I don’t sleep well. As soon as I close my eyes, I’m in the camp. I have nightmares, like the scene of bodies lying all over the field by the ditches. But when I wake up, I know I’m Felix Opatowski, not 1 — 4 — 3 — 4 — 2 — 5.
These words — the closing lines of Holocaust and Auschwitz survivor Felix Opatowki’s memoir Gatehouse to Hell — reassert his humanity in the face of the dehumanization he suffered at the hands of the Nazis. His candid and heart-rending account begins when, at age fifteen, he takes on the perilous job of smuggling goods out of the Lodz ghetto in exchange for food for his starving family. Felix endures months of harrowing conditions in the ghetto and slave labour camps before being deported to the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp in the fall of 1943. The excerpt below begins with his arrival at Auschwitz and goes on to narrate his difficult acclimatization to the deplorable situation in which he finds himself.
We arrived at the Auschwitz station at night.
I don’t know what time it was but it was dark. A very curious thing happened when I arrived and I never heard of this happening again. When the doors of the cattle cars opened, lights shone on us and we heard a voice shouting in German over a loudspeaker. Then — I’ll never forget this — this voice announced that there were trucks standing by and whoever couldn’t get to a truck would be shot. We all jumped down from the train, running, pushing each other. Everybody wanted to get to those trucks. I couldn’t even see the trucks. All of a sudden, some of our people started yelling, “Here they are! Here they are!” The trucks had headlights on and the motors were running. Then the trucks started moving.
Although I was very weak from the two or three days on the train, the typhus and the dysentery, I tried hard. I ran to one truck, but it drove away. I probably could have made it because it wasn’t that far away. There was still some room on the truck, but I think it left on purpose. I made my way toward another truck, but I couldn’t run anymore; I could only walk. That truck left, too. Again, I think the driver did it on purpose. I didn’t make it to any of the trucks and there must have been forty or fifty of them. All the trucks drove away. I thought to myself, “After all the misery I went through in the past two years in the labour camp, this is my end.” That was going to be it because I knew by then that the Germans didn’t make idle threats.
At that moment I heard dogs barking and saw a lot of bright lights turned on us. The Germans began yelling, “Line up in fives. Line up in fives.” With the Germans, it was always five, five, five. Now I saw men with striped uniforms. I tried to ask them questions but the only thing they said was, “Line up, line up. Be quiet, don’t say anything. When they ask your age, if one of you is too young, don’t tell the truth. If one of you is too old, don’t tell the truth.” They seemed to be afraid and didn’t say anything more. I couldn’t understand what they were talking about.
I figured that if they were going to line us up and ask our ages, they weren’t planning on shooting us; I started feeling safer. But I was with a few others from the labour camp who began to worry. Maybe they’ll shoot us later, I thought. Maybe they’re lining us up to shoot us. We had no clue.
This was our first “selection.” Although the notorious Josef Mengele was known for doing many of the selections, he didn’t do ours that time. Another SS officer did the selection. On command we walked by him and didn’t know what he was selecting us for because we didn’t know what a selection was. He asked a few people their ages and according to the answer sent them to the right or to the left. We soon learned that one way led to the gas chambers; the other to work. There weren’t too many of us who were selected for death in the gas chamber that time because we were all arriving from a labour camp. The old and the weak had already died. We were the strongest ones and that’s what they were looking for.
Instead of shooting us, when it got a little bit lighter out they marched us about a kilometre or so right into Birkenau, also known as Auschwitz II. They took us to a big assembly place and told us to take off our clothes. They said we couldn’t keep these clothes anymore, but we should make sure to keep our shoes because those were the only shoes we would have. I don’t know what happened to my shoes; someone must have taken them. They were bad shoes anyway, already worn out. But somehow I got other shoes. I think I got two of the same foot, but they fit and were better than nothing. Some people had no shoes at all. They then took us for delousing. They shaved all the hair off of our bodies. They disinfected us and then took us to the showers. They gave us striped uniforms. This was the same routine that everyone else went through when they arrived in Auschwitz. Then they lined us up again.
One of the SS officers who was in charge came up to one of the men who was standing in the line and asked him his name. When the fellow answered him, the SS officer clubbed him over the head with his rifle. The man fell down and the officer said,
“This is a lesson for you. You don’t have a name any more. From now on, you have a number.”
I saw the person in front of me put out his arm and a German tattooed a number on his arm. Then it was my turn. I stuck out my arm. I got the number 1–4–3–4–2–5. From then on, I knew that this was my name. Although I had come from a ghetto and then a labour camp, neither of which were pretty, I had never expected to be branded with a number. Now I really felt that I was a slave. Slavery had begun affecting me from the time I had to put on the Star of David and grew when they closed the ghetto. But a number! It had a terrible impact on me.
The way that Auschwitz-Birkenau functioned had everything to do with the numbers. When we got our striped uniform, we had to write our numbers on a piece of linen. The Germans supplied the ink. We attached these pieces of linen onto a coloured triangle, which they gave us to wear on our uniforms. A red triangle was for political prisoners. According to the Germans, all the Poles who came to Auschwitz were political opponents. A red triangle with a yellow stripe was for Jewish political prisoners — the rest of the Jews wore the two yellow triangles that formed the Jewish star. Then there were dark green triangles worn by criminals — many of them were the kapos, our supervisors. Brown or black triangles were for the Gypsies. According to these triangles, the Germans and the kapos recognized who we were. Anyone wearing the red inverted triangle over the yellow triangle was considered the dregs of the camp.
Then the Germans put us in what was called “quarantine.” I didn’t understand what the name quarantine meant. I asked one fellow, but he didn’t know either. I think it meant separation.
The quarantine area consisted of a whole camp of barracks. It was the gatehouse to hell. That’s the only way I can describe it.
A few days after our arrival at Auschwitz, I began to wonder about the incident with the trucks. We had all thought they were going to shoot us for not getting on those trucks. I wondered, then, what happened to the ones who had made it to the trucks? I had spent almost two years with some of those men in the labour camps and many were my friends. Finally I found out what happened to them. Apparently the Germans had played a trick on us, reversing the outcome of what they had announced on the loudspeaker. They took the guys who made it to the trucks right to the gas chambers and they put the rest of us in quarantine in Birkenau. I never heard of that kind of selection occurring again. Clearly, it was just not my time to die.
When I came into the barracks on the first day, I already had enough experience from the labour camp to know how to deal with the living conditions. There were three tiers of bunks. I knew I didn’t want to be on the lower bunk because all the dirt and lice fell down from above. If somebody peed in the middle of the night, it went right down onto the person below. I was trying to get either a top or middle bunk, but since the top ones were already taken I went for a middle. Just as I got to the only one that was left, another fellow pushed me away and tried to take it from me. One of the men who was there saw what had happened and spoke up for me, calling out, “Hey, don’t push him away. He was there first.” The one who pushed me started telling the guy off, but he wouldn’t have it. “Don’t mouth off to me if you don’t want trouble,” my new friend warned. His name was Jakob Artman and he became one of my closest friends. He saved my life twice in the next three years and we were devoted to each other until the day he died.
When I settled into the bunk, I thanked my new friend and we started talking. I asked him how long he had been there. He said six or eight weeks and then offered to give me a few tips. For instance, as we were talking I was rubbing my arm where they had tattooed the number. “Don’t rub it,” he warned me. “It might get infected.” When I asked him what Auschwitz was all about, Jakob was straightforward. “It’s a very terrible place,” he said. “Nobody gets out of here alive.”
He took me outside the barracks, pointed to a chimney and said, “The only way we’re going to get out of this camp is through that chimney.”
I could see a huge red brick building but I didn’t understand what he meant. When we had arrived in Auschwitz we walked to Birkenau from the railway station and we could smell something burning. Of course, we didn’t know there were crematoria in Birkenau. How could any normal human think that in the middle of the twentieth century they were burning human bodies? Those things were too farfetched for us to even think about. But when we came into the quarantine camp, we started wondering what kind of place this was. The kapos would point to the chimney and say, “That’s your destination.” The ghetto, the labour camps in Poznań… these were all terrible places. Still, there we didn’t talk about chimneys, we didn’t talk about crematoria, we didn’t talk about gas chambers.
Jakob was quick to advise me that I had to be extremely careful in the quarantine camp. He told me that the Germans would try to work me to death there. If I survived, they would just take me to another camp. I told him that I had just come from a labour camp and that Auschwitz couldn’t be harder than that. “Oh, yeah?” he replied. Unfortunately, he was right.
Many of us were indeed worked to death in that quarantine camp, with hardly any food. The guards took us out early in the morning and we worked at making roads and digging ditches for the sewers. We were doing all of this because the camp was expanding. There were lots of prisoners, so we didn’t have to work fifteen hours a day, but we were doing very hard manual labour. It would have gone much faster if there had been wheelbarrows to take the rocks and move them to where they were supposed to go. But, no, we had to carry them in our hands. The whole thing was designed, I would say, as a test to see if we were able to do this type of work. If we survived three months of the harshness of quarantine, then we qualified to go to the D camp in Birkenau, which was the men’s labour camp.
The atrocities that happened in quarantine were horrible. Dr. Mengele was a frequent visitor, although in the beginning we didn’t know who he was. He and the officers went through each of the barracks to choose people for all kinds of experiments.
We saw men taken away and they never came back. We heard screaming.
Then there was the selection. After I’d been working in the quarantine camp for about two weeks, a kapo came into the barracks and announced that there was going to be a selection, that no Jews would be going to work the next day. The other inmates left and the Jews stayed behind in the barracks. At first I was happy to have a day off work. I was so naive that I didn’t know what the selection was for. I thought that maybe the Germans were going to pick the ones who were healthy for special work. To me, we were having a holiday.
Jakob was wiser. He told me that he had heard that people had to be very careful during the selection, advising me to make sure that I knew where my clothes were when I was ordered to undress, to stand up straight, to not ask any questions.
An hour or so later, I saw Dr. Mengele. He came in with his entourage, about half a dozen SS men, and one man in civilian clothes who was taking notes. We had to strip naked. Dr. Mengele sat down and we walked in front of him. He indicated which person should go to the left or to the right. When a person went in one direction, the civilian wrote his number down.
When it was my turn, I saw that the man didn’t write down my number. I thought when he took down a number it meant they were going to take that person to another labour camp. Jakob had told me that sometimes, if a person was lucky, the Germans would need him for other work. I thought that I had missed an opportunity. So I went back and I tried to tell him that he had forgotten to write down my number. One of the guards pushed me away. I was almost crying. I was stubborn. I didn’t want to stay in Auschwitz. I didn’t want to go to the gas chambers. I didn’t want to be cremated. I didn’t want to die there and I kept pushing back. Finally the guard gave me a good push and I fell over to the other side. I was with the men who didn’t have their numbers written down.
Mengele didn’t send me to the gas chamber that day. It turned out that it was the inmates whose numbers the civilian wrote down who were doomed.
The Germans put them in a special barracks under guard. They didn’t get any food or water and they were held there for a couple of days. Then they were put into the gas chamber. That is what I had been begging for. That was how naive we all were when we arrived in Auschwitz. We didn’t know anything. The conditions in quarantine were so terrible that I was just desperate to get away from there. At least I was lucky that in the barracks where I was, there were only ordinary selections. Mengele wasn’t picking anyone for experiments from our group.
Afterward, I learned more about Josef Mengele. I thought he looked like a movie star, good-looking. He was tall and wore a black SS uniform with shiny boots and I remember the way he walked. I also remember the saying, “You’re better off if he doesn’t see you.” He was one of the doctors in Auschwitz who met the transports coming in, selecting people for work or the gas chambers — sending them right or left. Mengele always selected some people for his experiments; if there were twins among the new arrivals, they were in trouble. I only found out these things about Mengele much later. Thank God I wasn’t involved with him very much.
Jakob continued to teach me what to do and what not to do in quarantine. Every piece of advice helped. There were about sixty barracks in the quarantine area. Each barracks consisted of a room that held up to a thousand people, depending on how many inmates the Nazis wanted to squeeze in. There were three tiers of bunks and each bunk could hold six men, but usually it was four or five. When we were sleeping on one side, if one guy rolled over, everybody had to move. It was very cramped. The bunks were plain planks of wood with no blankets whatsoever.
In the centre of the barracks there was a furnace for heat. Firewood went in from one side and a chimney came out the other side, running to the end of the barracks.
That was where we sat and ate and socialized. That’s where we shared our misery.
We sat there until we had to go to bed because when we lay down it was so congested that it was a relief just to fall asleep. We were not supposed to talk after the lights were turned off.
Everything was very strictly supervised by a kapo whose helpers were called foremen. There was talk about Jewish kapos. I was in Auschwitz for two years and I only met two Jewish kapos and a few Jewish foremen. Most of the kapos were ex-prisoners. They had the right to kill us whenever they felt like it. It was lawless. We couldn’t complain to anybody and nobody could protect us. I saw people who were killed for nothing — sometimes just talking at night or going to the buckets if they needed to urinate could get someone killed. At night we couldn’t go to the washroom after nine-thirty. If we had to urinate at night, we had to do it in our soup bowl or cup. Lots of people, including me, had to pee in their soup bowls because if we did it where we slept, the kapos could kill us right there. Or, if the kapos didn’t kill someone, they often crippled him. Jakob warned me not to talk back to the foreman and to do exactly what I was told because the kapos might kill me for no reason at all. That’s just the way it was in the barracks.
In each camp in Birkenau, the washrooms were just as big as the barracks and constructed the same, except the washroom had holes to sit on and in the corner, by the door, there were water pipes that ran to the sink. The water ran all the time because it was constantly needed. It wasn’t the best water in the world. We drank it, but it was probably contaminated. Sometimes it was blue, sometimes it was brown and sometimes it was yellow. That was the water we washed in. That was the only water we had. We had no choice.
In quarantine, I saw what happened to the people who were selected for the gas chamber. It was a terrifying sight. When we went to work, we couldn’t help walking by the barracks where the guards were holding them since it was right at the entrance to the quarantine camp. Even if we walked out of the barracks to go to the washroom, they could see us. If they recognized us, they might call out our names. They knew they were going to die and all they were asking for was water.
One of two brothers that I knew was taken in a selection. The other was in my barracks. I heard him crying at night. When we walked to work the next morning he wanted to see his brother. I don’t remember if it was to give him water or not; I think he just wanted to touch his brother or be close to him. The kapos beat him up.
I don’t know if he died. I never saw him again.