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By Walter Plywaski
(who used to be Wladyslaw Plywacki)
I am now 77 years old and those awful times of Shoah, the Holocaust, still live in my mind flickering like the dark red and black columns of flame and smoke I saw on my arrival at night on the selection platform of Auschwitz-Birkenau. I remember not running to say goodbye to my mother after the command was given by the SS and their hunting dogs, the Kapos, "Men right! "Women left!"
I had been told about half a year earlier by my father that in Auschwitz any woman with a child was as good as dead. My father had information, both from his prewar Gentile Polish friends and by listening to a secret underground radio used in the Lodz ghetto by a small group of men to hear from BBC true war news. I also remember that I did not have my left arm tattooed with a number because by the summer of 1944 the holding yard for the slaughterhouse of Birkenau stopped tattooing those within it. I suspect that was since the average life expectancy there was but two weeks, the logic of it was "why waste government money on ink?" on those who will not last much longer.
I remember the even worse hunger than in the Lodz ghetto squeezed my belly in the seemingly huge horse barn like barracks of Birkenau. I remember the endless standing at attention, holding my cap tightly at my right hip, shivering from cold. I remember the constant daily "Selections" for either life or death. I remember standing between those barracks with all the others in trying to worm my way into the group's center where it was a little warmer. While we stood there between the barracks as a shield against the cold wind, at times we could hear American bombers and see their contrails while they flew to bomb the nearby Buna artificial rubber factory run by Auschwitz's SS and worked by their swiftly replaced overworked corpses by new prisoners. We would stomp, jump, dance and yell, "drop the god damn thing here!"
I remember being overly clever with my brother in going to a barracks where we heard that there were double or triple food rations to all underage twins. We lied that we were fraternal twins. The barracks was, of course, a holding pen for Dr. Mengele's so-called medical experiments. One of the Polish Gentile Kapos in that barracks took me aside and told me what my brother and I were facing there. He told me that he would try to get us out as soon as he can manage, and he did just that probably on the third day there. He was a total stranger to me. He smuggled us out and we rejoined our father and the men's camp barracks.
I remember lying awake at night in the barracks and listening through the night to the high-pitched screams from the outside. I was told by someone, probably the barracks leader Kapo, that we were hearing children under the age of eight being burned alive to save the German government's money on Zyklon-B.
I remember confronting the SS officer to let me go on a transport to a "work camp" in Germany against the rule in Birkenau that any boys or girls younger than 15 must not leave alive. This was an immaculately dressed man, with a beautiful face like that of a Renaissance angel. He wore gray suede gloves and held an elegant bamboo walking stick that all the SS used to carry either to hit prisoners with it or to put the crook of the stick over the neck of a recalcitrant prisoner and pull him into the group slated for the gas chambers.
He was probably a German physician and asked me how old I was. I told him 15. He said, "Our boys at 15 are already very tall and strong and fighting the evil Bolsheviks on the Eastern front!" I replied while smiling and ready to attack him, that "I have been given very little even shitty food by you Germans over the last four years. How big would your boys be on the same diet?" I completely believe he knew I would physically attack him. And so he also smiled at me and said, while waving his arm towards the group of people accepted for the transport. "You are right. Go!"
I remember many other things in several Dachau concentration camps in Bavaria. One of these was the Riederloh camp, apparently designed as a punishment camp (!). There my father, Maksymilian Jozef Plywacki, became one of the walking dead, called among us "Musulmans". While barely able to move and naked in an improvised cold water shower room he drew himself straight up and at the top of his voice, in German, screamed at the camp commandant some of the worst insults in German he could think of. The commandant was so astonished at Maks' insults, that he stood stock still for about a minute or two. When the SS officer shook off his surprise he grabbed a nearby shovel and hit Maks several times over the head who then fell to the floor. When I saw it I jumped from the crowd watching it to be in front of my father and begged the commandant to stop, that this is my father. To my astonishment, he said something like "All right. He's had enough!" Other prisoners and I carried my dad to the Mosulman barracks where he died two days later in the evening saying goodbye to me, reminding me to take his leftover bread from under his head and to make sure that if my brother dies I am to make certain that I died also.
My brother and I arrived in the main Dachau camp somewhere in January 1945. There I was separated from my brother and sent to the so-called infirmary, because I had malnutrition holes in both my lower legs. Two Polish Gentile Kapos at the infirmary told me that I was being held to become a guinea pig for malaria experiments there. They said that they will try to get me out of there, if at all possible. They began to show up at my bedside several times per day, bringing me pieces of bread, a slice of sausage or even a hard-boiled egg, such as these I hadn't seen for years. After a few days the holes in my legs began to heal and probably only within one week these two Poles put a corpse into my bed and smuggled me out into the general camp where I rejoined my brother in the quarantine barracks.
And so I remember many things which are horrifying, but I also remember many things which tell me that among groups of people, even in the most extreme situations, there are also those few "weird" individuals who for one reason or another find it possible to be humane rather than being merely human. My brother and I were helped by several other Polish Gentile prisoners in the Dachau camps. Such men truly deserve the Latin phrase "Ecce Homo".
from the September-October 2007 Edition of the Jewish Magazine
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