Eyewitness Account of a Survivor of Auschwitz
Michael Preisler, Prisoner No. 22213
|On August 22, 1939, just before the outbreak of the Second World War, Hitler
made a speech to the Generals of the “Wehrmacht” at Obersalzberg. He said:
“Our strength lies in our speed and our brutality. Genghis Khan condemned millions of women and children to death consciously and with a merry heart. History sees him only as a founder of an empire. I do not mind what the weak West-European civilization will say of me. I have given orders to shoot anyone who dares criticize even with a single word the fact that the aim of the war is not the attainment of some set boundaries, but the physical annihilation of the enemy. With that aim in mind, I have so far ordered the formation of the Totenkopf Units in the East, enjoining them to kill relentlessly and without mercy, men, women, and children of Polish origin and speaking the Polish language. Only in this way will we gain the territory we need in order to live… Poland is going to be depopulated and settled with Germans.”
The German army’s entrance into Poland was followed by the advent of Hitler’s operational groups, Security and Service Police (Eisatzgruppen Sicherh eitspolizei und Sicherheitsdienst - Sipo U.S.D.). Their criminal activities involved executing hostages and mass-arresting, based on pre-determined personal lists of political and social activists, members of the Polish intelligentsia, clergy and Jews. Prisons were overflowing.
As early as December of 1939, there arose a project to form a concentration camp in Auschwitz to expedite the eradication of the Polish nation. This camp was established on June 14, 1940 in the fork formed by the rivers Vistula and Sola, and was isolated from the outside world. The predominant argument which spoke for the choice of this particular place was its convenient railroad link with Silesia and the headquarters of General Government.
We, the political survivors of these camps, have the obligation to correct some misconceptions, common in the west, on the concentration camp issue. First, particularly here in the U.S., the fact that after the Jews, the Poles were the next group on the Nazi extermination list, is almost unknown. Over three million Polish-Christians died because of Nazi persecution; 2.5 million of these were uprooted from their homes and 2.4 million were transported to Germany or German occupied countries for slave labor in the war industry. Millions of Poles came out of the war crippled by TB and other illnesses. The Nazis persecuted all Poles from every social and political system, men, women, and even children.
Only a small percentage of the concentration camp inmates were able to survive; many of them because of the help rendered by the resistance movement, active in all camps.
We, the former political prisoners, are under a moral obligation to disseminate this truth as long as we can stand up and be counted as eyewitnesses to what occurred in these inhumane institutions.
The subject of concentration camps is not a pleasant one, but we must remind people that these camps really existed, that the gas chambers were real, and that millions of people were murdered in a brutal way.
Today, they try to falsify history and deny these facts. I am an eyewitness to many horrifying moments that took place behind the barbed wire fence.
From the thousands of concentration camps in existence, the most infamous death camps were Oswiecim-Auschwitz-Birkenau. The Germans established this death camp, as well as others, in occupied Poland. The site of this camp today is considered the world’s largest cemetery of victims of the genocide committed by the Germans under Hitler
I know well the conditions that prevailed in Auschwitz-Birkenau since I spent almost four years of my life there as a political prisoner. As a 19-year-old young man, I was arrested and sent to Auschwitz concentration camp. Over the main a gate of the camp was the following inscription “Through Work to Freedom”, while the camp’s commandant welcomed us with these words “You are in a concentration camp. The only exit from this camp is through the chimney,” pointing with his hand to the smoking crematorium chimneys. From the moment we entered the camp’s gates, we stopped being people or even human. For us, there were no longer laws to protect us and we were deprived of all human rights; we became numbers.
We lived in barracks called blocks. Each of these were designed for 250 – 400 prisoners. They were used, in fact, to accommodate 500 – 1,200 instead. In the beginning, we slept on straw mats on the floor. Each person had one thin blanket and used his clothes as a pillow. It was so crowded that if someone got up to go to the bathroom at night, he would not find the spot where he slept again. Later, there were built three tier bunks.
The change from civilization to death camp inmate was crushing. One could have died from that experience alone. Beatings and kicks, indulged in by the SS gave us a forewarning of things to come later. Also, those prisoners who were given special functions were not much better than the SS themselves. They were mainly recruited from native Germany. They were hard core criminal prisoners. They treated us in an inhumane manner and forced us into constant motion in a “hurry up” manner. Many a prisoner was killed by them.
The lack of water, no bed linen, no change of underwear caused the greatest plague of insects in the blocks. The extermination of prisoners was aided by starvation levels of food rations. Hunger was the constant companion of all the prisoners. It was the cause of many diseases and was responsible for major changes in the prisoner’s psyche.
The prisoner’s day began at 4:30 a.m. and ended, many times, depending on the distance to the barracks from the place of work, late in the evening. Work gangs left for the work site with musical accompaniment by the camp orchestra, who were composed of camp prisoners. Upon returning from work, the prisoners were often covered with blood, and were carrying their dead and dying fellow prisoners. The bodies of the victims were placed in their usual places for the evening formation, to ascertain the correct prisoner count, since the correct count had to be met.
The inhuman exploitation of prisoners, carrying out slave labor in the camp, was directly responsible for mass deaths. Thousands of women were used in drying swamps, clearing stones from the fields, and building flood banks. This work was conducted with the aid of primitive tools, and without much attention paid to the weather and the lack of protective clothing. Often, they were sent out barefoot or wearing wooden shoes. They were being constantly hurried under an apparent barrage of verbal abuse and screams of those dying under the blows of gun butts. All of this terrorized the prisoners and sapped their strength.
The conditions of camp existence, aimed at the extermination of human life, were widened by starvation rations, tortures, hard labor, physical exhaustion, and permanent fear. These abuses, in turn, caused countless diseases of the digestive tract, typhus, bone disease, diseases of the circulatory system, respiratory system, malaria, and other diseases. The camp hospital at Auschwitz was, in fact, one experimental station using human beings for various experiments.
I, myself, got typhus fever in 1942. I was accepted to the hospital through the intercession of a fellow prisoner, who knew one of the hospital’s medics, otherwise, I would have never been accepted. I had a high fever and was sent to a hospital block already overcrowded with prisoners. We slept five to a bunk. Each day, at least one of five died. It sometimes happened that I was lying next to a dead prisoner. But, somehow, with God’s help, I survived the typhus without any medicine and the temperature broke after a few days. I was then transferred to a barrack for convalescing prisoners. The conditions in this recovery block were terrible; without any clothing, in overcrowded conditions, with extremely small rations (a cup of soup at noon, a piece of bread at night) with lice and ticks so bold that they strolled around and on us. At that time, I did not weigh more than 100 pounds, just skin and bones. I wanted to get out of that bunk as soon as possible, but even that was not easy, since “musulman” (means mummy-like) were not allowed access to the rest of the camp, and I was one of them now. The task of getting out of the hospital became my preoccupation. I thought of this continuously, just as if I felt something hanging over my head and those with me.
One evening, the SS were looking for volunteers to work with disinfecting prisoners. I volunteered quickly knowing that I’m weak and that something worse might overtake me. If ordered to hard labor, I knew that I would not be able to do it. I received an issue of prisoner’s clothes. Finally, I had clothes to cover myself with. The clothes alone made me look different. That day, they did not take us to work. The first thing the next morning, I reported to the head of the “block”, a German, wearing the clothes I was issued. I told him that I would like to be released from the hospital and allowed to re-enter the camp itself (once before I asked him to release me but he refused). Seeing me dressed, my bones not showing, he entered my number to the list of those to be released to rejoin the camp.
The transfer process, that is from the hospital to a labor block, was as follows: You stood naked before the SS camp doctor, who either releases you, or refused. I was lucky because the day I asked to be released, the doctor did not show up, so we were transferred back to the labor block without the medical inspection, after being dunked in water and receiving a set of disinfected clean clothing. The next day, heavy trucks drove up to the recovery block. It backed up to the gates and took away all of the prisoners interned there (the sick and the healthy ones who were hiding out from heavy labor) and they carted them off to be gassed. I saw all of this happening while I was standing in front of an adjoining block. The trucks were loaded with prisoners. The sick were stacked up with their hands and feet dangling from the trucks, while behind them the SS troops were on motorcycles with machine guns. It was a disgusting and horrible sight. Through God’s protection, I was rescued from the Gas Chamber. This was the beginning of the selection of prisoners who were not able to work or who were sick, especially those with diseases concerning the feet and the legs. The selection was done by being told to raise your pant legs. Then, you were assigned to a group - to the left or to the right. One group was taken off to a predesignated block and then, after a few hours, off to the Gas Chamber. This was done without differentiation as to national or religious group One exception was the German prisoner, who was not subjected to this segregation.
Besides murdering prisoners in gas chambers, the Germans also used to inject them with gasoline, as well as with phenol. This was a primary way of killing prisoners in the hospital. A basic factor in causing prisoners constant anxiety and increasing the numbers of victims, was the code of punishments established in Auschwitz. Besides routine beatings during work by the SS troops and guards drawn from German prisoners, the following punishments were also in use: whipping, punishment exercises, assignment to punishment company, being placed in a bunker and others. The most drastic of punishments in use was being locked up in the Starvation Death Bunker, which was in use since 1941. The Germans placed 10 - 20 prisoners in it for every prisoner that escaped. These victims were personally chosen by the Commandant. Those placed in this bunker did not receive any food or liquids. These prisoners were condemned to and died from death by starvation.
During one formation when the Commandant chose 10 prisoners to perish for a prisoner’s escape, a prisoner stepped forward from the ranks and volunteered to take the place of a fellow prisoner, who had moments before been chosen for the starvation bunker. The condemned prisoner called out that he wanted to survive for the sake of his wife and children. When the Germans asked the volunteer why he should want to take this man’s place, he said, “I am a Catholic Priest”. He was a Franciscan, Maximilian Kolbe. He, with the others, was forced to die a death by starvation and was taken to the Death Bunker, while the prisoner whose place he took rejoined the formation. Maximilian survived 15 days without food or water in the bunker. He was the last to die of those with him. On the 15 day, the Germans injected him with phenol and this is how he died. He was canonized a Saint in 1981.
Another method by which prisoners were exterminated was by execution. After morning formation, prisoner numbers were read out loud. These prisoners were immediately taken under guard by the SS and brought to block No. 11, often referred to as the death b1ock After a couple of hours of being detained there, an SS soldier with a rifle came and killed each prisoner with a shot to the head. The corpses of the slaughtered victims were placed on carts and taken away by prisoners designated as nurses. Such a cart was drawn down a camp avenue leaving behind it a trail of blood. The bodies were covered with blankets. They were being carried to the crematorium. Hangings were another method used by the Germans to murder prisoners. These hangings were made into public spectacles, committed right in front of us. This type of execution was meant for those attempting an escape. The condemned prisoners were scourged.
I should mention here that although the conditions at Auschwitz were terrible, and the continuous prospect of death was hanging over the prisoners, there was an organized resistance movement at the camp, which was based on mutual help among prisoners. There was also intelligence activities carried out by the prisoners, and there were contacts with those outside of the camp in occupied Poland. With the front forcing the Germans back and nearing Oswiecim, the camp authorities, following Himmler’s directives, attempted to erase traces of their crimes. In September 1944, a plan called “Plan Molla”, came into existence to obliterate Auschwitz and all of its standing structures, and to slaughter all of its inmates. Information of this plan was forwarded from the camp, by the members of the camp underground, through the Polish underground to London, where it was made public. With the plan becoming publicly broadcasted, the camp authorities abandoned attempts to carry out these plans and began methodically to disband Auschwitz-Oswiecim-Birkenau complex of extermination camps.
The Germans evacuated the prisoners from these camps by foot columns and trains using various routes. In January 1945, I was evacuated from Auschwitz. We left on foot. I remember there was a lot of snow and it was extremely cold. In light prison garb, without any food, half of those in the column that I was in did not reach our destination. The SS troops on the other hand, well-dressed and armed with machine guns, waited only for one of us to falter or could not go on, and shoot them. They were shooting at us as if it was a game. The sight of our route of march was horrible. The white snow was strung with human bodies and half-dead prisoners lying in pools of blood. The blood clearly stood out against the backdrop of white snow. The strongest survived the march, but we left thousands behind us along the way.
Pope John Paul II visiting Auschwitz on June 7, 1979 said, I quote:
“I have come and I kneel on this Golgotha of the modern world, on these tombs, largely nameless, like the great tomb of the Unknown Soldier. I kneel before all the inscriptions that come one after another bearing the memory of the victims of Auschwitz in the languages: Polish, English, Bulgarian, Romany, Czech, Danish, French, Greek, Hebrew, Yiddish, Spanish, Flemish, Servo-Croat, German, Norwegian, Russian, Romanian, Hungarian and Italian”.
Today we are beginning to hear voices that say that the Holocaust never took place… that there weren’t any death camps… that gas chambers never existed… that everything is a hoax. Auschwitz is a symbol of martyrdom of the Polish nation. Leaving Auschwitz, I left behind me the biggest international cemetery – but with no graves. The names of those who perished there are only known to God. Today, we pay tribute to all innocent victims of this Holocaust tragedy… no exception as to nationality nor religion.
I am standing before you as a Polish Roman Catholic survivor of Auschwitz-an eyewitness to history… a victim in one of mankind’s ugliest moments...to tell the truth of what happened in those camps. The subject is not a pleasant one, but we must remind the world that these camps really did exist – that the gas chambers were real, and that millions of people were murdered in a brutal way.