The Life Of Marton Sternberg, Part 5
In Part 4, Marton arrives in Auschwitz and is given a prisoner number and uniform.
After a few weeks in Auschwitz, Marton and his group, those who survived the first selection, were boarded on to trains and shipped to Wustegiersdorf, known as Gluszyca in Poland, near the Czechoslovakian border. It was a short ride, a couple hundred kilometers from Auschwitz. Wustegiersdorf was one of the many sub-camps of the huge Gross-Rosen concentration and labor camp complex. Many of these camps were interconnected with the huge and wholly secret Project Riese.
The Wustegiersdorf labor camp was built in April 1944 and was mainly populated by Hungarian and some Polish Jewish slave laborers. As an add-on in the vast complex, it was not ready to accommodate the laborers at first. But the needs of the German war effort dictated that it be built in haste to accommodate German labor needs.
Marton had no idea what lay in store for them. They were housed in a large building that was reputed to belong to the large Perutz textile company. By the time Marton’s group was housed there, it did not exhibit any evidence of ever having been a textile factory. No machines, knitting mills, or tables or furniture of any kind were visible anywhere.
Marton was, well-acquainted with the Perutz name. Just a few blocks from his house on Eszterhazy Street in Pápa loomed the large Perutz textile factory. The Perutz brothers came from Bohemia and established their factory in Pápa. They employed hundreds of townsfolk as one of the main employers in town.
But this large building was empty. There was no place for them to sleep, eat, or bathe. Actually, there was no running water at all. They were housed there for six weeks. After a day or two they began to receive some coffee, which they used to wash up and to shave.
They were taken to a nearby forest where they cut down trees with handsaws. Shortly after, they were taken to build roads in the forest and to carve huge ditches in the mountain.
The situation was not too dire — yet. They were still in pretty good condition and had energy for the hard physical labor. Just as Marton was getting used to the daily tree-cutting and road-building, the SS announced that they were establishing various trade workshops near the camp. There was a mad rush to join one of these workshops, as they all understood that working in one meant more food and better treatment. The road-building and ditch-digging was far too exhausting.
After a few days, Marton finally got into the shoemaker shop. The shops were located about six kilometers from the main camp, not a terrible distance to walk daily. As a shoe salesman, he figured he had a better understanding of making shoes than trying the other trades. But he was wrong. Apparently, selling shoes had little to do with making them. Furthermore, they were altering shoes and boots taken from the feet of the dead Russian prisoners for use by Germans. Everything was recycled to help the German war effort. The work was not going well. The tools felt awkward and alien in his hands. As the SS soldier supervising the shop looked on, one of the Jews next to him saw his agony as he was trying to look like he was repairing shoes.
“You have no idea what you’re doing,” he whispered, so the Nazi wouldn’t overhear. Marton looked at him and whispered back, “You are right, but you will teach me — and we will both live.”
Terrified that they would get noticed, Marton kept a vigilant eye on his petrified neighbor, trying to copy what he was doing. Within a few days, though, he was getting the hang of shoemaking. He began to breathe easier, more confident at his growing skills. His neighbor was also relaxing. The shoemaker shop was one of the most popular in the labor camp hierarchy. As the other laborers returned to Wustegiersdorf from their day’s hard labor, they would crowd around the outside of the shop. No one was allowed to enter, not even unauthorized German officers. In typical German fashion, rules governed life. And the rules prohibited anyone else from entering the shoemaker and tailor shops.
After Marton’s shift was over, before they returned to the main camp, he and the other cobblers would repair the shoes of the other Jews. This was a godsend, as they only received the leftover shoes that were falling apart. Often by nightfall, the shoes on their feet fell apart. This could be deadly, walking in the Polish or German winter. Many developed frostbite and had toes amputated after liberation. Even Marton retained a souvenir from his walking in Poland. His disfigured and frozen toes testified to the bitter cold of Poland.
Marton fixed shoes for about four months.
The daily walk to and from the shop had other dangers as well. As they left the main camp, the Germans forced everyone to sing. After all, “Arbeit Macht Frei,” or “Work Sets You Free,” was the slogan in all the camps. With winter setting in, the temperature began to drop. As they walked, Marton put his hands in his pocket to warm them up. But one of the SS saw him doing it, and, insofar as he was not permitted such leisure, the SS came over and hit Marton forcibly on his back. Told to take his hands out, he walked on, singing with cold hands.
Life was becoming somewhat routine. Even the once-empty building was getting fixed up a bit. Carpenter Jews were brought in and they made double-decker beds in long rows. Now each Jew had his own bed and space. This was more humane than in Auschwitz and most of the other camps.
One day, Marton was able to save a piece of bread by eating a little less each day. He had an extra piece. He got a hold of bootlaces and tied the piece of bread with the laces. He placed the bread on his chest under his shirt. One could never trust anyone. He fell asleep. When he awoke in the morning, the bootlace with the bread was gone. What could he do? He realized that it was not a safe way to hide bread.
But the days of Wustegiersdorf were nearing an end. The makeshift camp, although it was constantly enlarged to accommodate the additional laborers needed, was becoming obsolete. Diverted from its original purpose of supporting Project Riese (more details of this super-secret German war effort to follow), it was shifting locations as well as priority in the German “victory” plans. Now, it was doubling as a workshop for road construction and as a storehouse of food and clothes with an administration center for the commander of the Riese Project.
The camp was evacuated in February 1945, with Marton and the rest of the prisoners walking for days in the bitter cold and snow. Food was once again scarce, and the pace was rushed. As nighttime approached, the SS found stables and toolsheds to store the Jews. These stables and sheds had wooden planks built inside to store tools and instruments. Marton was forced to climb onto the planks to sleep. But the space was so scarce that relaxing among the cramped, smelly laborers was almost impossible. Once they climbed up, there was virtually no room for any movement. Trying to sleep one night, Marton stretched out his arm over his head and rested it on a pole behind his head. Someone screamed out for him to remove his hand. As Marton tried to look at the person yelling, he suddenly felt a knife slashing into his arm. Blood began to squirt out of the cut. He removed his arm and attempted to stop the bleeding as best as he could. Without any doctors or medical equipment, it was very difficult. After a few more days marching toward their new destination, the bleeding finally stopped. They arrived in a gigantic camp called Parschnitz, back in Germany.
After a few days in Parschnitz, they boarded the train and traveled to Bergen-Belsen.
The march from Wustegiersdorf began on February 16, and they finally reached Bergen-Belsen in the beginning of April. They had spent a couple of weeks on the road.
Riese, German for “giant,” was the name of a construction project of Nazi Germany undertaken from 1943–1945. This project was enormous in scope and imagination, but perhaps way too ambitious for a government stripped of its vital resources due to a losing and costly war.
It consisted of seven underground structures built into the Owl Mountains in Lower Silesia, previously of Germany but now in Poland. The exact purpose of these tunnels is not known, not even its complete size. The Nazis never completed this project and seemed to have destroyed all plans and records at the end of the war. Several theories have been proposed as to the purpose of the project. One was that it was intended as a “Fuhrer Bunker,” with an entire underground city to support it. Another theory was that it was an underground weapons factory built to develop rockets, V1 and V2 and the V5, and nuclear bombs.
The headquarters of Project Riese was in Wustegiersdorf (or Gluszyca, in Polish), and it utilized over 13,000 slave laborers from surrounding concentration camps, including Auschwitz. Over 5,000 people died as a result of this project. The laborers were all Jews, mainly from Hungary and Poland. Marton was shipped out on February 16, shortly before the Germans scrapped the entire enterprise and closed all supporting camps around it.
Dr. Alex Sternberg 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.