The Nizkor Project: Remembering the Holocaust (Shoah)

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Last-Modified: 1999/06/08

Presiding Judge: What was your profession?

Witness Oppenheimer:   By profession I was a businessman.
But then I could not be a businessman, because businessmen
and intellectuals were all gassed.

Attorney General: What happened to you in Gleiwitz?

Witness Oppenheimer:   Well, when I arrived in Gleiwitz, at
the camp, with the others, the head of the camp there
immediately addressed the newcomers and said he oould only
use qualified skilled workers and everyone had to make a
show piece in order to show that he really was what he
claimed to be. The other two, who together with me had
claimed to be mechanics, were in fact watchmakers and I
said, I am only an untrained precision mechanic - back home
I was a medical orderly. I could safely say orderly, I had
studied medicine for several terms, so I could - I
understood a bit about medicine and if I had said
businessman, naturally things would have gone badly with me
and so I preferred to say: orderly, and then I was sent to a
transport detail, and from dawn to dusk we had to drag heavy
pieces of iron from the machine shop  to the waggons - there
was a machine shop there where cannons or parts of cannons
were made.

Attorney General: And there they dismantled machinery?

Presiding Judge: They dismantled machinery or they unloaded

Witness Oppenheimer:   The work was assembling machinery and
assembling parts of cannons, in other words they made
cannons, cannon parts and small instruments.

Attorney General: And was your work assembling or

Witness Oppenheimer:   I was in the transport detail, I
transported the iron pieces from the machine shop to the

Q.  On one occasion potatoes were discovered on you?

A.  Yes, but that was not in Gleiwitz. We were about - that
was about a month after I got to Gleiwitz - about 60-70
people were loaded on to two lorries with an SS guard detail
of about 10 men and taken off to a bombed camp, I don't
remember its name - Glugau, Glogau or something of the sort.
We travelled for about two hours, two and a half or three
hours in the truck, I really do not remember what the estate
was called, and we went to the bombed machine shop to
dismantle the parts that could still be used. We slept there
on the bare floor, it was already bitterly cold, it was
sometime around November, and during the daytime we
dismantled the parts of machinery, the bits which were still
usable, loaded them on to trucks so they could be taken to
Gleiwitz. And then in the evening after work we had to peel
the potatoes for the next day. And we were very hungry, we
had received very little to eat and of course one or another
tried to - we called it to "organize" - something for
himself to take a few potatoes for us. Afterwards we were
searched as we left the building, the man who sat next to
me, a Czech, he had six or seven potatoes, and I was less
adept, I only had one single potato. We were noted down, our
number on our arm was written down, and the next evening at
the roll-call the person who kept the report, or the person
who had been appointed to keep the record, suddenly called
out our numbers: "B 12793" - "Here" - "sentenced to death
for sabotage, death by hanging. The sentence is to be
carried out immediately."

Presiding Judge: Why don't you drink some water?

Witness Oppenheimer:   The Czech was then hanged.

Presiding Judge: When you say Czech, you mean the Czech Jew?

Witness Oppenheimer:   Yes, the Czech Jew, all the time it
was only Jews. The Czech Jew was hanged, but not like people
are normally hanged, being placed on a box which is then
kicked away, but he was hoisted into the air. It was a very
painful death, and then it was my turn, and when I already
had the cord round my neck, the camp commandant said, "that
is the one who only had one potato," and then the other SS
man said, "yes, let's suspend him for a couple of hours with
his hands up." I believe that at that moment I would have by
far preferred being hanged properly. My hands were tied
behind my back, and I was suspended like that. Nature, thank
God, is far more merciful than people, I immediately lost
consciousness after this incredible pain, and I don't know
how long I was suspended there, a minute, two minutes, five
minutes, eight days - I have no idea. I do not believe that
I hung there for very long. When I came round I was lying on
the floor of the machine shop and a doctor who was with us
in the transport was trying with all his strength to replace
my arms, which had been dislocated, and he gave me
compresses the whole night long. The next day, naturally, I
had to carry on working, exactly as I had before. I had to
carry on working in the transport detail, my friends - of
course they did everything they could to give me lighter
jobs, but it was very difficult.

Presiding Judge: But you did continue to work the next day?

Witness Oppenheimer:   Yes, I had to work, otherwise I would
have been hanged properly.

Attorney General: Mr. Oppenheimer, what happened around
Christmas 1944?

Witness Oppenheimer:   We had been in this commando for
about ten or twelve days, and one day we came back and on
Christmas Eve we got good food, a portion of bread and
margarine and even jam, which apart from that we never had,
preserves, and on the second day of Christmas two SS
officers who did not belong to our camp turned up. We had to
line up, and then they chose some 60 or 70 out of all those
who had lined up, including myself, and we had to go into
the block, the barracks, we had to take our clothes off and
then we stood there naked, most of us were already
absolutely exhausted, we were already what in the
concentration camps was called Muselmaenner, we were weak
and emaciated. The weakest ones were selected, there were
some 40 people whose ribs were protruding, then our numbers
were noted and we immediately knew what that meant, and if
we had not known our block leader told us in his own way in
the evening, in other words that in the coming days we would
go up the chimney. So we knew that we had been selected for

Q.  What saved your life this time, Mr. Oppenheimer?

A.  Nothing. No transports were running by then, no one left
Gleiwitz. I was the orderly there, the previous orderly had
been beaten to death, I believe, in any case as orderly for
four days I became a doctor.

Q.  Are you saying, Mr. Oppenheimer, that at that time the
killings by gas stopped?

A.  I cannot say that, but in any case nothing left
Gleiwitz, we were not picked up, although we had been
selected as Muselmaenner, not one of all those who were
written down left the camp, no lorry came to pick us up, no
one else was sent from Gleiwitz to Auschwitz.

The entire group remained intact, then we started to hear
the sound of guns, it came nearer and nearer and of course
in the camp there were rumours that the Russians were
coming, and on 17 January, or 19 January 1945 we were woken
up very early in the morning, earlier than usual, we had to
turn out for a roll-call and the camp commandant made a
speech, saying that we were going to march off. Everyone
received a ration of bread and margarine, but we were not
allowed to touch it - we were not allowed to eat our ration
until noon, because that was our rations for the journey. We
had to support each other, but no one was allowed to remain
behind, because we shouldn't get any ideas about ever
falling alive into the hands of the Russians.

It was not until then that we knew that the Russians were
very close and that we were fleeing from the Russians and
were being deported to another concentration camp.

Q.  And then the march started.

A.  And then the march started. Each of us received a whole
loaf of bread and an entire package of margarine. That was
unheard-of riches. A whole loaf! But we were not to touch
it. We were wearing wooden clogs, shoes with wooden soles,
and of course these striped pyjamas. And each of us was
allowed to take his blanket. We put the blankets round us,
it was winter, January, bitterly cold. There was snow on the
ground and we marched. Every few metres there were SS men
with loaded weapons. And the snow had an unpleasant
characteristic of sticking to the bottom of the clogs, so
that you got taller and taller, until the snow would drop
off. And then most of us were not able to walk properly any
more, they somehow had to pull themselves along with their
arms. After two or three hours most of us had thrown away
our most valuable possession, the bread and margarine,
because we simply could not carry it any more. We were not
allowed to turn round, but we heard shots and we knew what
they meant. Everyone who remained behind and could not carry
on was shot. I had a very painful inflammation of the groin,
and I could no longer lift my legs, and two companions
supported me, and in this way we continued to march without
rest for a night and two days, until we reached the
Blechhammer concentration camp. In large letters over the
gate it said, "Arbeit macht frei" (Work makes free). And
when we arrived, it was late at night, there were SS men
waiting at the gate for us, they laid into us because -
after a march of one night and two days - we did not sing as
we went through the camp. A whole shower of blows rained
down upon us. We tried to support each other.My friend who
was supporting me put his arm up to protect his head and
mine, and his arm was broken by the blows. I only received a
violent blow on my back.

Q.  And the next morning you were all ordered to report for
roll-call on the parade ground?

A.  Yes. We were given food in the barracks, there was a
wonderful hot bean soup, which naturally no one could eat,
because we were too exhausted, we had only one desire, to
lie down, and a Kapo came in, I don't remember if it was a
Kapo or an SS man, I cannot say for sure any more, he told
us that the next day we would be able to remain lying down.

Q.  But nevertheless you were ordered to get up the next

A.  Yes, the next morning there was another roll-call and we
were told that we would be moving off in half an hour, we
should all get ready at the double. But I had a very painful
injury of the groin, I could not walk any more, I told the
two friends who had supported me throughout the whole long
march that they should go on alone, because I really could
no longer lift my legs, and by then I no longer cared where
I died and I would rather die here than on the road. These
two friends said that in that case they would prefer to stay
with me rather than going with the transport, and we lay
down on beds in another barracks and tried to sleep. The SS
marched off, we knew that, with all the prisoners, with
almost all of them, there were a few prisoners left, in this
or that barracks, in our barracks there were perhaps another
ten or fifteen prisoners, who were also incapable of
marching with the rest and who had remained behind.
Suddenly, it was early in the afternoon and we had slept
like the dead, someone rushed in and shouted, "Quick, quick,
get a move on, the SS are coming back." I was so worked up
and agitated that nothing hurt me any more, we all jumped up
and the two friends next to me - I took them with me, the
latrine was opposite, and we hid ourselves there in the

We watched through the cracks and saw what happened;
naturally we were terribly worked up and we saw how shots
were fired from above, they fired downwards, and the
barracks - we could only see a small section through the
cracks, but the three barracks which were immediately
opposite us were set on fire... and the SS men then
stationed themselves at machine guns and anything that ran
out was shot down. Those who remained inside were burnt
alive, of course.

We were afraid that the latrine would also catch fire or
that the SS would come in and see us, and then we jumped
over the board and down into the pit, and that was the
stupidest thing that we could have done. Because you very
simply sink slowly down and you have no idea how deep it is,
how long it will take until you can stand.

When I was this deep in the mire I felt solid ground beneath
my feet. The smell of the burning wool, of the crackling
wood, of those who had been shot and were not yet dead, who
had run out of the barracks - I believe that that was the
worst thing that I went through in the concentration camp.
It was even worse than the moment when I was sentenced to

Q.  Mr. Oppenheimer, how long did you hide there?

A.  I do not know, I cannot say, there are moments which you
cannot measure in terms of time. It felt like ten years - it
might have been two hours, three or four hours, in any case
it was already well into dusk, but the dusk came fairly
early, until we heard people saying outside, in front of the
barracks, that all the camp gates were open, the SS had
left, they were prisoners who were talking, there were still
a fair number of prisoners who just like us, by some
miracle, had been saved like me, not all the barracks had
been set on fire, it was just the barracks opposite the
latrine. After that we called for help, several of our
fellow prisoners came over and helped to pull us out, we
washed ourselves down with snow - there was no water - as
best we could.

Q.  And after that the Soviet army came and liberated you?

A.  Yes, and it took several more days.

Q.  Blechhammer was part of the Auschwitz camp?

A.  Yes.

Q.  And what did you weigh when you were liberated?

A.  Thirty nine kilograms. The Russians weighed me when I
was liberated from the concentration camp.

Presiding Judge: Dr. Servatius, do you have any questions?

Dr. Servatius:  I have a question. Witness, you said that on
the journey from Theresienstadt to Auschwitz, this railway
journey, that you had nothing to eat, is that correct?

Witness Oppenheimer:   No, we had food, we had provisions, I
did not say that we had nothing to eat, everyone had
received food for the journey from Theresienstadt.

Dr. Servatius:  Very well, in that case I misunderstood you.
Thank you.

Witness Oppenheimer:   Perhaps I may be allowed to correct
that. Because there was a dead man in the carriage and
another who was seriously injured and was dying, none of us
had the courage and the energy to open a parcel to eat
anything. The dead man and above all the smell of decay and
the whimpering of the injured man - this was stronger than
any desire to eat.

Judge Halevi:  Mr. Oppenheimer, were you sent from
Theresienstadt to Auschwitz by a commission of SS men?

Witness Oppenheimer:   From Theresienstadt to Auschwitz? I
cannot say. We received our orders that we would be deported
from Theresienstadt about a certain time, I received mine on
4 October, as far as I can remember, and my boy - I had a
thirteen or fourteen year old boy - he received his orders
on the  same day as I for the sixth, and my boy - he was
gassed in Auschwitz, I found that out on my birthday, on 11

Q.  When did you leave Birkenau?

A.  I was not long in Birkenau, perhaps ten days.

Q.  03While you were in Birkenau, were they still using the
gas chambers?

A.  Oh yes. Of course. Every day selections were held for
the gas chambers. My son was evacuated from Theresienstadt
to Birkenau on 10 October and was then gassed.

Presiding Judge: Thank you, Mr. Oppenheimer, that completes
your testimony.

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