Chapter 3. Dvinsk
Chapter 3. Dvinsk
In 1943 the Ghetto in Riga was dispersed. First, about 500 people were sent to Dvinsk. Selma and Morris were frightened by this, remembering those who had been gassed. Then they too were sent to Dvinsk, and forced to work outside, in the bitter cold of an extremely severe winter. They lived in an unfinished school house, in the basement. Before they were sent there, they had been seperated from Eva — she had been sent to repair army boats. A letter had been smuggled in from Eva to them, saying that she was alright; Eva had enclosed two hundred marks with the letter. Morris managed to buy three loaves of bread from the Latvians, who sold it to him where he worked.
They grew hungrier and more desperate for food with every day of hard labor and cold. Morris came to her and said that he could get bread for them with their wedding rings. He had hidden the rings by sewing them into the hem of his shirt. He returned empty-handed from the attempt to get bread with the rings: the soldier who had promised him bread for the rings had taken the rings, given nothing in return, and walked away. Morris now stood before Selma broken-hearted and shattered. She told him to forget the whole incident and she tried to hide her disappointment in not getting the bread.
Selma was moved to a women’s work camp on the Baltic Sea, which she calls “Dundagen”. It was bitter cold there, down to -40 degrees Celsius. They lived in tents, twenty women to a tent, and they slept on straw. They were only permitted to see their husbands occasionally. She was glad that Eva was not there to hear the vulgar names the S.S. men called her. They slept in shrouds used to bury dead soldiers. Their commandant was called “Eiserne” (iron) Gustav, and he was an especially brutal S.S. commandant.
One morning Selma and eight other women were chosen for a work brigade to saw wood for the field bakery of the army. After they had worked for a couple of hours the military officer on duty appeared and asked, “Are you ladies hungry?”. Of course all they could think of was bread as they worked near the field bakery. They smiled and said “Yes”. He gave each woman a half a loaf of bread, and he asked Selma where she was from, since he had noticed that she spoke very proper German. She said that she was born in a little town in Westfalen, which he had probably never heard of. She then told him the town was Ahlen, and she was surprised to learn that he knew Ahlen well; he had learned to bake Westfalian pumpernickel there. He in turn was surprised to learn that she knew the baker who taught him, a man named Henser.
After they had finished the work, the officer returned and gave each woman a loaf of bread. This was a windfall for them.
The next day the army officer chose Selma and another woman to work inside the field kitchen peeling potatoes. It was warm inside the kitchen, the cook was generous with the soup, and she was given a glass of milk. The cook was nineteen years old, a Hungarian. He told Selma that he had worked for a Jewish family, and they had been very generous to him. He had no idea what the Nazis were doing when he was recruited by them to work for the German army. When Selma and her friend returned to the bakery, the officer was there, and he gave each woman a loaf of bread and a canister of soup to take back with them. It turned out to be a very good day.
A week later she heard that her husband had been chosen to work on a very difficult labor detail near the forest. She was heartbroken that he was leaving, especially when she had so much extra soup and bread to share with him. Her husband’s work detail was supplied with rations from her camp. She asked a man who took the rations to them to take her husband a loaf of bread, and she paid him to do this with another loaf. She had so much extra bread that every morning she shared her bread with eight men who came to her tent, each man getting a slice of the bread.
One day “Eiserne” Gustav ordered that all extra bread was to be given up to the sick — this was his excuse for increasing their hardship, for the sick never received the bread. She had received a loaf of bread from a man to pass to the man’s sister in the women’s camp. Selma did not turn in the bread because it was not hers to turn in. An S.S. man checked her rucksack and found the extra bread. He struck her in her side with his rifle butt. The S.S. man knew she worked in the bakery and told her she could no longer work there. The next morning the young baker asked after “the lady with the white stripe”. When he learned she was no longer allowed to work in the bakery, he sent her a loaf of bread every day for a week.
One day Selma heard that her husband had been brought back from the forest work detail. He was very sick and was brought on a stretcher. She asked permission to see Morris in the men’s camp after six o’clock, when the commandant would not inspect the camp and see her there. Men and women were not allowed together after dark — a high barbed wire fence surrounded each camp, with armed sentries walking along the fence.
When she found her husband he was on a stretcher and so emaciated that she could hardly recognize him. He probably weighed under eighty-five pounds. His body was covered with lice and boils. He could not eat his ration of bread and offered it to her, but she refused it. The only thing he asked for was a cigarette. Then she left.
She obtained permission from the foreman of the men’s camp to see her husband again. To obtain cigarettes, she went to a woman who cleaned the officer’s quarters, and this woman had accumulated cigarette butts. Selma also stole a bottle of soda water to take to Morris. She took the cigarettes and soda water to him and warned him not to let the commandant see him smoking, or he would be brutally punished. This was at eleven in the morning, and she asked the foreman if she could return in the evening.
At noon the foreman came to her tent and told her that her husband had died, and they had already buried him. She could not understand how he had died so suddenly after she had just seen him, since he had been fully conscious when she saw him. She now felt all alone in the world; the hope that kept her struggling to live was the possibility that she would see Eva again. At this difficult time her friend Emma was a great help. Emma worked in a hospital and stole a sleeping pill for Selma so she could rest that night.
They were given a new order: all men and women had to have their heads shaved close to the skin with a razor. The men had half their hair shaved close (to mark them as prisoners if they should escape), while the women had their heads completely shaven. Their new appearance was very distressing to them, and one woman sobbed uncontrollably. The women wore scarves to cover their heads and improve their appearance.
Six weeks after her husband’s death they were given the order to march west (the Russians were drawing closer). They marched with the men in a line. As they marched, a man came to her and pointed to a group of trees where, he told her, they had buried her husband. She stood there for a moment in silence — she could not go near the trees as she was flanked by armed S.S. guards.
Summer of 1944 came, and it was very hot. They were thirsty, but those men who darted out of line to drink were beaten with clubs and bayoneted. The old men who could not walk were put on a wagon which was pulled by eight younger men. They were forced to march on. The wagon fell behind and then they heard shots fired behind them; they never saw those men again. After marching they slept in open fields, and they were given blankets to sleep with.
They were put into bombed-out houses, and they were given no work. The rations became even more miserable. Her constant friend Emma Simmons came to her aid at this time. Emma had obtained some food from her husband and she shared it with Selma. She and Emma were always together here.
From the bombed-out houses they were taken by train to near Danzig (Gdansk). The locomotive was out of repair, and the train shook badly. Finally the train had to be stopped for several hours to repair the locomotive. Very late that night they arrived at the concentration camp Stutthoff. There she had her first glimpse of S.S. women brandishing clubs and whips. There were approximately five thousand prisoners in her transport. They were not allowed to speak; nevertheless she asked a man in the line marching into the camp if he had seen Eva Metzger. He said that she had come that morning with his group, and that she had arrived with the work group that had been repairing boats. Selma was astounded at her sudden luck: there were over sixty thousand people in the camp, and this man, a stranger, knew that Eva was there. She had not seen Eva in eighteen months.
They were driven like animals into the women’s barracks. The Stutthoff was a death camp, and at night they smelled the stench of burning bodies. Selma could not sleep that night as she was so anxious to see her child.
The next morning they had to stand on call to be counted. She now learned that there were five thousand women with her. She made her way to the wire fence separating her camp from the younger women’s camp and asked a girl if she had seen Eva. The girl left and then returned with Eva. It seemed a miracle that out of tens of thousands of inmates in the camp she had found her daughter so soon.
Eva told her that she (Selma) was with too many older women, and for this reason she could be killed soon.
Eva also warned her never to raise her hand in the evening when the S.S. asked for volunteers to do knitting and light work. These women were never seen again.
Selma plotted her escape from the older women’s camp. A sentry walked back and forth between the two women’s camps. When he was out of sight she jumped across the barbed wire to Eva’s camp. At the same time a girl in the younger women’s camp jumped across to be with her mother on the side where Selma had been. The even exchange of women kept the numbers of women in each camp constant so that the S.S. guards would not be suspicious. As far as Selma knows, the five thousand women she had been with, including Emma Simmons, were never seen again.
Selma and Eva spent two weeks in the Stutthoff camp.Two days went by when they were given nothing to eat. Then she and the women of her barracks were chosen to form a work detail to build a highway. They had to be selected individually for the work by S.S. men. They walked nude in front of a group of S.S. men and were asked their respective ages. Eva had told Selma to say that she was thirty-five — she was actually forty-nine, but her age did not show. The S.S. man making the selection would say nothing; a finger pointing to the right meant death, while pointing to the left meant work and life.
It was heart-breaking to see mothers ordered to the right and daughters to the left. Occasionally someone would sneak to the left and she would be brutally clubbed by the guards and returned to the right-hand line. Selma went left. Again Eva had saved her life. They were sent to a work camp in West Prussia.
The S.S. women’s quarters were not far away from their camp. One night Eva was singing for her mother and some other women. The S.S. women, who were about eighteen years old, had become bored, and, hearing Eva, asked her to sing for them in the supply house. The S.S. women called Eva “Schwartzer Peter”, since she had such dark black hair that was growing back, making her look like a boy. They gave Eva a thick slice of bread for singing to them. Eva always gave Selma half a slice of bread, something daughters in concentration camp did not always do for their mothers.
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