by I. I. Cohen
Wednesday, April 25, 1945, the SS guards in Kaufering's watchtowers suddenly disappeared. The block supervisors in our camp, a satellite of Dachau, stopped beating and cursing; the explosives that grew louder each day signaled the death throes of the Third Reich.
Some of us broke into the camp kitchen and hauled away potatoes, flour, cabbage and pieces of bread. A day earlier we would have been shot for lesser sins, but now, several days since we got any food, our hunger overpowered our fright. We stuffed our bellies and our pockets.
Suddenly the silence was broken by the familiar murderous voices of our German captors.
Everyone in a row! Roll call! In a flash, the thugs were running about with clubs and revolvers, mercilessly chasing everyone out of the barracks.
Having experienced several years together in the ghetto, our group of young Chasidim from Lodz stuck together.
It was clear that the Allied forces were nearby. Rumor had it that the SS command had ordered camp commanders to exterminate all inmates, to leave no living testimony for the Allied armies. We found it hard to believe such a diabolical scheme, but six years under Nazi rule taught us that bleak prophecies had a tendency to materialize.
We debated our alternatives. Should we follow orders and evacuate the camp, or stay behind to await the Allies? We decided to stay and, one by one, stole into the dysentery block, where the hopelessly ill lay. We hoped the guards would not enter the contaminated area.
But our hopes were dashed when our block door crashed open and an SS officer, his machine gun crackling, shouted Everyone out! The camp is to be blown up!
Suddenly the air shook with the wailing of sirens. The Allies were bombing the German defenses! We prayed that the thunderous explosions would go on forever, and eventually fell asleep to the bombing sounds.
We awoke next morning to an ominous silence, broken by the moans of the dying. We arose cautiously and went outside. There was desolation everywhere, and a gaping hole in the barbed wire.
Had it been torn open by the fleeing Germans? Were we free? We went to the other barracks, and shared our discovery with their frightened inhabitants - mostly musselmen emaciated skeletons.
We soon heard the rumble of an approaching convoy.
We waited, our fear leavened with excitement.
The fear proved more prescient, and soon melted into disappointment, when the familiar SS uniforms came into view. The Nazis had returned, bringing along a detachment of prisoners from other camps to help them finish their work.
Amid the fiendish din of screams and obscenities, we hid in one of the blocks, covered ourselves with straw and rags and lay still, our hearts pounding with terror. Soon we heard footsteps and I felt a hand on my head. We had been discovered by non-Jewish inmates of other labor and POW camps.
We pleaded with them to ignore us, and offered them our potatoes, but just as the invaders agreed, an SS officer came stomping in, swinging his club, which he heartlessly used on our heads. A boot on the behind, and we were on our way to the trucks, accompanied by the commandos and the SS.
We were thrown onto a wagon piled with barely human-looking bodies; the moaning of the sick was replaced by the silence of the dead. But while the guards were busy with another wagon, my friend Yossel Carmel and I managed to roll out of the truck and found refuge in a nearby latrine.
Eventually the wagons left, and we crept back into the block we had occupied earlier. I tore down the light hanging from the ceiling, and we posed, not unconvincingly, as corpses.
Friday, April 27, 1945, brought a cold morning. White clouds chased each other across the bright blue sky as a frigid wind blew through the barracks, chilling our bones. Periodically, the earth trembled with an explosion; we sat quietly, each engrossed in his thoughts. Suddenly, we heard motorcycles rumbling and dogs barking. Our hearts fell. Once again, the Germans were back.
We soon heard footsteps in the block, and then a frenzied voice, Swine! You are waiting for the Americans? Come with me! A commotion followed, the sound of running, shattering of glass, and then, a burst of machine gun fire. I peeked and saw that those who had been hiding near the window had tried to escape. Yossel and I had not been detected but were paralyzed with fright
We held our breath in fear as the footsteps moved away. Peeking through a hole in the straw covering me, I felt smoke burning my eyes.
We ripped off the straw and rags and saw flames all around us. Yossel and I fumbled toward the door, suffocating from the smoke, our heads spinning. In a moment that seemed an eternity, we found ourselves outside. Just a few yards from us stood the German murderers, fortunately, with their backs to us.
The entire camp was ablaze. We threw ourselves on the first pile of corpses we saw and lay still; we no doubt resembled our camouflage.
I mumbled to Yossel that we ought to say the vidui confession a Jew says when facing death. He chided me to remember what I had told him when we arrived in Auschwitz. The Talmudic Sages, he reminded me, advised that Even if the sword is braced on your neck, never despair of Divine mercy. Yossel recalled, too, the Sages' admonition that in times of danger Jews should renew their commitment to their faith.
I thought I saw SS guards everywhere, with weapons poised, but Yossel convinced me that there was noone in sight; for an hour or more we lay in that pit. Every few minutes bombs whistled overhead, followed by fearsome explosions nearby. The earth shook, but each blast pumped new hope into our hearts. Slowly, we crept out of the pit and made our way to the camp kitchen. There we found a few more frightened souls.
We discovered a sack of flour, mixed it with water, started the ovens and baked flat breads. I noted the irony; it was Pesach Sheini the biblical Second Passover a month after the first -- and we were baking matzohs.
Suddenly, the door flew open and a Jewish inmate ran in breathlessly: Yidden! Fellow Jews! The Americans are here!
We were free!
We wanted to cry, sing, dance, but our petrified hearts would not let us. I wanted to rush outside, but my strength left me.
When I finally managed to move outside, I saw a convoy of tanks and jeeps roaring through the camp. A handful of American soldiers approached the barracks. One of them had tears streaming down his face. The barracks were nearly all incinerated. In front of each block lay a pile of blackened, smoldering skeletons.
And we, the living, were a group of walking corpses. We wept along with the American soldiers.
Among the supplies the Americans brought was a bottle of wine. An inmate picked it up and announced: For years I have not recited the Kiddush. Today, I must. He recited the blessing on wine, and the Shehecheyanu blessing of gratitude to G-d for having kept us alive until this time.