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By Marian Kampinski
an Excerpt from her new book
Part of a chapter describing her time at the Stutthof Concentration Camp.
Transports with new arrivals came into camp daily. The new arrivals were mostly Hungarians. To our surprise, their hair wasn't shaved, their clothes fit well and seemed to be their own, and their faces were more full and robust-looking. They must have come directly from their homes and weren't at all used to being in the camps like we were. Lice and disease quickly and mercilessly ravaged their bodies. They couldn't stand the hunger and filth. At night, their screams and cries were nonstop. They died in the hundreds within weeks of their arrival. If they complained, they were shot or sent to the crematoria.
I never thought that such conditions like those I experienced first in the ghetto, then at Auschwitz, then at Stutthof, could exist or that they could get progressively worse. We went from one state of inhuman conditions to a further state of inhuman conditions. It was like going from one level of hell to a deeper level of hell. The stench, the crowding, the disease, the hunger, the cold was unbearable, but I kept the challenge of survival foremost in my mind and did my best to endure.
People started dying more frequently; the death toll went up daily. Every night we lay shoulder-to-shoulder with the dead and dying. We listened to the sobs and the earnest prayers to God and other mutterings for somebody to help, somebody to stay close. The dying people always wanted somebody to be there with them, to hold them as they went. They were scared. Each morning there were new dead bodies. Mother and Etka and others would take them outside or, after the doors were locked, place them in the rear of the barracks. As the days passed, those of us still alive grew ever more withdrawn. The pain and suffering continued on its endless path and it was like we had given up on words. Talking could do nothing. Our bodies had been tortured by hunger and disease, deprived to their very limits. With this torture, more and more people began to lose their minds.
There was a young woman I slept next to. She was one of those people touching on madness. She told me she was married to a wonderful young man, a dentist, who put in gold teeth for her. She said she loved him more than anything. They had been married for a year and were planning to start a family. They had a bright future planned. She spoke about him as if he were there with her even though he was not. One night, as the young woman was telling me about her husband the dentist, she suddenly started shivering wildly. She said, "I feel so cold and alone," and then the shivering stopped. She died. I wondered if she was telling me about the gold teeth so that I could salvage the gold, but I wouldn't think of it.
We were transferred to a third barrack on a block called the 31st block. It was known as the worst in the camp. Illness, hallucination-inducing fever, and death were rampant. Not even the Germans wanted to come near this place. It was no surprise when typhus took hold. It had already taken hold of the entire camp and people were suffering unimaginable pain. It was the middle of winter. Snow was lining the frozen ground of our barracks. Our bodies were ridden with lice and crowded together. The disease spread like wildfire from person to person and the order came to quarantine our block. We couldn't leave and nobody outside could come in. Food and water distribution was halted. People died in the hundreds and were left to lie where they died. Nobody came anymore to remove the dead in order to burn or bury them. Outside and inside the barracks, it became an open graveyard of corpses.
We lived in this open graveyard for months. It got so that the only way you could tell the difference between the living and the dead was that the living moved occasionally. But the living were also the dying. All of us who had been struck with the infectious disease were feverish and delirious. We had nothing to warm us and shivered constantly from the cold. There was madness in people's eyes and incoherent muttering all around. Often, somebody would reach up, breathe deeply and beg, "Please give me some water."
The misery of that time took a total and complete effect on our lives. In this extreme absence of food, I began to long for the watery soup I had earlier so despised. My only solace was that, in quarantine, there were no daily counts, no pistol shots at people. There was still, though, always the threat that maybe they would come eliminate the typhus problem by eliminating us. Etka had always been resilient in the midst of these conditions. But one morning after waking, she was smiling and unusually excited. She seemed delusional and Mother and I thought she had lost her mind.
Mother asked, "Etka, why are you smiling? What could you be happy about?"
Etka said, "Listen to me, I saw Father sitting on a white horse that was slung with huge packs filled with all kinds of food. I have never seen so much food before in my life. He gave me the food and I ate and ate and ate until I couldn't eat anymore."
"Etka, there is nobody here on a white horse," Mother said.
But she continued, "Then Dad told me not to worry because we would be okay."
It was her dream that had given her joy enough to smile. Her fever broke that day. To her, our Father really was there, really did visit. He brought her food and talked with her. You couldn't convince her otherwise. She held onto that dream and wasn't hungry for a long time afterwards.
Weeks passed and conditions grew ever more appalling. The air smelled of decaying bodies and dried urine. The starvation worsened. Our bodies became skin and bones continually ravaged by lice that no longer pretended to hide and now crawled openly all over uslittle black specks jumping across clothes, blanketing the floor. I tried desperately to disconnect, to separate myself from my body so that I could separate from the pain and suffering. But my eyes never let me disconnect. If I turned to one side, there was the misery and suffering. If I turned to another side, there it was too. I felt forgotten, disembodied, like an observer watching my own death. I was trapped between life and death and the life part had the more difficult burden. Death would have been kinder at that point. "Is life better than death?" I asked myself. I battled back and forth with life and with death until I became obsessed with holding onto life until its very last breath was taken away from me. As long as I stayed alive, there was promise; death meant silence.
Mother knew that if she didn't do something we would all die like the others dying among us. Though weak and feverish, she managed to crawl to a closed window and push it open a little. The cold air rushed in. She reached out and grabbed a handful of snow. It was falling mercifully and filled up her tiny palm. She brought the snow in and put it to her burning lips. Then she reached out for more snow, which she brought around to others in the barrack and put gently to their lips, cooling the ever-present burning.
Mother wanted to get outside the barrack. She knew she had to do something for her own and for her children's sake. But because of the quarantine, the door had been locked. So Mother tried to open the window wide, but it too was jammed. Watching her was like watching a shadow. Just bones, her body was barely visible. She hit on the window and managed to knock it open. Then, unafraid and with all her strength, she managed to climb out. She went around to the door and forced it open. She came back and retrieved her bowl. With her bowl in hand, she made her way outside in the snow to a nearby faucet. She filled the bowl with water and started to make her way back when a German supervisor, a female SS, stopped her.
The SS woman yelled, "Die verflüchte Jüde! What are you doing outside?"
Mother didn't respond. She just stood still while the supervisor picked up a stone and threw it. It struck Mother square on the front-side of the forehead and she fell to the ground, dropping the bowl. The supervisor watched her fall and then abruptly left. Blood was gushing from Mother's head as she rose up and went back to the faucet. She filled the bowl with water and dropped suddenly to her knees, crawling back to the barrack entrance. Seeing her enter, bloody and injured, I cried bitterly. Mother stayed strong and made her way over to me to give me two spoonfuls of water like it was medicine.
"I would rather have you give me poison than to have to watch you suffer that way," I told her. But she didn't want to hear it. The point was that we had water. As I spoke, she was already moving on to my sister, giving her a few spoonfuls of water. She continued down the line of people, spooning out tiny pools of water to every thirsty mouth.
Hardly a body was left alive in that dark, rotting space. The starvation prevailed. The graveyard of fallen bodies around us remained. But it wasn't our time to die. God breathed new life into us. Miraculously, Etka, Mother and I recovered from the illness.Mother summoned what was left of her strength and exited the barrack, telling us she would be back soon. She was headed to another barrack in a block not too far away and moved with much difficulty. She would fall then get up and walk, fall then get up and walk. I watched her go from the doorway until she disappeared around a bend. She reached the other barrack and upon entering, collapsed. The women inside the barrack rushed to her aid. They held her up and sat her down in a chair. She was barely able to keep her head up. Her chin sank to her chest. A woman named Regina came near. When Mother looked up, they recognized each other.
Regina had lived in the ód ghetto. She had some family in the apartment next door to ours and often came to visit them. Regina was excited to see Mother but worried about her weakened state. She immediately brought Mother some water and helped her to drink.
"Cypa, what is happening?" she asked.
Mother told her everything: that there was practically nobody left alive in our barrack, that Etka and I were alive and waiting for her to return, that those remaining alive would not stay that way for long. Regina told Mother that there was nobody left in charge of her barrack anymore so she had taken the position. Regina gathered two women and returned to us with a wagon that had been used to haul garbage. They came back to help us get out of the open graveyard. They entered, lifted us under our arms, and carried us out. I had not been outside for months. The winter air was bitterly refreshing. Upon feeling it, a crisp bolt of energy rushed through my body, awakening me to life again. I took as deep a breath as my lungs would allow.
We scrambled into the wagon. Regina and the two women began to pull us toward their barrack. I watched the camp pass as we went and was horrified by what I saw: more dead bodies, just skin and skeleton, masses of twisted gaping faces, wide, screaming eyes, bony elbows and knees broken, tossed onto each other until you could barely make out where one body stopped and the other started. Skin pale yellow and brown, ravaged by unhealed wounds and decay, they rose up like a sick sculpture, their souls banded together to ascend and be received by the Almighty. They were still, motionless, silent, unmarked, unnamed, unknown. I asked then of death what is death, and death was silent and motionless.
There was a blanket of deep winter white snow on the ground and covering some of the frozen bodies. Cold, dry, hungry and weak, we arrived at Regina's barrack. My gums were in terrible pain and my teeth were shifting back and forth as I unconsciously ground them against each other. Etka too was grinding her teeth. Regina looked at us in this miserable state and said "I'll try all I can to help you."
She brought us inside and sat us down on an empty bunk. This barrack was much warmer and smaller. Regina told us to lie down and said she would go to find something to help us. I could barely swallow and everything in my body hurt when I lay back on the hard bed-boards. I fell asleep briefly and when I awoke Regina was standing near, waiting with some purple antiseptic water. She gave it to us and told us to gargle a few times a day saying that it would help our gums. The next day, she brought us some bread that had been soaked in hot water to make it easier to swallow. She also found some blankets for us to use to cover up and stay warm. She was like an angel bringing us blessings and gifts from heaven. I thanked God and gradually started to feel better.
We stayed in this barrack for the rest of our time at Stutthof. Eventually, the weather started to warm up, though it was still cold, and the camp started to be emptied. The Germans came around ordering, "All who can walk or are strong must go." Those who felt they could go were transported to other camps at Gdansk or Gdynia. Those who were weak stayed behind. We were in the group that stayed behind. Soon, we started to hear mumblings that the Germans were losing the war, that the camp was being emptied in order to flee the approaching Russians.
Purchase Remember Me at
from the August 2009 Edition of the Jewish Magazine
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