The Photo that Saved a Life
The Photo that Saved a Life: Letters of Auschwitz Prisoner No. 3088 Speak
The door of the cattle wagon opens with a drawn-out screech. The morning sunlight blinds the men inside. Jozef and his sixty or so companions worn out by the long journey emerge into the daylight.
“Raus! Raus!” Strident voices greet the terrified men. Helping each other, the men leave the wagon. For a brief moment, the train platform is swarmed with confused human shadows, hundreds of them.
“Raus! Los!” Heavily armed SS-men shout, push, kick, and herd the disoriented men to a distant gate. Scared and confused, the people are rushed towards a big sign “Arbeit Macht Frei.” Jozek looks at the sign. “Work… Freedom… How strange…?”
But there is no time to ponder. Behind the gate, a long alley of SS guards with horsewhips ready to strike awaits the newcomers. One by one, the captives are pushed into the alley of beating and lashing. People are falling, crawling, howling with pain, losing their bags and belongings.
Jozef is numb. He must do something. His mind searches feverishly for a solution. Yes, that’s right. He must run as fast as he can. His turn. But the alley is not clear yet. “Raus!” the order comes. He glimpses at a big SS-man. A hat bearing the death’s head emblem…, strong legs in long shiny boots spread apart. Unknown hands push him into the alley. He starts, runs full speed. Drubbings… sharp pain…. He still runs. Another blow… he trips over, loses control, and falls with impetus into a pile of barbwire at the side of the lashing line. “Raus! Raus!” A guard with the death emblem is about to hit him. He jumps up and runs away. Only now he feels a growing pain in the calf of his leg. He glances at it. His right leg bleeds profusely.
The terrorized men, many of them wounded, some already bleeding, are ordered to form a squad in the center of the yard. They stand speechless awaiting the next blow. A short, skinny, middle-aged, higher-ranking SS-man, holding a big whip, jumps on the turned up barrel and calls for a translator. Several hands go up, he chooses one.
“This is the Concentration Camp!” he croaks out. “No one will get out alive from here! You Poles remember! You don’t have your Poland anymore! Your homeland is behind these barbwires now! For us, the Germans, you are not human beings, you are just mere dunghills. You are the enemies of the Reich. There is no pity for those like you. Forget about your wives, children, and families. You will die here like animals! You have no more than three months to live! Understand!”
Stunned Jozef and his companions stand mute when suddenly heavy truncheons hail their already swelling shoulders.
“Jawohl!” the column instinctively replies. The men got the message…
The short SS-man leaves the barrel and another young and haughty SS-man takes his place.
“Now you will undress and make a bundle of your clothes. Also, you must take off your shoes.”
Horrified Jozef bites his lips. The pain is growing; numerous cuts are deep; his leg is bleeding heavily. He undresses with difficulty. Registration is next. One by one, the men approach long tables hurriedly set up in front of them.
“Name and profession?” a prisoner behind the table asks, fills out a form, and hands Jozef a card.
“This is your number,” he says in a subdued voice.
Jozef looks at the card. From now on, he becomes KL Auschwitz Number 3088.
To date, 3087 men were brought to Auschwitz and thousands more are yet to follow. Jozef puts the card to his pocket while being pushed over to another table for medical exam. A tall, bold doctor checks his ears, eyes, and mouth, and takes away his clothing, his watch, his wallet, his passport, and the wedding ring. All his possessions are placed in a paper bag clearly marked as ‘Number 3088’ and carried away. Even though Jozef pleads for help, his bleeding leg is of no interest to the bold doctor.
“Later, later, you have to move on,” the doctor hurries him.
The line must move on to the next station. Naked, barefoot and bleeding, he is led to another section of the camp where he receives underwear and a bizarre pajama consisting of pants and a shirt in blue-gray strips. That’s his new outfit… Next, he receives a metal bowl and a half liter cup. His leg doesn’t bleed anymore.
Eventually, the Warsaw transport, as they are being called here, gets something to eat. It’s a liquid of undetermined color and some potatoes. After the meal, Jozio is sent to Block 4, later renumbered as Block 12.
The Warsaw transport that arrived in Auschwitz on August 15, 1940 consisted of 1153 civilian men caught in the sudden roundup on the streets of Warsaw and 513 political prisoners from the Warsaw heavy security prison known as Pawiak. The prisoners from Pawiak consisted mostly of political and religious activists, lawyers, doctors, and officers.
At the time of Jozef’s arrival in Auschwitz, German criminals operated the camp. The very first prisoners arrived in Auschwitz in May of 1940. This transport consisted of thirty German criminals carefully selected from the Sachsenhausen concentration camp in Germany. They became the first functionaries in Auschwitz. Their main task was to supervise the prisoners and maintain discipline. As the camp grew, the functionaries were recruited from prisoners of all ethnic backgrounds. Subsequently, the camp underground movement made every effort to assure the promotion of their trusted people to functionary positions. It was a matter of life and death for the prisoners.
After the arrival of the Sachsenhausen prisoners, the subsequent transports consisted primarily of members of the Polish resistance movement from Southern Poland. The first Polish mass transport arrived in Auschwitz on June 14, 1940, from the Tarnów region. This transport consisted of 723 men, mostly Polish political prisoners. Smaller transports of Polish political prisoners from the Silesia region took place in the summer of 1940 as well. This very well industrialized region, rich in coal and other natural resources, had been hotly contested by Germany before the war, and like Gdańsk in the North, was intensely infiltrated by the aggressive German nationalistic movement. The fear of the growing Polish resistance movement in Silesia and General Government was the direct reason for the creation of the Auschwitz concentration camp. According to the initial plans, the camp was to hold about 10,000 Polish underground activists.
Every day, the camp bell rings mercilessly just before dawn and the light in the block is turned on. Crammed together, the recent arrivals rush to make their beds and dress. Jozef’s leg hurts even more. A functionary called a room-man bursts in and drives everybody out with a riding crop. Jozef is too slow thus a sharp whip lands on his head. Drips of blood veil his glasses.
After having a cup of hot liquid, supposedly coffee, the prisoners are summoned for a roll call. Every Block Senior, a functionary responsible for the block, arranges and counts his people in front of the block. He then reports his number to the block chief, this time the SS-man in charge of the larger squad who, in turn, reports his numbers to the SS officer in charge of the roll call.
One of many ways to torment the prisoners is the roll call. In normal circumstances, the roll call lasts one or two hours. In the event of the escape, the roll call lasts interminably. The longest recorded roll call in the men’s camp that lasted 20 hours took place in July of 1940 after the escape of Tadeusz Wiejowiejski. This time, the morning roll call lasts just over 2 hours.
After the roll call, training begins. The capos train the new arrivals to form rows of fives, snap to attention, make turns, line up, etc. Poor execution of a command results in an attack of rage with a beating of anybody who is nearby. Jozef moves with difficulties. His leg is swelling badly. He gets kicks and heavy hits and ultimately falls down. A haughty SS-man with a hound dog at his side orders him to get up. But Jozef does not jump up. Instead, he points to his hurting leg. And that is his grave mistake. The puffed up superior human being sets his bloodthirsty dog right on Jozef. Long sharp fangs sink into tender flesh of Jozef’s thigh. Pain, fright, and in the end infinite blackness embraces him.
The next day, Jozef wakes up in the infirmary. He battles high fever for several days. Caring hands of other inmates help him recover but the leg is badly swollen and sore. He cannot walk. While he recovers in the infirmary, a new transport of about 100 German criminal and political prisoners arrives at Auschwitz. They will become the new capos, the rumors are.
During his stay, the infirmary is in the process of being transformed into a camp hospital. A high-ranking SS doctor will oversee the operations. Hans Bock, a German criminal number 5, one of the earliest Auschwitz arrivals, becomes the senior functionary in the hospital. His deputy will be Peter Welscha number 3207, a newly arrived German with the number ‘younger’ than Jozef. The new managers select several Polish doctors to work for them. Among the selected ones is the bold doctor with whom Jozef has been developing a good relationship. Slowly, Jozef starts walking. Thanks to the bold doctor, Jozef is not sent immediately back to the block but instead is given time to regain strength.
Soon after the arrival of the new German transport, rage breaks out in the camp. The occasion is very special – first anniversary of the German invasion of Poland. The camp Deputy Commander calls all the prisoners out and announces that, from now on, all camp activities shell be performed not by walking but by… Laufschrit… meaning – running. He then turns the prisoners into the hands of the newly arrived oppressors.
That day there was no end to the sadistic tormenting. The prisoners like animals in training kept jumping, running, turning around, rolling, hopping, and doing push-ups. Some were climbing the trees while the oppressors were pursuing them with sticks and riding crops. The Deputy Commander was walking from one group to another inciting the new oppressors in their rage. People were falling like flies. Several dozens of heavily beaten bodies had to be removed from the yard after the rage by those who withstood the ordeal. This task had to be performed by running, of course.
Miraculously, Jozef escaped this ordeal by remaining in the hospital. He was sent back to the block the next day. But he also landed a job as a nurse’s aide in the newly formed hospital. For Jozef, his first job was a blessing, not much physical effort, occasionally some extra food, and a relatively safe and warm working environment. In 1940 the hospital was still in the business of offering medical treatment to its patients. But in 1941 its focus would shift towards so-called “routine selections” for the gas chamber and mass murders by phenol injections.
Several of Jozef’s friends from the Warsaw transport, mostly Jews and Catholic priests ended up in Straffkompanie – the penal company. One of the newly arrived German criminals, Eric Krankemann Number 3217, was appointed a Block Senior of the penal company. He began his career in the camp by hanging another German prisoner.
The next day, he selected a group of older people from his block and forced them to push a huge ram roller, at least two meters in diameter, forcing them to level the main square of the camp. Fat as a pig, Krankemann stood at the shaft of the roller like a warrior on the military chariot, hitting the swaying men in front of him with a long riding crop. The rest of the prisoners had to watch this bestial demonstration.
“Look at this monster,” a man next to Jozef whispers, pointing at Krankemann. “That’s how the victim of Fascism looks like…”
One of the men falls. Krankemann cheers and forces the others ahead. The man on the ground is slowly pressed down and run over by the roller. The spectators clench their fists…
Photo: Jan Baraś-Komski, Collections of the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum.
By now Jozef is bold like everybody else. His picture is taken in three poses, face on and two profiles. He is even permitted to write a letter home but first he has to register his home address on a special form.
“Why do they need to register our home address?” he wonders.
“You don’t know?” the inmates are ironically surprised. “They have to know where to send a death notice.”
“Or to take your loved ones as hostages in case you dream of escaping from here,” others add laughing viciously.
Shivers run through Jozef’s body. But it is pointless to worry about it. He already gave Danusia’s address for the records. Now he has to write a letter! But what to write? “Don’t worry,” his friends advise him. “They will tell you what to write…”
Indeed, the first letter is straightforward. The block-man brings a big blackboard and special forms on which the letters will be written. He then prints the pre-approved text on the blackboard. The text, written in German, is as follows:
Dear (so and so):
I want to let you know that I am in the KL Auschwitz. I am healthy and fine. I hope you are healthy and fine too. In the camp, we have a shop in which we can buy food and cigarettes.
The healthy, sick, and the dying had the right to write such a letter. Asking for money was forbidden, though. Official instructions on the standard form letter informed the addressee that the prisoner could receive two letters per month with each letter not exceeding fifteen lines per page. Sending anything else was prohibited and was subject to confiscation. Petitions for release were not accepted, visits were forbidden.
On September 22, another huge transport arrived from Warsaw. It consisted of 1139 men from the street round-up and 566 Pawiak prisoners. Among them Jozio recognized many familiar faces, including Zenek Gara from the State Mint and Witek Pilecki. Witek was one of the senior officers of the Secret Polish Army. In the camp, Witek was known as Tomasz Serafinski Number 4859. After the war, it was revealed that Witek voluntarily joined one of the groups caught in the Warsaw street round-up in order to develop underground resistance structures in Auschwitz, link them with the outside world, and notify the West about the crimes committed at the Auschwitz Concentration Camp.
In the meantime, Danusia interrogates everybody in Warsaw about Auschwitz. She reads the underground press, talks with the people at the Mint, visits churches and talks with many priests. But she doesn’t talk about her early pregnancy with anybody, not even with Mama.
Returning one day to her apartment, she notices Mrs. Kiszkiel anxiously awaiting her at the door.
“Danusia!” the old woman exclaims. “You have mail. A letter from Jozef!”
With reverence, Danusia reaches out for a small piece of paper.
Konzentrationslager Auschwitz – a big print on the front jumps at her. And a bright red stamp – Deutches Reich… The letter is written in German though and she can’t read it.
In despair she turns to Mrs. Kiszkiel.
“Can you read it?”
“Not really, my dear, but maybe my husband can. This text is very brief, so maybe he can help.”
Mr. Kiszkiel, a grand style old gentleman sits in his armchair, as always with a cigar, his cane and a top hat nearby. He reads something. When approached, he takes the letter and looks it over with great curiosity.
“Rather brief and laconic. Hmm… I bet they censor it pretty well. Let’s see. But you know, I am not that good in German.” He pauses, correcting his glasses.
“My Dearest Danusia!”
“I am in good… health… Don’t worry.” He stops and cleans his glasses. “Please write and… and let my mother… know about me.” He snorts and wheezes. “I will write… to you…. two letters… per month. Love, Jozef.”
He looks it over again. “Oh, here is his address, his…’Gef. Nr…,’ I wonder what that is…, maybe it’s like… like a prisoner number, and his block number,” he points to the front of the envelope. “You may ask someone else to translate it again. I think I got it right but I am not sure.” He looks exhausted.
But Danusia is ecstatic. Jozef is alive and well. Now that she has found him, she has to get him back. But first, she has to write back. She has to write immediately to let him know about the baby!
“Thank you Mr. Kiszkiel, thank you! I am wondering…” Danusia continues with hesitation, “I must write him back and I am wondering whether you could translate my letter into German?”
Mr. Kiszkiel inhales the cigar. “I would prefer not to. Only if needed…”
“Whom should I ask?” Danusia brainstorms her options. “Oh, I know! Maybe Mrs. Sowinska will help. After all, German is her native language.”
“That sounds like your best option.” Mr. Kiszkiel is relieved.
Danusia goes back to her room and examines the letter in great detail. One half of the front of the envelope is covered with small print in German. It starts with these big letters Konzentrationslager Auschwitz and looks like some sort of official instructions. The date on the envelope is only half legible. Looks like September 16. It means the letter has been delivered within just a few days. It also means that her letter could reach Jozef quickly and that, at last, she could let him know about the baby! She has to write immediately.
Early in the morning, she rushes to Mrs. Sowinska without even stopping at Mama’s house. Mrs. Sowinska, in her long sleeping gown, opens the door. Trying to catch her breath, Danusia hands her the letter through the door. Mrs. Sowinska glances at it and invites her in while reading the brief text and translating it simultaneously. The translation is in essence the same.
“Mrs. Sowinska,” Danusia says, “could you please help me write a letter to Jozef? I am afraid it has to be in German.”
“Let’s see…” Mrs. Sowinska focuses on the small official print next to the addressee. “Yes, I guess you are right. It says here that you can write back no more than fifteen lines per page. It has to be in German, I think.”
“Can we do it now?” Danusia begs her.
“Well, I was planning . . . but if you are ready. . . then let’s do it now.”
Danusia swallows hard and tries to concentrate. With her eyelids half closed, she begins dictating. But how to squeeze everything in? What to say? She tries hard to calm down.
“My Dearest Jozio!
I have just received the first letter from you. We all are very happy that you are in good health. I already wrote to your mother and sister in Kolo. I will write to them again today. We all are in good health and miss you very much.”
Danusia stops somehow troubled. A dark blue pen swings in Ms. Sowinska’s hand. “You can write more. We still have plenty of room. Go ahead.”
“I also want to let you know that… I am pregnant.”
Mrs. Sowinska drops the pen. “Are you sure?” She asks in a shaky voice.
Without raising her eyes, Danusia nods and tries to continue. “The doctor has said that this is the second month.” She dictates without looking at Ms. Sowinska. “I very much want to have this baby…. But if you think otherwise, I will terminate this pregnancy. Please let me know what to do.
With love, Danusia.”
“You can write more. There is still room.” Mrs. Sowinska says.
Danusia looks at the page with several blank verses at the bottom, looks at Mrs. Sowinska, and at the page again. “No, I don’t have anything else. Maybe next time.” She sinks heavily into the chair, her hand forced against the temple.
“It looks like you have a headache.” Mrs. Sowinska observes. “I would give you a headache pill but I don’t know whether you can take it now.”
“Thank you, you are so kind. I will go to Mama now. She has a special warming ointment that always helps me.”
“But wait, let’s address this envelope.” Mrs. Sowinska carefully copies the address.
“I will write the return address myself. This way he will see my handwriting.” Danusia says.
“Very good. And take care of yourself!” Mrs. Sowinska hands her the envelope and warmly pats her on the shoulders.
“Thank you very much.” Danusia rushes out.
“Mama, look! A letter from Jozef! He is in Auschwitz but he is fine!”
Standing in the door, Mama stares at the letter.
“But Mama, I will come home later, after work. Now I have to run to the post office. Mrs. Sowinska has helped me write my reply. See you later.”
“Danusia…!” Mama tries to say something but Danusia is long gone. “A reply. I am wondering what sort of reply …” She ponders, closing the door.
After work, Danusia comes home exhausted. Her head is about to explode. Her stomach hurts badly. She lies down on the sofa while Mama gently puts a cold pad on her forehead and carefully applies the magic ointment on her temple.
Dad comes home and energetically drops his tool bag on the floor. “Danusia, what’s wrong with you?”
“I am just tired Dad. I will be all right, don’t worry.”
“She got a letter from Jozef today…” Mama says. “From Auschwitz.” She adds timidly.
“Where is it? Show it to me!”
Danusia points out to her handbag. “It’s in German but Mrs. Sowinska translated it for me. It doesn’t say much and I already wrote him back.”
Dad hurriedly inspects the letter. “What did you write?” He asks absently with his attention fully focused on the letter.
“That we are fine… and that I wrote to Kolo …and…and…”
“And what else?” He glances at her somehow impatiently.
“Dad, I must tell you that too… I guess… I am pregnant…”
“Whaaaat?!!!!” Dad’s horrifying roar cuts through the air like a thunder. In desperate fury he turns to Mama. “Is that true?!!!”
“Yes, Alek. That’s true. But calm down, please!” Mama grabs his hand but he jerks it away.
“That’s insanity! That’s the worst joke I ever heard! All we need now is for her to have a baby! The man is in the death camp and she is going to have a baby in the middle of the cannibal feast! That’s wonderful!”
“He is not in a death camp!” Danusia jumps out and faces up to him. “Jozef is alive and well, and I will get him back! I will, for sure, no matter what!” She screams, yells, and cries, all at once.
“You two sit down, NOW!” Mama pushes herself in between them.
“Go to hell! All of you!” Dad raises his hands in grief and walks away.
Mama takes Danusia in her arms. “Be quiet Danusia, be quiet. You know his choleric temper. But he will calm down.” She gently carries trembling and crying Danusia to the sofa. After taking some time, she finally asks: “So, what did you write about the baby?”
“I… simply asked him… whether…whether he wants me to… have this baby,” she chokes out sobbing.
“Well, you left this decision to him, then.”
“Mama,” Danusia raises slightly her head, “I want to have this baby.” She says forcefully. “But if he tells me ‘no’ – then I may decide… not to…”
“Okay, my dear, okay. Why don’t you sleep now?” Mama covers her tenderly with a blanket, glances at her with sorrow, and walks out on her toes.
“Alek! I have to have a serious talk with him. This is unacceptable.” She looks around the house but he is nowhere near. He must have gone out. She looks through the window and goes out. To her amazement, she notices Alek as gentle as a lamb talking quietly with Mr. Chyzynski, one of the Polish quality control inspectors at the mint.
“It’s not the same Alek.” She observes and curiously approaches the men from behind. “I am wondering what is it that calms him down so effectively.”
Even though the two men didn’t see her, they instinctually realized her presence and fell silent at once.
“Hello Mr. Chyzynski.” She says trying to cover up her intentions. “I need him if you don’t mind.”
The quiet man looks at her with his deep intense eyes. “He is all yours, Madam.” Bowing politely, he sends Alek a strange categorical look and walks away.
“What did he want?” Jasia can’t resist asking.
“Oh, nothing special, just business.”
She looks at Alek also categorically. “We need to have a serious talk about Danusia.”
“What is there to talk about? She must get rid of this baby business right way. There is nothing to talk about. And I understand you will take care of it. Otherwise I will step in.”
“Don’t be silly. This is not the end of the world. She wants to have this baby, you understand!”
“Oh, sure she wants because she knows we will take care of everything. That’s not fair. It’s not fair to you.”
“But I don’t mind.” Jasia looks at him provocatively.
“But don’t you understand? She will totally ruin her life and jeopardize her chances to survive this madness. Honestly, Jozef doesn’t stand any chance to survive this death camp. Can you imagine a nineteen-year-old widow with a child in the middle of this hell on earth? I can’t.” Alek gesticulates furiously.
“Well, first we have to think about her immediate well-being. She is sick and depressed. I believe she should move back home and give up this apartment at Kiszkiels. You have to stop your hysteria and be nice to her. She wrote to Jozef asking him what to do. If he writes back that she should not have this baby, then she would probably get rid of it. But for now, we have to wait.”
“Do you believe that this man on death row will tell her to abort his baby? No way, especially a former candidate for a Catholic priest. Now, he struggles to survive. And her interest is at best a distant thought to him. Isn’t that obvious?” This time Alek looks at her provocatively.
“But you must understand also that having a baby will make her more cautious and more careful. She won’t volunteer for any suicidal mission as many of our young people around are longing for. Look at Zbyszek, you know how difficult it is to keep him out of trouble today.”
Alek shakes his head. “But the baby will put her in trouble anyway, you’ll see.”
“Instead of causing trouble, you should try to find out how to get Jozef back!”
“And what do you think I am doing? I already did more than anyone else could. Do you know that Zenek Gara is also in Auschwitz? The director of the Mint will try to get them back but the chances are very slim. It may be easier with Zenek because he has a long work history at the Mint, with Jozef it’s much tougher.”
Around October 10, Danuta’s first letter arrives in Auschwitz. With shaking hands and pounding heart, Jozek tears the envelope apart. The letter is short but the message is astounding and overwhelming. Danusia will have a baby, his baby, and he will be the father… This is the most powerful message anyone could ever get in this kingdom of death. He puts down the piece of paper, looks around as if he was in a bad dream, and bursts into tears. He can’t control his emotions any more. His closest inmates don’t rush with questions but watch him with concern.
People don’t ask questions. There are too many tragic stories around here. Every prisoner carries within his tragedy. The most dramatic ones are those of the political prisoners who came to Auschwitz through the Gestapo prisons like Pawiak. The images of bestial tortures and killings are engraved in their sub-consciousness. The nightmare anxieties only grow louder and louder. Imaginary orders shouted out by angry voices wake them up in the middle of the night. Shaken to their bones and sweating, the prisoners agonize in solitude. Every night, mad screaming and quiet crying resounds in the block. The prisoners have to get used to it. After all, they try to survive…
A child… That strange concept sticks in Jozef’s mind like a permanent fixture. In the night, in the morning, at the roll call, at work, and during the meals, it’s always on his mind. God sends him the child. It means that God will also give him the strength to survive. He will survive. He must survive! His reply to Danusia is ready. The standard language has to precede the most precious words. But the message is loud and clear – he badly wants that child. His only path to survival is through that child.
Over the next days, Danusia stays at Mama’s house but she doesn’t want to give up the Kiszkiel’s apartment yet. Jozef must know about it. The atmosphere at home is heavy, though. Dad tries to keep quiet but deep inside he feels like a wounded beast. His dearest defenseless girl is hurt. She suffers and inevitably will be suffering even more. He either keeps quiet and doesn’t talk at all or explodes with great fury. “Get rid of that baby now!” he yells and cries from time to time scaring everybody around.
In the middle of October, the long awaited reply from Jozef finally comes. It’s a real two-page letter in his own handwriting!
“Prisoner Number 3088, Block 17, Auschwitz, October 13, 1940.” Danusia manages to read that much herself. But with the rest, she needs help.
“My Dearest Beloved Wife!”
Mrs. Sowinska reads while Danusia devours every word.
Thank you very much for your letter. I am healthy and fine. I was delighted to hear from you. You are very brave and very smart. I love you even more. I already know your letter by heart. You wrote: ‘I want to have this child,’ and this message pleases me more than anything else. If God wants us to have this child, it’s wonderful. God will help us and will protect us. I hope I will be able to return home soon. I really hope that I will be able to live happily with you and with our baby. Please write back quickly and write a little more this time. I am sending you a hundred kisses.
Your husband, Jozef
“He wants to have this child!” Danusia proclaims. “Now I am convinced that he will come back. He must come back!”
It is already mid-October but the prisoners still walk barefoot. The mornings are piercingly cold. The days are already rainy and windy. As winter approaches, Jozef’s job at the hospital, away from freezing rain and harsh fields, becomes even more attractive.
But many of his friends work outside in the sticky mud clearing off the area around the camp. The local Polish population has been expelled from the vicinity of the camp. A radius of a few dozen kilometers has to be cleared from the buildings. Demolition proceeds at a mad pace.
Back in July of 1940, the Camp Commandant, Rudolf Hoss, wrote to the head of the regional SS authority that “the local population around the camp is fanatically Polish and – as determined by intelligence sources – prepared for any action against the hated German SS camp. Every prisoner who manages to escape from the camp can count on their help as soon as he reaches the first Polish farm.” In response to this letter, the regional authority designated the 40 square kilometer area surrounding the camp as the so-called Auschwitz Concentration Camp Zone of Interest. Despite all the efforts, the escapes from the camp continue. Prisoners escape through the barbwires and under the machine guns, but most frequently while working outside the camp.
On October 28, at around noon, the SS discovers that a prisoner in Block 8 is missing. Immediately a punitive roll call is ordered. All the prisoners must stand at attention and wait for the results of the search. They can be dispersed to the blocks only after the search crew returns. At about 4 PM, it starts to rain and snow. The prisoners dressed in light denim clothing, without caps and coats, stand like mummies in the endless rows of fives. Two days before this horror roll call, wooden shoes or so called holenderki were distributed. But not everybody managed to receive them yet and a good number of people stand barefoot.
All of a sudden, an older man faints and falls down. One of the SS-men jumps at him and starts kicking the man with his heavy boots ordering his victim to get up. But the poor wretch never gets up. The enraged SS-tormentor sends indiscriminate blows. Once his fist lands on the shoulder of a nearby prisoner, something strange rustles under the prisoner’s blouse. The SS-man stops, gives a man a bestial look, and orders him to undress. To everybody’s horror, the SS-man discover that the prisoner’s thorax is neatly wrapped around with thick packing paper. The SS-man jumps at the prisoner shouting, cursing, and kicking him. Other SS-men join in the massacre. The most senior SS-man orders the entire first row to undress. It turns out that sixteen prisoners are wrapped around with the cement bag paper. Their numbers are registered. Severe punishment awaits them.
At around 9 PM, the missing prisoner is found dead in the cellar. The roll call ends after nine agonizing hours in the freezing cold. Over one hundred twenty dead, fainted, and sick prisoners are removed from the yard. But Jozef is not among them…
All Saints Day collects its toll. Last year, Poland was saying farewell to her brave defenders killed in action. This year, it’s a farewell to the defenseless brutalized and tortured civilian population dying in thousands every day everywhere.
In Auschwitz Germans are eager to celebrate All Saints Day. On November 1, Reichsfurer SS Himmler issues an order to execute forty Polish prisoners from Katowice as a punishment for so-called assaults on the SS officials in Silesia. On November 22, during the lunch roll call, the forty victims walk through the square with their hands tied in the back with barbwire. The execution squad under the command of SS Second Lieutenant Untersturmfurher Tager consists of 20 outstanding SS-men carefully selected from the camp guard squad. For twenty minutes, the entire camp listens to rhythmic shots in regular intervals. The bodies of the victims are burned in a brand new crematorium, the first one of its kind. This is the first mass execution at Auschwitz and the “grand opening” of the first camp crematorium.
During the evening roll call, the camp’s Deputy Commandant Fritzsch warns the prisoners: “If you try to escape,” he shouts, “you better think about it twice and remember! Many people from your town or village will be killed immediately!”
December comes and Christmas is around the corner. The Archbishop of Krakow sends a written request to the camp commandant Rudolf Hoss asking for permission to celebrate Christmas Mass at the camp. Hoss denies the request but permits instead that anonymous food packages not exceeding 1 kilogram each be sent to the camp. On December 27, Prisoners Assistance Organization from Krakow delivers six thousand food packages to the camp. Each package consists of a piece of bacon, a cake, cigarettes, and holiday wishes written in Polish together with a traditional thin piece of bread oplatek. “A piece of Poland,” people say with tears.
Jozef is particularly lucky. He received a Christmas package from home, or rather two packages, both larger than 1 kilogram, both from Danusia. When an order was issued that the prisoners could receive one Christmas package not exceeding 1 kilogram, everybody wrote home about this new order but Jozef didn’t write anything. He didn’t want to cause Danusia any trouble and didn’t expect anything. So, he was even more surprised when long before most of the other packages started to arrive, he received a Christmas package with food and an extra package with warm clothing. Under the circumstances, these packages were unheard of and truly sensational. Sent according to a special permission of the Camp Commandant, each package was officially stamped dozen times and painted in red all over. Warm underwear, a hand-quilt scarf, warm socks, gloves and earmuffs arrived in one package, oplatek, bacon, kielbasa, lard, sugar, chocolate, tea, and a cake arrived in the other.
Jozef couldn’t believe his eyes. And all this accomplished by his little tiny and childlike Danusia? Most of his famous prominent powerful and rich friends don’t get such packages. And everybody knows that those are not ordinary packages, those are lifesaving necessities. So much tragedy and yet so much happiness… “This is a sign from God. I must survive.” Jozef is convinced.
But the world that surrounds him laughs at his fantasies. This doomed place has its rules. Only the greatest villains can count on a brighter future. The greatest sadists are offered the most prominent careers. The camp is managed in accordance with a simple rule: the most deaths with the least effort. People die every day, everywhere. Human shadows wind and hover with suppurative wounds, with frostbite, with hunger diarrhea and swelling. In resignation, they await their ultimate destiny. Deprived of human dignity, they perish in all kinds of barbaric deaths. They are sentenced to starvation, killed on the spot and during tortures at Stehbunker, under whips, sticks, heavy boots or ram rollers, during work and in the blocks, burned alive, decimated by typhus spread by sucking lice, subjected to cruel medical experiments, and finally gassed in the gas chambers and burned in the crematoria.
Each death translates into extra bread for the functionaries. And bread in the camp is everything, it’s life, it’s the only moment of peace, it’s the object of the greatest human desire. The most awaited moment of the day is the distribution of bread. This exciting moment takes place after the evening roll call. Everyone receives 250 to 300 grams of bread per day. The prisoners are expected to leave some of it for breakfast. But it never happens. The omnipresent feeling of hunger is so strong that the prisoners eat the daily ration of bread crumb by crumb, chewing it as long as possible to prolong the soothing feeling.
Jozef’s food package generates unthinkable emotions. Not only that he wants to share the food, he must share the food. Otherwise, it will be stolen in a blink of an eye. He tries hard to preserve oplatek and chocolate for Christmas Eve. His room-man promises to save it for him. After all, there are some decent functionaries.
More packages start to arrive. A young country boy from southeast Poland receives a package with 1 kilogram of salted bacon. He hides his trophy and disappears. Sadly, however, this delicious homemade salt bacon turns out to be deadly for his starved body. The next morning he is found dead in a hiding place together with his emptied can of bacon.
Right after Christmas a new order is issued. Packages are no longer allowed. Everybody must write home to let their families know not to send any more packages. But they can send money – no more than 20 Marks per month. The so-called cantina, or a cafeteria, offers cigarettes and sauerkraut. A functionary, upon appropriate commission, occasionally can purchase one of these things for the prisoner. Jozef’s mother and sister from Kolo send him the money on a regular basis. Danusia doesn’t write very often now. Her due date, the end of April, approaches fast. She wants to know whether Jozef has any preference for a boy or a girl.
On February 5, 1941, Jozef writes:
“To your question as to a boy or a girl, I don’t have a real answer. I like little boys as much as little girls. I think about you, long for you, and hope to return soon and live happily with you for a long time. The weather here is beautiful, the sun is shining, and spring is awakening. I hope I will be going home soon. I am waiting patiently for the day when I will see you, our baby, and my mother.”
That hope to go home becomes Jozef’s obsession. In every letter, he writes over and over again about going home soon. He believes with all his heart that he will be going home soon. On March 9, 1941, he writes:
My Dearest Wife, Danusia!
From the bottom of my heart, I thank you for every word you wrote. Your letters give me hope, strength, and courage. I am so happy that you are healthy and thank God I am also healthy. I long for you and think about you every day. My greatest wish is to be with you. I am anxiously awaiting the birth of our baby. Thank you so much for your birthday present. I already imagine seeing my picture over your bed. I hope I will be able to thank you in person soon.
Please send thanks to my mother for the money and also for her letter even though it was so short. It had only three lines. I cannot write to her because we cannot write to two different addresses. I am now able to buy a little more in the cafeteria, sometimes hot soup and salad. If you want to send me 10 RM, you only need to show the last envelope with the address.
I kiss you a thousand times. Please send my regards to your family.
Your husband, Jozef.
Despite the hopeful tone of his letter, the survival in the camp becomes more problematic with every passing day. On April 23, 1941, the Camp Commandant Hoss with the assistance of his deputy Fritzsch, selects ten prisoners for death by starvation as a reprisal for the escape of a prisoner. During the punitive roll call, ten Polish political prisoners from Block 2 are chosen for cruel death by starvation in the bunkers of Block 11. Among them is physics professor Marian Batko from Krakow. This elderly man, a high school teacher, “volunteers” for the selection in place of 17 year-old Mieczyslaw Pronobis who will survive Auschwitz. Marian Batko will die in his death cell on April 27. The other chosen prisoners will be fighting for their life to the bitter end, licking humid walls and eating insects. The last of them will die on May 26.
As Danusia’s due date approaches, Jozef becomes very nervous and impatient. Every day, he keeps inquiring, asking, and nagging for a letter, thereby driving his block-man crazy.
“This is it! I have had enough! From now on you can only receive one letter per month. You must immediately write home and let them know not to send more letters than one per month,” the kapo orders. Thus, on April 27, 1941, Jozef writes:
My Dearest Wife!
I worry about you. You are always in my thoughts, my beloved, and I am proud that I will soon become a father. I am awaiting your next letter with great anticipation but you must know that, from now on, you may only send one letter and receive one letter per month. You must observe this rule in the future.
On May 14, 1941, his most looked-for letter finally arrives. Jozef has a son, a little baby son Andrew, nickname Jedrus! Danusia and the baby are fine. He cries with joy. On May 26 1941, he writes back.
My Dearest Wife!
Thank you so much for your letter. I was awaiting this letter so impatiently and for so long. I am very happy that you are fine. I cannot even tell you how happy I am that God has given us a big and healthy son. In your next letter, please describe his cradle. You don’t realize how much your letters mean to me. I think about you and Jedrus day and night and I am still hoping to come home soon. Your letters give me hope and courage. I work every day and I am well, thank God. In his hands lies everything…
Indeed, in God’s hands lies his fate. Jozef no longer works at the hospital. Instead, he works hard in the field. But by now he knows all the spoken and unspoken rules of the camp and knows well how to cope with the adversities. He repairs his relations with the block-man and informs Danusia that, from now on, they can correspond again twice a month. His letter is optimistic.
“Don’t worry about me,” he writes on July 20, 1941. “In my free time, I listen to the camp orchestra, play games, and read the newspaper “Die Woche” (The Week).”
Die Woche has just informed the prisoners about the capitulation of Yugoslavian Army and soon thereafter about the Greek capitulation. “Germany uber alles!” the paper proclaims.
On July 29, 1941 the Camp Commandant Rudolf Hoss travels to Berlin for a high level meeting with Himmler in order to discuss, in person and without witnesses, the so-called ‘final solution to the Jewish question.’ At the meeting, Hoss receives an order to prepare a plan of mass extermination of the Jewish population.
During Hoss’s absence, Zygmunt Pilawski, a Polish prisoner number 14156 located in Block 14, escapes from the camp. Hoss’s deputy, Fritzsch, following his boss’s example, orders the punitive roll call.
In unspeakable terror, prisoners from Block 14 report for the roll call. Fritzsch inspects their rows with predatory satisfaction and slowly, methodically, begins the selection for death by starvation. Among the selected men is Franciszek Gajowniczek Number 5659, a husband and father of a number of young children. In great despair, Gajowniczek begs for mercy while Fritzsch laughs at his plea. All of a sudden, another prisoner steps forward from the rows of Block 14. Dead silence drops around. The daring man in a clear and firm voice asks to be included in the selected group of ten in exchange for Prisoner Number 5659. Slightly surprised, Fritzsch asks the insubordinate man a few questions and without giving it much thought accepts his offer. Maksymilian Rajmund Kolbe, a catholic priest and Auschwitz prisoner number 16670, is sent with other nine casualties of the day to the death block in place of Franciszek Gajowniczek, prisoner number 5659.
Arrested for production and distribution of underground press in Niepokalanow monastery near Warsaw on February 17, 1941, Father Kolbe went through Pawiak and arrived in Auschwitz on May 29, 1941. He will survive his nine companions in the death block and after two-week long agony will be killed on August 14 by phenol injection performed by Hans Bock, prisoner number 5. But Franciszek Gajowniczek will survive Auschwitz and will returns to his family. Forty years later, the Polish Pope, John Paul II, will proclaim Father Maksymilan Raymund Kolbe the Saint Martyr of Love.
Jozef has been lucky though. So far he has survived the selections and in the process did not lose hope or sanity. In mid-August, he was informed that his wife had requested the permission to send him a photograph of his newly born son. But through a special order, Hitler personally forbade any pictures in the concentration camps. Thus, on August 31, 1941, Jozef wrote:
My Beloved Danusia!
I am grateful for everything you all have done for me. I have seen your application regarding the photograph. But you may not send any photographs directly to me… I kiss you and my little Jedrus one thousand times…
Your husband, Jozef
In his wildest dreams, he could not imagine the significance of these words.
As always, Danusia awaits Jozef’s letter with great eagerness and anxiety. She doesn’t work anymore. Instead she watches after Jedrus and spends most of her time visiting all sorts of institutions and officials, and constantly sends letters and petitions requesting and appealing for Jozef’s release. She goes from one official to another; she wears smooth paths to the Brill Palace, Blanka Palace, and who knows where. Every day she works with Mrs. Sowinska who has become not only her advisor and translator but also her most trusted companion and caretaker, feeding Danusia on a regular basis. The food for the Polish people is rationed and very scarce. Danusia’s family is on the verge of starvation. Enjoying the privileged status as German nationals, the Sowinski family has plenty of food and gladly takes care of fragile Danusia.
It was almost a year ago when, with the help of Mrs. Sowinska, Danusia wrote this special letter of hers to the Auschwitz Camp Commandant. Upon finding Jozef’s whereabouts, she desperately wanted to send him something, just a chocolate bar, more as a symbol of her love and remembrance than anything else. And she did receive a reply! And what kind of a reply! No one in the whole world has received such a reply. It was the greatest victory of her life: a special permission issued in her name to send not just a chocolate bar but the real Christmas package and warm clothing. She then went to the jewelry store and without hesitating for a second sold her engagement ring. An old Jewish storeowner looked at her with sadness and offered to put the ring on hold.
“Don’t hold it for me please,” she replied firmly. “I would never be able to buy it back.”
It took her about one month to prepare the packages. When everything was ready, she called a britzka and drove to the post office.
“I am sending these packages to the Auschwitz Concentration Camp,” she said to a woman behind the window.
“What? Are you joking?” the woman looked at her ironically. “You can’t send anything there! Don’t you know that?”
“But I have a special permission from the Camp Commandant,” Danusia replied and unfolded an official paper holding it firmly in her tiny hand.
The woman examined the paper and said: “Wait here! I have to call the manager.”
A tall and elegant German, twice as big as Danusia, came out, asked for the paper, inspected it carefully, shook his head in disbelief, and said in a ruthless but friendly voice:
“Goot, goot, kline kinder.”
Danusia reached out for the paper.
“Oh, no, no, I can’t give it back to you. I have to glue it to the packages.” He then stamped both packages all over, tied them together, and took them to the back. Danusia accomplished the impossible!
Almost one year later, Danusia holds her little Jedrus in her arms and desperately wants to have Jozio back. At the very minimum, she must show her charming little Jedrus to his father. Thus, she decides to write again to the Auschwitz Camp Commandant asking for permission to send a photograph of the newly born baby.
Sixty years later, Danusia tells this story with the same passion and the same intensity as if it had happened yesterday. The events of these cruel times from over half a century ago are engraved in bold in her mind. Sitting at the table in her Ohio suburban house, she recalls with unthinkable precision all the details from that remote dark days.
“I wrote in my letter that I was only eighteen years old when I got married, and that six weeks after the wedding my husband was rounded up on the street in Warsaw and was taken away to the Auschwitz concentration camp. I also wrote that the Commandant once allowed me to send a Christmas package to the camp. And that is why I decided to ask whether I could send a photograph of my newly born son so that my husband could see his son at least on the photograph.
Mrs. Sowinska translated my letter into elegant literary German. On the front of the envelope, she wrote in capital letters: DON’T THROW IT AWAY WITHOUT READING!”
Danusia ponders a long time then slowly continues. “Maybe it was intriguing to them that someone would write such a thing on the envelope… I don’t know… Anyway, this letter ended up in the hands of one of the officers with the death head emblem…, oh yes, yes, the SS officer,” she corrects. “Apparently someone read this letter, it must have touched someone’s heart, although no one had any heart there any more… “She shakes her head at a loss… “But nevertheless… Anyway… They responded to me once before. So why wouldn’t they respond this time…?”
It’s September 1941. On the golden afternoon, Mrs. Gara rushes to Danusia with a green-blue envelope that has just arrived from Auschwitz. A letter from Jozef! Danusia runs straight to Mrs. Sowinska tearing the envelope apart on the way. Mrs. Sowinska reads the letter carefully. But she stops from time to time, looks it over and over again, and thinks, and ponders.
“I see you have a problem.” Danusia sharp eyes scrutinize her every facial move.
“Well, you see… he writes here: I have seen your application regarding the photograph. But you must not send the photograph directly to me… and I am trying to figure out what he really tries to say.”
“If I cannot send it directly then obviously I must send it indirectly!” Danusia doesn’t have any doubts.
“Right! But what do you mean? How do you want to send it indirectly?”
“Well, I will just send it to the Camp Commandant, like before!”
From now on, she only thinks about the photograph. It must be the most beautiful photograph in the whole world. This may be her only chance to reach, though indirectly, Jozef’s eyes, Jozef’s heart, his mind and imagination. It may be their very last chance to meet on this earth…
She plans the photo session with great care. It will cost a lot of money but it doesn’t matter. After all, money is not that important. Two weeks later, she puts on her favorite white coat, the same one she wore on the day of Jozef’s round-up, puts her little Jedrus in the baby comforter, and on the pre-arranged time shows up in the best photo atelier in town. From among several takes, she selects two. On the first photograph, Danusia holds little Jedrus in her arms. On the second photograph, naked Jedrus on his tummy smiles from the fur rug. He is such a darling…
With the pictures ready, Danusia sits down with Mrs. Sowinska and for several days the two wrestle with a letter. Finally, it’s ready. The letter is addressed directly to the Camp Commandant and is full of appeals and pleas to make the pictures available to Jozef. It is already October 1941, and winter approaches quickly.
The German invasion on the Soviet Union is in full swing. For the past several weeks, the Auschwitz camp has been flooded with the Soviet prisoners of war. Thousands of them arrive every day. The mortality rate among the Soviet POWs is the greatest of all. The camp resources are strained to their very limits. The food rations shrink, the living and breathing space shrinks too. The race for survival speeds up.
For several months, Jozef stays in Block 18a. He considers himself lucky because many of the functionaries of this block enjoy good reputation among the prisoners. But his luck is short lived.
On October 27, 1941, the camp is boiling: “Escape!” the whisper goes. To his horror, Jozef discovers that the escape is from Block 18a, HIS BLOCK! A punitive roll call is ordered.
“Selection!” Jozef thinks instantly. “Selection from my block!”
Yes… As always, ten people will be selected for death by starvation. They will count to ten. Just to ten, just like that: one, two, three… Those counted as tens will be selected. It’s that simple.
Counting…! Jozef is in great danger. He already survived one count. He was then the lucky eight. But it was close, terribly close. Not much time to think, though. Now everything depends on his place in the miserable rows of fives.
“Raus! Raus! Los! Los!”
The horrified rows of fives leave the block. Like vulture, SS-men swarm around his group anxious for their prey. The Deputy Commandant slowly arrives. The Russian roulette starts from an unpredictable place in an unpredictable direction.
It is beyond human genius to put in plain words what is happening in the minds and
souls of these gray shadows standing in rows of fives in their blue-gray pasiaki in the center of this vicious theater. Stricken by this degree of terror, people are not capable of thinking or feeling. Many lose any sense of being.
And yet, standing in one of these gray rows of fives, Jozef watches every gesture, every eye movement, and every breath of the oppressors. It has started. The first victim is selected, an old man from the relatively recent transport. In his mind, Jozef desperately tries to outrun the count. But no…! He quickly stops. It looks as if he stands in the zone of serious danger…. But
he must survive this one. He has to survive it for Danusia and Jedrus. They need him. After all, God wants him to survive… Now he only prays.
Another two strong and skilled workers are selected. The count approaches. It’s in his row. It looks as if he may be the tenth… He shakes, shrinks, and bends down in an effort to hide, escape, and disappear.
“NINE!” The count goes.
Jozef is numb. A good friend of his, also Jozef, is selected. Number nine is speechless, unable to move, to emit a sound or to glimpse at his already half dead friend – number TEN.
The selection ends. Ten brutalized human shadows are taken away. They all have numbers “younger” than Jozef. They all are Polish political prisoners. They all are his good friends. Many of them are beloved sons. Several of them are beloved husbands and fathers. Stefan, Franciszek, Henryk, Pawel, and Jozio too. Jozio Tomczak number 21373, the latest arrival to the block. Fate brought them such a cruel joke. Jozio Tomczak together with Franek and with the old man would continue their ordeal in the starvation cell the longest. At the end, they will be killed by a pistol shot.
But one of the doomed men will survive. Henryk will be released from the death block two days later. Subsequently, it will be reported that one of the higher functionaries of the camp has been successfully appealing for his release.
Camp life slowly goes back to its routine. The work in the fields becomes more difficult as the winter approaches. Every day, Jozef prays for the strength to survive his ordeal and for his return to beloved Danuta and little Jedrus.
One day, a capo with the attack dog comes to Jozef’s block and calls his name.
“Raus! Raus! Come with me!” he orders.
Jozef follows the capo obediently. He doesn’t dare to ask any questions; no one here dares to ask any questions. They pass through the camp along the heavily guarded electric fence. “What is it? Execution? Maybe interrogation or transport…” Feverish thoughts fly through Jozef’s mind. Something awaits him. But what? “Oh, God, please postpone this inevitable destiny, just postpone it, please!” Unspeakable fear chokes him.
It’s a pleasant sunny day. Jozef looks at the clear blue sky in unimaginable pain. He is only twenty-nine and his life could be so wonderful with his beloved Danusia and Jedrus. But this is undoubtedly his last journey. He will most likely die today.
“Are they going to torture me?” he wonders. “Hopefully it’s going to be quick… But if they are going to kill me, why do they drag me that far…? They should do it right here, right now.” Jozef’s mind is boiling, his soul is screaming.
“Maybe it would be better to kill myself and deprive these beasts of their pleasures.” He looks at the electric fence not that far from him, just a meter or so. Many of his friends threw themselves on those wires and ended this shameful existence with dignity.
“Maybe I should jump at it and end this agony once and forever.” The notion of death has been his everyday companion for so long. But what he really fears the most are the tortures. He is not capable of enduring tortures. These barbaric beatings, dog bites, wounds, starvation, and these selections for death by starvation left permanent scars on his psyche. He just can’t take it anymore.
Suddenly, he wakes up from his desperate thoughts. The capo proceeds all the way to the main gate. To Jozef’s astonishment, they leave the dreadful camp with its ugly buildings and horrible smell of death behind and continue in the unknown direction.
“What does that mean? Is it good or bad?” he vehemently wonders.
A few minutes later, he knows! They are approaching the residence of the Camp Commandant, the man – fate, the ultimate murderer of hundreds of thousands of terrorized, abused, tortured and trashed people brought here from many different countries conquered by the superior being of the human race – Adolf Hitler… Jozef is scared.
“Would they torture me…? Would they perform some experiments on me?” He doesn’t know what to think. “But at least it means they won’t kill me outright, or at least not now, not here, not yet…!”
The Camp Commandant sits behind the desk. A relatively young man, maybe ten years older than Jozef, he is not very big, just of average size. As every good Arian, he is blond, with a high forehead, thick nose, and sharp rather small eyes.
Jozef sits down in front of him. The eyes of the two men meet. The Commandant watches Jozef intensely. Instinctively holding his breath, Jozef drops his gentle eyes.
“Your number?” the ruler asks.
“3088.” Joseph replies in perfect German.
“How long have you been here?”
“Since August 1940.”
“Why did you end up here?”
“From the street round-up.”
A series of brief questions ends and the ruler ponders for a while snapping his fingers against the desk and observing the prisoner with restrained eagerness.
“Your wife sent some photographs here…” His eyes penetrate Jozef curiously. “As you know, we cannot give you these pictures…” He stops and looks at Jozef enigmatically. “But… I will show them to you,” he finishes his thought slowly.
Jozef is in shock. From deep despair, his mind shifts to unbearable joy. Thousands of thoughts rush again through his mind. He must not rejoice! He must be very careful. There must be a cruel trick in all this. That’s right! This sadist will now observe his pain and will relish in his anguish. Oh, no! With full force, Jozef clenches his fists.
“I am not going to cry! You’ll see, you – beast! I won’t cry. I won’t please you with my pain!” He pledges to himself. “Oh, God! Give me strength for this trial!”
The ruler takes out a yellowish envelope. Holding it in one hand, he then slowly pulls out the first picture. In the palm of his barbaric hand, Jozef recognizes a delicate profile of his heavenly beautiful Danusia with a little baby in her arms.
His heart pounds, his teeth and fists clench, his body starts sweating.
“No! No! I am not going to cry! No!!!”
But his eyes are already veiled and big tears disobediently pour down his face. He is ecstatic and furious at the same time.
“After all, why should I care about this monster… I have my beloved Danusia and Jedrus in front of my eyes. The image worth life…!”
But the moment is short. The cruel hand pulls back the photograph. Jozef closes his eyes. The image of Danusia and Jedrus stays in his imagination for another brief moment.
“Here is another one,” the ruler says taking out the second photograph.
A plump big baby smiles to Jozef from the fur rag. “Jedrus, my beloved son!” Jozef bites his lips, his nails cut into his flesh.
The ruler puts the photograph back.
“Jawohl!” a short fat SS-man comes in.
“Take his number for quarantine,” the master of life and death orders.
“Quarantine…, quarantine!” The word reverberates like a thunder in Jozef’s battered mind. He sends the Commandant an inquiring look. Two pairs of intense blue eyes meet again for a split of a second. In that misty window of time, Jozef catches a faint flicker of an eyelid.
“3088,” Jozef loudly pronounces his number.
Fritz writes down the number and Jozef is out the door. Gradually he regains his sanity and starts putting chaotic thoughts together. “Danusia… more beautiful than ever! And Jedrus…, such a darling…! Quarantine?” Here it means one and only one thing – FREEDOM… pure and simple – FREEDOM! But he is fearful to entertain this thought so not to flutter, thwart or frighten this miraculous chance to survive the death camp.
His friends in the block welcome him warmly. “We were worrying about you. What happened? What did they do to you?”
But Jozef is careful, very careful. At first, he doesn’t share his secret with anybody. But he is anxious to write a letter. For some time, he hasn’t received any letters from Danusia. It is now her turn to write. But he can’t wait any longer, certainly not now.
My Dearest Wife!
Even though I have not received any letters from you lately, I want to write to you whenever I can. I have read thousand times your last letter about my son who can already say tiatia. When my son calls me, it means I have to go home. For this I am always praying to God.
He puts down the pen and debates with himself. Should he write about the photographs? Some sadistic functionaries may choose to give him a special treatment for this pleasure. But he is too excited, he can’t resist. “I have seen your photograph,” he continues. “You look beautiful. I am closing here…”
From now on, Jozef intensely watches the camp routine hoping to spot some indication that the process of his release has been set in motion. And indeed, one day he is called to the hospital for a blood drive. Another day, he is sent to the political department for a ‘discussion.’ Apparently, they want to make sure he is well rehabilitated and would become an obedient servant of the Third Reich once released. Now Jozef is certain. He is slotted for release!
Slowly, he shares his secret with the closest friends. They all are astounded and sincerely moved. They all share his joy. Releases are unheard of around here, some isolated instances, mostly upon intervention of the highest German officials. As the time goes by, Jozef gains more confidence. The release process has been set in motion and by itself already gives him some protection. The functionaries are uncertain as to his connections and begin treating him with suspicious respect. On December 7, 1941, Jozef writes with even greater confidence.
My Beloved Wife, Danusia!
I am so glad that you, my dearest, my Jedrus, and the whole family is fine. I have seen the photographs that you sent here, those of you and Jedrus. You look very beautiful. When I saw you last time, my darling, you were a young girl. Today, you are a beautiful young woman, like a movie star. Once I have seen you on this picture, my dearest wife, my longing for you has been even greater… My Jedrus is such a handsome boy! Please send these photographs to my mother and sisters in Wartbrucken.
I kiss you a thousand times.