group.
We were driven forward, towards a larger group of concentrated lights. On the way one of us was ordered to run towards a pole aside from the road and a machine gun burst was let off at him at once. Killed. Ten colleagues were pulled out of our ranks at random and shot down on the way with the use of machine guns, under “joint and several responsibility” for an “escape”, which was arranged by the SS-men themselves. All the eleven people were being dragged on straps tied to one of the legs of each of them. Dogs were irritated by the bleeding corpses and were set on them. All that was accompanied by laugh and scoffs.
[Reception and accommodation – “in Hell”]
We were approaching the gate in a wire fence, on which an inscription: “Arbeit macht frei” was placed. Later on we learned to understand it well. Behind the fence, brick buildings were arranged in rows, among them there was a vast square. Standing among a line of SS-men, just before the gate, we had more quiet for a while. The dogs were kept off, we were ordered to dress up our fives. Here we were counted scrupulously – with the addition, in the end, of the dragged dead corpses. The high and at that time still single-line fence of barbed wire and the gate full of SS-men brought a Chinese aphorism to my mind: “On your coming in, think of your retreat, then on your coming out you will get unharmed”… An ironic smile arose inside me and abated… of what use would it be here?
Behind the wires, on the vast square, another view struck us. In somewhat fantastic reflector light creeping on us from all sides, some pseudo-people could be seen. By their behaviour, similar rather to wild animals (here I certainly give offence to animals – there is no designation in our language for such creatures). In strange, striped dresses, like those seen in films about the Sing-Sing, with some orders on coloured ribbons (I got such an impression in the flickering light), with sticks in their hands, they assailed our colleagues while laughing aloud. By beating their heads, kicking those lying on the ground in their kidneys and other sensitive places, jumping with boots upon their chests and bellies – they were afflicting death with some kind of nightmarish enthusiasm.
“Ah! So we are locked up in a lunatic asylum!…” – a thought flashed inside me. – What a mean deed! – I was reasoning by the categories of the Earth. People from a street round-up – that is, even in the opinion of Germans, not charged with any guilt against the Third Reich. There flashed in my mind some words of Janek W., who had told me after the first street round-up (in August) in Warsaw. “Pooh! You see, people caught in the street are not charged with any political case – this is the safest way to get into the camp”. How naively, over there in Warsaw, we tackled the matter of Poles deported to the camps. No political case was necessary to die here. Any first comer would be killed at random.
In the beginning, a question was tossed by a striped man with a stick: “Was bist du von zivil?” An answer like: priest, judge, barrister, resulted in beating and death.
Before me, a colleague stood in a five, who, upon the question tossed to him with parallel grasping him by his clothes below his throat, answered: “Richter” . A fatal idea! In a while he was on the ground, beaten and kicked.
So, educated classes were to be done away first of all. Upon that observation I changed my mind a bit. They were not madmen they were some monstrous tool used to murder Poles, which started its task from the educated classes.
We were terribly thirsty. Pots with some beverage were just delivered. The same people, who had been killing us, were distributing round mugs of that beverage along our ranks, while asking: “Was bist du von zivil?” We got that desired, that is wet beverage, and mentioned some trade of a worker or a craftsmen. And those pseudo-people, while beating and kicking us, shouted:… “hier ist KL Auschwitz – mein lieber Mann!”
We asked each other, what that meant? Some knew that here was Oświęcim, but for us it was only the name of a Polish small town – the monstrous opinion of that camp had not have enough time to reach Warsaw, and it was also not known in the world. It was somewhat later that this word made the blood of people at freedom to run cold, kept prisoners of Pawiak, Montelupi, Wiśnicz, Lublin awake in the night. One of colleagues explained us we were inside the barracks of the 5th Squadron of Horse Artillery. – just near the town of Oświęcim.
We were informed that we were a “zugang” of Polish gangsters, who assailed the quiet German population and who would face due penalty for that. Everything, what arrived to the camp, each new transport, was called “zugang”.
In the meantime the attendance record was being checked, our names given by us in Warsaw were being shouted out, which must be answered quickly and loudly “Hier!” It was accompanied by many reasons for vexation and beating. After the check-up, we were sent to the grandiloquently called “bath”. In such way transports of people rounded up in the streets of Warsaw, supposedly for work in Germany, were received, in such way every transport was received in initial months after the establishment of the Oświęcim camp (14 June 1940).
Out of darkness somewhere in the above (from above the kitchen) our butcher Seidler spoke: “Let nobody of you think, he will ever go out of here alive … your ration is calculated in such a way that you will live for 6 weeks, whoever will live longer… it means he steals – he will be placed in the Special Commando – where you will live short!” what was translated into Polish by Władysław Baworowski – a camp interpreter. This was aimed to cause as quick mental breakdown as possible.
We put all the bread we had into wheel-barrows and a “rollwaga” carried into the square. Nobody regretted it at that time – nobody was thinking about eating. How often, later, upon a mere recollection of that made our mouths water and made us furious. Several wheel-barrows plus a rollwaga full of bread! – What a pity, that it was impossible to eat our fill, for the future.
Together with a hundred of other people I at last reached the bathroom (‘Baderaum”, block 19, old numbering). Here we gave everything away, into bags, to which respective numbers were tied. Here our hairs of head and body were cut off and we were slightly sprinkled by nearly cold water. Here my two teeth were broken out, for that I was bearing a record tag with my number in my hand instead in my teeth, as it was required on that particular day by the bathroom chief (“Bademeister”). I got a blow in my jaws with a heavy rod. I spat out my two teeth. Bleeding began…
Since that moment we became mere numbers. The official name read as following: “Schutzhäftling kr…xy…” I wore the number 4859. Its two thirteens (made out of the central and the edge figures) confirmed my colleagues in a conviction that I would die, but I was very glad of them.
We were given white-blue striped dresses, denim ones, the same like those, which had shocked us so much in the night. It was evening (of 22 September 1940). Many things became clear now. The pseudo-people wore yellow bands with black inscription “CAPO” in their left arm, while instead of the coloured medal ribbons, as it had seemed to me in the night, they had on their chests, on the left side, a coloured triangle, “winkel” , and below it, as if in the end of a ribbon, a small black number placed on a small white patch.
The winkels were in five colours. Political offenders wore a red one, criminals – green ones, those despising work in the Third Reich – black ones, Bible Students – violet ones, homosexuals – pink ones. Poles rounded up in the street in Warsaw for work in Germany, were assigned, by all accounts, red winkels as political offenders. I must admit, that of all the remaining colours – this one suited me best.
Dressed in striped denims, without caps and socks (I was given socks on 8, while cap on 15 December), in wooden shoes falling off our feet, we were led out into a square called the roll-call square, and were divided in two halves. Some went into block 10, others (we) to block 17, the upper storey. Prisoners (“Häftlinge”) were accommodated both in the ground and in the upper stories of individual blocks. They had a separate management and administrative staff, as to create an autonomous “block”. For a distinction – all blocks in upper storey had letter “a” added to their numbers.
Thus, we were delivered to block 17a, in the hands of our blockman Alois, later called the “Bloody Alois”. He was a German, a communist with red winkel – a degenerate, imprisoned in camps for about six years; he used to beat, torture, torment, and kill several persons a day. He took pleasure in order and in military discipline, he used to dress our ranks by beating with a rod. “Our block”, arranged in the square in 10 rows, dressed by Alois who was running along the rows with his great rod, could be an example of dressing for the future.
Then, in the evening, he was running across our rows for the first time. He was creating a new block out of us, the “zugangs”. He was seeking, among unknown people, some men to keep order in the block. Fate willed it that he chose me, he choose Karol Świętorzecki (a reserve officer of 13th cavalry regiment), Witold Różycki (not that Różycki of bad opinion, this one was a good fellow from Władysława street in Warsaw) and several others. He quickly introduced us into the block, on the upper storey, order us to line in row along the wall, to do about-turn and to lean forward. He “thrashed” each of us five blows for all his worth, in the place apparently assigned for that purpose. We had to clench our teeth tightly, so that no groan would get out… The examination came off – as it seemed to me – well. “Mind you know how it tastes and mind you operate your sticks in this way while taking care of tidiness and order in your block.”
In this way I became room supervisor (“Stubendienst”), but not for long. Although we kept an exemplary order and tidiness, Alois did not like the methods we tried to achieve it. He warned us several times, personally and through Kazik (a confident of Alois) and when it was of no use, he went mad and evicted some of us into the camp area for three days, speaking: “Let you taste the work in the camp and better appreciate the roof and quiet you have in the block”. I knew that less and less number of people returned from work day by day – I knew they were “done away” at this work or another, but not until then that I was to learn it to my cost, how a working day of an ordinary prisoner in the camp looked like. Nevertheless, all were obliged to work. Only room supervisors were allowed to remain in blocks.
[Living conditions. Order of the day. Quasi-food. “To go to the wires”.]
We all slept side by side on the floor on spread straw mattresses. In the initial period we had no beds at all. The day commenced for all of us with a sound of gong, in summer at 4:20 a. m., in winter at 3:20 a. m.. Upon that sound, which voiced an inexorable command – we sprung to our feet. We quickly folded our blankets, carefully aligning their edges. The straw mattress was to be carried to one end of the room, where “mattress men ” took it in order to put it into a stacked pile. The blanket was handed in the exit from the room to the “blanket man”. We finished putting on our clothes in the corridor. All that was done running, in haste, but then the Bloody Alois, shouting “Fenster auf!” used to burst with his stick into the hall, and you had to hurry to take your place in a long queue to the toilet. In the initial period we had no toilets in blocks. In the evening we ran to several latrines, where up to two hundred people used to line up in a queue. There were few places. A capo stood with a rod and counted up to five – whoever was late to get up in time, his head was beaten with a stick. Not a few prisoners fell in the pit. From the latrines we rushed to the pumps, several of which were placed on the square (there were no baths in blocks in the initial period). Several thousand people had to wash themselves under the pumps. Of course, it was impossible. You forced your way to the pump and catch some water in your dixy. But your legs must have been clean in the evening. Block supervisors on their tour inspections in evenings, when the “room supervisor” reported the number of prisoners lying in straw mattresses, checked the cleanness of legs, which had to be put out from under blankets up, so that the “sole” would be visible. If a leg was not sufficiently clean, or if the block supervisor wished to deem it to be such – the delinquent was beaten on a stool. He received from 10 to 20 blows with a stick.
It was one of the ways for us to be done for, effected under the veil of hygiene. Just as it was doing for us, the devastation of organism in latrines by actions done in pace and by order, the nerve-fraying stir at the pumps, the ever-lasting haste and “Laufschritt” , applied everywhere in the initial period of the camp.
From the pump, all ran aside, for the so-called coffee or tea. The liquid was hot, I admit, brought in pots to the rooms, but it imitated those beverages ineffectively. An ordinary, plain prisoner saw no sugar at all. I noticed that some colleagues, who had been here for several months, had swelled faces and legs. Doctors asked by me told that the reason was an excess of liquids. Kidneys or heart broke down – a huge effort of the organism by physical work, with parallel consumption of nearly everything in liquid: coffee, tea, “awo” and soup! I decided to give up liquids of no advantage and to abide by awo and soups.
In general, you should keep your whims under control. Some did not want to resign the hot liquids, because of the cold. Things were worse regarding smoking, as in the initial period of our stay in the camp, a prisoner had no money, as he was not allowed to write a letter at once. He waited for a long time for that, and about three months had passed before a reply came in. Who was not able to control himself and exchanged bread for cigarettes, he was already “digging his own grave”. I knew many such ones – all of them went by the board.
There were no graves. All dead bodies were burnt in a newly erected crematorium.
Thus, I did not hurry for hot slops, others pushed their way, thus giving a reason to be beaten and kicked.
If a prisoner with swelled legs managed to seize a better work and food – he recuperated, his swell went by, but festering abscesses arose on his legs, which discharged a foetid liquid and sometimes flegmona, which I saw for the first time here only. By avoiding liquids, I protected myself from that successfully.
Not yet all had succeeded to take their hot slops, when the room supervisor with his stick emptied the room, which must have been tidied up before the roll-call. In the meantime, our straw mattresses and blankets were arranged, in accordance with a fashion which prevailed in that block, as blocks competed with each other in arrangement of that “beddings” of ours. Additionally, the floor had to be washed up.
The gong for the evening roll-call used to sound at 5:45. At 6:00 all of us stood in dressed ranks (each block drawn up in ten ranks, to make the calculation easier). All had to be present on the roll-call. When it happened that somebody was missing – not because he had escaped, but e.g. some novice naively had hidden, or he had just overslept and the roll-call did not correspond to the number of the camp – then he was searched, found, dragged to the square and nearly always killed in public. Sometimes that missing was a prisoner, who had hanged himself somewhere in the garret, or was just “going to the wires” during the roll-call – then shots of a guard in a tower resounded and the prisoner fell transfixed by bullets. Prisoners used to “go to the wires” mostly in the evening – before a new day of their torments. Before the night, a several-hours break in anguishes, it occurred rarely. There was an official order, forbidding colleagues to prevent suicides. A prisoner caught “preventing” went to the “bunker” for punishment.