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Chapter 10: Night Of Fire At Berlin Railroad Station
I had not yet reached my fourteenth birthday. Another empty cattle train easeditself through the gates of Auschwitz to the very same landing spur where we hadfirst arrived about a year before. The doors of the dirty, old cattle train slidopen, as it had many times before. Each car was packed to capacity withprisoners. After the transport was completely loaded without incident, the doorsslid shut, locked and sealed as if they were carrying precious cargo. Thesesealed doors would not be reopened under any circumstances until we arrived atour destination. We were already too weak, both mentally and physically, to care.We knew from experience that an existence worse than death was awaiting us forthe next several days. We were to be without food, water, or sanitationfacilities. Not one of us knew where we were going or why.
The train traveled very slowly for several hours as if the locomotive couldn’tget up enough steam for the heavy load it was pulling. It might have even beengoing up a grade. We were gasping for air in the heated car and didn’t care aboutour ultimate destination. We felt that this time none of us would be alive whenthe doors to our cars would finally slide open. The locomotive quit pulling andwe felt the train slowing again. It came to a halt at a remote side track waitingfor more important trains to pass, trains filled with wounded German soldiersreturning from the Russian front and munitions trains heading north to resupplythe German army.
It was late in the afternoon. The temperature in the locked cattle car wasvery high. The two small windows did not provide enough air for the occupants tobreathe. We had been sitting there motionless for six hours. At least when wewere in motion, the cooler air from outside would seep in through the cracks andwe would get some relief. We felt that dying would be a blessing for us, endingour suffering. I felt that I was going to die soon anyway and postponing theinevitable would be much more painful in the long run.
Just as our death wish was about to come true, the train began moving againand the temperature began to fall. It was early evening. It was cooling offoutside and cooler air entering through the crack was of great benefit. Wetraveled all through the night and a second day. On the third night, our traineased itself slowly into a very large railroad station. We heard many trainscoming and going as our train proceeded to a side spur. I saw the platform and asign with the station name through the crack in the door. The lit sign read”BERLIN.” We all became very excited when we realized that wewere inside Germany. The train came to a halt. Each one of us came up with hisown version of why we were there. The train continued moving very slowly,switching tracks for almost half an hour until it finally came to a halt at themost remote track of the Berlin railroad station, where we would probably spendthe night for one reason or another. We felt a jerk as the locomotivedisconnected and abandoned us on the side track.
It wasn’t long after we stopped that we heard explosions in the night, andthrough the cracks in the door I saw many fires erupting all around the railroadstation. German soldiers were running around in confusion and firemen attemptedto put out the fires. Explosions erupted more frequently and many trains were onfire all around us. Through the cracks we saw wounded German soldiers, some ofthem on fire. Munitions trains were exploding all around us, adding to the chaos.The train next to us was on fire. We could feel the additional heat from theburning train next to us, through the walls of our box car. The German guardsleft the scene and abandoned us in the locked box cars. I knew that soon ourtrain would be hit and would ignite like all the other trains around us. Thebombs continued hitting their mark, causing one explosion right after another.Steel and wooden objects were flying through the air, igniting other trains, andpuncturing cars as they landed. We didn’t care so much about dying at the handsof the Allies, but we didn’t want to die in the gas chamber. Within fifteenminutes, which seemed like an eternity, the bombing had stopped and everythingaround us was burning. Shells were still exploding from the burning munitionstrains. The danger had not yet passed for us. We could still be hit by explodingshells or catch on fire from the burning train on the adjoining track. By somemiracle, our train was spared from the bombs and did not ignite from thesurrounding fires.
We realized that the railroad station was being bombed by the Allies. (Welearned later that the British bombed by night while the Americans bombed byday.) At first we were frightened and aware that we were locked in a train whichcould ignite at any moment. This was not the way we would have chosen to die. Ifelt that since death was just around the corner, I would rather die by alliedbombs than at the hands of the Germans.
The next morning, our locomotive wassent to remove some of the burned cars to clear the main track. It took two moredays to repair the damaged tracks. Our black, smoke puffing locomotive returnedto us at the end of the second day and hooked on to our train with a big jolt. Webegan moving again and a few hours later we arrived at a new railroad station.The sign said “Oraninburg.”
It was raining as we unloaded the train. We had to march two miles to our newcamp. We could barely walk. The short distance we had to walk seemed like aneternity. We collected raindrops in our folded hands for drinking and the wetnessthat covered our bodies was refreshing. Some of us who could no longer walk wereleft in the box cars and the rest of us proceeded to the main gates of the”Katzet Lager” (KZ).
As we passed through the main gates, we found ourselves inside a fenced campwith modern barracks, well-paved streets and sidewalks. It looked like awell-organized army base. There was a lot of activity on the streets. Army trucksrushed by us on the rain drenched street, spraying us as they drove by. We wereled in a column down the main street. The weaker people fell behind and weredisposed of later, just like the ones who couldn’t leave the train station. TheSS guards wore rain proof pants, ponchos, and boots and were in good physicalcondition. They looked superhuman to us. Maybe it was because we felt so weak andinferior at that time. We were all led into what looked like a large empty hangarwith only straw on the floor. About two thousand of us were packed into this onelarge hangar which was to be our home.
Each prisoner selected a small spot on the thin straw to make his home. Myfather told me to stay where I was. He was going to gather some more straw for usto sleep on. A few minutes later I saw a Nazi guard kicking and beating someoneon the ground about fifty or so feet from where I was sitting. I did not movefrom my designated space for fear that my dad might never find me. He had beengone a long time and I was beginning to worry that he might not return. A whilelater, Dad returned. I told him what I saw; he did not comment.
We were put to work almost immediately doing garbage detail and cleaning upthe streets. Once a day we’d get our moldy bread rations and a bowl of thin,tasteless soup that looked more like dirty dish water than soup. This became ourroutine. A few days later, after work, as we were sitting on the straw in thehangar, my dad took off his shirt. I noticed black and blue marks all over hisupper body. I asked him, “Where did you get the marks?” He told me that it was hewho had been beaten up a few days before while looking for extra straw in the dimlight of evening. A strange feeling came over me. I thought to myself, I saw myown dad being beaten and didn’t even know it. I felt very bad and scared. My dadwas my hero being beaten and not being able to defend himself was mentallydestructive to what little hope and confidence was still left in my being.
Head count was at 5:00 a.m. every morning. We had less than six minutes to getdressed and out the door. We had to sleep with our clothes on because of the coldand also because it took too long to get dressed in the morning. Some of our workalso consisted of digging ditches and carrying bricks or sacks of sand or cementon our backs. Every time the sirens sounded because of the Allies’ air raids(twice a day), we’d be rushed to our hangar. After the all-clear siren wassounded, we’d go back to what we had been doing.
We heard many airplanes taking off and landing and I felt that we were near anair base. At night, in the hangar, during the air raids, I kept listening to thesound of the Allied bombers approaching. It was predictable. Almost every night,we heard sirens and then the faint sounds of approaching aircraft. I was one ofthe first to hear the sound of the heavy, loaded bombers because I was theyoungest and my ears were probably better than most. I wished that I could gooutside and wave and shout,”drop your bombs here so we might have a chance toescape.” But of course our doors were shut and locked for the night. As theairplane engines became faint in the distance, the all clear sirens sounded oncemore. We knew that the sirens would not remain silent for very long becauseBerlin was only about thirty miles away and we knew as well as the Germans thatBerlin was the squadrons’ destination, where the bombs were to be released. TheAllied planes would return over our camp again on the way back to England, emptyof bombs. The sound of the unloaded B17 bomber was different, of higher pitch. Wecould tell by the sound of the engines that the bomb load was droppedsuccessfully. I don’t recall any German fighters going up to challenge the Alliedbombers, even though we were right on top of a Messerschmitt aircraft factory.
This became a daily routine. It got so that I could tell in an instant whichdirection the planes were headed by the sound of the engines. I often thought,what if the pilots couldn’t drop all of their bombs on Berlin and decided to dropthe remaining load on the hangars that were our home? It looked so much like anairplane hangar. We would be destroyed instantly.
I heard a few antiaircraft batteries open fire at the overhead Alliedsquadron and I don’t recall them ever scoring a hit. After the daytime air raidswhen we were allowed outside and looked at the sky, I could see the black ringsof smoke high in the sky created by the anti-aircraft shells exploding. This wenton for three weeks. Every day the routine was the same. The bombers would come,drop the bombs over Berlin, and return empty to England.
One particular Sunday, things were different. Allied planes approachedOraninburg as usual, and as usual the sirens sounded and antiaircraft fire wassent up. The all clear siren sounded a few minutes later and we knew from pastexperience that within one hour the sirens would sound again as the empty planesreturned on their way back to England after the bombing run on Berlin. This timewhen the empty planes approached overhead, the engines sounded different. Thesound was low, as under a heavy load. Their engines had the characteristic ofhigh rpm, laboring, hard working, under a heavy load. I told my father thatsomething was different this time. Suddenly, to our total surprise, the B-17sbegan dropping their bomb load at a corner of our camp to be more precise, on ayoung pine forest recently planted. Beneath the ground was a modern,well-camouflaged Messerschmitt plane factory. Bombs exploded nearby and there wastotal chaos among the Germans. The airplane factory was destroyed, including allthe Messerschmitt planes below. The airfield was also destroyed in the same raid.Within minutes, there was total and complete destruction of the entire facility.We found pleasure in knowing that the Allies knew where the airplane factory waslocated not at the obvious hangars where the prisoners slept, but beneath theground under a pine forest. None of the hangar barracks was even slightlydamaged; not a single prisoner was hurt. After that, there was no more reason forus to remain here, so we were shipped out on yet another train.
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