“One morning the work of our electrician kommando was interrupted: inspection. We had to line up in a single row and not in fives. An SS came along. He chose seven deportees, including myself and Grestain (the future chief electrician of Jawischowitz). We seven had no idea what job awaited us. All we knew was that it was electrical work. I was scared. 'Now they're going to see that I know nothing about electricity, that I'm an amateur and that I'm a bad one at that'.
The SS did not ask if we were real tradesmen. I noticed other strange things: I had never seen such a small kommando, seven people! What is more, an SS took the place of Capo and then not an ordinary SS man, but an but an Unterscharführer, the equivalent, I think, of a sergeant …
But back to my new kommando The SS was marching three meters from us. I don’t know whether he was afraid of being attacked or whether he was simply trying to avoid breathing our smell. Contrary to habit, he said nothing. He did not accuse us of marching too slowly or incorrectly. If I had not learnt to know the SS, I would have thought that this one was a man like other men, and not a machine for killing and torturing.
Once only, during the march, he addressed us in friendly terms, too friendly, with the voice of a father addressing his children, explaining our future privileges Each of us would have three cigarettes and a bottle of beer or another drink of our choice (the water there was terrible). We would eat our fill and in a week’s time, if we worked well, we would have new clothes and the official right to wash ourselves, we couldn’t wish for a better fate.
All seven of us, on arrival, without exchanging a word, understood why our SS had been so benevolent. Immediately my stomach turned over. We saw big rectangles traced on the ground twenty or thirty meters wide by fifty or wide by fifty or sixty meters long. In one of them the ground was stained red. Three regularly spaced posts with reflectors on top stood in the middle. The second rectangle was a simple outline on the ground, the soil was the normal color and instead of the posts, three holes had been dug.
The SS explained: «You see the installation here (he pointed at the posts in the first rectangle.) Over there (he showed the second rectangle) the same thing. You're the electricians, get to it». Then he withdrew thirty or forty meters Why so far? I do not know. Perhaps the previous kommando had revolted?
We began our work. Our team of seven included only real professionals. One had been given special hooks to hoist himself to the top of the posts. He disconnected the electricity and brought down the wires and the reflector. Then we got ourselves into position to pull out the posts. And then wallow in the red, and the red was blood. The first contact with it gave us the shivers and we lost the power to speak. And yet we already knew about it. But between knowing and experiencing there is just no comparison. Underneath us there were men like us and, for sure the team of our seven predecessors was also beneath our feet …
We carried the three posts, wedged them in the holes that had already been dug and installed the reflectors. This first day we scarcely worked three hours. Then we stayed shut in the hut where we ate. We were forbidden to look at what was happening outside.
The second day we were on the site a little earlier than the first. We had to wait at a distance while the besonderkommando (that’s what my comrades and I called it in Yiddish: the German word is Sonderkommando «special Kommando»] finished its work — work that I shall describe for you in a moment.
As the days went by our Unterscharführer became more and more negligent to his surveillance of us. What was the point? It was impossible for us to escape. So we saw everything without really trying to.
We saw a sort of barn closed on three sides, identical to those where our farmers keep the hay, and not far from it three or four pretty little buildings like country houses, only the first of which was close enough to be clearly visible.
The convoys arrived, adult men and little boys together, women, girls and babies together. They went, completely naked, in groups of twenty t owards the little house. Despite the distance, we could see that they were not afraid. A strange kommando, dressed in white, led them; four men only, plus two SS. When the people had entered the house, they were shut in by a fairly strong door.
When the door was well and truly bolted, an SS passed with a can (the can I saw looked exactly like a pot of paint) and disappeared from our eyes, hidden by the house. Then, we heard a bang, that of some opening, a trap door rather than a window. Twice, after this bang, we heard the prayer SHEMA ISRAEL ['LISTEN ISRAEL, Eternal is our God, the Eternal is one …' a basic Jewish prayer], then we heard cries, but very faintly.
From time to time, at the last minute, just before disappearing behind the door, the people understood. I saw one group of men revolt. The case had been foreseen: a kommando of four or five people was waiting beside the entrance and pushed them inside while an SS used his revolver to shoot some in the head.
The external aspect of the little house was so ordinary that such incidents were very rare. In seven days, I saw only one revolt with my own eyes. But others took place, for several times, from afar we heard the same characteristic sound of a shot at point blank range.
But let us return to the morning of the second day. The rectangle where we had the previous day installed the posts had been dug out and transformed into a kind of empty swimming pool with cleanly cut edges, about one meter fifty deep. The ground had been left around our posts to stop them falling.
Some rails were installed, starting one meter from the little house. As soon as the Jews were gassed, a new team came along and added rails as far as the edge of the swimming pool. This group also belonged to the besonderkommando. The men of this kommando ate well; they were properly dressed. They lived entirely separately and no longer returned to our camp to sleep. The SS said that in a week we would be enrolled with them. So I now had less than a week in which I had to try something, however desperate.
We saw the special commando put platform trolleys on the rails. Then they brought out the men, women and children who had been gassed to load them on these flat wagons. In order not to lose any on the way, they stacked them like sacks of flour, five widthways, five lengthways. Their work was tough and their Capo, a German, would not allow a moment’s rest. He was constantly crying: «Schneller! Schneller! (Faster Faster!) otherwise I'll wipe you out, I'll gas you on the spot» and he kicked them. All the men, women and children were very quickly thrown in the hole and covered with earth.
Then we went into action, wallowing in human blood to recover the lamp posts. I could not understand why the corpses bled. The pressure when they heaped earth on them? Or the effect of the gas? My six companions had received almost new shoes, but not me because my mountain shoes were still in good condition.
At night, another kommando certainly came to dig a new swimming pool around and in the light of our lamp posts because we found it the next morning on arriving. I never saw this kommando, but a comrade said that once he was in a group that had this task. He was taken from his hut, with many other deportees, perhaps 200. They did not belong to the besonderkommando but were from the camp and had not guessed the purpose of this hole.
On the fourth day we were allowed to approach the special kommando at the door of a gas chamber. What we saw shocked us. Whole families holding together in bunches. Dead children still clinging to their mothers, and separating them was a horrible task. All of them had bulging eyes and twisted horrified faces. That day they had brought a transport of women with their children. It seemed to us that most of them had strangled their children and we could understand that watching the child’s agony would be unbearable. They had preferred to shorten the suffering by killing them with their own hands.
For the men of the besonderkommando, it must have been just as bad. We imagined one of them by chance seeing his mother or sister or father or wife or a member of his family. What could he do? Nothing.
One day Grastain, the electrician, went into one of the little houses to repair a wire and told us: 'The interior is empty and very dark without any windows. I didn’t have time to look in detail, I was too scared.'
From our position, we could see the victims only at the moment when they arrived near the closest gas chamber. Some of us thought that they took off their clothes in the barn, but I disagreed. In there they would have discovered a store of masses of hair, classified by color, stocks of dolls, spectacles. clothing, everything well sorted and neatly stocked. They would realize that it was a trap. Furthermore, the women would refuse to undress in public. No, in my opinion there were, a little further away and hidden from our eyes, huts from where the people undressed before passing behind the barn without ever seeing its contents …
Recently I have been trying to collect all my memories of the gas chambers into a coherent whole. But in my head they appear as a series of photographs, clear and fixed. I can look at them one at a time, but have difficulty in arranging them logically.
So, the hole was enormous, designed to bury several thousand Jews. In any case if it had contained only a few corpses, the ground would not have been impregnated with blood. Now, four houses and twenty persons per house was not enough to fill such a swimming pool.
I believe that the besonder worked a part of the night. We saw only the last group of victims, the previous ones being already buried in the grave. However, such an explanation does not agree with another of my memories: one morning on arriving I went to the edge of the grave. I was made to back away, but I had a chance to see the depth and it was still empty. I think that that particular night, the besonder for once had rested and that the grave was simply going to be filled with the bodies of comrades killed in the camp. It was necessary to get rid of the bodies and at the time the Krematorium was still not completed.
These little gassing houses belonged to the first type of installation at Birkenau. They were later replaced by industrial gas chambers where a thousand people at a time were liquidated and then not buried but immediately passed on to the Krematorium. I fortunately was not a witness of that, but was informed indirectly.
On the other hand, I learnt from the mouth of an eyewitness, Erko Hajblum (a prisoner with the number 49269 who had not come from Pithiviers but from Beaune-al-Rolande) what happened to our swimming pools for corpses. I leave him to tell the story:”
“When the first Krematorium furnace was operational, the victims were removed to be burnt. I was in the kommando that disinterred the dead, thousands of dead.
We waded through a mixture of putrifying bodies and mud. We should have had gas masks. The bodies seemed to come up to the surface, as if the ground didn’t want them. What you went through, Maurice, is nothing besides that. After a week I thought I was going mad and decided to commit suicide by letting myself die, as many comrades had done around me.
I was saved by a friend who worked at Kanada, the big Birkenau sorting center. He couldn’t stand seeing all these clothes and personal objects coming from gassed Jews. He succeeded in getting into the bricklayer kommando as an instructor, and he gave me his place.
Two months later, I met a deportee still employed on disinterring the dead. No more mud: the ground had frozen. The soil and the bodies had to be broken up with pickaxes.”