فصل 05

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فصل 05

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Krakow’s Jews Are Not Alone

Oskar Schindler did not keep a written account of Nazi crimes, but he began to notice more and to listen to more stories of what was happening. He wanted solid evidence that would allow him to make an accurate report to the world one day. He got news from police contacts, but also from clear-thinking Jews like Itzhak Stern and from organizations which either officially or secretly were working against the Nazis. Wild rumours flew through the streets of Krakow, but for a long time the people of the ghetto chose to ignore them and continued to hope. Realization for the ghetto began with the return to Krakow, eight days after he had been sent to one of the concentration camps, of a young chemist named Bachner.

Bachner returned to the ghetto with white hair and madness in his eyes. He had seen the final horror in Belzec, a death camp, and told his story to everyone he met. At the camp, SS men pushed the crowds of Jews along to two large buildings, where they were made to undress. A young boy moved among them, giving them string with which to tie their shoes together and collecting their rings and glasses. Then the prisoners had their heads shaved before being led to different buildings, each of which had a Jewish star on the roof and a sign which said ‘Baths and Disinfection Rooms’. SS men encouraged them all the way, telling them to breathe deeply inside the building because it was an excellent means of preventing disease.

In the buildings, said Bachner, they were all gassed, and afterwards teams of SS men sorted out the terrible, twisted piles of bodies and moved them away to be buried. Only two days after they left Krakow station, they were all dead, except for Bachner. The calm tone of the SS men had alarmed him, and he had somehow slipped away to a toilet hut. He had hidden inside a toilet pit and stayed there for three days, with human waste up to his neck. He had feared drowning but had found a way to lean against the corner of the hole and sleep. On the third night he had crawled out and escaped. Outside the camp, a peasant woman cleaned him and put him into fresh clothes before he walked back to Krakow.

Maybe Bachner was completely mad, but his story fitted with what Schindler knew. The huge gas chambers of Belzec had been completed several months ago by a German engineering firm; 3,000 killings a day were possible there. Crematoria were under construction throughout the German territories, Oskar heard the names Sobibor, Lublin, Treblinka, Auschwitz, Lodz, Chelmno; all of these camps had gas chambers with the new technology. He heard that at one of the Auschwitz camps 10,000 people could be murdered in one day.

Oskar, and others who felt like him about the Nazis’ actions against the Jews, began to put their own lives at risk. Oskar started to build barracks for his night workers behind DEF. When there was an Aktion, which by October was almost daily, workers from his factory, as well as from other factories, found shelter there and had the excuse of being at work in an essential industry. Other sympathetic Germans smuggled Jewish children out of the ghetto in boxes or provided families with false documents to get them out. A Jewish organization of young people, which worked to save Jewish lives, fought its own war against the Nazis. They secretly attacked small German boats; they disguised themselves in SS uniforms and planted bombs in restaurants, cinemas and military garages throughout the city; they made non-Jewish passports for people in the ghetto, and risked their own lives every day.

By the autumn of 1942 Jews in other parts of the world began to hear rumours of what was happening in the German territories. They wanted more information, and then a way to help. One of these people was a Budapest jeweller called Samu Springmann who began working with Jews in Istanbul to get rescue money into the German territories and to get accurate information out. He found Dr Sedlacek, an Austrian dentist who could travel freely in and out of Poland, and sent him to Krakow at the end of 1942 with a piece of paper in his pocket. It was a list of people that Jews in Palestine had learnt - probably from men like Itzhak Stern - were honourable people. The second name on the list was Oskar Schindler.

On his first evening in Krakow Dr Sedlacek met with Major Franz von Korab, a German officer and an old friend from their student days in Vienna, at the Hotel Krakovia. Once, a long time ago and against all good sense, but for the sake of friendship, von Korab had confessed to Sedlacek that he had a Jewish grandmother. Knowing this secret and keeping it safe meant that the dentist could trust von Korab with secret information that he now carried with him: he showed the German military officer the list from the Palestinian Jews.

Von Korab looked over the list and pointed to Oskar Schindler. ‘I know Herr Schindler very well,’ he laughed. ‘I’ve dined with him many times. He’s a big man, with an enormous appetite for life. He’s making a lot of money from this war and spending a lot too. Very clever - more intelligent than he pretends to be. I can phone him now and arrange a meeting.’

At ten the next morning, after polite introductions had been made, von Korab left Dr Sedlacek in the director’s office at DEF.

After explaining the purpose of his trip, the dentist asked, ‘What can you tell us about the war against the Jews in Poland?’ Oskar hesitated and Sedlacek wondered if he was willing to risk his success, even his life, in order to help a few Jews. Schindler’s factory now employed over 550 Jews, for which he paid the SS a slave wage, and he had rich military contracts from the German government and the guarantee of many more. Most men in his position would simply lean back in their comfortable chairs and claim not to know what people like Sedlacek were talking about, but Oskar surprised the dentist.

‘There is one problem,’ Oskar whispered roughly. ‘It’s this: what they are doing to people in this country is beyond belief.’ Sedlacek was shocked to hear the details of the official extinction of a whole race of people. The story that Schindler told him was not only terrible in moral terms but was hard to believe in the middle of a desperate war. The Nazis were using thousands of men, precious resources and expensive engineering and scientific technology to murder a race of people, not for military or economic gain, but for a psychological victory.

‘The Nazis are closing the ghettos, in Krakow as well as in Warsaw and Lodz. The population of the Krakow ghetto has already been reduced by four-fifths,’ said Schindler.

‘What have they done with those people?’ asked the dentist.

‘Some were sent to labour camps. In the past few weeks, about 2,000 ghetto workers from Krakow have been marched every day to a site near the city to build a vast labour camp at the village of Plaszow. The labour camps don’t have crematoria, so the Jews who are sent there can expect to be used as slave labour. But at least three-fifths of the Jews from the Krakow ghetto were transported to camps that have the new scientific equipment. These camps are common now; they are death camps.’

‘How can you be sure?’ asked Sedlacek.

‘I know where the crematoria have been built; I know where the trains full of Jews have gone. I hear and see too much every day. Shall I tell you another little story about four jewellers?’

‘Yes, of course,’ answered the dentist. It was painful to hear what Schindler had to say, but he needed as much real information as possible to take back to Samu Springmann.

‘One morning recently,’ Schindler began, ‘an SS man arrived at the Krakow ghetto and took away four men, all of whom had been jewellers by profession. They felt a sense of relief when the SS officer marched them past the train station to the old Technical College, which is now used for the SS Economic and Administration Office.

‘The jewellers were led into the huge basement and saw walls piled high with suitcases and trunks, each with the name of the former owner carefully written on the side. And do you have any idea what their job was?’

‘No, I can’t imagine,’ said Sedlacek quietly.

‘They spent six weeks going through the gold and silver, the diamonds and pearls that came out of those suitcases. They weighed and valued each piece and put it into the correct box, and as each box was filled and labelled, it was sent to Nazi headquarters in Berlin.

‘They acted professionally and could sometimes forget about where all the stuff had come from until they were given suitcases full of gold teeth, still marked with blood. After valuing hundreds of thousands of teeth, would you still have any hope?’

At the end of this shocking meeting, an exhausted Sedlacek asked Schindler if he would come to Budapest to tell others what he had just reported to him. Oskar Schindler visited Budapest that December to give Springmann and his colleagues the first eye-witness account of the Polish horror. His report changed these men forever. They promised to get the information to Jews in Istanbul and Palestine, as well as to the governments of Great Britain and the United States.

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