Janina Hincz-Kan, born in 1926
An Unforgettable Day in Auschwitz
We were returning from our work detail extremely exhausted. The guards were walking with their dogs, somehow unusually calm. The sun was setting bloodred and threw its golden rays on our gloomy faces. It was November 1944. My aching feet, wrapped in rags, were splashing around in shoes full of holes that I had bought from another prisoner for a chunk of bread. Most of the others marched in wooden shoes. We were nearing the gate of the Lager [forced labor camp] over which stood the hated, deceitful slogan ARBEIT MACHT FREI [work makes you free]. At the gate of the camp we were met by an orchestra of women prisoners. They were playing a march. The sound of music in this place of death and horror, where on the average five thousand people perished every day, was one of the Germans’ perverse ideas.
We quickly fell in, into rows of five. We wanted to get into our block as quickly as possible to stretch our tired legs. Every day we walked fourteen kilometers back and forth. It began to drizzle, a fine, autumn rain. Standing at roll call we were shivering from the cold. Finally at a distance I saw Stenia approaching with an SS woman. We feared Stenia like the plague. She was the Lager-Kapo for the entire camp. Sad to say, she was Polish.
…“our block” – barracks in concentration camps were called blocks.
A Kapo was a prisoner who received special privileges for supervising (often cruelly) other prisoners.
After a long wait, we were counted off. We burst into our block. I quickly climbed to the top bunk and held out my hand to my mother, who had a hard time climbing up. That my mother and I were together was our only joy. I took off my shoes full of holes. The smell of rutabaga soup titillated my nostrils, nearly making me faint. The spoons clinked quickly against the tin mugs and bowls. I was then seventeen years old. I suffered the most from lack of sleep, because days in the Lager began very early. We were awakened at three o’clock in the morning, and we stood at roll call until dawn. During the last few days I walked, literally, as if I were drunk. Mother looked with despair at my pale face and eyes with dark circles under them. She placed under herself the wet rags that I took off my feet, drying them with her body.
The lights were turned off. I snuggled up to her. Covered with a shabby blanket, we kept each other warm. “Mama, perhaps I won’t go to work tomorrow, because I feel that I’ll collapse along the way.” My mother’s hand stroked my close-cropped hair. “Very well, child, tomorrow we won’t go to work. Right after roll call I will go up to the block supervisor and ask that she leave us in the block to wash pots, and after roll-call, I’ll make up the bunk so as to conceal you, so you can rest.”
I was dazzled by my mother’s cleverness. I kissed her coarse, wind- chapped hand and fell asleep like a stone. We remained in the block according to plan, and after roll call, Mama made up the bunk with me in it. She covered me carefully with a blanket, leaving only a slit so I could breathe. She then had to wash, in cold water, six hundred bowls from the previous day’s meal. Somehow, it didn’t cross my mind then that Mother would have to do all the work normally meant for two people. Being together with my mother, I still felt like a child.
I slept the delightful sleep of youth for about two hours. Even such a short sleep refreshes. Suddenly, I was awakened by some noises and the sound of talking. Someone ripped the blanket off me. I jumped like an arrow straight to the ground. Luckily, I didn’t trip. I rushed out of the block directly into the Lager. I ran without looking where I was going. I heard the patter of running feet, but I didn’t look behind me. I turned behind Block II. There was an enormous wooden pallet leaning against its wall. Without much thought, I squeezed behind it, trembling with fear. I waited to see what would happen next.
My heart was pounding like a jackhammer. I listened intently, terrified, not being able to collect myself. After a while, I heard the sound of receding footsteps. I decided to peek out carefully. I saw a block supervisor walking away. Only then did I realize that it had been a bunk inspection. Every now and then block supervisors would conduct such inspections, taking everything that was hidden in the blankets. Sometimes all our possessions were in there—bread, onions, and other food articles.
I don’t know how long I would have stood behind that wooden pallet had it not been for a coincidence. I heard steps, and suddenly, I felt the sun on my face. A prisoner working at the lime pit had taken the pallet, which was apparently needed for work. He bid me farewell with a pale, sad smile. I didn’t know what to do with myself or which way to turn. I was afraid to approach my block, fearing that I would be recognized. The sound of SS whistles interrupted my deliberations. “Zelle Appell! Zelle Appell!” [Line roll call] the block supervisors called out in their hoarse, shrill voices.
It was horrible. During those unscheduled roll calls, there was usually a selection of young women, sometimes for work in ammunition plants and at other times to have blood drawn from the prisoners for German soldiers. Sometimes, they made a selection intended to reduce the size of the Lager. One never knew exactly why a roll call was being held nor who among our dear ones might depart, perhaps forever.
Selection – separation of those fit to work from those to be killed.
The full terror of the possibility of being separated from my mother flashed in front of my eyes. A moment later we were already standing in even rows, and the SS women were making a selection from among the rows. I was selected. Mother followed me with terrified eyes. After a certain time, I realized that they were not recording the numbers tattooed on our arms. The thought of escape flashed through me like lightning. When the German woman turned her back, I fell back into formation. In our blue-gray striped uniforms, we all looked identical. I counted on not being recognized.
She didn’t recognize me, but after counting off those selected, she once again walked through the rows and, waving her finger, yelled, “Komm hier!” [Come here!] There was no other choice. I submitted to my fate with resignation. The tormented face of my mother was before my eyes. What was there to do? My feverish thoughts raced around inside my head, unable to find a way out. We were herded into the bathhouse. I was probably the youngest in the group, and with my short hair, I probably looked like a kid from a poor orphanage.
After the showers, there was an inspection by a doctor. It took place without a real examination. The degree of our strength was judged only from our looks and body build. When I stood in front of the doctor, I was seized by great sorrow, shame, and despair. I could not control myself any longer. I burst out crying, loudly and spasmodically, and folding my arms on my chest, I stammered midst my sobbing, “Herr Doktor, ich bin hier mit meiner Mutter zusammen. Bleiben sie mir!” [Doctor, I am here together with my mother. Please let me stay!] At the word Mutter, the doctor’s eyes clouded over. He looked inquiringly at my miserable figure and yelled, “Zurück!” [Go back!] Trembling, I dressed quickly and raced to my mother. We fell into each other’s embrace and cried with happiness. That was my unforgettable day at Auschwitz.
Auschwitz – largest German concentration and death camp in Poland, located thirty-seven miles west of Kraków in the town of Oświęcim. Beginning as a concentration camp for Polish political prisoners, it was greatly expanded into a death camp by the addition of Auschwitz II-Birkenau. More than one million people were killed there, ninety percent of them Jews.