Chapter Two: Swarms of Humanity at the Gates of Hell
The time was about six o'clock in the morning, but I could only guess. There were about twenty of us of all ages and backgrounds, all French, all dressed in the most unlikely rags, and all quietly sitting around a large table set on trestles. We did not know each other, and we made no attempt to become acquainted. Silent, or just about, we tried to read each other’s expressions, and, although without much interest, to size each other up. We had the feeling that, united in a common fate, we were destined to live through some painful experience together and that we must therefore resign ourselves to the idea of depending on each other. But we acted as though we wanted to put that idea off until the last possible minute; it was not easy to break the ice.
Each man was absorbed in his own thoughts; we were trying to buck ourselves up and to understand what had happened to us: for three days and three nights, one hundred of us per car, hunger, thirst, madness, death, the unloading at night, in the snow, with the howling of men and the barking of dogs, with blows from some and swipes from others; the shower, the disinfection, the “gasoline tank,” and so forth. We were all stupefied by what had happened. We had the feeling that we had just crossed a no-man's-land and that we had been in a more or less mortal obstacle course which had been carefully graduated and organized in every detail.
After the trip, and without any transition. we encountered a long string of halls, offices and underground corridors, each filled with strange and menacing people, who had their no less strange and humiliating specialties. Here, your wallet, wedding ring, watch, fountain pen; there your jacket, trousers, shorts, socks, shirt; in the last place, your name. They had stolen everything from us. Then came the barber who shaved us bald, the cresylic bath, and the shower. Finally the whole process was repeated in reverse: at one window a shirt that was falling to pieces; at another shorts with holes; at another pants with patches; and so on to the wooden clogs and the strip of cloth with the registration number. A frock coat thrown away, a military blouse no longer used, a Russian cap, a Bersagliers hat made up our clothing. We were not given back our wallets, wedding rings, fountain pens or watches.
"Just like Chicago,” someone said, showing his number and joking, “there they go into the factory as pigs and come out as cans. Here we go in as men and come out as numbers.” Nobody laughed; between the pig and the can in Chicago there is surely not much difference than between what we were and what we had become.
When we arrived in that large, Iight and clean hall, well aired and comfortable at first glance, we felt a sort of relief; the same feeling, doubtless that Orpheus felt coming out of Hades. Then we withdrew into our own preoccupations, to the one which dominated and checked any desire for inner speculations and which could be seen in the eyes of all: “Will we get anything to eat today?” When will we be able to sleep?"
We were at Buchenwald, Block 48, Wing A. It was six o'clock in the morning at a guess. And it was Sunday — Sunday, January 30, 1944. A dark Sunday.
The building which housed Block 48 was made of stone and had a roof that was covered with tiles; and, unlike almost all of the other buildings which were made of lumber, it had a ground floor and one story. There were toilets and washrooms on both floors; the washrooms had two large circular basins with places for ten or fifteen, and a stream of water coming down like a shower: the W.C.’s had six places for sitting and six for standing. On each side, with a space between, was a Esszimmer (refectory) with three large trestle tables and a Schlafsaal (dormitory) with thirty or forty bunk beds. One Esszimmer and one Schlafsaal in pairs, made up a wing, or Flügel the four Flügel, consisted of “A” and “B” on the ground floor and “C” and “D” on the first floor. The building covered about one hundred and twenty to one hundred and fifty square yards; twenty to twenty five yards long and five to six yards wide; the design was intended to provide a maximum of comfort in a minimum of space.
In preparing for our arrival the day before, the camp authorities had emptied Block 48 of its prior occupants. Only the administrative personnel who were attached to it remained: the Blockaltester or the Block Chief; his Schreiber or bookkeeper; the barber, and the Stubendienst or barracks men. There were two Stubendienst per wing. In all, eleven persons ran the block.
Our group, which was the first to arrive, was housed in the Block Chief’s Flugel. Little by little others came in. And, little by little the atmosphere livened, too, as tongues became loosened. Fellow countrymen who had been arrested at the same time, or in the same operation, met each other again. As for me. I had found Fernand again, who came to sit next to me.
Fernand was a former student of mine, a solid and conscientious worker, who was twenty years old. During the occupation he had just naturally turned to me. We made the trip to Compiegne chained together, and already at Compiegne we made a nice little island among the seventeen who were arrested in the same operation that had netted us. To tell the truth, we had decided to ignore them. First, there was the one who had set himself down at the interrogation table, then the inevitable career non-com who had become an insurance agent, and who, upon decorating himself with the Legion of Honor, had felt that it was indispensable to his dignity to promote himself to the rank of Captain. Then there were the others, steady and serious, whose silence and whose every look betrayed their awareness of the seriousness of their plight. The insurance agent, especially, annoyed us with his megalomania, his grandiloquent manners, his air of being in on God’s secrets, and the stupidly optimistic exaggerations which he incessantly imposed on us. “Come on,” Fernand had said to me, “they're not our kind of people."
At Buchenwald, where we had arrived in the same railroad car, we once again stuck together, and took advantage of a moment of inattention on the part of the group to slip away and to present ourselves one behind the other, for what can only be called prison registration formalities. Separated for an instant, we again found ourselves together with the group.
At eight o'clock in the morning, there wasn’t room left to break an egg around the tables, and the chattering that went on was so noisy that it disturbed the Block Chief and the Stubendienst. Introductions, occupations and positions that had been held in the Resistance were shouted back and forth over the heads; bankers, big industrialists, twenty year old commanding officers, colonels hardly any older, the big chiefs in the Resistance, all having the confidence of London and in possession of military secrets, especially the landing date. In addition, there were a few professors, a few priests who timidly kept apart, and a few who said that they were simply job holders or workmen. Aside from these few, everyone wanted to have a social position more enviable than that of his neighbors: above all, one that included having been entrusted by London with a mission of the greatest importance. You could not count the number of brilliant feats. We two unpretentious people found ourselves crushed. “Upper crust, upper ten … Crud,” Fernand whispered into my ear in a very, very low voice.
After a quarter of an hour, really tormented, we felt an irresistible urge to urinate. In the hallway which led to the WC an animated conversation among five or six persons was in progress. As we went by, we heard talk about millions of dollars. “God, what sort of a crowd have we fallen into?"
All the places were occupied in the WC; there was a line-up and we had to wait. On the way back, a good ten minutes later, the conversation was still going, and it still concerned millions. It was a matter then of some fourteen million. We wanted to find out what it was all about and stopped. It was a poor old fellow who was lamenting over the fabulous sums that the time he would spend in camp would cost him. “But then, sir,” I ventured, what do you do in civilian life that would cause you to handle such large sums of money? You must have quite a position.” And, I assumed an air of admiring commiseration when I said that. “Ah, don’t talk about it.” And, he showed me the wooden clogs he had on. I couldn’t keep from laughing out loud. He did not understand and started to tell his story again for my benefit.
"You understand, first the Germans ordered a thousand pairs of them from me, which they came to get without checking either the number or the invoices. Then another thousand pairs, then two thousand, then five thousand, then … Lately the orders were pouring in. And, they never checked them. So I began to cheat a little on the quantity, then on the prices. What else can you do? The more money you take from them the weaker they get, and the job gets easier for the English. Sales boches, just the same! Then, one fine day they compared the invoices with the reports of their receiving clerks; you can expect anything from people like that. They found they had been robbed of about 10 million. And, so they sent me here. Directly. And, without any trial, Sir. But, can you see me, a thief? Ruined, I am going to be ruined Sir! And without any trial …"
He was truly shocked. Quite sincerely, he was under the impression that he had indisputably performed a patriotic service, and that he had been, although with so many others, the victim of an injustice. Another fellow nearby, without batting an eye began to explain, “That’s just like me, Sir, I was a business manager in …” “O.K. Come on,” Fernand said to me “You see!"
The days went by, and we familiarized ourselves, insofar as we could, with our new life. First, we learned that we were there to work, that we would soon be assigned to a Kommando, probably outside the camp, and that we would then go out “in transport.” Meanwhile, we would remain in quarantine for three to six weeks, depending on whether or not an epidemic sickness broke out among us.
Then, the camp administration let us know something about the provisory regime that we would be required to follow. During the quarantine, we were absolutely forbidden to leave thee Block or its small yard; in any case. it was surrounded with barbed wire. Every morning, we were roused at half past four, “with bugle,” by the Stubendienst, with a rubber truncheon in hand for those tempted to lag behind; we washed on the run, and then received our food distribution for the day: 250 grams of bread; 20 grams of margarine; 50 grams of sausage or white cheese or jam, and a pint of ersatz coffee without sugar. Roll-call was held at half past five and lasted until half past six or seven. From seven to eight, we cleaned the block. At about eleven we got a quart of rutabaga soup and at about four o'clock the cafe-trink. At six o'clock there was another roll-call which could last until nine o'clock, rarely longer, but usually ended at eight. Then to bed. In between times, we were left to ourselves, sitting around the tables, and if we weren’t too noisy about it, we could tell our little stories, our discouragements, our fears, our apprehensions, and our hopes. In fact, from morning to night, the talk centered around the date of the eventual end of hostilities and how they would end; the general opinion was that the war would be over in two months with one of us having gravely announced that he had received a secret message from London giving the beginning of March as the sure date for the landing.
Gradually Fernand and I became acquainted with the others in our group, while keeping our distance and remaining on our guard. In two days, we were sure that at least half of our companions in misery were not there for the reasons that they gave, and, in any case, they had had practically no connection with the Resistance. Most of these internees seemed to have been arrested for black market activities.
It was more difficult to adjust to the rhythm of things. Through the intermediary of a Luxemburger who knew hardly any French, the Block Chief made speeches to us explaining things every evening during roll-call; but, needless to say, it was hard to understand. The Block Chief was the son of a former Communist delegate to the Reichstag, who had been assassinated by the Nazis. He was a Communist and didn’t conceal it, a fact which surprised me. The main gist of all of his palaver was that the French were dirty, that they talked like magpies, and were lazy, that they didn’t know how to wash themselves, and that those listening to him had the double good luck of having arrived at a moment when the camp had become a sanitarium and of having been assigned to a Block whose Chief was a political and not a common criminal. One could not say that he was a bad fellow: he had been in prison for eleven years and had acquired the ways of the establishment. Rarely did he strike one; his displays of violence generally consisted of vigorous “Ruhe! '"cutting across our talk, which were followed by imprecations in which there was always something about a crematorium. We were afraid of him, but we were much more afraid of the Russian and Polish Stubendienst.
We knew nothing, or almost nothing about the rest of the camp because of our confinement to the four Flügel of the Block. We sensed that there was work going on around us and that the work was hard but we had only scuttlebutt to give us any idea of the nature of it. On the other hand, we knew very quickly about every nook and cranny of our Block, as well as the life stories of the occupants who lived there. There was a little of everything there: adventurers, people whose social origin and standing were very ill-defined; genuine Resistants; serious minded people; Cremieux, the attorney to the Belgian King, among others. It is hardly necessary to say that neither Fernand nor I felt any desire to attach ourselves to any one of the groups that formed.
The first week was especially distressing. Among us were the cripples the maimed with only one leg or with both legs gone, and the congenitally disabled, who had to leave their canes or their crutches or their artificial limbs at the entrance along with their wallets and jewelry. They dragged around miserably and we helped them or carried them. There were also the very seriously ill from whom had been taken away the indispensable medicines which they always carried on their persons; these persons died slowly. Then, there was the shock that is produced in all organisms by a brutal change in diet, both as to its quality and quantity. Then, all of our bodies began to suppurate; and the Block soon became a vast carbuncle which ex tempore doctors, or doctors without any supplies, tried to treat. Finally, on the moral level, various unexpected incidents made even more insupportable the promiscuity that had been imposed on us: the business manager, who had claimed the rank of Colonel, was caught stealing bread from one of the sick men whose nurse he had volunteered to be; a violent quarrel pitted the attorney to the King of the Belgians against a doctor over the division of a piece of bread a fellow, who went around from group to group claiming that he was going to be a magistrate after the Liberation, was surprised in the act of stealing for himself some extra food from the general rations, etc. … We were in the Court of Miracles.
All this stirred up the philanthropists. There is no Court of Miracles without philanthropists, and France, copiously endowed with them, perforce exported some to this place, who asked only to have their devotion noted and, if possible, to be remunerated. One fine day they cast a haughty glance of commiseration on this mass of men in rags and tatters abandoned to all of the machinations of the mind and possible victims of all of the perversions. The level of our morale seemed in danger to them, and they flew to its assistance, because in a situation like this the factor of morale was essential. So it is in life; there are those who grudge you your bread, others your freedom, and others your morale.
A man from Lyon, who said he was editor-in-chief of l'Effort; a Colonel, if my memory is good; a big supply official; and a lame man who called himself a Communist, but whom the people of Toulouse accused of having betrayed them to the Gestapo during his interrogation, got underway a program of regular singing and a series of lectures on various subjects. During the week, we heard a discourse on syphilis among dogs, another on the world petroleum production and the role of petroleum after the war, and a third on comparative labor organizations in Russia and America.
On Sunday afternoon, there was a continuous program from three to six, with a stage-manager. A dozen volunteers gave impromptu performances. The most mixed feelings arose from the depths of their souls, and the most varied personalities displayed themselves: from the Violon brisé to the Soldat alsacien, and through G.D.V., Margot reste au village and Coeur de Lilas. In addition the most daring broad jokes were told along with the most comical monologues. These clownish actions clashed with the place, the audience, the spot we were in, and with the preoccupations which should have occupied our minds. Definitely, the French well deserve the reputation for levity that the world has attributed to them.
Finally, an intelligent, handsome young man, twenty years old, with a warm voice, sang La petite Eglise by Jean Lumiere and made everyone homesick. “Je sais une église au fond du hameau …” Everyone had tears in his eyes, faces resumed a human look, and the unbalanced became men again. I understood what “le lent Galoubet de Bertrandou, le Fifre ancien berger” meant to the Cadets of Gascogne de Cyrano de Bergerac. I forgave the philanthropists and, then and there, vowed eternal gratitude to Jean Lumiere.
A change of scene the second week revealed still more formalities that had to be carried out. On Monday morning medical orderlies burst into the block with hypodermic syringes in hand to administer vaccinations. On the way to the Esszimmer, everyone was caught in the corridor and was given one hypo after another. This operation was repeated three or four times with a few days in between. In the afternoon it was the politische Abteilung that descended on us and proceeded to conduct a detailed interrogation of one’s civilian standing, profession, political convictions, reasons for having been arrested and deported. These interrogations took up three or four days and were conducted in between the vaccinations. And, then there was the “m … duty".
The “m … duty": ah! my friends! All the defecations of some 30 to 40 thousand inhabitants of the camp converged into a cone of excrement on a lower level. Since nothing was to be wasted, every day a special Kommando spread this precious commodity on the gardens attached to the camp which produced the vegetables for the S.S. and the foreign civilian workers who worked in and around the camp. Ever since the convoys of foreign prisoners began to provide a continuous supply of new manpower, the German prisoners, who were in charge of the administration of the camp decided that they would have this work done by the new arrivals; it took the place for them of the traditional farce played on the recruits in the casernes in France, and it amused them enormously. This duty was the most painful one. The prisoners were harnessed in pairs to a Trague (a wooden basket in the shape of a pyramid with a rectangular base) which contained the stuff; they then went back and forth from the reservoir to the gardens, like horses in a circus, for twelve consecutive hours, in the cold and in the snow. In the evening they returned to the Block dog-tired and stinking.
One day we were told, without even being detailed to a Kommando that our Block was to quarry rock each morning and each afternoon during the rest of the quarantine period. The Block Chief had decided that instead of sending out groups of a hundred men who would work in relays for a period of twelve hours, it would be easier on us for all of us to go at once, that is, all four hundred, and to stay out only two hours for each shift. Everybody agreed. From that day on, every morning and every evening we filed across the camp to get to the Steinbruch where we picked up a stone whose weight was what our strength could manage. We dragged it back to the camp where gangs broke it up for street pavement. Then we went back to the Block. This work was light, particularly in comparison with that of the quarry workers who excavated the stone under the insults and the blows of the Kapos, the abbreviation for Konzentrationslager Arbeitpolizei, or police in control of labor.
Four times a day we passed close to villas where rumor had it that Leon Blum, Daladier, Reynaud, Gamelin and Princess Mafalda, daughter of the King of Italy, were imprisoned. We all envied the lot of those privileged people. Every time we passed, I heard comments: “Wolves don’t eat each other!” “All depends on whether we are powerful or miserable …” “The big shots, old boy, you break your neck for them and they bow to each other.” “Hitler’s race laws apply to all Jews but one.” And, the like.
In our ranks there was a former prime minister of Belgium, a former French minister, and other personages, more or less important. They were more mortified than we at the treatment enjoyed by the inhabitants of the villas. It was said that each of them had two rooms, a radio, German and foreign newspapers, and three meals a day. Moreover, we were sure that they didn’t have to work. Leon Blum (1) was especially envied. Chance had it that during one trip, Fernand and I, who never left each other, found ourselves next to the French minister. “Why Leon Blum and not me?” he said to us. Judging by the tone of his voice, we gathered that he did not find it at all strange that we should be detailed to those low jobs fit for slaves, but for him, really, a former minister! Fernand shrugged his shoulders. I was puzzled.
Another day, instead of taking us to the Steinbruch, we were taken to the criminal anthropometry department where our photographs, face and profile, and our finger prints were taken. Coarse, fat, well-fed individuals, but prisoners just like ourselves, each with a brassard on the arm of some authority or other, and each with a rubber truncheon in the hand to back it up, yelled at our heels. In front of me were Dr. “X” and the little Communist cripple who was in the good graces of the Block Chief and who was considered by the French to be his confidential agent. I listened to their conversation. Doctor “X,” whom everyone knew had been several times a candidate for the U.M.R. in various elections, was explaining to the cripple that he was not a communist, but not an anti-Communist either, far from it. The war had opened his eyes, and, perhaps, when he had time to assimilate the doctrine … For two days a possible move to Dora had been talked about, and Doctor “X” was beginning to lay the ground work so that he could stay at Buchenwald. Misery!
Suddenly I felt a terrible blow. Absorbed in reflections that had been stimulated by this conversation, I must have strayed a little from the ranks. I turned around and got an avalanche of insults in German of which I made out “Hier ist Buchenwald, lumpe schau mal, dort ist Krematorium!” (This is Buchenwald, take a look you, there is the Crematorium.) That was all I was to know about the reason for the assault. By the way of explanation, and to justify it, the little cripple turned to me and said, “You could have been more careful; that’s Thaelmann!"
We arrived at the entrance to the anthropometry department where somebody else with brassard and truncheon pushed us brutally in line against the wall. This time it was the little cripple who got a blow and who was soundly imprecated. The storm passed, and he turned to me, and said, “That doesn’t surprise me coming from that S.O.B.; that’s Breitscheid.” I did not in the least care who in the world these two fine fellows were. But, I smiled at the thought that the Communists had finally realized that unity of action that they had talked about so much before the war, and I admired that acute sense of difference which the little cripple felt even in his reflexes.
I was a pessimist; at least, that was my reputation. First, I refused to take seriously the optimistic news that Johnny reported each evening to the Block. Johnny was a Negro. The first time that I saw him was at Compiègne where I heard him say, with a strong American accent, that he was a Captain of a Flying Fortress and that during a raid on Weimar, when his aircraft was hit, he had had to parachute. When he got to Buchenwald he began to talk French fluently and called himself a doctor of medicine. He spoke two other languages almost as well as French: German and English. Thanks to this advantage, to his imagination, and to the fact that he was undeniably cultivated, he managed to get assigned as a doctor in the Revier (sick ward) even before quarantine was ended. The French prisoners were sure that he was no more a doctor than he was a captain of a Flying Fortress, but they acknowledged the skill with which he took care of himself. Every evening he was mobbed by news hungry inmates: the Revier was supposed to be the only place from which reliable news came. Besides, in spite of his reputation for talking big, Johnny was listened to seriously when he spoke about events in the war. One evening he came back with the story of revolution in Berlin; another evening with the revolt of the troops on the Eastern front; a third time with the landing of the Allies at Ostende; a fourth with the
International Red Cross taking all of the concentration camps over. Johnny was never short of good news, with the result that every evening, in February 1944, the war was going to be over in two months. He exhausted my patience, and that of others, too. To those who came up to me with the assurance that had been fed to them by Johnny, I was in the habit of answering that as far as I was concerned, I did not think that the war would be over for another two years. Moreover, since I was one of the very few who did not believe in the fall of Stalingrad, just on the face of things as it were, and I admitted it after it happened, I was immediately pigeonholed as a pessimist. In fact, I listened to everything with unshakable skepticism: the most refined horrors that were told about the history of the camps; the optimistic assumptions about the future conduct of the S.S. who felt, it was said, the wind of defeat blowing over Germany and who wanted to redeem themselves in the eyes of the coming conquerors; and the reassuring rumors about our ultimate assignment. I did not even fly in the face of facts. For example, the famous inscription which was on the wrought iron gate which closed the entry to the camp read: Jedem das Seine. With my little knowledge of the German language, I translated it as A chacun sa destinee (To each his destiny.) All of the French prisoners were convinced that it was a translation of the celebrated phrase which Dante had put on the gate to Hell: Vous qui entrez ici abondonnez tout espoir (2). That was the limit, and I the nonbeliever.
The Block was divided into two antagonistic groups: on one side were the newly arrived prisoners, and on the other side were the eleven individuals — Block Chief, Secretary, Barber, and Stubendienst, German or Slav -who constituted its administrative backbone. There was a sort of solidarity which eliminated all of the differences of background or ideology, and yet bound together the first in reprobation against the second. The latter, prisoners like ourselves, but for a much longer time, knew all of the dodges of prison life, acted as though they were our actual masters, and controlled us with abuse, threats, and beatings. It was impossible for us not to consider them to be agents provocateurs or sycophants of the S.S. I saw at last what the Chaouchs — the prisoner trustees who are referred to in French literature about penitentiaries of all kinds-really were. From morning to night, our Chaouchs, throwing out their chests, plumed themselves on the power that they said that they had to send us to the Krematorium for the least indiscretion and with a single word. Also from morning to night, they ate what they stole, to our certain knowledge, from our rations: quarts of soup, bread and margarine, and potatoes fricasseed with onion or paprika. Moreover, they did not work. They were fat. They revolted us. Among these fellows I met Jircszah.
Jircszah was a Czech and a lawyer. Before the war he had been the assistant Mayor of Prague. The first thing that the Germans did when they occupied Czechoslovakia, was to arrest and deport him. He had been moved from camp to camp for four years. He knew them all: Auschwitz, Mauthausen, Dachau, Oranienburg. A commonplace accident had brought him to Buchenwald, among a transport of the sick. When he arrived, one of his compatriots got him the job of general interpreter for the Slavs. He hoped to be able to hold that position until the end of the war which he did not think was very near, but which he felt would come finally. He lived with the Chaouchs of Block 48, who considered him to be one of themselves, but his attitude immediately set him apart from the others and made us consider him to be one of us; among other things, he was more generous with the rations that he distributed, and he got hold of and lent us books.
With our arrival in the camp, Jircszah came into contact for the first time with Frenchmen. He looked at us with curiosity and with pity, too. So that’s what the French are? So that’s the culture they told him so much about when he was a student? He was disappointed; he couldn’t get over it.
My skepticism and the way I kept myself apart from the noisy life of the Block drew him to me. “Is that what it is, the Resistance?” he asked. I did not answer. To reconcile him to France I introduced him to Cremieux.
He certainly did not approve of the conduct of the Chaouchs, but he was no longer shocked, and he did not even despise them. “I have seen worse,” he said. “You mustn’t expect men to have too much imagination along lines of what is right; when a slave gets power without changing his station, he becomes more tyrannical than the tyrants."
He told me the story of Buchenwald and the other camps. “There is a lot that is true in all that is said about the horrors for which they are the setting, but there is a lot of exaggeration, too. You have to reckon with the complex of Ulysses' lie, which is everyone's, and so it is with all of the internees. Human beings need to exaggerate the bad as well as the good and the ugly as well as the beautiful. Everyone hopes and wants to come out of this business with the halo of a saint, a hero, or a martyr, and each one embroiders his own Odyssey without realizing that the reality is quite enough in itself."
He did not hate the Germans. To his mind, concentration camps were not specifically German and did not reveal propensities that were unique to the German people. “The camps — Les Lager,” as he said, “are an historical and social phenomenon through which all peoples go as they reach the idea of Nation and State. They were known in Antiquity, the Middle Ages, and in modern times. Why should the contemporary epoch be different? Long before the birth of Jesus Christ, the Egyptians could find no other way than this to neutralize the commercial threat that was presented by the Jews, and Babylon reached its marvelous apogee thanks to persons in concentration camps. The English, themselves, resorted to them with the unfortunate Boers, after Napoleon who invented Lambessa. As a matter of fact there are some in Russia which are nothing to be envied when they are compared to the German ones. Moreover, they exist in Spain, in Italy, and even in France (3); you will come across Spaniards here and you will see what they have to say about camp Gurs, in France, for example, where they were stuck right after Franco’s triumph."
I ventured a remark. “In France, all the same, it is done out of humanity.” In response, Jircszah, countered: “The Germans, when they speak of the institution, use the word Schutzhaftlager, which means 'camp for protected prisoners.' When the Nationalist Socialists came to power, they decided, in a gesture of compassion, to put all of their adversaries in a place where they could not hurt the new regime and where they could be protected from the public anger. In other words, the National Socialists wanted to put an end to assassinations and to beatings on street corners and, at the same time, wanted to rehabilitate the strayed sheep and to bring them back to a healthier concept of the German community, of its destiny, and of the role that the individual was to play within it. But, National Socialism was overtaken by events and, particularly, by its agents. It is something like the story of the eclipse of the moon that is told in the barracks. The Colonel says one day to his Adjutant that there will be an eclipse of the moon and that the officers and noncoms should see to it that the soldiers see the phenomenon and that they have it explained to them. The adjutant then passed the word on to the Captain, who, in turn, passed it on down the ranks, and the news got to the soldiers via the Corporal in this form: 'By order of the Colonel, there will be an eclipse of the moon this evening at 23:00; all those not present will get four days guard duty.' And, so it is in the concentration camps: the ruling powers within the National Socialist regime thought them up and, then, set up regulations by which former unemployed illiterates run them through the assistance of Chaouchs who are selected from among us. In France, the democratic government of Daladier had established the camp at Gurs and had fixed the regulations for its operation, with the result being much the same as that that is found in the German camps. The implementation of those regulations was delegated to gendarmes and to militia whose power to interpret them was very limited.
"It is Christianity which introduced into Roman law the humanitarian nature that is given to punishment in the West and which assigned to it, as its first objective, the rehabilitation of the delinquent. But, Christianity failed to account for human nature, which cannot come to terms with itself, except on a basis of perversity. Believe me, there are three kinds of people who have remained the same throughout all of recorded history: policemen, priests, and soldiers. Here, we have to deal with policemen."
Obviously, here it was a matter of policemen. I never had had any trouble with any other than the German police, but I had often read and heard it said that the French policemen do not distinguish themselves for any special consideration. I remember that at this moment in my conversation with Jircszah, I brought up the Almazian affair. But, Almazian was involved in a crime of common law, and we were political prisoners. The Germans did not seem to distinguish between common prisoners and political prisoners, and this fact accounted for the commingling of the two groups in the camps….
"Come, come,” Jircszah said, “You seem to forget that it was a Frenchman, an intellectual of whom France is proud, a fine scholar, a great philosopher, Anatole France, who wrote: 'I am a supporter of the suppression of the death penalty in a matter of common law and of its reinstitution in political law.'"
By the end of the quarantine — since the S.S. never meddled with the camp life itself, which thus seemed to be left the master of its own laws and rules — I believed that Jircszah was more or less right; the National Socialists had resorted to this. We hashed over other problems together, especially the war and the postwar period. Jircszah was middle class, a democrat, and a pacifist. “The last war left the world divided into three rival blocks,” he said. “The Anglo-Americans, the traditional capitalists, the Soviets, and the Germans, the latter supported by Italy and Japan. There is one too many. The postwar period will find a world divided in two, and the democracies will make no headway and the peace will be no less precarious. The Allies think that they are fighting for liberty and that the Golden Age will rise from the ashes of Hitler. It will be terrible afterwards; the same problems will lie before two powers instead of three in a world that will be ruined materially and morally. Bertrand Russell was right when he said during his courageous youth, 'No ill that war claims to do away with is as bad as war itself.'” I shared that view, and even cherished it. As time went on, I thought often of Jircszah.
It was March 10th, at about three o'clock. An officer of the S.S. entered the Block and shouted, “Raus, los! Raus, raus!!” (Everybody out. Out!) We began to assemble in the yard. We were going to leave, and the formalities were about to begin. For about a week, a rumor about this move had been going around, and guesses ran riot: to Dora, some said; to Cologne to clear up the rubble from the bombings and to salvage what could still be used, said the others. The latter guess carried the day. Those well-informed persons felt that the National Socialists — seeing that the war was lost — were abandoning the Kommando at Dora, considered to be the hell of Buchenwald, and were not sending anyone there any more. They added that, even though given the dangerous work of clearing ruins, we would be well treated at Cologne. Maybe we would run the risk of setting off an unexploded bomb at any moment, but we would get all that we wanted to eat; first, we would receive the camp ration; then, we could have whatever we might find in the cellars, some of which would certainly be full of food supplies.
We did not know what Dora was. Not one of those prisoners who had been sent there had ever returned as far as we knew. It was said to be an underground factory, constantly being enlarged, in which secret weapons were being manufactured. One lived there, ate there, slept there, and worked there without ever seeing the light of day. Every day trucks brought full loads of dead bodies from Dora to be cremated at Buchenwald, and it was from the presence of these corpses that the horrors of the camp were deduced. Fortunately, we were not going there.
Four o'clock: we were still standing in front of the Block at attention (Stillgestanden) under the eyes of the S.S. guards. The Block Chief went down the ranks and the old men, the cripples, and the Jews were taken out. Cremieux who filled all three of these categories by himself, was one of them. The little cripple as well as a few others who did not seem to be either old men cripples, or Jews but whom we knew were in the good graces of the Block Chief since they passed for or actually were Communists-was also removed.
Half past four: we were marched to the infirmary for a medical checkup — “checkup” was just a figure of speech. An S.S. doctor who was smoking a huge cigar and who was flopped in an armchair conducted the examination, so to speak. We passed in front of him in a single file and, generally, he did not even bother to look up.
Five thirty: next we went to the Effectenkammer, where we were given clothing -striped trousers, jacket and coat — and shoes (leather with wooden soles) to replace the wooden clogs which were not fit for labor.
Six thirty: we had to stand for a roll call which lasted until nine o' clock. Alter that, before we could go to bed we still had to sew our numbers on to the clothing that we had just been issued: the strips of cloth on which numbers had been stenciled had to be sewn on the left side chest on the jacket and coat, and on the right pocket of the trousers.
On March 11th reveille came at half past four and the roll-call lasted from five-thirty until six. Ah! those roll-calls! In March, in the cold whether, it rained or the wind blew, we had to stand for hours and hours being counted and re-counted! This last one was a general roll-call of all of those prisoners — regardless of the Block that they belonged to — who were destined for the transport, and it took place on the mustering ground in front of the guard tower.
At eleven o 'clock we were given our ration of soup. Then at four o 'clock there was another roll-call which lasted until six or seven; we lost track of how long it lasted.
On March 12th, we got up at the usual reveille, and the roll-call lasted from half past five until ten. Roll-call and again the roll-call. They wanted to drive us crazy. At three o' clock we left Block 48 for good, and, after a wait for some time on the grounds, we were sent to the Block where the movie theater was, where we spent the night, with the lucky ones sitting down and with the rest of us standing up.
The next morning, reveille was sounded at half past three, an hour earlier than usual. The guards led us under the tower where we waited, in the dark and in the cold, with nothing in our stomachs since the day before at eleven, to be loaded onto a train. It was sometime between seven and eight o'clock when we got into the cars.
The trip was uneventful. We had elbow room, and we talked mainly about where we were going. The train was going in a westerly direction. To Cologne, that was it. We were right! At about four o'clock, the train stopped in the middle of nowhere, at a sort of railroad switchyard, where, floundering in the mud and the snow, miserable men who were haggard and dirty, and who wore striped rags of the same kind as our new clothes, unloaded the cars, dug ditches and cleared away rubble. Men with brassards and numbers — who were well clothed and full of health — pushed them on with threats, insults or the blows of truncheons. We were forbidden to speak to them. Passing next to them, if by chance they were out of eye and ear shot of the guards, we questioned them in as low a voice as possible: “Say, where are we?” “At Dora, old boy, haven’t you finished … yet?” Fernand and I looked at each other. We had only with difficulty just come to believe the optimistic rumors about Cologne. Now, we felt terribly discouraged, our shoulders sagged, and we felt the shadow of death pass over us.
- [Leon Blum was imprisoned at Buchenwald at about the same time that Professor Rassinier was there. Several interesting references to Blum’s stay at Buchenwald are found in his biography by Louise Dalby. One of them confirms the camp rumors which Professor Rassinier mentions:
Occasionally visits to Blum were restricted and letters censored, but he suffered very little while in France. His quarters at Buchenwald were reasonably comfortable, but his diet was poor and contributed greatly to his ill health. He resented most of the restrictions on his privacy, and the annoyance of being disturbed every two hours as guards thoroughly inspected his quarters. He was allowed to take a servant to care for him, he was permitted a radio by which he could occasionally get the B.B.C. although this was forbidden, and he received most of the food parcels sent him.(Louise Elliott Dalby, Leon Blum. New York: Yoseloff, 1963 pp. 418-419.)]
- This phrase translates: “Abandon all hope ye who enter here.” Immediately after my liberation, in May 1945, when I was still in Germany on my way home, I heard a talk over the radio by a deportee — Gandrey Retty, if my memory holds -who gave this translation. This is how tall stories are born.
- [The fact should be noted that the United States also had its concentration camps during this period. Best known, in spite of the repeated efforts of the liberal establishment to sweep all memory of the matter under the rug, are the so-called “relocation camps” where Americans of Japanese ancestry were interned during World War Two. This sordid episode, although officially justified as being necessary in the interest of national security, seems to have had as its real impetus certain racial and economic motives. Clearly, the relocation of the prosperous Japanese-American community away from the West Coast afforded numerous bargain conscious Californians, among others, the opportunity of purchasing Nisei and Issei businesses and properties at “fire sale” prices, a fact which, without doubt, was on the minds of many of those persons who applauded the prompt action of General John DeWitt. For a general discussion of these “relocation camps,” see, Allan R. Bosworth America’s Concentration Camps (New York: W.W. Norton, 1967). Not so well known are the numerous concentration camps that were spread across the United States from the Carolinas to the Dakotas where German and Italian nationals many of whom had been long time residents of the U.S. were incarcerated. Following the outbreak of formal hostilities in December 1941, these German and Italian nationals were declared to be “enemy aliens", were rounded-up by the American version of the Gestapo, i.e., the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and were confined behind barbed wire for the duration of the war.]