DONATE NOW TO HELP UPGRADE LIBCOM.ORG

2. Journey to the Unknown

2. Journey to the Unknown
 
In the carts on the front rows were the old men, the invalid, the women and the children. The men followed on foot. I was placed on one of the first rows, the third or the fourth, with my brother my cousin and my nephew. All of ours took long strides to be able to follow the same rhythm of the animal – drawn carts, as our escorts would not let us get far from them. The long train thus formed was led in the direction of Wolwonice. The Germans accompanied us in cars, on bicycles or on horseback. We were deadly silent and the only sounds which could be heard, were those of the trotting horses and the hum of the motors, the shrill sound of a whistle or a command shouted in German or Polish. Once in awhile this monotone was broken by the crack of some firearm and we were frightened.
 
A few minutes later a whisper passed along the column, from the back to the front until the news reached the ears of those walking on the first rows. The Germans were shooting all those who could not follow the others and right there, on the dusty road. For many of us the worries and the pains, which seemed endless were finished. Some tried to look back so as to see what was happening, but terrible shouts from the soldiers made them change their minds. After we had walked some kilometres I saw something, which filled me with the utmost horror.
 
Right before me an elderly man started to slacken his pace due to his pitiful physical condition. When one of the Nazis noticed he was limping, he came near him and jumped off his bicycle thus throwing it to the ground, so furious was he. Not wasting a single minute he elbowed his way through the crowd at the front and rudely pushed the unhappy Jew away. The poor devil, already weak, fell heavily to the ground, while his aggressor got hold of a rifle and sent a bullet through the nape of his neck. Then he mounted his bicycle again and rode away as if nothing had happened. As the whole awesome scene took place before my very eyes I could watch it down to the least details. I was so appalled that I doubled my efforts to avoid the same happening to me and all those around me did the same.
 
After we had been walking for about three hours we came to a village, the name of which escaped my memory, but which I believe was called Kiwuel. We heard a long whistle followed by a shout - which ordered the disorientated crowd to come to a halt. It was the time for rest, not for us though, but for our escort. They did not let us sit on the ground and if in some way we succeeded in lessening the effects of our tremendous stress it was due to the rest the Germans took. At this stop something disturbing happened and it deeply hurt the feelings of us all.
A few minutes after we had stopped some of the carts were taken away from the convoy and driven to places far away from where we were. We then heard a series of shots followed by total silence. We later learned that the Germans had selected exactly those who were better dressed and killed them. They had then called some Polish peasants from the neighbourhood and sold them the clothes of their poor victims. The peasants were then told to get the clothes off the dead bodies and most certainly this command must have been given with smiles on the Germans faces. The Germans came whistling back and said that from now on there would be lots of elegant people in the village and that was all the comment they made.
 
As the gang which kept us, had already had lunch and some rest, we proceeded towards Wolwonice, which we soon reached. We went by the town and turned towards Nalenczow. On leaving Wolwonice the road had a steep downward slope followed by another steep upward one which could very well be known as the ‘Death Climb’. In this sadly notorious place there was a horrible slaughter in front of us all.
 
Notwithstanding the steep climb we were forced to go on walking as fast as we had walked down. In order to make us do that the men with the Swastika whipped us without ceasing. Many of us could not hold on any longer and started to lag behind. They were summarily taken out of the files and shot without any warning. We were already used to these barbaric Nazi shows but we had never witnessed at close quarters such a gruesomely revolting scene, without being able to do anything to help our brothers. Dozens of Jews were killed in that way by the sole reason that they were exhausted by the long painful journey.
 
Meanwhile all those who could still walk silently watched the carnage. From the front carts, women and children looked at the spectacle of death with eyes, made glassy by the violence of what they saw, clouded by the tears which welled up without stopping, while their throats could not hold back the sobs which broke uncontrollably. Countless Poles who passed by on the road instead of stopping to try and help us in some way by giving us some food or water or even a small gesture of tenderness or pity, would only come near us, to stare delightedly at the vandalism  which was performed there. This did not happen only once, before we reached Naleczow, an incalculable number of men were shot dead by Nazi bullets, thus littering the road with bodies.
 
These despicable Polish gentlemen of their own will were immersed in their own indignity and in their own carelessness. Their country was the victim of the worst abuse, and the tradition of pride and fight, moulded in the reaction against the Russians in 1920, was being trodden by Teuton boots for almost three years. They were the ones who could somehow oppose tyranny because they were relatively free and could get weapons. However, they opted for the role of obedient and flattering lambs instead of doing what we the Jews, lacking everything, had done in the heroic Warsaw ghetto where thousands of brave men had fought the Nazi troops and tanks, without any weapons for three weeks.
 
Finally, with large spaces in our ranks, we arrived at the station of Naleczow. They caged us inside a plot of land surrounded with barbed wire, as if we were animals, without water or food. Eating and drinking to their hearts content, the German jackals delighted in sarcastically staring at us, while we sank in the pain and worry which the death of so many of ours had caused us. Only then could we check the tragic account of casualties, we gathered in small groups made up of several families that existed there with the aim of counting how many were no longer with us. Nearly all the families had been deprived of some loved ones who lay on the long road from Opole Lubelskie to Naleczow.
 
I saw many Poles come near the wire fence to sell bottles and pitchers of water. Taking advantage of our anxiety they were demanding and would only give us the water in exchange for a gold wedding ring, a watch or some other valuable thing. Many Jews had been able to keep, through all those long months, precious belongings hidden from the plundering Nazis. However, in a few minutes, they had to hand them all over to the voracious Poles for little more than a carafe of water, which should never be denied even to a dog.
 
I came then to understand that they had gotten used to making money out of the misfortune of others since the former groups had passed that way some time ago. They belonged to the same class of toadies who had taken delight in the unhappiness, which assailed us over the long walk to Naleczow. They tried to exchange water for gold, nuzzling in the murk of their own misery, instead of doing the same thing that their countrymen in the Polish Brigade had done only a little earlier in Torbruk, when they helped in the epic defence of that military stronghold in the African desert, against the long and unsuccessful first attack of Rommel’s troops.
 
It was May 11th 1942 and when night fell most of us were hungry and thirsty and the only thing we heard was the weeping of our women and children. Some chanted the Kaddish – the Jewish prayer for the dead – for those who were gone forever. And thus we spent the night, all of us lying on the ground in the open air and although we were absolutely worn-out with tiredness and suffering we could not sleep.
Before daybreak the guards entered the enclosure to put us in rows once more. When this was done, we were led to the station platform under strong escort. When we got there we saw a freight train waiting for us: all its wagons were totally closed and had very little airing. They had sliding doors which were locked from the outside.
 
Shouting and pushing, they threw us into the wagons until they were saturated with Jews. A minimum of one hundred people were put inside each one of them under conditions which would not be proper even if the cargo had been swine. When the whole bunch of people was crowded inside the cattle wagons we heard a shrill whistle, and then the train whistle which preceded departure.  With the train at full speed the constant shaking of the wagons made the situation inside reach a state of unbelievable panic and despair. I have no words to exactly describe what happened in that hell. Children were stifled to death, thrashing about frantically, trying to breathe some oxygen which would keep them alive. Old people were trampled and pressed in all possible ways, women some of them pregnant were suspended in the air, without ever being able to set foot on the floor, as they were crushed by the heavy crowd which oscillated from one side to the other, like a pendulum, following the swing of the wagons which ran very fast.
 
The almost total lack of air made the heat become torrid and the thirst unbearable. There was no water or toilets and many relieved themselves right there. Dizziness and fainting came in quick succession and the turmoil got worse by the minute and no solution was found to all of that.
Once in a while the train would stop but we did not see or were told anything. In these short moments the only hope we had was that they would open the doors and let us breathe some air which we so badly needed. However, this did never happen. Another whistle, another train whistle and the convoy would continue its ruthless course. Each minute the number of corpses grew at our feet, although some of the dead were held upright by the pressure of our bodies, so crowded were we. The smell of sweat, urine and feces mixed in a nauseating odour which actually transformed the wagon into a sewer.
 
The day before we had travelled from Opole to Naleczow . We had been up the whole night, near the station. Now we faced unprecedented ordeals, unparalleled up to that moment. Thirst tormented us more than hunger, and a single drop of water would be more precious to us than a diamond of the same size. We were not able to even squat and whoever tried it was trampled. We had to stand and the sea of filth grew bigger at our feet, and we went on and on like this for the whole day, locked inside the wagons, as if we were real beasts, in a stifling nauseating place, filled with dead bodies and putrid air. To add the finishing touch to the gruesome picture once in a while we would hear shots fired by the German soldiers who were on the outside of the convoy. They did that to make our terror even worse. Some of us tried to open the door with the help of knives and pocket knives but with no success, since the door was very strong, and was tightly closed. Many came to the point of using their own nails. In a desperate attempt to rip the boards off the side of the wagon, to get some air to breathe.
 
The only ventilation we had come through a small window closed by iron bars intertwined with barbed wire, and the air was not enough for the needs of a hundred people. We could do nothing with pocket knives or nails ,the heat was increasingly more stifling and the air more difficult to breathe. I do not believe that even the slaves dragged away from Africa by the slave traders ever suffered so much, with the only exception of the length of the trip. The human mind cannot accept that this could have ever been done, in the middle of the twentieth century, against rational beings, when these medieval methods had already been banned for a long time before the Nazis made them come to life again.
 
Our family gathered somewhere inside the wagon and all of us made superhuman efforts to stay upright. Some were young and were successful, but my father and especially my mother could only manage it at the cost of tremendous exertion. Many times only the pressure of the crowd did not let them fall. Uncontrollable revolt still fills me when I remember them and what they had to suffer due to the bestial inhuman Germans.
There was nothing to make us believe there was any hope of things getting better because the war was taking a course, which might lead to unpredictable results. On the Pacific the Japanese, were at war against the United States and they had already seized a large portion of China and South Eastern Asia.
 
A few days before our tragic trip they had captured the last pocket of American resistance in the Philippine islands. In Africa, Rommel was completing the siege of Torbruck. in the following month, the important citadel would fall in their hands and the victorious German- Italian troops would invade Egypt and would head for the Suez Canal. Simultaneously, on the Russian front, the Wehrmacht would start its second largest summer attack against the Soviet forces and would besiege the strategic industrial town of Stalingrad. The Russian army was withdrawing and did not seem able to curb the progress of the German armoured divisions. Most of continental Europe was under German domination, excepting Sweden, Switzerland, Turkey and the Iberian countries. Everything made us believe that victory would smile on the Axis.
 
In Germany and in the occupied territories, the persecution against the Jews had resumed and great names already pontified in the malign profession of sweeping Israelites off the surface of the Earth, such as Julius Streicher, Heinrich Himmler, Martin Bormann, Baldur von Schirach, Artur Seyss- Inquart and so many other murderers which mounted, under Hitler’s inspiration, a real Death Autarchy. They thought their crimes would go unpunished and they started specialising in the most efficient system of mass murder.
 Enthusiastic about the successive triumph of their armies and as they thought they would win the war, the Germans had built immense extermination camps in Poland among which the most remarkable were Sobibor, Belzec and Treblinka.