We Shall Overcome
August Kowalczyk, a survivor of the IG Farben Auschwitz labour camp provides moving testimony to the inhumanity of the business with disease
My name is August Kowalczyk, I am 82 years old, a Polish actor and director. For seventeen years I was Artistic Director of various theatres - four years in Czestochowa and thirteen years at the Polish Theatre in the capital, Warsaw. I have been retired for the last 22 years.
During the Second World War, as a 19 year old high school student, I was arrested for crossing the green border between Poland and Czechoslovakia to try and join the Polish army in France and on 4th December 1940 I was deported to Auschwitz, camp number 6804.
After living for eighteen months under the double threat of death and beatings (I twice received 25 lashes), I escaped during a group break-out as part of a revolt by the Punishment Squad. Nine of us, including myself, got away, thirteen died and twenty were recaptured.
I survived thanks to the Silesian inhabitants of the village of Bojszów, hiding amongst them for seven weeks before transferring to the General Governorship to became a soldier in the AK [Armia Krajowa - National Army].
After the war I passed my matura [high school graduation certificate] and went on to study Polish philology at the Jagielonski University. I didn't complete my studies but became an actor, first amateur and then professional. I retired in 1981 after 37 years.
Now I come to the reason for our meeting and I would like to dedicate to you a poem that I wrote in 1987, which is a literary summary of what I want to speak about today.
My MEMORY has remained and it asks me:
1. What did Auschwitz mean to you?
Ask us about it - we are the last survivors.
In September 1939 the world was completely different for a young man in the year before he was due to take his matura [high school graduation certificate].
My country stopped existing, my school stopped existing.
In the summer of 1939 it seemed as if life lay open before me. However, quite suddenly my life became closed, both metaphorically and literally.
My youth and a feeling of duty towards my country gained at school and at home carried me across the green border towards the Polish army being formed in France.
A week later I was dramatically brought back by the Gestapo and the border guards, made to run the seventeen kilometres to Dukle at the end of a rope tied to a car. My first prison. Then a second in Jaslo, and a five-month interrogation by the Gestapo. Three of my mates from the group were shot dead. Finally a third town, Tarnów, and on 4th December 1940 - Auschwitz.
That day, running again, I passed through the gate now known to posterity for the perversely false inscription that greeted all those condemned to Hitler's concentration camps:
Arbeit macht frei
What if ...?
Have you ever seen an anthill that has been accidentally knocked over in the woods by someone thoughtlessly kicking a mound and exposing its interior?
The ants run off in all directions, each one trying to defend itself. They run and run, scurrying desperately in all directions, bumping into each other. The ones looking after the larvae are particularly noticeable.
I am in the middle of that anthill, together with 80 of my mates.
Because what surrounds me is like an anthill, only with skeletal striped figures running around.
Normally only SS men move around and German working prisoners who look like sailors with yellow armbands marked "Kapo".
The anthill image is a "free association" that came into my mind when I witnessed an overturned anthill in the woods.
From the corner of a street in the camp a "running squad" emerges. Well, it doesn't really "emerge", it runs out like those ants with their larvae, except that the striped skeletons are weighed down with cases, each group of eight skeletons carrying a case on their shoulders, four skeletons on one side and four on the other. Like coffins being carried to a funeral.
There are six cases, they all look like coffins.
There is something tragically grotesque about the running column. The cases bounce up and down on their shoulders. Each of the striped figures runs at its own pace, together they are almost running on the spot.
A slow motion film, a disturbing secret ceremony.
"What are they carrying?" I ask the man standing next to me. "Stones? Sand?"
"We'll see", he answers.
The column has stopped in front of the gates. The boxes bang down onto the frozen ground. 48 skeletons started to move their limbs around violently, trying to warm up their frozen bodies. Temperature - minus 20 degrees Celsius.
Suddenly an SS man comes out of the sentry hut on the other side of the gate. The order is given: "Mützen ab" [Caps off]. The skeletons uncover their shaven heads.
The SS-man, who is about my age, is humming a tune. The boy is more than just handsome - if you can call a man beautiful, that SS-man was beautiful.
He went up to the first case.
In each of these so-called "waleta" lay two unbelievably thin naked bodies; on each of their chests there was a number written in pencil (tattooing had not yet begun).
The beautiful boy in the SS uniform bent over and from his boot he withdrew a nail about half a meter long. He went up to the case and pushed the nail into the heart of one of the corpses - now it was definitely a corpse. He went to the next - yes, this one was certainly dead too.
He did this twelve times, then on a given order the squad picked up the cases with some difficulty and went off "at the double" to deliver their colleagues to the crematorium.
I later learned that this squad was called "the corpse carriers"; often they themselves were carried out of the gate a few days later by their successors.
Scarcely a few months later I was carrying my own colleagues back from the IG Farben Industrie building site, situated at Dwor about 6 km from the camp - fellow prisoners who had fallen during the course of their work under the watchful criminal eye of the SS and the kapo supervisors. There were others too who were the brains behind that cursed place - the rising IG Farben chemical works - who with the contractors and SS partners were working for the war effort and killing for the war effort.
When people fell on the building site they turned their heads away like the notorious three monkeys that see nothing, hear nothing, say nothing. They were like a fourth monkey, that doesn't really exist but just keeps the accounts.
People fell, walls rose, so what?
Das spielt keine Role. [That didn't matter.]
In the meantime, we came back from work nearly every day carrying those who had died not once but twice - not only their lives had been taken but they were denied dignity even in death. As four of us dragged each dead colleague along by his arms and legs his trousers would automatically be pulled down, shamelessly exposing his male nakedness.
Just to complete the hellishness of the situation, our return to camp would be greeted by the sound of Strauss waltzes played by the camp orchestra. Yes, ladies and gentlemen, you heard correctly, an ORCHESTRA played to those going out and coming back from work as SS slaves sold to the IG Farben Company.
For the camp roll-call the dead were laid out alongside the living - the head-count had to tally. Except that no command could make the laid-out bodies move.
Their fellow prisoners would carry out the "Mützen ab" ["Caps off"] order in their honour. They would uncover their shaved heads as a farewell to those who had fallen victim to the insane genocide carried out through slave labour by Auschwitz prisoners for the war effort and for the benefit of IG Farben.
In this stupefying paralysing reality there was still room for interpersonal relations, both with those before whom I was powerless and who threatened my life, and with others who saved me rather than themselves.
There was Lagerältester zwei - a criminal German prisoner, who beat me up on Block 17 and threw me out to work in the Bunawerke IG Farben detachment. At this point Komandoführer Buny Scharführer Stolten came into my life and took a protective attitude towards me right from our first meeting. He gave me jobs that were not life-threatening, making me foreman of an independent group of pavers, then tester of loadbearing, then Kloster Komando.
Into my life there came also SS-men and kapos as well as inhabitants of Oswiecim, mainly from the secret underground Zwiazek Walki Zbrojnej [The Association for Armed Battle] and later the Armia Krajowa [National Army].
It is a very long list and it must be said today that quite a few were rescued and saved by them.
I will mention only a few of those heroic people from Oswiecim: Helena Stupkowa and her five year old son Jack, Maria Zebaty, 18 year old Marysia Krzemien and even younger Dziunia Lesniak, the venerable Wladyslawa Kocot and those Silesians from the village of Bojszów who gave up their lives - the Lysków and Sklorzy families.
Also into my life came SS officer Rottenführer known as "Smiler", an ironic nickname given to him by the prisoners in our block of which he was the officer in charge.
With a grin on his lips, Smiler wrote out a punishment report for a mate of mine, a 16 year old boy whom we called "Maly" [Shortie], who brought back from work six raw potatoes that he had found somewhere. The report stated bluntly that he had stolen six potatoes.
The camp commander decided that he should spend six nights in the Stehbunker, the standing bunker. Four prisoners would stand all night in an airless cell measuring 90 cm by 90 cm. The ceiling was just above their heads, there was a window measuring 30 cm x 20 cm.
Shortie stood for five nights, going off to work each morning and then coming back into the bunker at night. He survived! On the sixth and last night about 60 prisoners were sent to the Stehbunker. 16 were locked up in the 90 cm by 90 cm cells, and over forty were put into cell no 20, the darkroom.
Shortie and eleven others suffocated due to lack of air, while two others went out of their minds. The remainder, half dead, were rescued by the duty SS officer on Sunday morning. Shortie had choked to death for six potatoes …
This is a simple example of my formula for the facts of life in a Nazi concentration camp:
EVERY DECISION CARRIED WITH IT THE POSSIBILITY OF LIFE OR DEATH.
Shortie took a decision over the potatoes, which seemed like a life decision. The camp commandant decided on the standing bunker - which turned out to be a death decision. So evil triumphed in interpersonal relations.
Sometimes things were different. A young SS officer who wanted to win my trust reached into the pocket of his coat and held out a rosary in his palm. Above it, on the sleeve of his SS coat, was a black ribbon with the inscription: Adolf Hitler - Standarten. A strange combination. Life was and continues to be more complex than it seems at first.
This boy was half German and half Dutch. His father, the director of a bank in Amsterdam, had enrolled him in the Auschwitz SS garrison because he wanted to protect him from the eastern front
What other images remain with me today, that I have had to learn to live with?
The punishment post, for escape of a comrade and my friend's cry, first in Polish and then repeated in German before he fainted: "Oh my fucking mother, why did you give birth to me?" They took him down from the post and put him on the beating block for fifteen strikes with a leather strap. Then they hung him up again with his hands twisted behind him.
Of course, I remember the way up to the post in the attic of Block 11, the Death Block. There were twelve of us. I didn't know why we were going there.
Moments earlier I had been very close to death when the Lagerführer [Camp Commandant] had chosen ten men to go into the starvation bunker in reprisal for an escape attempt. Now - in the company of a particularly large SS escort. My thoughts were racing at computer speed.
Any of these were possible.
I can only think of the worst possibilities. My legs have turned to stone. I can hardly move. And images, memories of my life up till now - all of twenty years - pour into my brain altogether, simultaneously, in a second, a fraction of a second, each one bright and clear.
First love, first communion, a group of boys stealing apples with me in the priest's garden, the wooden privy and ten year old Heniek with his adolescent passions, the oven cake on the glowing coals and cheeses drying in the rays of the sun, the creak of the kitchen hinge in our family village of Dzierzgowie, swaying on the rocking horse while mummy breast feeds my youngest brother Jerzy …
Typhus was usually a death sentence. If you were lucky enough to survive the disease you could be selected to go from hospital to the gas chamber or you could be given an injection of phenol into the heart.
Nine days with a temperature of around 40°C. My friends in the block hid me on the third tier of the bunk bed. Covered with a blanket, I surprised them by my lack of febrile hallucinations. It was as if I knew and remembered that that could be fatal.
I survived typhus and went back to work
It happened suddenly one day. After my breakfast cup of acorn coffee I had to rush to the latrines three times. I only just made it. After roll-call "Arbeitskomando abtreten" ["Work squad depart"], we set off for Bune.
As we reached the gate my battle started, a battle with the camp Durchfall [the runs]. My stomach was attacked with bloodstained diarrhoea, my insides wracked with painful cramps as I desperately clutched my buttocks together against the convulsions.
One thing I knew for certain - I must not give up. A stinking prisoner was an automatic target for aggression from the SS men and kapos. Above all, I had to preserve my personal dignity, like when I had to run to Dukle behind the car. I must not show any weakness in front of my tormentors, that would mean crossing the psychological barrier beyond which lay breakdown. Physical disintegration would follow. The effect? Giving up without a fight, or as the deputy camp commandant Seidler put it: "The road to freedom through the crematorium chimney."
The worst time was in the train, among my own friends.
However …New linen. New, never washed. Comfortable shoes. Special trouser gussets and fitted belt sewn in by tailor friends in exchange for a portion of bread and margarine. What would be the meaning of my endless efforts to keep as clean as possible and the constant battle with lice, if at this moment I should - to put it bluntly - shit myself?
No! A desperate cry as I remembered the words " battle for life". NO!
The walk from the station to the building site began. I was counting the minutes, the seconds separating me from the latrines at Bunia.
At last I was certain - I could manage - I had managed! I could see the bushes! I could see the building site. The order was given to get to work.
The desperate run. Buttons, trousers, the beam of the latrine, relief - relief! But above all joy, the feeling of having triumphed over myself and my illness. I had beaten the physical demands of my illness, the physical needs of my own body. I am strong, I have a chance of survival!
Throughout the morning I spent more time in the latrine than with my spade. By midday I was very weak. There was only blood-stained mucus in my faeces. I had to do something.
I decided I had to save myself. There was a bonfire that someone - I don't know, I can't remember who - needed for their work. I put several pieces of wood on it and watched carefully to ensure that they did not burn down to ashes. I needed some charcoal. It worked.
At lunchtime I put the pieces of charred wood into my dish and tried to crush them down as small as possible with another piece of wood. I had to do it quite carefully so as not to break the earthenware dish. In the end I had half a dish to of broken charcoal.
I went up to the pot. A mate of mine was pouring out barley soup. He looked at the blackened contents of my dish in surprise.
"I've got the runs! Pour it out thick."
You could only speak like that to a mate - anyone else would have thumped my shaven head with the ladle.
He reached down to the bottom and served up a thick helping of barley into my dish.
I sat up against the barrack wall and laboriously tried to mix the charcoal with the barley. I started to eat. The unburnt charcoal ground and gritted against my teeth and stuck in my throat, but coughing and choking I managed to eat my black and white lunch. From then on I stopped running to the toilet. The charcoal had worked and it was a victory for me.
That was the only time. To the end of my stay in the camp I was never ill again
My work with the secret organisation of Polish women living in Oswiecim came to a sudden and dramatic end when I was caught smuggling bread and medicine into the camp by an unbribable SS man. On 16 May 1942 on my return from work to the camp I was arrested at the gate for contact with the civilian population. I was condemned to the Punishment Squad and during the few days before my escape I lived through my Holocaust image, a highly symbolic and intimately painful experience.
The place - an outflow drainage ditch outside Birkenau, ironically nicknamed Königsgraben [Royal Ditch] by the SS-men. In three or four weeks it would link Birkenau with the river Vistula. Running with blood and the lives of scores of people, it would improve the drainage of the wet and boggy camp ground. This would all happen at a pace dictated by Hauptscharführer Moll, the SS man in charge of the Punishment Squad.
He would stand on a high mound watching over the whole area like a satisfied landlord. Suddenly his eye fell on a spot where a grey figure with a red and yellow star on its chest was crawling. It was moving unsteadily towards a high rectangular pile of turfs where it sank helplessly to the ground
Like a stalking dog Moll crept up closer and looked. Motionless at his feet lay a wretched Jew, his face turned up to the sun. He must have been the last member of the Punishment Squad. His eyes were closed.
"Auf" shouted Moll, kicking him in an attempt to make him rise.
The Jew slowly opened his unseeing eyes, but did not get up. Moll called the interpreter and two prisoners.
"Lift him up"
They stood the poor man on his feet, supporting him firmly.
"Why aren't you working?" asked Moll through the interpreter.
"I'm ill, sir, I haven't got the strength," said the prisoner with difficulty.
"How old are you?"
"What's your trade?" interrogated the SS-man.
The Jew looked surprised, as if he'd heard his own reply before he uttered it.
"I'm a dance teacher".
The words sounded like an admission of guilt. Moll laughed heartily.
"Let him go!" he ordered.
The prisoners holding the old man up moved away and the dance teacher fell at the SS man's feet. Moll kicked him out of the way, caught him by the feet and started to drag him towards the canal. He stopped at a small boggy area.
"Du!" he shouted at the interpreter, gesturing expressively at the helpless arms of the victim. The interpreter grabbed the palms of the Jew, who was now hanging helplessly over the ground like a limp slaughtered animal.
"Over there … Careful… One - two - three …!"
The body rocked in a slight curve and fell into the bog with a splash.
"Now, show us what you can do. It's your last dance, my own composition called "The Farewell".
Moll brushed down his uniform and wiped his hands with a handkerchief.
The Jew fell on his back. He didn't even cry out. His open eyes were looking at the sun. The whole head and body sank slowly into the mud. Suddenly the old man shuddered; a convulsive movement shook him once, twice.
"Now you're dancing", commented Moll.
The mud completely covered his legs and arms, reaching up to his ears. On the chest of the flatulent striped creature could be seen the yellow and red Jewish star, made up of two triangles. Two heavy deathly tears rolled down the mud-stained face.
Moll put his handkerchief back into his pocket, picked up a sod of turf from the ground and threw it straight at the drowning man's face. There was a slight splash and the head disappeared under the green square of grass. Now only the striped chest could be seen with its number and star. The bog seeped under the number and lazily slid over its edges. It spread over the stripes. But the star remained. Just a star glistening in the sunlight on the bog.
Moll threw again. The turf fell a long way from the drowning man. With fury he started to throw clod after clod. Finally one landed on the old man's chest. The old man who was no longer there. The quivering mud ruffled the corners of the star, attacked it once, twice then suddenly poured over it and stopped.
A few clumps of green grass stuck out of the black pond.
Why do I call this my enduring image of the Holocaust?
To paraphrase an well-known saying:
"He who saves one life, saves the whole world.
Once again I am a witness - the first transport of Slovakian Jews. A group of around 100-150 women and children, loaded with bundles and suitcases was moving with some difficulty through the gates under SS escort towards the hospital block. Or was it to the Death Block? I passed them on my way out of the camp to the Bauhof II building site. I don't know where they went. Maybe for a lethal injection of phenol, maybe to be shot in the courtyard of Block 11.
I did see, however, the train in which they had arrived. Railway carriages and a hospital carriage marked with a red cross.
That was the SS version of events. Emigrating Jews.
Many years later I met a Jewish writer from Israel who as a 13-year old girl had passed through the Warsaw ghetto, Umschlagplatz [distribution centre], Majdanek, the gas chamber in which she was locked at night but came out in the morning - the lethal cyclone gas had not been delivered. She passed through Auschwitz-Birkenau, Monowitz, evacuation - and she
In November 1994 she described the Holocaust with these words:
There is one question to which I have never found the answer: Why did I - I, of all people - survive?
In order to bear witness.
Not everybody wants to listen, but over the past 20 years my 6178 meetings with young people in Poland, France, Germany, Japan, Russia and Israel have been that answer
Maybe it is the fact that I am standing here before you today, ladies and gentlemen.
If that is so, to the end of my days I will continue on behalf of myself and of all those who perished in the hellish confines of that barbed wire, to bear witness as to how the world was divided by the dark exponents of a criminal idea.
If that is so, then today I am nearer to answering the question - why?
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