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To Hell and Back
Everything at the new Brinnlitz camp was paid for by Oskar Schindler, according to the Nazis this made sense since the factory owners would make impressive profits by taking advantage of cheap labour from the camps. In fact, Oskar did get some cement, petrol and fuel oil and fencing wire at very low prices before leaving Krakow, but he still had to pay wartime prices out of his own pocket for the materials he needed for everything else, from toilet huts and kitchens to watchtowers and his own apartment. He also had to be prepared for official visits from SS men like Commandant Hassebroeck, who left Brinnlitz with inspection fees in his pocket and his car packed with a supply of whisky, tea and enamelware.
Schindler spent his money enthusiastically, but his operation at Brinnlitz was unique because he knew he was not investing this money in a serious business. Four years earlier he had gone to Krakow to get rich, but in October of 1944 he had no plans for production or sales. His only goal was to save the lives of the 1,100 Jews on his list, but, of course, this was never an uncomplicated task.
One of Oskar’s new complications at Brinnlitz was having his wife Emilie as part of his daily life again. The factory and sub-camp were too close to Zwittau for a good Catholic wife to live separately from her husband, so Emilie moved into Oskar’s apartment inside the factory and found her own role at the camp, helping many people, especially the sick and lonely. The couple treated each other with respect, but it is doubtful that Oskar now became a better husband. He remained close friends with Ingrid, who had moved to Brinnlitz, and he continued to visit Victoria Klonowska, who was always ready to help her former boss in times of trouble, whenever he went to Krakow.
At the Brinnlitz camp, Oskar told the men confidently that the women would be joining them almost immediately, but the Schindler women’s journey was not as simple as Oskar had hoped. The 300 women and girls had left Plaszow in boxcars with 2,000 other female prisoners, but when the train doors opened they had found themselves in Auschwitz-Birkenau instead of Brinnlitz.
The Schindler group marched through the thick mud of Birkenau to the shower house, where they too were thankful that icy water rather than gas came out of the showers. Some of the other prisoners were taken away to get numbers tattooed on their arms. This was a good sign because it meant that the Nazis intended to use you, not feed you directly into the gas chambers. With a tattoo you could leave Birkenau and go to one of the Auschwitz labour camps, where there was at least a small chance of survival, but the Schindler women were not given tattoos. Instead they were ordered to dress and go to a barracks, where they found no beds, a wet dirt floor, no glass in the windows - it was a death house at the heart of Birkenau. On some days there were more than a quarter of a million prisoners in this one camp; there were thousands more in Auschwitz I and tens of thousands working in the industrial area named Auschwitz III.
The women from DEF had no idea about these numbers, but outside, looking towards the western horizon, they could see constant smoke rising from the four huge crematoria. They would not have guessed that, when the system worked well, 9,000 people could be gassed in one day.
The women were also not aware that the progress of the war had taken a new direction. The outside world learnt about the existence of the death camps when the Russians uncovered gas chambers, crematoria, human bones and Zyklon B at the Lublin camp. Himmler, who wanted to take Hitler’s place after the war, announced that the gassing of Jews would stop, but he delayed giving the order to the Gestapo and the SS. Jews continued to be gassed until the middle of November 1944, and after that date they were either shot or allowed to die of disease.
The Schindler women knew nothing about these changes and lived every day with the threat of death by gassing; no industrial prisoners, even the ones on Schindler’s list, were safe at Auschwitz. In fact, the previous year General Pohl had sent several trains full of Jewish workers from Berlin to I. G. Farben, but the trains had stopped at Auschwitz-Birkenau. Of the 1,750 male prisoners in the first train, 1,000 were immediately gassed. Of 4,000 in the next four trains, 2,500 went directly to the gas chambers. If the Auschwitz administration had not been careful with workers for Farben and General Pohl, how careful would they be about Jews who called themselves Schindler’s group?
The doctors of Auschwitz walked through the camps daily looking for the old, the weak and the sick and sent them directly to the gas chambers. When the women saw the doctors coming, they would rub a bit of red mud on their cheeks and try to stand up straighten If a woman fainted during an inspection, which could occur at any hour, the guards picked her up, dragged her to the electric fence and threw her on to it.
In their first days at Brmnlitz the Schindler men were worried about their mothers, wives and daughters in Auschwitz. When Schindler appeared on the factory floor, they would gather round him and ask about the women. Oskar did not try to explain anything, but would simply say, ‘I’m getting them out.’
In the middle of this worry and activity, Oskar was arrested for the third time. The Gestapo arrived at the factory unexpectedly one lunchtime.
In his office Oskar was questioned about his connections with Amon Goeth. ‘I do have a few of Commandants Goeth’s suitcases here,’ Oskar told the men. ‘He asked me to keep them for him while he was in prison.’
And even though the Gestapo found nothing except Amon Goeth’s non-military clothes in the suitcases, they arrested Oskar.
‘You have no right to arrest him,’ shouted Emilie Schindler. ‘Explain what he has done. What is his crime? The people in Berlin won’t be happy about this.’
‘Darling, please, don’t worry,’ Oskar quietly advised his wife. ‘But please call my friend Victoria Klonowska and cancel my appointments.’ Emilie knew what this meant. Klonowska would do her trick with the telephone again, calling Oskar’s important friends and relying on them to get him out of this mess.
The Gestapo men took Oskar back to Krakow by tram, to the prison he had stayed in during his first arrest. Again he had a comfortable room, but this time he was genuinely frightened about what might happen. He knew that the Gestapo’s methods for making prisoners confess were cruel and dangerous.
The next morning Oskar was questioned by twelve SS investigators. ‘Commandant Goeth has said that you gave him money so that he would make life easier for the Jews. Is that true?’ asked one of the investigators.
‘I may have given him money,’ said Oskar, ‘but only as a loan.’
‘Why would you give him a loan?’ the investigator asked.
‘My factory is part of an essential war industry,’ said Oskar, using his usual defence. ‘If I found out about a skilled metalworker at Plaszow, for example, and wanted him to work at DEF, I would want him sent to me as quickly as possible. Because of the Herr Commandant’s help in these matters, I may have given him a loan.’
The investigators understood what Oskar was talking about: Anion Goeth had had to be paid for favours. What helped Oskar most when he faced the investigators was the fact that he had not done any business deals with Goeth. He had never had a share in his black market trading or in the small operations Goeth had set up inside Plaszow to make furniture, clothes and shoes. There were no letters or contracts to imply that the two men had been business partners, or even friends.
Oskar was so charming that the investigators wanted to believe his version of events. Also, Oskar’s friends in high places supported him again. Colonel Erich Lange emphasized how important Herr Schindler’s work was to the war effort, and Sussmuth reported that DEF was involved in the production of ‘secret weapons’, something that Hitler had talked about and promised, but which no one had actually seen.
Nevertheless, Oskar was not confident about the way the investigation was going. On about the fourth day one of the SS men visited him in his cell, not to question him but to spit at him and curse him for being a Jew-lover. Maybe it was a test planned by the SS, but it made Oskar nervous because he did not know how they expected him to react to these insults.
On the other hand, Oskar was also visited by the Krakow police chief, whose departing words were, ‘Don’t worry. We intend to get you out.’ On the morning of the eighth day Oskar found himself outside the prison. When he arrived back at Brinnlitz, he was surprised and pleased to learn that Emilie had kept things going while he had been in prison, but he was also shocked to find that the women were still in the distant concentration camp.
In October 1944 Auschwitz-Birkenau was ruled by Commandant Rudolf Hoss, the camp’s builder and the brain behind Zyklon B. According to the stories told by Schindler men and women long after the war, it was Hoss himself that Oskar had to argue with for his 300 women, and, indeed, there is evidence proving that there was contact between the two men during this time, although the content of their communications is unknown. On the other hand, the story of Oskar sending a girl to Auschwitz-Birkenau is certain.
Itzhak Stern, the most reliable of witnesses, told this story years later in a public speech in Tel Aviv. After Oskar was released from prison, he and a group of the Schindler men were discussing what could be done about the women trapped in Auschwitz when one of Schindler’s secretaries came into the office.
Oskar pointed to a huge diamond ring that he was wearing and said to the girl, ‘Would you like to have this ring?’
The girl’s eyes lit up and she said, ‘I’d love to have it - it’s the most beautiful ring I’ve ever seen, and the biggest diamond.’
‘Take the list of women, pack a suitcase with the best food and drink you can find in my kitchen and go to Auschwitz. The commandant there has an eye for pretty women. If you bring the women back, you’ll get this diamond.’
According to Stern the secretary went, and when she did not return after two days, Schindler himself went to Auschwitz to settle the matter. Others remember the story differently. Maybe the girl slept with the commandant and left a handful of diamonds on his pillow. Maybe the girl was a good friend of Emilies. No one is positive about the details, but it is certain that Oskar sent a girl to Auschwitz and that she acted with courage.
When he arrived at the concentration camp, Oskar used his old argument about needing his highly trained workers for his essential industry.
‘Just a moment,’ said one of Hoss’s officials. ‘I see the names of girls as young as nine years old on this list. Are you telling me that they are skilled metalworkers?’
‘Of course,’ replied Schindler confidently. ‘They can polish the insides of weapons with their long, thin fingers. It is work that is beyond most adults.’
Schindler continued to argue his case, mainly by telephone. He knew that the women were getting weaker each day and soon no one would believe that they were strong enough to work in any factory. Even young women like Helen Hirsch and Mila Pfefferberg were suffering with terrible hunger, stomach problems and coughs.
Clara Sternberg, a Schindler woman in her early forties, had been put in the barracks for sick women at Auschwitz, and one morning after inspection she decided that she could not face another day. She had stopped believing that she would ever see her husband and teenage son at Brinnlitz, so she walked through the women’s camp, looking for one of the many electric fences.
When she saw a woman from Plaszow, a Krakow woman like herself, Clara stopped her and asked, ‘Where is an electric fence? Yesterday they were everywhere and today I can’t find even one.’ It was a crazy question, but this was a crazy situation and Clara expected the woman to point the way to the wires. Fortunately for Clara, the woman gave her an odd, but sane reply.
‘Don’t kill yourself on the fence, Clara. If you do that, you’ll never know what happened to you.’
Clara was not sure that she understood what the woman was talking about, but she turned around, went back to her barracks and did not try to kill herself again.
While Oskar was away from Brinnlitz, trading enamelware, diamonds and cigarettes for drugs and medical equipment for his workers, an inspector arrived from Gross-Rosen and walked through the factory with Josef Liepold, the new commandant. The inspector had orders from Berlin that all sub-camps had to be cleared of any children. The doctors at Auschwitz wanted them sent there to be used in their medical experiments.
The young boys at Oskar’s factory were used to living a relatively normal life and were allowed to run and play throughout the factory, so the inspectors had no trouble finding most of them. The orders also required the children’s parents to accompany them, so the fathers joined their captured sons for the trip to Auschwitz-Birkenau.
On the train from Zwittau to the concentration camp, the small group was guarded by a polite young SS sergeant. At one stop he even went to the station cafe and returned with biscuits and coffee for the prisoners. He started talking to two of the fathers, Henry Rosner and Dolek Horowitz, whose wives were at Auschwitz.
‘I’m taking you to Auschwitz,’ the kind sergeant said,’ and then I have to collect some women and bring them back to Brinnlitz.’
‘This good gentleman is going to bring your mother back to Brinnlitz,’ they told their sons, and the thrilling news spread through the Schindler group.
The two men also dared to ask the sergeant for a favour: would he give letters to their wives from them? The sergeant gave them some of his own writing paper and promised to deliver the letters to Manci Rosner and Regina Horowitz.
Later in the journey Henry’s son, Olek, began to cry as he leaned against his father’s arm.
‘Son, what’s the matter?’ asked Henry.
‘I don’t want you to die because of me,’ he said. ‘You should be back in Brinnlitz.’
The SS sergeant leaned over with tears in his eyes too. ‘I know what will happen,’ he said gently to Henry. ‘We’ve lost the war. You’ll get the tattoo and you’ll live to the end.’
Henry Rosner was grateful to the sergeant, but he got the impression that the man was making promises to himself as well as to Olek. Perhaps in five years’ time the sergeant would remember his words and be comforted.
On the afternoon of the day on which Clara Sternberg had gone looking for an electric wire, she heard talking and laughter coming from the direction of the Schindler barracks. She crawled out of the damp building where she had been put and saw the Schindler women standing outside the camp’s inner fence. They looked as thin and old as everyone else in the camp, but they were chatting and laughing like schoolgirls. Women from the other barracks stared at these cheerful women, acting so strangely for camp prisoners.
Clara Sternberg knew that her name was on the list, and she decided to act. A fence, not an electric fence, but a strong one with eighteen parallel wires with gaps of only about twenty centimetres, stood between Mrs Sternberg and her friends. According to witnesses, Mrs Sternberg tore her way through the fence, ripping her thin dress and her flesh, and re-joined the Schindler women. The guards were too surprised to stop her.
The group of women were taken to the washhouse and were showered and shaved before being marched with no clothes on to another barracks, where they were given clothes from the recently dead. Still they remained in a good mood, chatting and modelling the clothes for each other.
But the women grew quiet as they walked towards the train; it was always a frightening experience to be packed into the blackness of a boxcar. That morning Niusia Horowitz, the only daughter of Dolek Horowitz, found a corner in the boxcar where a board had come loose, and from there she could see what was going on behind the fence of the men’s camp. She saw something unusual: there was a small group of boys waving at the train. Niusia thought that one of the boys looked a lot like her six-year-old brother Richard, who was safe in Brinnlitz. And the boy at his side looked like their cousin Olek Rosner. Then, of course, she understood: it was Richard, and it was Olek.
Niusia called to her mother, and the women pushed her to the corner of the crowded boxcar so that they could look out. Soon Regina Horowitz and Manci Rosner, the boys’ mothers, were crying loudly, not understanding what this meant for their sons. The door of the boxcar opened and a young guard shouted, ‘Who is making all this noise?’
Regina and Manci pushed through the crowd of women again and Manci tried to explain, ‘My child is over there behind the fence. I want to show him that I’m still alive.’
‘Get off the train, just you two,’ the guard ordered. ‘What are your names?’
When the women answered, the guard pulled something out of his pocket - not a gun, as the women had expected, but a letter for each of them. Then he told them about his trip to Auschwitz with their husbands and sons.
‘Could you let us get down under the train for a minute or two?’ asked Manci. Sometimes this was allowed if the train was delayed and the prisoners needed to use the toilet.
With the guard’s permission, the two women quickly got under the train and Manci let out the whistle she had used at Plaszow to communicate with her family. Soon the two boys saw them and were waving to their mothers. Olek held his arm up and pulled back his sleeve to show his mother that he had a tattoo; Richard showed his too. They were ‘permanent’.
Then Olek held out his hand and showed his mother a few little potatoes he had: ‘Don’t worry about me being hungry.’
Richard, the younger of the two boys, showed that he had some potatoes too, but he could not stop himself from saying, ‘Mama, I’m so hungry.’
Henry Rosner and Dolek Horowitz arrived at the fence while the women were still outside the train. By now the wives had read the letters from their husbands and understood the situation.
‘The tattoo!’ Henry called proudly. His wife was happy about that, but worried because she could see that he was cold and sweating at the same time, being worked to death.
There was little time now before the train left, and the guard wanted the women to get back on the train. ‘Look after Niusia,’ Dolek called out, trying to sound cheerful, and then the families were separated again. Nothing could surprise them any more.
As the train moved away from Auschwitz, the women knew that this was their last chance. Many of them would die within days if they did not get some food and rest; another concentration camp would finish them all.
In the cold dawn of the second day, the train stopped and the women were ordered out. They climbed out of the boxcar and smelled the air, which was painfully cold but fresh and clean. They were marched to a large gate and behind it they could see several large chimneys and a group of SS guards.
‘They’ve brought us all this way to send us up a chimney anyway,’ a girl beside Mila Pfefferberg cried.
‘No,’ said Mila, ‘they wouldn’t waste their time like that.’
As they got closer to the gate, they saw Herr Schindler standing among the Brinnlitz SS men. He stepped forward and the lines of women stopped. They could neither believe their eyes, nor could they speak; it was like seeing a ghost.
Then Oskar spoke to the women, even though Commandant Liepold was there with him. ‘When you go inside the building you’ll find soup and bread waiting for you. You have nothing more to worry about. You’re with me now.’
Years later one of the women tried to explain their feelings that morning: ‘He was our father, he was our mother, he was our only faith. We could always depend on him.’
The Schindler men stood on the balcony of the building as the women passed below, each man searching for the face of his mother, wife, daughter or friend. Because the women had no hair and many of them were very ill, they were not all easily recognizable, but it was an amazing sight. There had never been and never would be another Auschwitz rescue like this one.
Many of the women had to go directly to the factory’s medical unit to be treated for all kinds of problems. Emilie Schindler worked quietly in this part of Oskar’s kingdom, feeding and comforting the sick and dying.
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