We Remember SachSenhausen!


Prisoners engaged in forced labor, Sachsenhausen, 1940

January, 1996

From Sachsenhausen to the "Belower Wald"

By

Joseph Rotbaum-Ribo

All Rights Reserved (C)

I arrived in Sachsenhausen at the end of August 1944, together with a group of about 300 Jewish prisoners. There were a few more youngsters in the group, but I was the youngest - twelve and a half years old. We came from a forced labor camp in Pionki, Poland. I joined the Pionki Labour Camp after my family was deported to the Treblinka Extermination Camp. In Pionki we worked in a gunpowder factory. At the peak, there were about 2800 Jewish forced laborers in that factory. In the middle of July 1944, when the Russian army advanced into Poland, most of the Jews were deported to Auschwitz.

One day, by pure chance, I joined a group of 300 workers who were taken to dismantle the machinery in the factory. When we came back to the camp in the evening, all the other prisoners were gone. We, the 300, continued to dismantle machines and load them, along with the raw materials, onto the trains, to be shipped to Germany.

In the middle of August 1944, we, too, were packed into train wagons and were deported to Sachsenhausen. One night, the train was attacked by Polish Partisans, mistaking us for a military train. One woman was killed and a few other people were wounded. On the way, we were stopped near Czestochowa to dig defense trenches for the retreating German Army. After about a week we continued our trip to Germany.

One early, cold morning, the train stopped and we were rushed out from the wagons. That was the Oranienburg Train Station. From there we were marched through the town, to the Sachsenhausen KZ Camp. I especially remember being impressed by the big iron gates and the main building under which we marched into the camp. We were housed in Block No.53 (or 55).


Prisoners' roll call ("Appell") in Sachsenhausen

The next day we were taken to have a shower. We were stripped of our clothes and were shoved into the bathroom in small groups. As we did not see anybody come out from the bath; there was talk of this being our end and that we shall probably be gassed inside. When we came out from the other side of the bathroom, much relieved at still being alive, we were given a pair of trousers, a paper shirt and a pair of wooden shoes.

At some stage we were registered and given numbers. I became No.94627. Our names, date of birth and addresses were registered. I suddenly became afraid of my young age. I was afraid that the Germans will have no use for me and decide to send me to the Gas Chambers, therefore, I decided to give an earlier date of birth and thus make myself older. I mentioned my intention to some of the people standing in the queue beside me. Some were in favor, others were against and one said that as it is I look younger and smaller than my real age, therefore, they were sure, the Germans would not believe me. When I came to the registration table, I gave my birth date as 7.5.1930, that made me nearly two years older! I was born in Pessach 1932, between 21st -28th of April 1932.

About a week or ten days later, another group of about 30 Jewish prisoners arrived from Pionki and joined us in our block. Among them was my cousin Aharon Rotbaum - I was very happy to have my cousin next to me again. It made me feel safer. Alas, but not for long!

The head of our block was a German prisoner named Heinz. His deputy was a short, bespectacled Dutchman. Among his other duties, he also was responsible for giving first aid to the prisoners. My cousin had an infected boil on his cheek. He went to the Dutchman for first aid. The Dutchman took a razor blade and just cut off the boil. Within a day, my cousin got high fever and was taken to the clinic where he died two days later.

My main recollections from our first period in Sachsenhausen, which lasted about four week, are hunger, cold and the long hours of the "Appells" . We were made to stand for hours in line to be inspected by the head of the block, or sometimes, by 55 officers. In the early hours of the morning, it was freezing cold and we had to stand there in our prisoner's clothes being counted and recounted, countless times. We were rushed out for Appells three, four or more times a day, always accompanied by shouts of "raus", "shnell" and those of us who were late, received punishments.


Sachsenhausen: Prisoners, (1938)

There were rumors amongst our group that the reason for our transport to Sachsenhausen and not to Auschwitz was that we were considered to be "experts" and that we were intended for reassembling the machinery sent out from Pionki to somewhere in Germany. There was supposed to have been a letter to that effect signed by the Commander of the Pionki Camp named Brandt. Actually, very few of us were "experts". All of us were forced labor workers without any former technical background.

At the end of September 1944, we were ordered to pack our belongings and under heavy guard, were marched to the train station in Oranienburg, and were sent off to a town called Gloven. Gloven was the place where the Gunpowder factory which was transferred from Pionki was supposed to have been reconstructed. On our arrival at the Gloven Camp, we were given a long speech by the Camp Commander, stressing the importance of complying with orders, keeping order and discipline and doing a good job at work.

The Camp consisted of four long huts which served as our lodgings and a small one for toilets and showers. Next to our camp was a camp with Jewish women prisoners from Hungary. The two camps were separated by a fence of reeds in addition to the barbed - wire fence. Most of our guards were elderly SS-men and the treatment we received here was much milder in comparison to Sachsenhausen. What we suffered from most was the cold and hunger.

Soon, we were divided into groups and put to work. The largest group was taken to the train station where the machinery and materials from Pionki were stored, some in warehouses and some still in the train wagons. Their job was to unload the wagons, to sort out the machinery and materials and move them to their new locations. The work was supervised by German engineers and foremen who came from Pionki. The work was very slow going with very little progress. Other groups worked in cutting down trees in the nearby forest and in different construction jobs. I personally worked in cleaning the camp grounds or in the kitchen and as an assistant to the camp cobbler.

The news of the advancing Russian and Allied Forces reached us also and warmed our hearts during the freezing cold winter months.

In the middle of Feb.1945, we were told that we will be sent back to Sachsenhausen. As transportation facilities were scarce, we were transported in single trucks, usually at night. Those who waited for their turn to be transported, continued to be employed in different jobs. One day, a group of about 100 prisoners were sent to work in a factory in Rathenow. The rest of us reached Sachsenhausen, at the end of Feb. or beginning of March 1945.

Back in Sachsenhausen, I found things have changed for the worse. The place was much more crowded, many more people were marching, walking or standing in the open grounds. Many prisoners were sitting or lying around the huts with an indifferent look in their eyes and unaware of what was happening to them. Many of them died lying out there in the cold of the months of February and March.

The group I arrived with from Gloven was lodged in one of the blocks, on the right hand corner of the camp. There were a few huts, which were separated from the rest of the camp by barbed wire.

The next few weeks in Sachsenhausen were very difficult and miserable. Food was scarcer than ever and there was no escape from the cold. Many of the younger and stronger prisoners were taken to work in Berlin to clear the streets of the debris caused by the demolished houses bombed out by the Allies. Others worked with bomb demolition squads. Those of us who were not fit for work and stayed in the camp had plenty of time to think of hunger and of ways to survive from one Appell to the other.

The month of April brought milder weather and longer spells of sunshine, which eased our misery a bit. One early morning, there suddenly was a big commotion among the prisoners. People were moving much quicker, talking much louder, prisoners from different blocks mixed with each other and there was a lot of excitement in the air.

Next to our blocks, separated by a fence and a wooden partition, there was one or more blocks where women prisoners were kept. Somehow, during that morning, an opening was made in the partition and women started coming over into the men's area. Soon, one could see men and women talking to each other, touching and even embracing each other. I, myself, didn't quite understand what was happening, so I tried to keep as near as possible to the people I knew - the Pionki group. We were called a few times for Appells of our block and got dismissed without any information. Rumors were running fast amongst the prisoners - one said that the German guards were running away leaving us behind, another said that we would be gassed before the Russian army arrived, still another rumor said that we would be evacuated!

In the meantime the Germans started to assemble the prisoners on the main Appell Platz in groups of about 500 prisoners, each holding a blanket and a bundle of his personal belongings.

At some stage there was an announcement that Jewish and Russian prisoners would be staying in the camp and that they will not be allowed to leave. That was immediately translated to mean that the Jewish and Russian prisoners would be exterminated in the camp. Everybody was looking for a way to join the other nationalities and not be left behind.

Someone had the idea that we should tear off the Star of David which every Jewish prisoner had to wear next to his number on his shirt and coat. Many of us did so and joined one of the groups being arranged in the main Appell Platz. We paid no attention to the SS Officer who was counting and recounting the group shouting "No Jews, no Russians!" the whole time.

Each one of us was given a loaf of bread and every 4 or 5 prisoners received a can of beef, and we were marched out of the camp.

I gave a sigh of relief when I came out of the Camp gates. We were surrounded by SS guards who made us walk at a very quick pace. Those who could not keep up were prompted by the SS guards with kicks and blows with their rifle buds. Those who fell and could not walk anymore, were shot by the SS.


Concentration camp prisoners on the death march, approaching Crivitz in early May 1945, about two weeks after Sachsenhausen was evacuated on April 21, 1945

In front of our column marched the German prisoners, behind them was a group of youngsters, myself amongst them, and behind us all the rest of the prisoners. We walked on dirt tracks and pathways only and mainly along forests or other tree plantations. In the late afternoon of that first day, we were stopped near a small pond and were told to go and drink water. Most of the prisoners ran to the pond but quite a large group stayed behind afraid the pond might be poisoned. I was one of those who stayed behind. I remember one German prisoner who also stayed behind remarking to his friend about my will power keeping me from running to the pond. I came across that same German a few days later.

Every additional day of the march became more difficult, the rations we received were finished, more and more people fell to the ground and couldn't continue any more. More and more shots were heard from the back of the column. Some prisoners who still had the strength were assisting their friends to carry on walking. At one point, along the road there was a dead horse and many prisoners, in spite of the dangers involved, ran to the carcass and started cutting out pieces of meat. Soon the German guards, with shouts beatings, the prisoners back to the column. Those few lucky ones who succeeded could be seen holding pieces of red horse meat and chewing it while walking.

One day, Allied airplanes dropped leaflets in our vicinity warning the SS guards against killing prisoners. To the best of my recollection, the leaflets did have an effect and fewer people were shot.

One day a Swedish Red Cross truck arrived and distributed packets of food, one for every five prisoners. I mainly remember the taste of a piece of chocolate, which I had not eaten since the beginning of war. Those few bites of canned beef, a sardine and a few crackers gave us the strength to continue walking and probably saved many lives.

One day we reached a forest near the village of Below and were told to settle down for the night. We stayed in the forest for a few days surrounded by SS guards and no one was allowed to leave. Many of the guards were elderly men and the weariness of the march was noticeable on them, too. Hunger was the predominant problem and prisoners were eating the roots of shrubbery growing in the forest or cut out pieces of bark from trees and scraped out the inside and ate. I tasted the bark and couldn't stomach it in spite of the crippling hunger. I decided to look for other sources to satisfy my hunger. I went to the edge of the forest. In front of me was a field with heaps of hay. Beyond the field was a patch of trees. To the left I could see the roofs of a few houses. A path ran from the forest in the direction of those houses. Two guards were patrolling along this side of the forest, each one covering about half the distance. Sometimes they walked towards each other and sometimes away from each other.

At some stage I noticed that the guard to my left was standing at the far corner of the forest talking to another guard. The guard to my right was walking away, with his back to me. At that moment I dashed out of the forest, ran for about 50 m. and fell next to one of the hay heaps. I covered myself with some of the hay so as not to be noticed by the guards.

I was looking ahead to see how to continue towards the direction of the patch of trees when someone landed on the ground next to me. I was sure that I was caught and that would be the end of me. It took me some time to look at the person next to me, expecting to see an SS guard pointing his gun at me! First I saw the striped prison uniform and then recognized the German political prisoner, the one who had made the remark about my will power on the first day of the march. He had the same idea like me so when he saw me running out of the forest, he just followed me.

We were contemplating our next steps when we heard SS men shouting one to another the news that all German prisoners are to be released and that all the German prisoners should be notified to go to the village to be released. At first, the German prisoner, we shall call him "Fritz", thought that it probably was a trick. Only after he saw German prisoners coming out of the forest and walking towards the village did he get up shouting "Ich bin ein Deutscher, Ich bin ein Deutscher" and walked away in the direction of the village. I, too, got up and followed Fritz!

We were directed to one of the first houses in the village. A few SS officers were sitting around tables outside the house and giving out "Entlassungscheins" to the German prisoners. I was standing on the side and looking on when one of the SS officers turned to me and asked, "Und was machst du hier?". "Ich mechte auch befreit werden", I answered.

"Und wer bist Du?", he asked. "Ich bin ein Volksdeutscher", I said looking him straight in the eyes. "Was macht ein Volksdeutscher junge in lager?" the SS man continued. I knew they did not have any records of the prisoners with them, so I told him the story that I was imprisoned with my father for stealing and that my father had died and that I was left alone. My blond hair and blue eyes must have convinced the officer. His next question was, "Und wo gehst du hin?". I told him "Ich weist nicht!". Fritz who already had his release paper in his hand, turned to the SS officer and said that he will take me with him. Without any further questions, the officer filled out the paper and handed me my Entlassungschein. When we left, Fritz gave me a broad smile and a fatherly pat on my head. He looked satisfied with my performance.

We went back to the forest to pick up our meager bundle of belongings. When I told my Pionki friends that I have been released, there was a lot of excitement. Some did not believe me while others were overjoyed and wished me good luck. Mendel Blufarb who was the head of the Jewish Police in Pionki, called me over to where he was lying next to a tree. He did not have the strength to stand up. He pulled me down close to him and handed to me four small gold coins saying he won't need them anymore and that he hopes that they will help me survive and stay alive. Itzchak Flekier accompanied me as far as he could and stood at the edge of the forest waiving good-bye for as long as he could see me. Both of them survived and a few years later we met again in Israel.

Fritz, a German friend of his and myself started walking at a very quick pace trying to get as far away as possible from the "Belower Wald" lest the SS change their minds. When we reached the first town, we registered at the Police Station, and then went to another office where we received coupons for civilian clothing and food rations. We continued walking on the roads, as did thousands of other people, refugees of all kinds, most of them going in our direction - away from the Russian Army. Very few walked in the opposite direction. Most went on foot, some held onto bicycles, some rode on carts and horses and some even drove in vehicles.

One day we hitchhiked on top of a fuel carrier holding on to the lid of the tank. It was a very hazardous experience, to the extent that we preferred to continue walking. The next day, Fritz convinced the Sergeant in charge of a military kitchen truck to take us with them. For two days, the three of us traveled inside the warm truck, stuffed with food. We ate all we could, to the point of vomiting!

Two days later we found ourselves in the midst of a German retreating convoy. It was slow going because the road was in a very bad condition and congested with refugees. Soon we were being strafed by the Allied aircraft. Everyone was running for cover and as far away from the military vehicles as possible. Most of the military vehicles were hit, some exploded and others set on fire. There were many casualties, amongst the refugees, too. I was lying in the open field and one shell fell a few centimeters from me! After this experience, we tried to keep away from military units whenever possible.

One day, while passing through a village, we saw that all the people, mainly women and elderly people, were on the main street, excited and happy. White flags were hanging out of the windows, the war was over, the German army capitulated!

I, too, was overjoyed. I had the feeling of an accomplishment! I had succeeded. I had survived! After a long time, I thought again of my family. Had my parents, sisters, brothers also succeeded? Did any of them survive?

Fritz and his friend had a couple of beers distributed free at the local pub, and we went our way. He was eager to get to his hometown and family as quick as possible. There were many cars and other vehicles discarded on the roadsides. Most of them without fuel. Fritz found a small car in a ditch with plenty of fuel in the tank. With the help of some by passers, we succeeded to pull the car out of the ditch. It was such a great relief to sit in a car and not to have to walk. We felt great. Somehow, we succeeded to overcome all the obstacles on the way and two days later drove into Hamburg.

Although the war was supposed to have come to an end, there was still fighting going on all around us. In the center of Hamburg there still was street fighting all through that night. We stopped in a side street, next to a bombed out building, as were most of the buildings we saw on our way into the town. Fritz and his friend went into the building and found one flat which was in a fairly good condition. We moved into the flat. We were the only residents in the whole building.

A day later the shooting stopped suddenly and people started coming out of their shelters and hiding places. The war had come to an end in Hamburg, too.! We could not leave the town because of travel restrictions. We continued to occupy the flat. Every time Fritz went out, he came back with some kind of food.

On the 10th of May we registered with the Kriminalpolizei where we were issued another Entlassungsschein which confirmed our being former KZ prisoners and entitled us to food ration coupons. The original "Release-pass" and ration coupons are in my possession.

One day Fritz arranged with a truck driver who had a permit to drive out of Hamburg to bring fresh vegetable supplies, to smuggle us out of the town. Early next morning we met the driver on a side street. He tucked us underneath three layers of empty vegetable boxes. We passed two Military checkpoints. At one of them an M.P climbed onto the truck, saw nothing and very soon we were out of Hamburg and free to continue on our way.

Fritz's friend left us there and went in a different direction. The two of us continued in the direction of his hometown. In one of the towns, Hanover? On our way, we went to the "Allied Expeditionary Force" office where I received my D.P Index Card, No. G07693936 and original German food ration coupons, over-stamped with "By Order of Military Government". We continued our way partly walking, partly hitchhiking. One day Fritz again took possession of a discarded car. We collected petrol from the tanks of a few other cars in the vicinity and the same afternoon reached Fritz's town.

Fritz first went to the home of his best friend who burst in tears when he saw him. After a while, we drove over to Fritz's home. His friend went up to prepare the ground with the family. A few minutes later Fritz went up and told me to stay in the car. After the excitement of the reunion subsided, Fritz told them about me and someone came out and invited me in. I was welcomed very warmly. For the next few days their house was filled with relatives and friends who came to see Fritz. Most of them came with food, drinks or sweets and I did not stop eating!

One day Fritz's father told me that a Jewish doctor who survived the war was living in town and asked if I would like to meet him. Of course, I agreed. He took me to the doctor that same afternoon. The doctor was very surprised to learn that a young Jewish boy had survived the KZ camps and had landed in his town. He knew of a Jewish young man who survived by posing as a Polack and was working in a farm together with his Polish girl friend.

When I met the young man, he told me that he intended to go back to Poland to see if he can find any survivors of his family. That was exactly what I also intended to do. I asked him if I could join him. He agreed willingly and said he will let me know when the next transport of Poles and Russians will leave for the Russian Occupied Zone. A few days later, I said good-bye to Fritz and his family and thanked Fritz for all he did for me. I gave his father two of the golden coins which I was given by Mendel Blufarb at the Belower Wald. (The other two coins I lost on the way.)

The young Jew, together with his girlfriend, picked me up and we joined a convoy of about twenty Military lorries with some Polish, but mainly Russian and Ukrainian men and women, some with small children, who worked as forced laborers in Germany. Upon our arrival in the Russian Zone, all the Russian men were separated and driven away under heavy guard. The Russian women, children and the rest of us were brought into a fenced in, open plot and kept there for the rest of the day. The Russian women were treated very harshly, and with apparent hatred, by the Russian soldiers. We, soon, realized that we had made a mistake by coming to the Russian Zone, and decided to try and go back to the Western Zones. Somehow we succeeded to talk our way out and were allowed to leave and go to a nearby camp where citizens of Western Co, mainly French, Dutch and Belgians, were waiting to be repatriated to their countries.

Two days later, we joined a train full of repatriates going West. We arrived in Luxembourg from where each one was sent to his country of origin. As we were not citizens of any Western Country, we were stuck in Luxembourg. Soon we met an American Jewish Chaplain who proposed to take us to a Jewish Camp back in Germany. The young couple did not want to go back to Germany and stayed on in Luxembourg. I agreed and was taken to a small Jewish camp in a place called Dipholtz. I was happy to be once again amongst my own people.

A few weeks later, a group of the inmates were being taken to Sweden and I was amongst them. We went by lorry to Bergen-Belsen where we were supposed to join up with a much larger group. While waiting in Bergen-Belsen, I saw thousands of Jews who survived the war. That gave me hope that maybe someone of my own family also survived! There and then, I decided to stay behind and not continue to Sweden. I met a person from my hometown who told me that my uncle, my mother's brother, and his eldest son, survived and that they live in Poland.

Someone directed me to a Kinderheim in the camp where there were many other Jewish children, a few of them even younger than myself. At the end of Sept.1945, a group of children including myself, were taken to England. Three years later, after the establishment of the Jewish State, I immigrated to Israel where I live ever since. I am married and have four children.

Note:
The above account is mainly a chronological description of events, as I personally experienced and remember them. These experiences should be viewed through the eyes of a 12-13 years old boy, without any immediate family, trying to stay alive with all the odds against him.

I did not go into detailed descriptions of day to day life or of people whom I encountered during those fatal years. I might do that some time in the future.

Links:

Sachsenhausen Memorial Site

Glowaczow, Birth Shtetl of Joseph Rotbaum-Ribo

Last Updated November 30th, 2003

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