By Dr. Alex Sternberg

Please note: Parental discretion is advised, as this series of articles may be too disturbing or graphic for children.

The days slowly ticked by and turned into weeks. Life at Auschwitz was filled with anxiety. The dreaded selections were to be feared and avoided. But how? The daily zahlappel was the focal point of every dawn. The afternoon and the evening appels were just as frightening. But then on some days an additional appel was ordered. The numbers always had to tally, so the counting was meticulous, over and over again. Olga and her friends were terrified each appel.

And of course, there was the ever-present hunger, deep-down-to-the-pit-of-your-stomach hunger, the type of hunger that would compel you to do almost anything for another piece of bread or vegetable. Food became an obsession. Some resourceful women obtained valuables to barter with. But generally it was the daily ration of bread, soup, or margarine that was the real currency they had to trade. Some even managed to get their hands on diamonds and other types of precious jewelry from Kanada, but what could one do with a diamond? Bribe a guard to obtain food, a blouse, shoes, a sweater, a spoon, or a bowl? A diamond by itself had no value in Auschwitz. After all, you couldn’t eat it!

Bribing guards or Polish workers who came in and out of the camp also had its pitfalls. You never knew if the guard would take the bribe and beat you rather than deliver the agreed-upon goods. After all, possession of contraband in Auschwitz was punishable by death. Really, everything in Auschwitz was punishable by death.

All such operations were fraught with danger, a risky endeavor. Nevertheless, “organizing” was the way of life. In fact, “organizing” often saved one’s life. Upon arriving, all inmates heard, sooner or later, about the need to “organize.” “Organizing” meant procuring what you needed to exist. It meant to steal what you could and what you needed. Many inmates added an additional twist to this challenge — for them, “organize” meant not only to steal, but to steal from the Germans! Ordinarily law-abiding, decent people could now do the unthinkable: steal. It was OK, because you were stealing from the despised Germans.

The suitcases that the Jews brought with them to Auschwitz on the cattle cars had to be left behind upon arrival “to retrieve later.” The Germans had declared that all Jews were permitted to bring about 60 pounds of personal items. They were told that they were being resettled and would be working for many months. So, they all brought with them items needed for the long haul. Doctors brought their medical bags, including medicines. Carpenters brought their tools. All such property, in bags, peckels, and suitcases, was loaded onto trucks and driven over to a set of storehouse barracks. Soon, the sheer magnitude of the stolen loot forced the SS to devote more barracks to store their stolen loot. These barracks, numbering over 15, came to be known as “Kanada.”

There, the SS employed over a 1,500 men and women to sort out the contents. By 1944, when Olga got to Auschwitz, the SS employed over 2,000 men and women for sorting. Carefully, meticulously, they looked everything over. They were looking for diamonds sewn into the lining of coats, pants, and skirts, and assorted jewelry or other valuables. There was no limit to what one could find among the property stored in Kanada. Items even included larger pieces, such as a sewing machine. After careful examination, the jewelry was separated and received special handling. Some found its way into an SS pocket, but most of it went into the coffers of the German Reich, to be stolen by higher-up Nazis. The non-jewelry valuables such as clothing, shoes, etc., were shipped back to Germany for the good citizens of the Reich, who didn’t mind wearing the shoes or the pants or the overcoat of some Jew gassed to death in Birkenau.

So the more one took from the Germans and brought into the camp, the more one was part of the resistance against Nazi Germany. The more one “organized,” the less was left for the German people. So, while stealing was wrong, perhaps immoral, to “organize” was different; this was a noble deed. This was the rationalizing of every Auschwitz inmate.

Of course, the prisoners in Auschwitz were not their normal selves. The rules governing conduct back home could not be applied here. What was unthinkable at home was necessary here. Auschwitz was a melting pot of society. The rich and privileged were reduced to nothing, as was everyone else. Here no one cared about your titles or vast holdings that had made others tip their hats to you back home. You were in Auschwitz now. Actually, those who came from the lowest rung on the social ladder often did better than those accustomed to getting the finest things in life. Those who banded together to survive Auschwitz did so regardless of social class or previous station, and those who didn’t and who fought bitterly with each other also did so regardless of previous social status.

There was nothing guaranteed in Auschwitz. One “organized” a warm sweater and paid for it with five days’ rations of bread only to lose it a day later during an appel to a less scrupulous barracks-mate. She would trade it for something else that was available on the organization market.

The previously rich were often not acculturated to the world of cunning that was a precious commodity. Their character was tested daily along with everyone else’s. At times, they were reduced to stealing from another prisoner, a behavior they would never have imagined in their previous life. But Auschwitz reduced everyone to their base instincts. They came face to face with who they were. Some behaved honorably as when they were home, in familiar surroundings, while others came to realize that they would do many things hitherto unimaginable in order to survive. This was the life of “organization.”

Arriving in Auschwitz, Olga didn’t understand what “organization” meant. Stealing was an alien concept to her. It was never part of her life. And as she learned to understand the ramifications of “organizing,” she decided that this activity was not for her. No matter what.

A woman from Dombovar Olga knew was an accomplished organizer. She had plenty of food while others were starving, due to her nightly “organization” trips. Then she died of a heart attack one night, perhaps brought about by the anxiety associated with her nocturnal “adventures.”

Her death left a vacuum in the team and her friends began to urge Olga to join them in these missions, as they needed one more person. Olga refused. But after constant pressure from her friends who would not take no for an answer, Olga gave in one night and agreed to join them.

They formed teams of twos, with one holding a bag or sack and the other one, who knew the way, leading. They snuck out of the barracks in the darkness of the night, climbing out of the window, and crawling under and next to their barracks. Olga held the bag, while her partner led the way. Apparently, during one of the air raids, while everyone was chased out of the barracks and into underground bunkers, her resourceful friend noticed that the food storage bins containing vegetables were right next to an underground bunker.

It was a long and dark road, and it took a long time to reach the bunker. With heart pounding and pulse racing, Olga was hardly breathing. Finally, arriving at their destination, they filled the sack with the turnips and radishes found in the bunker and began to crawl their way back to the barracks.

Olga had no idea what she had agreed to do or what she was in for. It turned out to be a very dangerous mission with a potential for disaster. If they were caught, they would be shot on sight as escaping prisoners. Or they would be shot simply because they were trying to steal food. She kept thinking that although the Nazis were starving them, they insisted that all Jews behave in a “civilized” and honest way.

Olga had never experienced such stress before in her quiet and tranquil life. She imagined with every step that she would surely be caught and executed.

After that experience “organizing,” Olga made up her mind that she would rather be hungry than ever again participate in such activities. And she never did.

She was hungry like everyone else. But she decided to exert more self-control to control her hunger. At night, in the barracks, she recited poetry to herself to soothe her spirit. In the Hungarian gymnazium (high school) system, poetry was an integral part of studying literature. Long poems with lengthy verses would be studied and recited by heart. Olga, a teacher who loved Hungarian literature, was familiar with many of Hungary’s famous poets, such as Petofi, Ady Endre, Arany Janos. Olga knew many of their poems by heart, which she now recited. Poetry comforted her and allowed her to escape into her own private world.

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 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. 

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