The Nizkor Project: Remembering the Holocaust (Shoah)

The Trial of Adolf Eichmann
Session 68
(Part 9 of 9)

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 machinery?

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 dismantling?

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

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 gassing.

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 morning?

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 latrine.

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 death.

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 October.

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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