Saturday, 3 October 2015

Treachery and Triumph - An Anthology of World War II Stories

Genre: Fiction: History / World War II (Anthology)

Darkness and Light By Steve Morris
This story is based on a true account of an escape from Auschwitz


Hell. 

Is that a straight enough answer for you?

There is no other word for it. It was hell.

People ask me how it felt to escape and assume it was a wonderful feeling. I can tell you that I’ve spent every single day of my life since then thinking about the place and the prisoners in there. For that reason, in many ways, I’m not sure I ever really escaped from it.
19 June 1942

We talked secretly. Saturday morning would soon come around (although the fact that it was Saturday rather than any other day meant absolutely nothing in there).  Saturday was a work day. Saturday was a cold day, like the rest.  Stanislaw, Jozef and Eugeniusz were with me. Together we would make the four. It would take all four of us and a whole lot of luck. We had decided that Saturday was to be the day because there was always a change of routine. At noon. There was a tiny window of opportunity. We had been watching our captors carefully in our fear and our hatred. On Saturdays some SS men always left the camp to go to spend time with their families until Monday. That left gaps. The camp had grown and merged with a neighbouring camp. By then there were thousands of SS guards there. There were many more of us, but we never seemed to be around for long. The camp ran like clockwork. The clock, however was a cold ticking killing machine. 

Although I had long lost track of calendar dates and lived in a time when weekends and holidays were a long-distant dream in a living nightmare, I seemed to have lasted longer than many others. My survival for the length of time was largely due to ‘luck’ after having being given relatively light work by one of the Kapos1. I kept out of the way of trouble by means of my ‘cleaning’ job of dragging the dead to the crematorium. I worked as part of a pair. My partner carried legs, I carried the arms. That didn’t mean I escaped the constant kicking, however. Nothing was ever done quickly enough for them. In ultimate irony, work indoors often meant a better chance of survival, especially during winter where there was some warmth to be found. Seasons never seemed to change. Time meant nothing. The weather was bitter. It was always bitter. We barely felt glad to be alive. No one escaped, we were told. We also knew that a punishment for escape attempts was death by starvation.  They wouldn’t have shot us. That would have been easier for us. I’d seen it. They liked to reduce us to food-craving animals. Some lost their faith. ‘There is no God,’ they said. ‘How can he let this happen?’

Despite everything we knew, we planned to escape nonetheless. What was the alternative? We had been in there long enough to know that we were all living on borrowed time. The only thing that was keeping us alive was that we were still useful to them. We knew that wouldn’t last long, however.  We could become lame at any time or ill owing to the cruel shortage of rations. I went to work hungrier and slightly weaker each and every day. This could not continue indefinitely. We knew where things were heading.

‘You’re mad to even think of it,’ some said.  We had to be careful whom we told. Perhaps we are mad not to. We planned the event meticulously. All four of us were under no illusions. We knew that any one of a number of things could go wrong, resulting in failure. 

The first part of our plan meant we had to step out of line. We had to pretend to be a mock haulage detail so as fraudulently togain access to the motor-pool area of the camp. It was the only way we could get into the area. This area was where there was a vehicle stored in which we planned to escape. My role in the four was essential due to my ability to speak German like a native. My friend Eugeniusz, a Ukrainian, was a motor mechanic and a good one too. His role was to sort out the vehicle. They respected him in a way. They actually needed his skills and that was keeping him alive; so much so that he was allowed to drive the cars he was working on around the camp. The sight of him driving a car would not stand out, but the sight of other men in striped uniforms heading for the perimeter area would do. This was his job in our quartet. That was until Eugeniusz saw his own name on a list of those to be shot. There were a lot of lists in that place.

Another part of the plan depended on our getting disguised. Dirty striped uniforms stood out to the trigger-happy SS men in the gun-towers if they were remotely near anywhere they shouldn’t be. By complete chance I had stumbled on the uniform store while on an errand to collect some empty boxes from the upstairs of the storehouse.  Through a half-open door I had chanced on a guard sorting shelves of SS uniforms and equipment.  After he spotted me peering in through the partly open door I paid with another beating but I had learned some valuable information that would prove crucial to our plans.

The storehouse was in a part of the camp strictly out of bounds to prisoners. The above-mentioned guards in the towers often randomly ‘picked out’ inmates who strayed too close to the fences and sometimes those who did not.  Even when this happened right in front of you, you carried on working unless you wanted to be the next.  It was best to step over the body and carry on where you were going. I had noticed, however, that there were very few of them in the storehouse at weekends.

We were to get in though the coke-bunker. Earlier in the day, when shovelling coke from a delivery, I had deliberately left the hatch of the bunker unbolted. That was effectively the first move of the operation. On the Friday night, the four of us secretly met in an attic to discuss the plan. We shared a precious cigarette and rehearsed the plan over and over. We all had to be up to the job.  The life of each one of us was entirely dependent on all the other three. There was another difficulty we had to face from the start. When we first arrived at the camp,  they had warned us that if any attempt were made to escape from our specific work detail, ten others in the work-detail would be immediately shot dead as a result. Every escape would cost ten lives. 

None of us could live with this guilt if we made it against the odds. Therefore we decided that the best way around this would be to make our attempt while we were not part of our detail. If we returned from work with our specific work-detail, then attempted our escape by later going back out to work in the guise of a completely fictitious work-detail, we could hope that they couldn’t take out their revenge on a party that effectively didn’t exist. The other thing we had to realise was that if this (perhaps mad) attempt did succeed, they would track down our families and bring them to Auschwitz, where they would at some point inevitably kill them. We solemnly agreed to take our own lives if our attempt failed. For the rest of our time in the secret meeting in the attic, we spent time in silent prayers for our families.
‘We will make it,’ we agreed.