From Camp To Camp
In Part 5, Marton and his fellow inmates were marched from Wustegiersdorf on February 16 and finally reached Bergen-Belsen in the beginning of April after a couple of weeks on the road.
By this time, the Germans were pretty much disorganized. Himmler was giving orders, often contradicting the orders of other high-ranking Nazis. These orders were confusing and resulted in chaos. As a result, some Jews, like Marton, were shipped to one camp, only to be shipped a short while later to a different camp and then back again. Himmler was actually “selling” Jews for a price and sending them from camps such as Bergen-Belsen to Switzerland and freedom. He also wanted to use the Jews as a bargaining chip with the Allies further down the road.
Bergen-Belsen was a cruel and hard camp with a very high death rate. Approximately 50,000 people died in the Bergen-Belsen camp complex.
The camp consisted of several sections, or sub-camps. Originally dedicated to serving as a POW camp, it was used as a transit camp, shuttling prisoners from place to place. In 1943, it was turned over to the concentration camp administration for their use. In 1944, the original commandant Adolf Haas was replaced by Rudolph Kramer coming directly from Auschwitz-Birkenau. Kramer’s stint as commandant of Bergen-Belsen earned him the nickname “the Beast.” Kramer reorganized the camp and created four main sub-camps. There was a “special camp,” a “neutrals camp,” the “star camp,” and finally the Ungarnlager, or the “Hungarian camp.”
Toward the end of the war, the prisoners housed in Bergen-Belsen were mainly Jews who were being evacuated and shipped from camp to camp to move them further inland and away from the ever-creeping front. Jews were shipped about like inventory from warehouse to warehouse, often to satisfy the demands of some special project needing extra manpower.
As thousands of Jews arrived from the other camps, usually on foot after lengthy “death marches,” the wretched survivors overwhelmed the resources of Belsen, which were not much to begin with.
After a few days in Belsen, Marton and his group were ordered out again. This time they arrived to repair the bombed-out railroad tracks in Hildesheim.
Hildesheim, a large, pretty city not far from Hamburg with a population over 71,000, hosted one of the 99 sub-camps of the massive Neuengamme concentration camp system. Although some of the sub-camps had only several hundred laborers, some had tens of thousands. Altogether, the Neuengamme system had upwards of 106,000 laborers providing material support for the German war effort. Actually, towards the end of the war there were far more prisoners in the sub-camps than in the actual main camps. As Marton had experienced, the inmates worked under grueling conditions, and were often transferred between camps.
Marton was put into a large wooden structure that resembled a hallway more than an actual building. Over 500 prisoners were jammed into the structure. They were detailed to repair the damage to the nearby railroad tracks, inflicted by the bombings of the Allies. There was a rhythm to the bombings as well as a danger. The Americans, equipped with more sophisticated aircraft, came at night and dropped their load of bombs, while the British, needing to make visual observations of targets, came during the daytime. In between these bombing raids, the Jews were sent out to hastily repair whatever damage the bombings caused. Naturally, the cat-and-mouse game resulted in numerous casualties among the Jews, as some planes didn’t stick to the presumed schedule. The daily raids began at about 9 a.m. It got to be so regular that on any day if the bombing did not begin at nine, Marton and his friends began to complain to each other, wondering what delayed the bombs.
When Marton was detailed to railroad repair work, the Germans took them to a nearby cemetery during the raids. Marton found it very bizarre to see both Jewish and Christian graves lying side by side. The cemetery was surrounded by a thick forest of tall trees. It served as a natural cover during the air raids. When the Allied planes appeared, Marton and the rest had to run into the woods near the graves and lie down. Once Marton lifted his head during such a raid and saw the lead British plane circle overhead, releasing a thick plume of smoke, making a circle. The rest of the bombers flew into the circle and dropped their bombs onto the designated target. When the raid was over, Marton was ordered back to repair the tracks with the rest of the labor force.
The bombing caused devastation all around. Buildings that were standing only moments before were now gone, with only large craters left. Heavy smoke covered the area. Those who had a handkerchief, a rarity among the disheveled Jews, covered their mouth and nose against the heavy smoke. The effect of the “carpet bombing” was vacant, craterous lots everywhere one looked. The rickety structure Marton called “home” was gone, as well.
The Germans found an abandoned fishing hut along a small river near the tracks. This would become their new home.
Eventually, the Germans gave up on trying to repair the tracks due to the constant bombing. Marton’s group was ordered to walk to neighboring Celle. It was springtime in Germany, with winter just departing. Marton was freezing in his skimpy clothing. Celle was also the target of Allied bombing, destroying the town’s famous sugar factory. For Marton, who was able to fill his pockets with some leftover sugar, however, this was a godsend.
The stay in Celle was short-lived and off they were again. After several hours marching northward, they were in familiar territory once again. They had arrived back in Bergen-Belsen.
Marton could not have known at the time just how lucky they all were. Within a few days after leaving Celle, it was the direct target of an Allied bombing raid that destroyed the entire camp. Over 3,000 inmates were killed. Immediately after the bombing, the SS guards, the Gestapo, and members of the public came into the camp and massacred whoever they could get their hands on. Of the approximately 4,000 prisoners in Celle on the day of the raid, only a few hundred made it to Bergen-Belsen alive.
At the end of July 1944, there were around 7,300 prisoners interned in the Bergen-Belsen camp complex. At the beginning of December 1944, this number had swelled to around 15,000, and in February 1945 the number of prisoners was 22,000. As prisoners evacuated from the east continued to arrive, the camp population soared to over 60,000 by April 15, 1945.
Food and fresh water were sporadic, forcing the prisoners to go without food for days at a time.
Sanitation was as paltry as food, with few functioning latrines or water faucets. Overcrowding, the lack of sufficient food and water, and the horrific conditions contributed to constant outbreaks of epidemics of typhus, tuberculosis, typhoid fever, and dysentery. Kramer, an experienced camp commander, had special treatment for outbreaks of dysentery: he simply stopped feeding the emaciated prisoners, hoping to end the outbreak.
By 1945, the majority of the prisoners were too ill to work, weakened by starvation. As a result, the rampant diseases were finding easy targets. Just in the first few months of 1945, there were 18,000 deaths.
This was the Bergen-Belsen that greeted Marton upon arrival. Having been there before, he thought he knew the camp. But conditions had deteriorated in the few weeks since Marton had been there. Never in his life or previous experience, even in Auschwitz, had he ever seen anything so horrible. It was like a depraved scene out of Dante’s Inferno.
The camp had become a collection of an assortment of prisoners gathered from all over. The Germans were not feeding the prisoners for days. It appeared that this had become a “farnichtungslager,” an extermination camp. Marton still had his sugar that he brought with him from Celle. He was inside the barracks and took out some of his sugar when the SS soldier spotted him. “Where did you steal that sugar from?” he demanded to know. “You stole German sugar!” Marton protested that he had been given the sugar and he did not steal it.
But the SS didn’t want to hear this. He led Marton outside and into the yard. He threw him a shovel that was lying on the ground and ordered him to dig. When Marton was standing up to his waist in the ditch, the German lifted up his rifle to take aim.
Marton asked him in German, “Tell me, you don’t have any children?”
The German lowered his rifle and motioned for Marton to come out of the ditch. He then led him to the barracks and introduced him to the chef.
“This Jew doesn’t get any food today,” he ordered.
It was obvious that the war was nearing its end. They knew that they had to make it just a little longer in order to survive. It appeared that the Germans also knew it. A few days later, one morning, Marton put on his tefillin in order to pray. He had traded some saved-up bread for the treasured religious item a short while before. Someone managed to hide it and smuggle it from camp to camp. But eventually, hunger had won, and the man traded it for life-sustaining food. The religious Marton had to make so many allowances during the past year just to survive. Kosher — non-existent. Shabbos — not in concentration camps. Surely, he thought, G-d would forgive him. But when the chance came along to buy tefillin, hunger was a small price to pay.
So Marton wrapped it onto his arm and head and began to pray. He had secretly done so ever since he had received it. This day, one of the SS came into the barracks unexpectedly and saw him.
“What is going on?” he demanded to know. He grabbed it from Marton’s head, screaming that Marton was signaling the Allies and bringing the bombers. He took the tefillin, put it on the floor, and, using his rifle butt, smashed it to bits. Seeing that it contained only scraps of parchment with Hebrew writing and no electrical components, he relented and hit Marton across the back with his rifle butt. Marton ran as fast as he could to get out of his sight.
The prisoners were all skin and bones. Men who were about 170 pounds before the camps were reduced to 70 or so pounds. They were emaciated.
The Germans ordered some of the Ukrainian inmates to dig several gigantic pits. These pits were as extensive as the foundations for a large house. After the pits were dug, Marton and several other Jews were ordered to start cleaning up the camp from the thousands of dead bodies that were strewn all over. The Germans were trying to destroy the evidence of their horrific crimes. The crematorium at Belsen ceased to work, so they wanted to bury the dead in these gigantic pits.
Marton and three others were needed to drag one skeleton away. They were so weak and emaciated that they could no longer lift any weight. They tied a string around each wrist and ankle of the corpse, and each one of them grabbed one string end; this way they dragged the corpse to the pit. There they removed the string and tossed the corpse into the pit. They went back for another. “Would they manage to hold on long enough to survive?” they wondered.
Dr. Alex Sternberg authored the forthcoming book “Recipes from Auschwitz – My Parents’ Story of the Murder of Hungarian Jewry.” He is a lifelong student of Jewish history, focusing on the development of Zionism and the Holocaust. He teaches graduate studies and is active in several pro-Israel organizations. He is a retired research doctor in children’s pulmonary health and a master karate instructor.