Robert Katz’s History of Modern Italy
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Second Sabbath: the Journey Ends
Beyond the Threshold of Hell
ROUND 11:00 P.M. the train stopped. Though the passengers were not informed,
it was standing at the front door of Auschwitz-II, the extermination camp,
Birkenau. The transport had arrived too late to enter the camp this
The passengers, however, were unaware that they had reached their destination, although many guessed as much. From their windows they could see the bright lighting that flooded the camp each night, a spectacular squandering of electricity that could be observed a great distances. The sky itself was lighted with a reddish glow, and they could smell a faint, strangely sweetish odor, as if something unfamiliar were burning. Many of the passengers were asleep.
Sometime near dawn, he awoke. Reclining on the floor of the car, he could look through a crack in the wall. He could make out the contours of a building. High flying balloons were attached to it. They swayed at the end of long wires and served as a protection against strafing from enemy aircraft. His little daughter awoke, too. He lifted her to the window of the car in order to point out the balloons in the lightening morning sky. Outside an SS man saw the child. He suddenly bent to the ground, picked up a large rock, and threw it directly into her face. The girl drew back, frightened but unharmed, as the missile crashed against the bars of the window and dropped.
"After such an act of barbarity against that tiny harmless human being," her father would later say, "I finally understood that we had arrived on the threshold of hell."
USCHWITZ BEGAN TO stir. Passengers inside the waiting train could hear a great deal of activity outside, and before long the cars were being opened.
"Alle aussteigen!" the guards began to demand repeatedly, and while the words were not understood, it was clear enough that they were orders to detrain.
Day had not yet fully broken, but the platform upon which the Roman Jews descended was brilliantly illuminated. Huge reflectors drove out every shadow. The bewildered prisoners squinted at the brightness and stumbled onto what appeared as a set where a film was being made.
There were Germans everywhere shouting and gesturing confusedly. Men in striped uniforms moved silently though the growing mass of people. They began to remove the luggage, the garbage, and the dead from the open cars. Sewn to their shabby uniforms were two triangular pieces of cloth that formed the hexagram Star of David. To this was attached a letter indicating their nationality and a number of up to six digits.
Some of the Roman Jews stared at their coreligionists from other lands. To the Italians it seemed they were incredibly thin, their eyes empty and unseeing. Wachsberger tried to speak with them in German, French, Yiddish, and even the Hungarian he had learned from his mother. But they neither replied nor gave any sign of recognition. At last, one of them, a French Jew, mumbled quickly, “If they ask how old you are, tell them that you’re under thirty.” Wachsberger wondered what he meant.
Apart from the sight of the inmates, however, the scene was not very frightening. Indeed in some ways it was reassuring, for it seemed that everything the Germans had earlier said was now proving to be true. They were at the labor camp, and the terrible journey had at last been completed. The Germans were firm, but also patient and understanding. The Jews were grateful that the uniformed prisoners had been there to help them unload the cars, and that they were given ample time to gather themselves together. A sense of genuine relief swept through the group. They smiled easily and waved to friends from whom they had been separated throughout the trip. Settimia Spizzichino’s mother discovered only now that her sister had been riding on the train and there was an emotional reunion, which the Germans left discreetly undisturbed. They had learned that these were the ways to gain the greatest cooperation and to avoid disorder and panic.
While the Jews of Rome were assembling beside the train, Camp Commandant Höss and Dr. Mengele arrived with several SS officers. One of them asked of the escort that had accompanied the group who could act as an interpreter. Wachsberger was brought forward. As had been done at the Collegio Militare exactly one week ago, he was instructed to get up on a table and transmit the German commands. When the group saw him, they understood that they were about to be addressed. They fell silent and listened attentively. Wachsberger was to recall that moment as follows:
At this point, Dr. Mengele, a dapper, handsome, young SS lieutenant of thirty-three, waved Wachsberger to his side. Mengele had a gentle manner and a quiet poise that almost always lay in a delicate balance between the edge of smugness and the height of charm. He liked to whistle Wagnerian airs and did so incessantly.
He told Wachsberger to inform the others that as medical director of the camp he was now going to choose those who in his judgment were physically fit for work. He sat on the table. All of the Jews were to approach him, he said, and he would divide them into two groups, one of which was to mount the trucks and the other to remain standing on the railroad tracks, women apart from the men.
Wachsberger explained this in Italian and the selection - as it was called - began. It moved along at a steady pace, with only infrequent difficulties. These arose where people who had expected to remain together had been divided. The inseparable Amati brothers, for example, were sent in opposite directions. Michele, seventeen, was permitted to remain with his uncle among the work group, while Alberto, thirteen, had to join his grandmother on the other side. Alberto tried twice to steal over to his brother, but was stopped both times by the German guards.
When the process had been completed, about 600 persons had been picked for the truck ride and 450 for the hike on foot. Bother groups were made up as had been expected, with many exceptions, however. The work group consisted of youths and young men and women, but also some older men. The larger group contained some able-bodied men who were younger than some of those in the smaller group, but had made a poor appearance, particularly because a week’s growth of beard made them look older than they were. But few protested these inconsistencies, especially since Mengele now gave them an opportunity to partially rectify the situation.
Addressing those who had been selected for work, Mengele had Wachsberger say, “You are now going to another camp about ten kilometers from here. Anyone who feels he is too tired to walk that distance s free to join those going by truck.”
Of the 450 in the work group, some 250 persons accepted the SS doctor’s invitation. They hurried over to the trucks and rejoined their families, leaving behind those who for one or another reason thought it wiser not to call attention to their fatigue - an intense exhaustion felt by all, weak and strong alike.
The trucks were now ready to depart. Wachsberger, thinking his work was done, started to go to his wife and child, who had been selected for the larger group and had boarded one of the vans.
“Where are you going?” Mengele asked him.
“To my family,” he said.
“No, no, Dolmetscher, you stay here.”
Both Mengele and Höss told him he would be needed as an interpreter. They instructed him to go with the Jews waiting to walk to the work camp. “They consoled me,” Wachsberger was to remember, “saying that I would be able to see my family that evening at the rest camp.”
He obeyed. The divided work group now numbered exactly 154 males and forty-seven females.
By now the trucks had started their engines and were beginning to roll away, kicking up dust from the soft earth underfoot. The prisoners called to one another and waved goodbye.
Settimia Spizzichino and her sister Giuditta, both selected for work, bade a temporary “ciao” to their mother, their sister Ada, and her daughter.
Lazzaro Anticoli, who had been separated from his wife, the twins, and his daughter, tried to find them among the faces in the trucks. But he was unsuccessful, and in a few moments they were all out of sight.
Men and women SS guards now took charge of the remaining Roman Jews. Two columns were formed, one of each sex. A command was barked and they set out, dreading the march of the preannounced ten kilometers.
The train still stood on the track. It had been emptied of all its contents. Piles of baggage and rubbish lay on the platform, as if the train had vomited from its open doors. It was daytime now, and most of the Germans who had been so busy before had gone away. A depressing stillness fell. Wind blew over the marshy lands. It made a whispering sound as it rushed through the wild grass and crossed the ear. As they walked, the voice of the wind became more pronounced.
They had not gone more than half of one kilometer when they were halted and told that they had already arrived. They were standing at the center of the long, winged entrance to Birkenau. They passed through an opening in the massive, brick barrier. The men were led to the newly constructed male quarantine barracks, the very first ones at the right, and the women went to a similar facility on the left.
Many of them could not understand why they had been told they would have to walk so much further than the brief distance they had actually covered. They wondered why the Germans had permitted their group to volunteer to join the others who went by truck. But such questions were easily shrugged away.
HE GROUP OF 850 Roman Jews who were transported by truck went to Birkenau, too. They entered through a muddy roadway, which crossed then paralleled a railroad siding that penetrated the camp and went directly to the doors of two brand new white buildings. These facilities, which had been completed only a few months earlier, were designated K-II and K-III. The latter was on the right side of the tracks and the former to the left of the road. They were described as bathhouses. The inmates called them bakeries. In fact, they were Birkenau's newest gas chambers and crematoriums.
It was a tremendous camp, still in the process of being built. The new arrivals from Rome could look across the railroad siding and see orderly rows of long, low, wooden barracks, which reached out almost to the horizon. On the opposite side there were barracks of a different construction, but equally as monotonous. The land was perfectly flat. The sky was everywhere. The camp seemed to embrace the entire world. Barking dogs and screaming birds could always be heard, but never seen, and in the distance there was the perpetual protest of trains moving to and from the direction of Krakow. From time to time they sighed, squealed, issued terrifying wails and most often a heavy, roaring breathing.
An endless curtain of barbed fencing, which stretched in every direction, could be seen by the Roman Jews. It was kept standing in a tireless upright position by a disciplined army of concrete supports, set [at] an unvarying distance of about five feet from one another. These supports were long and slender and stood about eight feet high. They had a graceful turn at the top and bore an uncanny resemblance to a large snake that had been charmed to a standing position and, leaning back ever so slightly, was poised at the very instant before it would strike. This image was immeasurably enhanced by the presence on every third or fourth support of a silvery metal tongue that curled venomously from the place where the serpent's mouth would be. A lamp hung from the tongue. The snakes looked everywhere, and thus no matter where in the camp one might be, the dreadful object was staring. Running down its chest like huge buttons were porcelain insulators, where the fencing was coupled with high tension wire carrying 6,000 volts of electricity through the entire barbed curtain.
This latter fact was as yet unknown to the Jews of Rome. Those aboard the trucks would of course never know it. Within minutes after they had left the selection site, they arrived at the gas chambers, or as they regarded them, the shower and disinfection rooms. They were instructed to dismount the trucks. Two groups of about equal size were formed. They assembled outside the white building.
In the concrete and steel anteroom to the gas chamber, into which the Jews of Rome were about to enter, the Germans and the Sonderkommandos were waiting for them with varying degrees of eagerness. But the curiosity which had been aroused days earlier, was felt by all - more than ever, it seems.
About an hour earlier, just after the morning Appell, they had been told that the Roman Jews had arrived during the night. They had been in a state of readiness for them for the past twenty-four hours. Yesterday, at this time, there had been a false alert. Expecting to receive somewhat less than half of the "five thousand rich Italian Jews," they had been sent only a small group of "Mussulmen," weakened and diseased inmates who had been selected from the various labor camps and industrial installations at Auschwitz. Now, however, they had been given official information, and there could be no doubt that this morning they would stand face to face with the Jews of Rome.They imagined that today's labors would therefore be very intense.
Outside, the first group of Jews was ready to enter the "bathhouse." It was below the level of the ground and they had to descend a ramp. On the land above it was a well-kept lawn, from which sprouted concrete objects shaped like large mushrooms. A little father on, set upon the bathhouse roof, was an enormous white chimney.
The Roman Jews came down the ramp. The Sonderkommandos, dressed in striped uniforms and wearing rubber boots, stood by and observed them. One of the members of the special squad was a Czechoslovakian Jew named David Karvat. He regarded the Jews of Rome with the same expectations as everyone else. He later described the entire event. The following is from a transcription of what he said:
A "bath director" now took charge of the group. They were told to remove everything they wore and place whatever remained in their pockets and purses on a huge table. They hung their clothes on hangers, under which was the legend in various languages, "If you want you effects when you go out, please make note of the number of your hanger." Towels and soap were distributed. Quietly, they began to enter the barren chamber. They had suffered a lifetime of deceptions, and now only one final trick remained to be played.
When everyone had gone inside, the heavy metal door to the gas chamber was closed and sealed. They could still be viewed through a small, but thick plate glass window set into the door. They filled the enclosure to only about 25 percent of its capacity. It was a long, narrow room, entirely barren except for some metal pillars and the "shower" facilities that ran along the low ceiling. Many of the Jews looked up at the pipes. They waited for the water to emerge.
On the lawn directly above them, German personnel bent over the concrete mushrooms and turned them counterclockwise. They were taken off entirely exposing the hollows of the perforated metal columns that plunged directly into the chamber. About six containers, in the shape of pound-sized coffee cans but approximately twice the size, lay on the grass. They had been brought by a truck falsely bearing the emblem of the Red Cross. There were red and white paper labels around the cans, which read, "Giftgas! [Poison Gas!] Zyklon." They had cost the German government about fifty cents for each can. A skull and crossbones on the label warned that the contents were lethal, and bold print urged that the material be handled only by trained personnel. The Germans wore gas masks. One of them punched holes in the tops of the cans, exposing crystals that resembled little bluish-white pebbles that might be found in a garden path.
The Germans by now had received a signal that the Jews had been secured in the chamber. They waited a few minutes to permit the temperature inside to rise several degrees from the body heat of the entrapped human beings. Heat facilitated the release of the gas from its crystallized form. When the proper temperature was believed to have been obtained, a camp sanitary orderly poured the little pebbles into the shafts. They tumbled and slid down a spiral track, which had been constructed to slow the descent.
As they replaced the mushroom lids, the gas began to escape into the chamber. It seeped slowly from the openings in the pillars. Within a few moments, the prisoners detected the gas. For the next several minutes, depending on their constitution and condition, their bodies and minds struggled and reeled against it. With the utmost of violence they tried to tear themselves free of the hydrogen-cyanide acid, which they were sucking into their lungs. The more they fought, the quicker the battle was lost.
Inhalation of the gaseous acid was destroying the body mechanism which permits the red blood corpuscles to renew the supply of oxygen required for absorbtion by the tissues. The symptoms accompanying the rapid degeneration were vomiting, involuntary defecations, hemorrhaging, anxiety, and finally total paralysis of the respiratory system. Then they died. Death was caused by internal asphyxiation.
"At the end," David Karvat's statement went on, "we began to extract the corpses from the chamber." Twenty-five minutes had gone by since the door had first been closed, a week since the Jews of Rome had been fast asleep in their own beds.
Electric pumps were turned on to exhaust the poisoned air. The chamber was opened, and the high-booted Sonderkommandos, who meanwhile had put on gas masks, entered. They dragged hoses with them to wash down the blood, excrement, and vomit that fouled the grotesque mound of bodies. With specially designed hooks and lariats, they separated the dead from each others' clutches and embraces. Then they began the search for gold in the teeth of the victims. Even in death these Jews, who had given their gold to both the oppressor and the protector, would yield yet another tribute to the earthly ruler. When this was done, their hair was removed. The bodies were then transported by elevator to the furnaces, which had been stoked to an appropriate temperature. Here, another team of Sonderkommandos took charge.
Karvat, in the meantime, had returned to await the second group of Roman Jews. According to his testimony, they were "calm and unaware of their fate. This time a prisoner who know some Italian explained everything very well, following the orders of the SS, and therefore everybody entered peacefully."
After the second group had been killed and disposed of, they Germans and the Sonderkommandos discussed their disillusioning experience with the Jews of Rome. Karvat continued:
All of the Sonderkommandos who witnessed the extermination of the Jews of Rome, with the exception of Karvat, who would be transferred to another job, were shortly to be gassed themselves.
By the late afternoon of that Saturday, the Roman Jews who had been killed in the morning had, for the most part, been turned to smoke that wafted in the Polish sky. The residue of the incombustible bone matter was passed through a mill that ground it to a fine, white ash. This and the ashes of their flesh were trucked to the nearby river Sola, a tributary of the Vistula, into which they were dumped.
The winds blew the smoke to the east and waters carried the ashes to the west. …
 Like his fellow Sonderkommandos, Karvat was forced to watch the slaughter that was about to occur. Sonderkommandos, after a few months service, were invariably liquidated themselves. But Karvat was a rare survivor. In January, 1946, while waiting on a beach for an unmarked se craft that was to take him and other Jews illegally to Palestine, he met the Roman Jewish historian Michael Tagliacozzo, who was among the refugees. In a series of transcribed talks that followed this encounter, Karvat revealed the details of the last moments of the Jews of Rome. Tagliacozzo has never hitherto disclosed this testimony, although its existence had been known. He has, however, now made it available to the author.
Copywright © 2003 by Robert Katz
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