We had once again been moved and we were now in Rzeszow and using it as our new operating base. Sarge came looking for us bearing what he called “the good news” and this time he actually thought it was. Sarge had strange ideas about what constituted "good news" and I always winced mentally when he showed up with his shit job smile and "good news" on his lips.
We had been picked for what was considered by our superiors as a good duty assignment. They may have thought so, but most of us never would have volunteered for it. Most of us by then knew better then to volunteer for anything. The only thing good about it I could see was that it was a change. We, meaning our squad, including Sarge and the Lieutenant had been assigned. We were to proceed to Krakow where we would be providing train security for a load of Jews being transported to Auschwitz.
We were driven to Krakow the next day were upon our arrival the Lieutenant went to check in with the local authorities. Here, that meant the local Schutzpolizei commander, as Krakow rated its own garrison. They had what we considered pretty soft duty. They were the town’s local law enforcement which meant they were more likely to be walking a beat, rattling doors, and checking papers than getting shot at. Nice, safe, and cushy, so of course we looked down on them. They found us a suddenly vacant house to stay in, and arranged for us to draw dinner from their mess.
The Lieutenant, the local police commander, and the head of the Gestapo there spent the night getting drunk. Hans, Lothar, and Sarge disappeared with the local police sergeant who had served with Sarge somewhere, sometime, or knew somebody who had. I didn’t quite figure it out and didn’t really care. The rest of us stretched out on the floor because Hans, before he left, had claimed the one decent bed. I didn’t care, back then I could sleep on the floor and wake up feeling rested.
The next morning we had breakfast and began the process. I didn't expect anything different from the usual roundup except we probably weren't going to make any money. There were far too many eyes an agencies represented here. The Jew leadership had been told to have 2,000 people waiting at 05:30 a.m. and they did. During the process of checking them in we didn’t have much to do. This was definitely appreciated by Hans who was nursing what looked like a brutal hangover.
At 07:45 a.m. we got the word to begin loading them into the empty cars of the train that had arrived late the previous night. The Jews were being held directly outside the station. The Security Police would release a hundred at a time to the loading platform. The local Schutzpolizei were handling the perimeter security on their side of the train station. We provided it for the other side, while a mixed bag of Gestapo and SD supervised the actual loading with help from the Jewish police from the ghetto.
The first group of a hundred was flushed through the doors leading to the platform where we stood. We watched as they quickly packed the hundred Jews into a car and then local labor hired for the job would nail shut the doors. The train, with a big commotion of squealing wheels and plumes of steam would ease forward until the next boxcar was at the platform. It was hot, very hot, and we could already hear the Jews in the first boxcar yelling for water and help. Very annoying people these Jews could be.
Of course the carpenters ran out of nails early on which delayed everything. We stood around until someone found more nails and we had most of the boxcars loaded around 4:00 pm. We all agreed that if this had been Germany we would have been done by lunchtime. By the time we did finish the Jews who had been loaded first were beginning to quiet down a little. Sometime during all this the little devils had been busy breaking out of their cars which didn't help in us getting it done and moving on.
Lothar, two of the new guys, and a couple of Jewish Police were guarding the side of the train that was on the opposite side of the platform. Occasionally a shot or two would ring out from there. About every two hours or so, the men who were nailing the Jews in would have to stop what they were doing, and go fix an opening in one of the cars that the Jews had created in their attempt to escape.
I was relieved and told to go around and make sure everything was okay with Lothar. I took one of the Jewish police with me. Lothar was tired and pissed. I asked him how he was doing and if he needed anything.
“Hell yes! I need a pack of smokes, something real to drink, water, and some bread."
I laughed, “Okay, so how are you really doing.”
“This is crap Willi. It’s fucking hot on this side and these assholes are like rats. All they do is chew, chew, and chew at the wood. They just won’t fucking shut up or quit their gnawing.”
I just shook my head.
“How is it on your side?”
“A lot better than this that’s for sure.” I took of my hat and wiped my face. “Your right, it’s at least ten degrees hotter on this side. Any idea when we will be done Willi?”
“I don’t know Lothar, maybe two, three hours at this rate.”
“Damn. Well at least by then the sun will start going down.”
All during our conversation there was a steady background buzz of moans and cries from the boxcars. It had been going on all day and after awhile I didn’t hear it anymore except when it dropped significantly in volume. “Hey Lothar, what happened to them?” Over on the far side of the railroad tracks about thirty feet from were we were standing there were five nude male bodies laid out in a row.
“How come they’re nude? You got bored and decided play hide the sausage?"
“Fuck you Willi,” he said tiredly. They are all naked in there.
“Huh?” I looked at him quizzically.
“It’s the heat idiot, they strip to stay cool.”
“Ah. I knew that.”
He shook his head disgustedly. “Go! And don’t forget the cigarettes” he yelled at my back as I walked away. I found Sarge who had one of the Jewish police run smokes and a couple of bottles over to Lothar. We also began rotating the men over on his side.
As the day slipped away I began hoping the local Schutzpolizei who would post some guards and we would be able to go back to our room, take a shower, and get some sleep but alas it was not to be. There was a schedule to be met and rolling stock was in high demand. Plus letting them sit there on the track would mean they would be gnawing and running all night. If we were moving, it would be a lot harder for them to escape from the boxcars.
We got the signal to go, boarded the train, and started slowly moving. The moving slowly part turned out to be a problem. The little devils wouldn’t quit trying to escape. We were riding in the caboose and it got dark outside when the sun finally disappeared. If you have never lived out in the country you can not imagine how dark it got out there. It didn’t help that moon was new so it was not producing any light at all. Our little Jewish rats hadn’t stopped their gnawing and were beginning to escape again.
This was not a good thing as it made the Lieutenant very pissed. He had no desire to be held responsible for any successful escapes. We tried shooting at them but we missed consistently. When the morning sun came up it made a big difference in our accuracy, plus we finally began rolling fast enough that gravity was taking more of a toll on them than we were. I don't know how many we lost but no one seemed upset about it so I guess it was no big deal.
We have not yet been to a concentration camp and we had no idea what to expect. Well, that’s not true. We knew what they were being used for, and what happened to the Jews, and who ever else was unfortunate enough to catch a ride on one these trains. We knew it, but we really didn’t dwell on it, no reason to. Looking back it was just another part of our world. As remarkable to us as visiting a steel mill in another state would be for a steelworker. They just used different methods to produce the same results.
Auschwitz was considered a good destination by our superiors. Of course the officer quarters, and the entertainments provided in them were far superior than what was provided to the enlisted. For many the quality of the food alone was worth the trip. Of course nobody really mentioned the environment that surrounded the officer housing.
We arrived around 8:00 am. I had watched the fields and woods pass by for the last hour as we had run out of ammunition shortly after sunrise. I was puzzled by the houses. Some of them had purple stripes painted on them. I asked, but nobody knew what it meant. We all agreed it had to a recognition sign of some sort. I never did find out why that was done.
The train was routed off to a spur and stopped outside the entrance to the camp. We stepped out yawning and stretching. It was a beautiful morning. Dieter asked Sarge, “We going to get fed here?” Sarge looked over at the Lieutenant who nodded. “Yeah, we will get fed.” The Lieutenant told us “Alright, I have to report in to the receiving officer. Sarge will get you fed and a reissue on ammo. Don’t stray too far until I find out when we are leaving.” He began walking towards two SS men who were headed towards us. Behind them were a group of scraggly looking fellows in blue and white striped uniforms. Their scragglyness was in stark contrast to the SS men who were immaculate in their grey uniforms. Their boots gleamed in the morning sun as mine hadn’t for quite a while now.
Sarge growled “Straighten up, you look like freaking Ukrainians.” The SS officers approached us while carrying on a one sided conversation with the Lieutenant. Behind them the striped suits were ripping off the wood that had been nailed to the doors. SS men, some with dogs, had surrounded the train. It was obvious they had done this before. The two SS men stopped when they reached Sarge. One was a Captain, the other was a Master Sergeant. The Captain had a riding crop instead of a grenade tucked into his belt. He stood there staring at us while the Master Sergeant stood about a pace behind him.
Our Lieutenant finally realized what he was supposed to be doing. “Captain Dorfmann, may I present the men for you inspection?”
“No. No inspection is necessary. That’s quite all right, Lieutenant. But I would like to say a few words to them.”
“Of course Captain,” he clicked his heels, nodded, and took a step back. “Good afternoon men. I can see by your uniforms,” meaning our decorations, “That you are not new to this. I am aware that men such as yourselves have performed admirably the difficult tasks that have been assigned to you. You will be staying here for the night. Your train is needed to transport articles of importance back to the Reich. We will make your stay here as comfortable as possible. Anything you see in your stay will remain amongst yourselves of course. Master Sergeant Wagner will see to your needs including the replenishment of your supplies. He ended with the obligatory salute for SS officers “Heil Hitler.”