Please note: Parental discretion is advised, as this series of articles may be too disturbing or graphic for children.
In Part 15, upon arrival at Auschwitz, Olga is set to the “right” and is subjected to unspeakable humiliation.
As they were led into the barracks, there was a wild scramble for sleeping space. Although the “beds” were slabs of hard wooden shelves with no bedding, mattresses, or pillows, the women fought to get space in one of them. The shelves were narrow, large enough for four people, but they crowded 8–10 on each. Sardines may have more room. They lay on their sides to maximize space and fit more in.
Yelling and fighting ensued, as everyone screamed about some injustice or affront by someone else. The years-long effort to dehumanize the Jews had its desired effect. The conditions during the transport and the humiliation faced upon arrival made many inhuman. They felt the need to fight for everything. They fought for things they would have tossed into the garbage only a few weeks or months ago. Then it was garbage, but in Auschwitz it was a treasure — it was life. So they fought for survival.
There was no room for everyone in the shelves, so many had to find space on the floor to sleep. Even on the floor, there was not enough space for everyone. It was dirty, uncomfortable, and cramped, but eventually exhaustion won out and they were asleep. Olga settled into a spot on the floor in the middle of the barracks. She placed her glasses into her shoe and put her shoes under her head. She thought about her father and the others who were sent to the left. She prayed her father was all right. Hopefully, the elderly were treated better, with better accommodations. After all, the Germans valued the elderly and respected them. Surely her father had a bed with bedding to sleep on.
She wanted to know what would happen, but there was no one to ask. She was allowed to keep her shoes after the showers, for which she was thankful. Some who had elegant and noticeably stylish shoes had them confiscated by an SS officer or someone with power (and a club). But, she guessed, no one was interested in her sensible shoes. After the showers, she was thrown a long navy-blue dress that suited her. Olga was happy about the dress. Many others were not as lucky. Some received dresses so tight that they immediately split in the back as they tried to put them on. The blockalteste was laughing when she saw this. Slowly, Olga dozed off.
Suddenly, just barely after she fell asleep, a shrill blast of a whistle woke up the entire block. The blockalteste was walking amongst them, screaming and swinging the club in her hand, chasing them outside.
It’s 3 a.m., and Olga is introduced to her first zahlappel.
Each of the barracks, or “blocks” as the Germans called them, is supervised by a blockalteste, also a prisoner. In the chain of command, Olga is told, is also a schreiberin, the one who keeps written records of the number of prisoners in each block. Olga’s blockalteste is a Slovak girl called Shushanka. Shushanka is tall, well-fed, and very elegantly dressed. It is incongruous to see her in her warm dress and pullover with socks in her shoes, compared to Olga and the others. They are shivering in their rags.
Some of the blockalteste are human, but many are beasts. The beasts wield the clubs in their hands, swinging in every direction while they shout orders. Apparently, forming lines quickly and efficiently is very important. They explain to the newcomers that the zahlappel is the most important task each and every day. And there are several zahlappels daily. If they move slowly, there will be hell to pay.
Some are Polish, others are Slovak. They have been in Auschwitz-Birkenau for years. Amazing, thinks Olga. How could they have survived this for years? But although they survived physically, many have become cruel, mean, and malicious. They swing their clubs with zeal while they scream and curse the newcomers:
“You dirty pigs. None of you will survive. Soon you will become smoke and ashes like your children and parents. I have no pity on any of you. I have been freezing here for years while you were enjoying yourselves at parties and sipping coffee in your Budapest coffeehouses. I hope you all die!”
Olga was astonished to hear such words. She simply couldn’t believe about gas chambers and crematoria. She was just not ready yet. She wanted to believe that her father was still alive and that they would be reunited. But in the back of her mind, doubts began to form. She had seen the chimney when she arrived. She had the smell of burning flesh in her nostrils. What if it’s all true, she wondered?
Zahlappel, or roll call, was simply another weapon in the arsenal of the SS to torture and ultimately destroy the Jews. It robbed them of their spirit, as it was designed to do. They had to run outside, quickly form lines of five, and stand at attention. Birkenau was terribly cold in the early morning, even in July. They were made to stand outside for hours while the schreiberin counted the group and then recounted them. “Short ones in the front, tall ones in the back” was the command.
After a few hours of this under the watchful eyes of the ever-angry blockalteste, the SS would arrive. They immediately rearranged the lines, placing the tall ones in the front with the short ones in the back. Wearing flimsy rags, no undergarments, many in ill-fitting wooden shoes, they had to stand at attention outside, starting at three in the morning.
At 7 a.m., finally, mercifully, the zahlappel is over. Breakfast, consisting of weak, black coffee is given out. To drink the liquid, they have to find dirty, discarded cups lying on the floor. They pass the cup from mouth to mouth in order to drink the “breakfast.”
Birkenau was a city, an entity all by itself. It housed over 100,000 Jews from every country under Nazi domination. Transports arrived daily with additional Jewish victims. Yesterday was Olga’s turn. While waiting for her shower inside the giant bunker, she noticed a large billboard with data written on it. It was an inventory of the daily and weekly arrivals. The German penchant for efficiency mandated that they keep accurate records. It listed all arrivals, both alive and dead, from each country, who arrived on July 7, 1944. Apparently, 29,000 people, including 1,213 dead, were listed.
So the breakfast coffee is given out after the zahlappel. Olga walks around the block, looking for whatever she can pick up. Several women are wheeling a large cauldron on top of a wagon and soon it’s lunchtime. For lunch, they receive a soup-like liquid. Again, there was the problem of having no spoon to drink or eat the soup. They find dirty bowls, and teams are formed of five women in each. They dip the bowl in for the soup and take turns sipping it. The soup has many ingredients, but very few are edible or nourishing. Both the odor and flavor make it undrinkable. But the women who have been in Birkenau for a few weeks tell the newcomers to hold their nose and swallow every drop. This is the only food during the day, and without it, they will die.
But although they are all hungry, some are not that hungry. Yet. After a day or two, most swallow the soup. As each woman swallows her allotment, the others are closely observing and counting the swallows. Only five are permitted or there won’t be enough to go around. The swill they are so anxious to have wouldn’t be served to pigs in Hungary. But they have been told that to survive they need to eat. Olga learns that soup is called dörgemüze. It has some pieces of meat, very few, and it includes clumps of grass and other revolting things. They also get a small ration of bread, with a tiny chunk of margarine. Olga learns to take tiny bites of the bread to make it last till the next meal. The bread that is left over must be guarded more carefully than diamonds.
There is nothing to do all day. Those who know each other congregate with friends. But those who are alone try to socialize.
As they were not allowed into the barracks, they walked around in the yard in the scorching daytime heat. She saw some acquaintances from Dombovar, including the rebbetzin, Rabb Erzsebet. Olga joined them just as they were getting advice from veteran inmates who had already survived several weeks. They are warned to go to the latrines before the zahlappel or they will be severely beaten.
“Stay calm and maintain discipline,” they warn.
“Don’t give up; have faith”
“Be careful of the water you drink—it contains bacteria that will give you dysentery.”
“Dysentery in Auschwitz spells death!”
Olga was warned that any visit to the infirmary is a one-way trip.
The infirmary was actually an antechamber for the crematoria. Those who could no longer work due to exhaustion, or who contracted some form of debilitating illness, were taken to the infirmary. But rarely were they cured to return to the blocks. The infirmary was always full. The women were often placed four or five on one bed. Naturally, those who had a communicable disease, such as typhus or tuberculosis, would infect the others as well. Recovery was a rare event.
Usually, they were thrown onto the death wagon that took them to the gas chambers.
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 development of Zionism and the Holocaust. He is presently teaching 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.