The Nizkor Project: Remembering the Holocaust (Shoah)

The Dentist of Auschwitz

Chapter 6

The lead vehicle stopped at the entrance. Several SS men with German shepherds at their sides stood, awaiting us. Dr. Neumann handed one a list of our names. They spoke briefly, and one SS man grabbed a bullhorn. "You have been brought to Steineck labor camp, where you'll learn how to work." Then he lowered his bullhorn and scanned our faces on the trucks, as if to say, "Are there any questions to be asked?" If there were any, who would have dared? He moved and paused at every truck, repeating his decree, making sure no one missed it.

Then our guards lowered the tailgates and pushed the human cargo down with their rifle butts. "Down quickly, all down," they shouted.

We grabbed our bags and jumped off the trucks in panic. Two SS men at the gate funneled us inside like ranch cattle being readied for branding. Chaos erupted as the first group of men reached the gate. Two SS men standing on either side whipped us at random as we passed them. Given leash, the dogs picked up the cue and lurched at our arms and legs. Those of us who staggered were their special targets. I saw what was going on and froze. If Papa and I were to avoid being battered, I thought, we'd have to slip by as the men lifted their whips. With my suitcases in one hand and my box of instruments dangling from my shoulder, I held on to my father. I hung back and waited just long enough. When the whips rose, we dove past like sprinters. I escaped injury, but my father was not so lucky. He ended up with a laceration on his scalp.

Once inside the camp, we ran up some stairs, through a pair of swinging doors, and down the corridor of the schoolhouse. On the right were windows overlooking the yard; the rooms were on the left. "All to Room 4," yelled Chaim, the policeman who came with us.

On three walls of the room were rows of bunks, mere shelves stacked atop each other. On them lay straw pallets with gray blankets and pillows. Most bunks were already occupied. The greeting we received had fueled fear. Chaos prevailed, as most of us were unable to find bunks. Finally Papa and I spotted two empty bunks on the lowest level. Little did we know they were the least desirable. The bunks were so tightly spaced that we had to kneel on the floor and slide in. Our baggage we piled up against the wall by the window. With my box of instruments under my pillow, I felt as if I had arrived not just at a labor camp, but in another world. I knew that here I had to learn life all over again.

More people came. They milled back and forth between rooms, unable to find a place. Amid the tumult, someone yelled, "Attention!" The SS man who had so succinctly instructed us at the gate entered Room 4, followed by Chaim.

"Here all of you will work. You must salute when you see people in uniform. When spoken to, you must stand at attention, chest out, head up, shoulders back, hands at your trouser seams. The first of you who sees one of us enter the room must call everyone to attention. All inmates must be in their bunks by eight. The light must be out a half hour later. Wake-up is at 4:00 A.M. You'll get an hour to be ready for work. Saturday and Sunday are free. Tomorrow your clothes will be deloused, your hair shorn. You'll get your work assignments on Monday!" He turned to leave. Then he stopped, as if he had forgotten the most important announcement: "Anyone contemplating an escape, better not try!" Then he turned and walked out, followed by the policeman. He left us frightened and pondering the consequences of any disobedience.

Fifteen minutes later a whistle blared. "Quick! Quick! Everyone out to the yard for a roll call!" Then we learned another lesson. No one walked in Steineck. With Papa at my side, I rushed back through the same corridor toward the exit. An SS man, his dog at his side, awaited us. Using the same maneuver as before, I escaped a lashing. But this time the German shepherd buried his fangs in my thigh and shook his snout from side to side. When I freed myself, my pants were torn, and blood was running down my thigh. My leg hurt as if a dozen nails had been driven into it. I wanted to check my leg further, but I knew the roll call took precedence. I followed everyone else to the yard.

Early in 1941, long before the Wannsee conference at which the Nazis made killing Jews an official policy, Alfred Rosenberg, the Nazi Reichminister for occupied Warthegau, proposed labor camps for the Jews living in the region. In a widely reported speech at Poznan University, he said, "The Jews will have to pay with blood for the twenty-five years of suffering they have inflicted on the Germans and Poles here." Like Rosenberg's other proposals, this one received unanimous acceptance. In May 1941 the first Judenarbeitslager was established in the Sport-Stadium in Poznan. One thousand Jewish men were brought there from the Lodz ghetto. The second labor camp was Steineck.

The Kommandant from the Stadium camp directed our roll call. He had come here to set up Steineck. After we were ordered into rows of five, we had to count, one after another, until the guards were satisfied that all of us were present. After being released, I finally went to the washroom. Here a thirteen-meter pipe dripped water into a trough beneath it.

The washroom was a perplexing sight, an affront to dignity. A long, half-cylindrical cement object with pipes above it ran along two walls. Several shut-off valves were visible. The toilet was an unfinished plank of wood over a twenty-meter-long pit. Those using it who had diarrhea wound up with feces on their clothes. I cleaned my wound, washed off the blood around the two rows of teeth marks on my thigh, cleaned my underwear and pants, and left.

Papa had been waiting for me in the room, his head still hurting. The bell rang, announcing that it was time for our first food ration. The line extended twice around the corridor. After waiting for twenty minutes, we each received a "pica," a wedge of bread weighing less than a fifth of a kilo, and something resembling coffee. The only element the dark liquid had in common with real coffee was its color. Bitter it was, and impossible to drink without sweetener. The bread wasn't any better. It was old and stale and tasted of oats. "If this is a sample of our food here, we'll starve to death," someone remarked. Eating it seemed revolting at first. This food was not fit for animals, much less for humans. But in time, to stave off starvation, we all ate it.

The cook was a round-faced inmate by the name of Rachmiel. "Tomorrow," he promised, "we'll also get margarine and marmalade."

When the bell rang in the morning, Papa had to nudge me awake. That morning we got the promised margarine. The cook hastily dispensed a spoonful of marmalade and slapped it on the "pica" of bread. It dripped off even before we turned around. Then came a call: "Eintreten!" Once again we counted off: "Eins, zwei, drei, vier." Then we were ordered to undress and put our clothes in one pile for delousing. Barbers, most of whom had never cut hair before, clipped off our hair from head to toe. We became an unsightly spectacle to those passing the camp.

At noon, after searching in the piles, we found our clothes. They now had a strong odor of naphtha. Then we got an anemic mixture of turnips and potatoes as our midday ration. Though at first it turned our stomach, hunger eventually won over, and we ate it. In the afternoon there was another roll call, this one for the purpose of inspection. The SS men seemed to have a special interest in shirts and jackets that were totally buttoned. Five lashes were administered to those whose clothes were not fully buttoned, and the same punishment was meted out for leaving a shoelace untied.

Then came an exhibition of our marching, with which they were most displeased. The first lesson in marching "Nazi style" followed. The younger of us could adapt to it, but to my father and his peers, goose stepping was as strange as could be. And how could they expect Reb Yankev, a scholar who had lived according to God's Law, to raise his legs and pound the ground, as goose stepping required? Just walking in line was strange to him, and he became the most abused. The soldiers made him fall down and drag himself on his elbows. Then he was ordered to get up and to repeat this. They ordered him to run until he broke down and collapsed. In the end, seeing his state of severe exhaustion and his inability to comprehend their commands, they whipped him mercilessly.

"Du Scheiss Jude" was the beginning of their standard curse, and accusations blaming us for all the world's ills followed. Did they really believe that? Or was it a self-imposed justification? In any case, they enjoyed their roles. Although by now their castigation of us was familiar, the charges were hard to accept. I never understood what we had done to earn these allegations. Once dismissed, we sat down in groups, on the grass near the fence. Relaxing in the sunshine offered a bit of a physical and emotional boost. But the intellectuals, without respect or purpose, found it hard to defy their fate.

Today, we were reminded, was Shabbat. Even without a place of worship in the ghetto, we had still come together to pray. Here Shabbat was just another day. "It seems that all gods have been replaced by one, Adolf Hitler, and losing ours, we lost most," someone in the group remarked.

To this, Reb Yankev couldn't remain silent. "The Lord won't let us suffer," he predicted. "Thou alone wilt be exalted, and thou wilt reign over all in unity," he prayed.

A strange quiet followed. It seemed as if everyone's thoughts questioned this wisdom. A few minutes passed, and my father, as if in an afterthought, made the most optimistic remark. "It's only a matter of months," he said. This reminded me how much Mama must be missing him. They depended so much on each other, especially in a time of crisis.

I looked at David Kot, a good friend of mine. At home our two families had been very close. I had spent many days at his house, and he at ours. His once heavy head of hair and the brave and alert look in his black eyes were gone. What's more, our careless and happy adolescent life had been cut short, and the intimacy we once enjoyed was no longer there. A sudden ring of the bell announced the time for evening's rations.

Sunday morning I woke amazingly early. Everything--the whistles, the whips, and the barking of the dogs--already seemed routine. After the roll call, the Kommandant asked doctors, cooks, and tailors to come forward. There were no doctors among us, but more than enough cooks and tailors. As an alternative, he picked Goldstein, a barber from Dobra, to be in charge of the first aid room. It only stocked a few bandages, some iodine, and aspirin.

Rachmiel got four more as kitchen help. So many envied this job that people battled for it. In addition to offering extra food, the kitchen was always warm, and the work wasn't exhausting. A camp tailor and four inmates to serve as extra police were also selected. The rest of that Sunday was free. When the bells called lights out, it was still daylight. In our bunks, however, we saw only unfinished wood. The nights were still cool, but the combined body heat of eighty or more inmates in our room was enough to make one sweat. I watched my father as he pulled himself into his bunk, careful to avoid splinters.

In the beginning our camp was big news in the area. On Sunday the peasants would stroll by to find out who we were and why we were there. Although this region was known for its intense dislike of Jews, the local people, hearing that our identity was our only crime, showed genuine outrage. When an SS man saw some peasants at the fence, he admonished them to leave at once and never come back.

It was unusually warm for the middle of May. On Monday, our first workday, the bells rang at 4:00 A.M. It was dark when we assembled in the yard. The Kommandant from the Stadium camp and Dr. Neumann were in the center, surrounded by several SS men and a few of our policemen. I hoped that, as Papa had predicted, by now Neumann had forgotten about me. He did not, however, and after four hundred inmates, including my father and me, were separated from the rest, I suddenly heard, "Dentist, report to Dr. Neumann."

An electric shock went through me. I didn't know what to do. I feared to respond, and at the same time I also feared not to. Every second seemed like an hour. When I was called again, I still hesitated. "You have no choice," Papa said. "You have to go."

I made my way through the line, then ran forward, stopped, and clicked my heels two meters in front of him. "Dr. Neumann, Bronek Jakubowicz reports to you as ordered," I said brightly.

He scanned me from top to bottom and then motioned me to his side. "Wait here," he said.

I turned and found myself standing in a row with the SS and all the Nazi dignitaries. When I raised my eyes, a thousand fellow inmates looked at me, puzzled about why I was called there. I wanted to be with them. This was not my place. I had not chosen to be here. The remaining men were soon arranged in groups. Then Neumann pointed at the first four hundred and said to me, "Dentist, you'll be their Kolonnenführer." Thereupon he chose a Kolonnenführer for each group.

As we were led out, I saw many men wearing black, the color of the Gestapo, waiting for us at the gate. Dr. Neumann handed one of them a list of our names, and they took charge of us, ordering us to march out. On the road they began to prod us to walk in military rhythm. "Eins, zwei, drei, vier," they repeated.

I left last and walked in the last row, without any idea what they expected of me. It was shortly before daylight, and I could see that despite the color of their uniforms, our commanders were neither Gestapo nor SS. Their coats lacked the Gestapo insignias and had no lapels. Their faces looked modest and unassuming. That made me curious about who they were.

The man in the black uniform who walked behind me carried a briefcase. I dropped back a bit and walked beside him. I wanted to say something, to begin to talk to him, but my words got stuck in my mouth. He hardly looked at me. I saw a weathered sign on a post, indicating that the road led toward Poznan. Finally I dared to ask him whether we were going to Poznan. A few agonizing moments passed, and he didn't answer me. I was about to repeat my question when he spoke up. "We were advised not to fraternize with our prisoners." Then after a while he added, "We are going to the Hoch und Tiefbaugesellschaft, to Brodzice." Though he spoke German, I was sure that he wasn't a German. I guessed that he was either a Volksdeutscher or a Pole.

"What is Hoch und Tiefbaugesellschaft?" I asked him, to keep the conversation going.

"They are building a railroad here," he answered. After that our conversation took a more normal course. We still had an hour to march, he said, meaning that we would have a four-hour walk to and from work. As we left the main road, the sun began to clear away the morning haze. We then marched around a crescent lake, our shoes pounding and raising clouds of dust. Soon barracks became visible. "This is it," the man said, pointing at them.

The first building was clearly for offices. The second looked like a kitchen and hall, and the third had picks, shovels, and wheelbarrows in front. This was the toolshed. One guard insisted that we approach the workplace respectably. "One, two, three, four, left," he prompted. But he had to settle for the sound of tra-tra and ta-ta.

The guard I had talked with seemed to be in command. He handed some papers to the guard at the gate, who scanned them briefly and then asked the first, in Polish, how many we were. "Four hundred seven," he squeezed out.

Then the second guard turned and asked the people around him, only this time in German, how many inmates they each needed. "Fifty," "forty," "thirty-five," they answered.

He assigned them as many of us as they asked for, and each led a group away from the yard. Twenty of us, I among them, remained standing. To our left I saw a couple of cauldrons resting on a hearth. A woman about thirty years old was standing at the kitchen door. "Mr. Witczak, don't forget, I need three men," she called.

He pointed at the nearest three and told her to take them. Then she reminded him that she needed two more people to fetch water for her. He pointed at me and the man next to me and grunted, "You two work with Stasia." And with that he turned and led away the remaining inmates.

The woman Stasia equipped her three kitchen helpers with knives and buckets of potatoes. Then she handed the two of us four pails. "Take these," she said in a friendly voice. Pointing in the direction of a forest, she continued, "You'll find a spring in these woods. Follow this road, and you'll come to a small path." She was at a loss to explain the trail further, so she signaled the guard. "What is your name, mister?"

"Tadeusz, but everyone calls me Tadek," he said.

"Tadek, can you show them the spring?" He was also puzzled. Stasia pointed out a few markers, but he shook his head. Stasia, with good intentions, gave us two shoulder-carriers. "Here, they will make it easier."

By this time the three potato peelers were hard at work. I saw how clumsily David Moszkowicz, a Jewish elder from Dobra and a confidant of Mayor Muszynski's, handled the potatoes. This was, no doubt, a first for him, and every so often the knife slipped out of his hand. This didn't escape Stasia. She took the potato and showed him her skills, how to roll it around the knife.

With our pails dangling from the chains, we followed our guard, Tadek. The man chosen to go with me was taller than I, and I had to take three steps for each two of his to keep up with him. Indifferent, hardly raising his eyes, he walked ahead of me. I asked him what his name was. "Marek," he answered. Marek, I judged, was about thirty-five. He had the intelligent look of a city lawyer. Seeing him in his well-tailored gray trousers, herringbone jacket, and red tie, without the water pails, one would think he was on the way to court. His kind face drew me to him. I liked him from the first moment on.

As the pails bounced at our knees, we silently followed Tadek's instructions. The smell of freshly cut grass tickled my senses. In many homes in rural Poland, water was supplied this way, by professional water carriers. Their carrying devices were made from logs and designed to contour to the shoulders. The length of the chains could be adjusted by knotting them in the middle. To us, however, the carriers were so uncomfortable that after the first try, we preferred to carry the pails in our hands. The trauma of the last three days had had a deeply dehumanizing effect on us. I felt all the more trapped.

The thick brush in the inner forest slowed us down. The path led us over bumps covered with slippery moss. Rotted trees and roots were everywhere we stepped. Finally we had to jump over a small stream, and then we found the spring. The spring water was pristine and cold and seemed to be bubbling out of the earth. Mosquitoes and other little insects swirled in a screen of dew that hung over the water. The look of the water invited us to sample it, and it was pure and delightfully refreshing. Because of the spring's shallow basin, we took some time to fill the pails. I asked the guard, speaking Polish, if he had been here before. "No," he said.

I continued probing. "How long have you been in this service?"

"I just started doing this last Wednesday."

"What kind of service is this?" Marek dared to ask.

"It was organized by Germans just recently, to guard all kinds of installations."

"Including camps?" Marek continued.

"Yes. Mostly Jewish," he disclosed. Then we knew that our guards were Poles. The pails were as full as we could get them, and we returned to camp.

Stasia waited for us at the open hearth. The peeled potatoes received a good washing, and we went back for more water. Tadek was anxious to be with his comrades, and he asked if we could find our way without him. "Yes!" we replied in chorus, eager to be alone. As we entered the forest, we realized that this was the first time we had been unguarded.

Marek Lewinski, I then learned, was an electrical engineer from Koo, a town less than fifty kilometers from Dobra. He was handsome, nearly two meters tall, and slender. He had an olive complexion, a straight forehead, and a slightly elongated nose. He had been seized in a Racia. The Nazis took no heed of his being the only male in the family. He and the other men of Koo were loaded on trucks and brought to join our transport. He never got to say good-bye to his wife and two children. The bitterness of his ordeal lay on his face. As he talked, his eyes glued to the ground, I sensed anger and condemnation of Koo's Judenrat.

We were soon at the clearing. We put the pails on the slimy soil surrounding the water pit and sat down on a large rock. The peace and serenity we found in being alone brought a discharge of emotions. We were glad to have this opportunity to unburden ourselves of the rage accumulated in the last few days. Our new helplessness and despair, buried in our hearts for the last week, forced tears, and we both sat and cried.

About fifteen minutes later, at about a quarter to eight, we heard voices in the distance. As the sound grew, we heard young girls singing a gentle, popular Polish school graduation song. The singing dried our eyes, but suddenly the song stopped, and the cheer and beauty of it faded. As the silence persisted, that minute of softness seemed just a dream. I closed my eyes. It was difficult for me to let go. Suddenly I heard movement in the bushes, and raising my eyes, I saw another pair of eyes staring at me. The bushes soon parted, and before us, in the bright sunshine, five young girls emerged. We could not believe our eyes, but they were real.

"Dzie dobry" (Good morning). I greeted them quickly so they would not fear us.

"Dzie dobry," they answered in unison. The five neatly dressed young girls with bundles under their arms radiated happiness. "Who are you?" they asked.

"We are Jews. My name is Bronek Jakubowicz. I am from Dobra. My friend Marek is from Koo."

"What are you doing here?"

"We are at a camp called Steineck. Today is our first day at work at the Hoch und Tiefbaugesellschaft."

"In Brodzice?" one of them asked.


They were Jadzia, Halina, Kazia, Anka, and Zosia. Schoolmates before the war, they were all from Poznan, and they worked on a nearby plantation. Poznan, a city the Germans claimed, was the home of very few Jewish people. When the Nazis entered the city, it quickly became Judenfrei (free of Jews). When we told the girls about conditions in our ghettos, they were outraged. They were also shocked to learn about the conditions in camp. "All this just because you are Jews?" they asked. "Why? Why?" This was the question we never stopped asking ourselves. There was no end to their curiosity. They wanted to know why we were hairless. One stared at me, stretched her hand out, and said, "I am Zosia Zasina. I can't believe the Germans can be so horrible." What a lovely name, I thought. "You must be hungry. Here, take this," she said, giving us her lunch.

It was embarrassing. I refused to accept. I wasn't quite ready to forgo the normal gentlemanly response. "I can't take it, Zosia," I responded, her name rolling off my tongue softly.

"Please take it. Share it with your father," she pressed. Hearing my father mentioned, I knew I should accept.

As if to comply with Zosia's lead, the others left their food as well. "Please, please," they pleaded, "give it to the others." We thanked them warmly. "We'll stop by tomorrow at the same time," they said as they left. We watched as they disappeared into the thick forest with tears in their eyes.

Carrying the food bundles with us would give our secret away, so we buried them. Lest our guard come looking for us, we filled the pails and swiftly started back to the camp. I walked ahead on the narrow path. I was filled with excitement and longing for the next day. I saw Tadek coming toward us. I wasn't sure how he would react if he found out about what had just happened. "We lost our way for a while," I said. He accepted that, and we returned to a more impatient Stasia.

"Where have you been so long?" she queried.

"Oh, we strayed a bit, but we are sure of our way now," I said, hoping we wouldn't lose their trust and could continue bringing water by ourselves.

The guards, preferring to sit in the shade talking, smoking cigarettes, or playing cards, weren't anxious to have to escort us. Stasia gave a short speech on how poorly the potato peelers did. She had to check each potato, to remove what she called eyes. I wanted to explain that until today they knew little about the art of potato peeling, but instead I just said, "In time you'll see, they'll do better." For a moment it sounded like the old Nazi claim that Jews were lazy.

Returning again to the spring, I was still occupied with the thought of what had happened earlier. Zosia's beautiful face pushed all others aside. I was moved by her generosity, kindness, and genuine concern. The food they left us was irresistible: tempting fresh bread, ham, kielbasa, cookies, and fruits. We ate more than our share there, and the rest we concealed in our pockets to take to the others. Stasia did not want any more water, so we waited for the midday break.

At noon work halted. As the foreman brought the inmates in front of the kitchen, out came the casseroles, pots, and saucepans. The foremen, supervisors, technicians, and engineers ate in the mess hall. Stasia prepared their food with particular reverence. She lunched with Mr. Witczak after everyone left. I saw that after just a half day of work my father looked worn. When I asked him whether the work was too difficult, he said, "No, I am strong. I can do it."

Schmerele, an Austrian foreman in whose detachment Papa worked, quickly got a reputation for being a terrorizing bully. He demanded that every shovel be full each time it was lifted. At forty-seven, with a heart condition, my father wasn't the person to lift fourteen-kilo shovelfuls of dirt all day. I gave Papa part of the things Marek and I had brought from the forest. I didn't say where the food came from, and he didn't ask.

The soup at Brodzice did not smell as foul as the camp slop. Although its main ingredients were potatoes and turnip, it contained slivers of horse meat. We scraped up every morsel. After the meal, Marek and I went back for more water. Our comrades headed back to work in the marshes. Witczak later ordered me to find out how many inmates each foreman had on each site, so only Marek was left to provide Stasia with dishwater.

Most earthmoving in those days, especially in Poland, was done with pick and shovel. As I proceeded through the site, I saw how hard our inmates worked digging and lifting the stringy soil, loading it on wheelbarrows, and pushing them hundreds of meters, for a new rail bed. Most of the foremen were more humane than Schmerele. As the inmates' strength diminished, their attitude also changed. After I counted the inmates, I wanted to report to Witczak. His office curtains were drawn, so I knocked on the door. He opened it and took my notes without saying a word. I quickly learned that he wasn't a man to waste words.

Although Hoch und Tiefbaugesellschaft was strictly a German concern, the three Poles--Witczak, Kmiec, and Basiak--ran this part of the project. Kmiec and Basiak were of the Polish intelligentsia, while Witczak was not of the gentry. Kmiec and Basiak often expressed their disgust for Germany's treatment of us, but I never knew Witczak's opinion.

At four in the afternoon work ceased. On the way back to Steineck, guards tried to teach us to march in rhythm. They would yell, "One, two, three, four! What do people say when they see you looking like wobbling ducks?" To us, exhausted, tired slaves, it mattered little what people said. How could one expect Cantor Pinkus and other scholars, who had lived so long in a world where goose stepping didn't exist, to march? They had spent most of their lives in Talmud study and in teaching spiritual enrichment. In time the guards became convinced we were too fatigued and accepted our marching in the only way we knew how.

When we finally arrived back in camp, the yard became a beehive of activity. Inmates were trying to attend to their personal cares all at the same time. Many brothers, fathers, and sons were assigned to different groups, and changes were nearly impossible. When we returned, those already in camp surrounded us to talk about their work. We were all doing the same thing: laying rails.

That night I lay thinking of Zosia. In the dark I saw her face. At 4:00 A.M. I was so deeply asleep that even the sharp school bells couldn't awaken me. It was my father's tugging that brought me to my feet.

The inmates' strength was waning, and we had to find ways to substitute our meager camp rations of coffee substitute, mortar bread, and fake marmalade. We had all heard the aphorism "Necessity is the mother of invention." We flattened the ends of spoon handles with rocks, to make a knife-and-spoon combination.

After breakfast rations our group assembled, and we went to the gate, where Tadek, the chief guard, took charge of us. It was only our second day of work, and already life had become a routine. The sky looked threatening, but no rain fell. The thought of Papa still working under Schmerele nagged at me. I had to try and get him out of there soon.

We reached the construction barracks a little before seven. Stasia, Witczak, and his foremen waited. The shovels, picks, and wheelbarrows were outside the shed. After Tadek's report, inmates were ordered to follow their foremen. "If your foreman isn't present," said Witczak, "go to your site and begin where you left off yesterday."

Stasia left Marek and me at the barracks and escorted her three helpers to the potatoes and knives. Marek and I left for the spring, without a guard. It was only a few minutes after seven, too early to expect the girls. Close to eight, we had just filled our pails for the second time when we heard them coming. "Good day," they cheerfully said, reaching the spring.

"Good day," we answered.

That day lacked the curiosity and spontaneity of the day before. We even talked about the weather. Only Zosia seemed to have retained a gentle fascination for us. I thought she looked as if she wanted to say something. Jadzia broke the ice. "We had few Jewish students in school," she said. Kazia and Halina agreed.

"I had a music teacher, Mr. Kaplan, who gave me private piano lessons. I think he was half Jewish. I liked him a lot," Zosia said. "He and his wife were already old when the war began. I don't know what became of them."

"You said that you are married and have two children," Kazia queried Marek.

"Yes, my son is nine, and my daughter is three. Next week will be her birthday," he replied. From his breast pocket he pulled out a brown leather billfold with his initials in gold and showed them a picture of his wife and children. Like any proud father, he watched their faces as the postcard-sized picture was passed around.

"What an attractive wife you have, and what beautiful children," they said. "Can they write to you?" one asked.

"They are still allowed to send mail from the ghetto, but we won't receive it," answered Marek.

The girls looked at each other, amazed. "What harm is there in your having contact with your families?" Kazia asked. "If you'd like to write to them," she said, "a letter or a postcard, we'll be happy to send it out for you."

"How gracious of you," Marek responded in impeccable Polish. His good manners were not those of a water carrier. He thanked them and gratefully accepted their offer.

I seized the opportunity and asked if I too could send a letter to my relatives. Halina quickly agreed, and so did Zosia. "Gladly," they said.

We reminded ourselves that our delayed return might bring someone to look for us, and Stasia surely would miss the water. Since it was way past nine, the girls too were expected at work. A large box rested at Zosia's side, a collective endeavor, I thought. Discreetly, lest she embarrass us, she pointed to the box. "We brought it for you." Knowing that such a gift would not deprive them, we accepted it. As they were leaving, Zosia turned to me. "Bronek, can you come here at lunchtime? We are free between twelve and one. Can you come?"

"I think so," I answered. A certain warm feeling touched me inside. Was she interested in me? Then they left us, taking with them their vitality, the vitality of freedom.

We hid the food, picked up the pails, and left. On our return Witczak was walking around impatiently. I soon learned, though, that this was his habit. He never stood still. Seeming to be in a hurry always, he walked fast while talking to people behind him. As we approached him, he signaled me to follow him.

"Yes, Herr Obermeister," I said, following close behind. He didn't answer.

We passed the toolshed and the administrators' dining room and entered an office. No one was there. Witczak pointed to a desk at the yard window. On it, surveyor's manuals and books were stacked against the wall. He picked up a ledger. "From now on you'll keep a daily record of the people you bring," he said. "You'll also enter their time of arrival and the number of hours each worked. As you probably know, we pay the camp for what you do." This was news to me. From an open drawer he took out a list, apparently the one Tadek had given him. "Use this desk," he said, fidgeting as he left.

"Yes, Mr. Witczak," I said, but it was too late for him to hear it. He was on his way to the sites.

A stuffy, pinesap aroma permeated the air. Except for the three desks and chairs and one drafting table, which were all well worn, the office was bare. I opened the door and found Marek waiting outside. In the two days we had worked together, I had liked being with him and had learned a lot from his experiences. At times we sat and listened to the sound of water rushing at the spring, thinking of the magical moment when the girls had unexpectedly come upon us. Will I get to see Zosia again? I wondered. "Mr. Witczak wants me in the office," I said to Marek.

He was disappointed. As I began to work at my new job, Witczak's remark to me, "We pay for your work," rang in my ears. I never thought that the Nazis would be selling people's suffering. To hear that they were selling our labor was shocking. I opened the ledger and began to enter the names of the foremen alphabetically, along with the inmates assigned to them and the hours worked each day. Certain names on the list were of people from Dobra. I thought of our common past.

Shortly thereafter Stasia came in, her face beaming. She indicated her influence at the camp. "You know, when Mr. Witczak said he'd like to have someone to help him in the office, I suggested you," she said. "Mr. Witczak is a good man," she continued, making sure I got the intent of her comment. "I think you are nice, Bronek, and even though he may not show it, he too likes you. In his position he has to be careful."

I said I understood and thanked her politely. Tadek walked by, poked his head in, and asked what I was doing there. When I said I was working for Witczak, Tadek's look took on a new measure of respect. "I understand," he said approvingly. Basiak, followed by Kmiec, arrived at the office, and both seemed surprised to find me there. Working with these two gave me an opportunity to get to know them. Even if for different reasons, hatred for Germany was something we had in common. That the Poles hated Germany was a long-standing historical reality, and the latest German occupation brought renewed antipathy. Both men seemed friendly.

At noon Marek waited. "I'll be working with Witczak from now on," I said. When I suggested that he get someone to replace me, he said that he could handle it by himself. The box the girls brought was still where we had left it. If I wanted to find Zosia, it was time for me to go. Inconspicuously I moved to the rear of the barracks. From there I crossed over a small mound. Then I couldn't be seen from the yard. I walked the rest of the way with long strides. Zosia was sitting on a stump. She got up, and we touched hands in greeting.

"You made it," she said warmly.

"How could you doubt that I would?" I replied.

Neither of us knew where to begin. She looked at me the way other girls my age once did. Could she possibly have a romantic interest in me? Sitting there, I tried to think of what to say. I could have said I was glad to see her. "Being here is courageous of you," I finally ended up saying.

She began to tell me about her life. She lived in Poznan. Her father was a bookkeeper, her mother a homemaker. She was an only child. When the schools reopened, she said, she wanted to get her matura (high school diploma). She loved playing the piano, gardening, reading, and seeing the American movies that had by that time disappeared from the Polish screen. When I had gone to school in Kalisz, the family of one of my friends had owned the Apollo cinema. Together we often picked up reels of film from the railroad station. We were free to view them as often as we liked. Zosia and I compared movies we remembered seeing and talked about our favorite actors and actresses. Then it was time to end our meeting. Zosia knew that I wouldn't be able to meet her in the morning. We agreed to meet at lunch the next day.

When I returned to the camp, most of the inmates were still there. No one except Marek knew where I had been. He thought it was dangerous for me to be away at that time.

"Where were you?" asked Stasia. She had something for me to eat. I didn't expect this. With my fellow inmates eating from the kettles, how could I, in their presence, have different food? I thanked her but said, "I'll eat with my comrades." In time, however, hunger won out, and I occasionally accepted her leftovers.

Papa also worried when he did not see me in the yard at noon. I saw that my father's strength was depleting quickly. His foreman, Schmerele, was certainly the woe he was made out to be. I didn't like Papa's situation at all. I had always known that our roles would change in time, but I had not realized it would be so soon. "How is Schmerele?" I asked Papa.

"Good," he said. "He yells a lot, but he isn't treating me worse than anyone else."

"What does that mean, Papa?"

"Sometimes he gets angry, because he thinks we don't try, but he isn't really as bad as he seems."

My father wasn't one to complain, especially to me. It was just his second day there, but his usually pink-colored cheeks had turned purple, his eyes had deepened and had dark rings, and he was walking much more weakly than before. I was concerned and decided to do something. I knew that my new job brought me some influence. Kmiec and Basiak regarded me as part of their team, but I was most at ease with Stasia. I decided to ask her if she could use my father's help in the kitchen.

The foremen made their voices heard. "Return to work!" they yelled in chorus. Marek went to the spring, and I to the office. There I found Basiak at the drafting table. Although he was past forty, his light complexion and thick blond hair made him appear much younger. He had a small, shapely nose and delicate Slavic features that complimented his good looks. His tempered disposition made him easy to talk to. A small wedding picture of him and his wife, Cesia, sat on his desk and faced him squarely as he sat working. He was recently married and childless. He promised to take me to his home someday, but it never happened. I envied him. I wasn't much different from him, so why was I subjected to all this discrimination? Does my darker hair make me an Unmensch (nonhuman)? At four the whistles dutifully announced the end to our workday. What remained of the contents of the food box--some bread and a bit of cheese--Marek handed out. Before a line formed, it was all gone.

It was obvious that no one could survive on our rations. What the girls brought could not help many of us. In time I realized that my having been placed in a position that gave me an advantage carried with it rejection by the other inmates. Although I had seen the small recessed house with the sign "Piekarnia" (bakery) before, that day returning from the work camp it especially captured my interest. Would the baker possibly sell us bread? I wondered. We could find out. I remembered what Tadek had hinted to me, saying, "There must be many rich among you."

I drew up a plan, and I wanted to share it with Marek. When I told him to come by my room later, he sensed that it was important. I didn't have to wait long. "Did you notice that bakery on our way?" I said. He looked at me curiously.

"If Tadek will let us go in, on our way to work, one of us could see if the baker would sell us some bread."

"And who is going to pay for it?" Marek asked.

"All of us, according to our means."

"If it worked," he said, "it would be really good."

"OK. I'll ask Tadek as soon as we leave the camp tomorrow."

"What about the rest of the guards?"

"If Tadek allows it, I don't think they'll say no," I reasoned. "You'll go in to talk to the baker?" We decided to act but not to reveal our plan to anyone then, not even my father. We hadn't received much more food in the ghetto, but there we didn't do the hard work that Steineck demanded. Calories in particular were the prerequisite for endurance.

After our evening soup, which I still couldn't swallow easily, I slid into my bunk, covered myself, and fell asleep. The dutiful bells too soon announced time to rise, and the hectic chase began instantly. In the next hour we had to wash, dress, be at the kitchen in time for rations, eat, and then report for roll call before going to work. On the road I decided to take my chances. Thinking of the many times that Tadek had let Marek go to the spring by himself, I thought he had every reason to trust us.

"Would you let Marek go into the bakery for a few minutes?" I asked, promising to make it up to him.

Reluctantly Tadek agreed. "Make sure he returns quickly," he said.

It was a tense moment before Marek came back with two round loaves of bread under his arms, each the size of a bicycle wheel. The aroma of fresh baked bread followed him. "He will sell us as much bread as we want," Marek said triumphantly. "Beginning next week he'll bake twenty extra for us every day."

Except for the money, all elements of our undertaking were in place. What bread Marek brought was quickly ripped to pieces. Of course it wasn't enough, and inmates began to grumble. Someone said, "Tomorrow I'll also go in."

I feared this might lead to chaos and destroy our endeavor. I asked the man not to go and told him that our plans were to organize for everyone. Anyway, we had a few days to work it out. We knew that it was necessary to gamble in order to survive. What was safe, and how far we could go, remained open to question. At noon that day I went to meet Zosia. Our conversation was light. There was no mention of camp, Nazis, or politics. We had a more normal boy-girl relationship now. Zosia was my heroine, and she excited me. When I asked her if she had a boyfriend, she said no.

Zosia took the note I had written to my family and promised to send it at the first opportunity. In this letter I did not mention Steineck's harsh conditions. I assured my mother that Zosia could be trusted as an intermediary.

When we parted I kissed Zosia's forehead and cheeks. She made me feel warm inside, and I looked forward to seeing her as often as possible. When I returned to the camp, all the inmates were back at work. Unnoticed, I passed the dining barracks. Not a soul was in the office. Stasia, however, knew of my absence. No sooner was I back than she came with a plate of food. Eating scraps reminded me of our new place in this bizarre social disorder, but it was difficult to go hungry and be proud at the same time.

"Don't let the Germans see you away from the construction site. Some, as you know, hate Jews," she said protectively. Stasia loved playing this role. I learned that one couldn't hide things from her for too long. It was far better to have her on your side. I decided to take Stasia into my confidence.

"Stasia, I've met a girl from the garden nursery whom I like," I said. Her eyes narrowed as she grinned at me. Looking me in the face, with her colorful kupka (kerchief) riding up her forehead, she gave me a triumphant smile, as if to affirm that her suspicions had been correct.

"I knew there was something like that. Be careful. You know we are not allowed to fraternize with you. I don't mean you, but with all of you." She stopped and thought for a minute. "Some of our people don't like Jews because they opposed Christianity. I know, Bronek, that all early Christians were Jews. And our religion was founded by one coming from Jews. To me, Bronek, even if they aren't Christian, they are still people," she philosophized.

Stasia regarded me differently once she could express her enmity for the German occupation. She knew I wasn't bound by secrecy alone but by what an inmate could allow himself to say. Thus I also became her confidant and heard a lot of company gossip. She too had her secrets, for she was having an affair with Witczak.

Each day Papa's face grew thinner and more sallow, and I knew I had to get him transferred as quickly as possible. The next day at noon, Papa waited for me at the office. Although everyone had always thought I resembled my mother, Stasia saw the resemblance between me and Papa. Later I asked her if she couldn't use one more hand around the kitchen. "Is it your father you have in mind?"

"Yes," I said.

"Who is his foreman?"

"He works for Schmerele."

"For Schmerele?" she repeated, surprised. "He is an unpredictable son of a bitch. They all are," she added. On that occasion she made it known that she was still unhappy with the potato peelers. I promised to talk once more to our people. By the end of the day she had worked it out so that Papa could start on Monday.

"As for Mr. Witczak, don't worry. I will take care of it," she said. My father took the news with great happiness, although neither good nor bad impacted him very much then. He had a strange kind of spiritual dignity. As the youngest in the family, I was at the center of his life. Nearly illiterate himself, he was proud of his son's scholastic progress. For the first time, that day I had the feeling I was doing something to help my father.

It was Thursday, and I had to tell Tadek that we wanted to pick things up from the bakery daily. It was then that I began to hear that he and the other guards liked the class ring I wore. "The baker promised to bake some extra breads for us. Will you let us pick them up?" I asked Tadek.

"Hmm," he grumbled. It wasn't yes or no.

I took the ring off my finger. "Tadek, I don't have much use here for this. I'd like to give it to you."

He glanced at me and at the ring. "You don't have to do this." He hesitated and then finally agreed. "But if someone gets caught, I don't know anything."

"It's still dark at that hour. No one will catch us. And if they do, I guarantee you'll not be involved," I said. Little could I guarantee, but we could move on with our plans. Still, we were taking chances. I felt that someday something might go wrong, and eventually it did. But that was much later, so until then we had a source for badly needed extra food.

Marek collected enough zlotys for the week. The rest, I thought, should be relatively easy to find.

In only a week at Steineck, so much had happened.

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