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When the train reached its destination, yet another concentration camp, I could hardly walk. Somehow I managed to get across the rows and rows of railroad tracks to the huge steel gate so famous now from World War II movies and books. Its sign read, "Arbeit machs frie," or "Work sets you free."
This was Buchenwald, a huge city of brick buildings and wood barracks, the entire thing a concentration camp.
Immediately we were forced to strip, take showers, then dunk our heads in a large basin of disinfectant to kill our rampant head lice. Not that the guards cared whether we infected one another, just whether we might infect them.
From there we were sent to a warehouse, maybe 200 feet away, where a fellow prisoner, through a window, handed to each of us a package of striped prison clothing. That clothing and one set of underwear was to last five weeks. Mine had a prisoner number - 133909 - the first time I had been branded by a number. Moniek was no more. From then on, I would be referred to only by 133909.
While older inmates lived in brick buildings, the group with which I had arrived was sent to wooden barracks housing roughly 400 people. We were given no blankets, no pillows. Each of us slept sideways, jammed in like books on a shelf, on a wooden board with another wooden board slanted for a pillow. Every morning dead bodies were pulled out of these "beds." For a bathroom, an outhouse, merely a wooden wall with a board to stand on and a hole below, was provided. Horrible. Unhealthful conditions were yet another way to kill as many of us as possible.
And if this wasn't bad enough, Buchenwald's system of doling out food ensured even more would die. Each of us daily was given one medallion which we were to exchange for a meal, again through a window. During the night, many prisoners killed other prisoners for their medallions. A truck drove around each morning to pick up the dead bodies and deliver them to the crematorium.
One morning at Buchenwald, the prisoners in our barracks were ordered to line up. One hundred of us were quickly counted up and loaded onto trucks. Told that we'd be back in a few weeks, we traveled 30 miles to Garfinkel, a smaller concentration camp. After sleeping the night, here not in a barrack but 20 or so to a bunker, we began what would become our twice-daily, hour-long walk to the Bausteller.
This work assignment involved creating secret warehouses inside 1,000- to 2,000-foot-high hills to hide German Vl and V2 missiles. Trees grew on the top so Allies wouldn't know what was going on underneath. Each day German civilians, familiar with explosives, detonated dynamite inside of the hills. Then we prisoners would pick and shovel away the loosened granite, loading it onto small railroad cars, pushing the cars out of the mountain by hand and then dumping the rock over an embankment. Working conditions were dusty and dangerous, and many prisoners were killed daily by falling rocks. Every day, all day, we heard, "Mach schnell, mach Schnell!" "Faster, faster!" For our labors, we received one meal a day.
We had worked there a couple of months when our guards received a sudden order to send us back to Buchenwald. Looking back, I expect that the Germans knew that they were losing and realized they had no need for hidden warehouses. They also knew they had better eliminate their prisoners as quickly as possible.
Immediately, about 200 of us were sent on the 30-mile trip back, not in trucks this time, but by foot, seven to eight abreast, beginning our trek at 6 p.m. in terrible rain. I tried to walk toward the front of the pack, understanding that prisoners at the rear were easy prey for the SS, riding at the back in a truck. Every so often shots would be fired and I knew that another prisoner had been killed. The dead were thrown into other trucks.
By the time our ragtag group arrived at Buchenwald the next morning, we numbered about 150. The rest were dead, piled onto trucks, which pulled up to the crematorium at the camp's entrance.
Many bodies were not whole, but missing limbs, faces or even entire heads, blown off by the gunshots. It was my grisly job and the job of several other survivors of the march to pull the bodies and body parts off of the truck and drag them onto the warehouse floor, wet from rain and blood. I had begun my task, dragging a body by its arms off the truck, when an SS officer struck me with the butt of his gun.
"You miserable pig!" he screamed. He then took a butcher hook out of the truck and used it to demonstrate his "more efficient" method: hook each body under its chin and drag, then stack the bodies like logs next to the crematorium. As horrific as this was looking back, it brought out no mental anguish in me. It meant nothing. I was wild. Survival was the only thing. I even checked the pockets of the dead men hoping to find some food.
The next morning, 1,500 prisoners, all Jews, crowded together by this warehouse. There, 20 SS men opened the gates to Buchenwald and, amazingly, yelled at us to get moving. As we pushed forward, there appeared a huge wagon piled with bread. A few SS jumped aboard and began throwing small squares of bread to the famished crowd as the wagon began moving away. Instantaneously, the masses surged toward the wagon, trampling one another as the SS fired gunshots to contain the chaos. Whether or not the result was planned, more dead prisoners was their aim. This was going to be a death march.
At the time, a rumor had been circulating that anyone over 20 years old would soon be executed. So when they called for 15-year-olds to step forward, I did. While age 20, I knew that few records were kept anymore. No country, no family, no name. I was simply 133909.
I, along with the other volunteers, were assigned to help push a four-wheeled cart, a lucky post because all four of these carts, piled with the SS men's suitcases, traveled at the front of the marchers. Each heavy wooden wagon needed four strong, young men to push and another to guide the wagon with a bamboo stick.
Before us was one larger wagon, pulled by a horse and driven by two SS men and two prisoners. They went on ahead each day to plan our route, find a place to stay and prepare food for the ever-dwindling group. This was easy and safe duty for all four men.
Behind the wagons, the prisoners marched four-to-five abreast. And at the rear was the Death Commando, six strong prisoners pushing a two-wheeled cart. It was their job to pick up the dead prisoners the SS shot along the way and then bury them in shallow graves. Every 20 minutes or so, a shot would be fired.