I am born again

On September 18, 1943, I was transferred together with a large group of 250 Jews from the small Riga Ghetto to the katset called Kaiserwald. They transported us by tractor, which towed two large wagons. In each corner of each wagon stood several armed soldiers from the SS camp guards. Our way passed through the heart of town, near the apartments we had once lived in. The day was clear, full of autumn sunlight. The leaves of the chestnut trees fell on Riga’s beautiful boulevards. I was lucky in that I stood in the frontmost towed wagon, and I could see and observe all that took place around us. Those who stood in the outer rows of the towed wagons had to face with their backs to the street and were not allowed to turn around. It seemed to me, that since we were going to be interred in the Kaiserwald camp, they were transporting us through town on purpose, so that we remember our former way of life, when we were still free people like all those who now walked in the streets, some hurrying to work, some to school, or some just out for a stroll. Some of the passersby shot us a stuck-out tongue, a middle finger, or other insulting gesture. But most people passed by indifferently and did not look at us at all. Only infrequently did we notice among the passersby people with downcast and ashamed eyes. Soon we reached the most beautiful and expensive neighborhood in Riga, where luxurious villas stand, shaded by tall pines and surrounded by tended flower gardens. Is this not the mocking of fate? Such a paradox that precisely in such a place, in the bosom of paradise, is where hell is, the concentration camp for Jews – “Kaiserwald”, which is to say, “the royal forest”. And here I ponder the second paradox. If that is what fate has decreed for us, so be it. But why is it all so backwards, the opposite of creation. Why are the wicked and the murderers on the outside in luxurious villas, while we, the innocent victims, are in the hell? Today, after almost 50 years, I can find for this conundrum just one single answer: that an evil angel inserted a virus into the computer of fate “up there” and that is why the data came out in reverse.

After life in the small ghetto, which had been fairly calm recently, the katset rather completely resembled an insane asylum. You didn’t know where you were allowed to stand, where to sit, or where to go. But the main thing was, you never knew from which direction you were about to receive a blow from a long stick, that for no special reason other than their own personal enjoyment, the block elders and the Polish “kapos” would beat you with. Most of them were criminal offenders who had already excelled in brutality in the concentration camps in Germany. The SS men had taken them with them to Riga as assistants, to administer terror, torture, and murder on the most inferior sect, the “sub-human” Jews. As soon as we had arrived and they had counted us several times, they ordered us to strip fully and they took away everything we had with us and on us.

The entire time, throughout all of the inspections and searches, I had managed to hide several photographs of my parents and brothers. The rags I had lost did not interest me at all, but I didn’t want to part from the pictures. I asked one kapo, an older man, who stood next to the pile of photographs and documents that had accumulated and tumbled about in the wind and mud, to allow me to take along one photograph of my family who had been killed already years before. His answer was slow and calm: “You don’t need their photographs anymore, you’ll be together with them soon yourself.” The calm answer didn’t hinder him in the slightest from striking a blow on my back with his stick. I didn’t understand if he had done this out of habit, or if my request had reminded him of his own family. And thus, standing just as I had emerged from my mother’s womb naked and exposed, I was entered in the roster and lost my human name. I became “prisoner (häftling) number 4199”. As I continued along the line, my new clothes were thrown at me: stained underwear, pants, and a jacket. The jacket was apparently that of a former Polish railway worker. The brass buttons were marked with the Polish eagle and there was a locomotive symbol on the collar. The pants were very short on me, reaching only just past my knees. But the jacket was as long as hasid’s overcoat. The entire length the of jacket sleeves and the pants were smeared with a broad yellow stripe of oil paint, and so that I should look completely like the chief of an exotic African tribe, they shaved a stripe of my hair off along the entire length of my head.

On the spot I received two “merit badges” that I had to sew on, one in the middle of the back and the other in front, over the left breast. These “merit badges” were fabric in the shape of a star-of-David, whose one triangle was yellow and the other black. The yellow was the color of the Jew, the black, the color of asocial man, the man who constitutes a danger to society and to the surrounding public. Thus we were decorated in advance with two “titles”. Not just any Jew, but some kind of “dangerous” character, too. The worst thing was the shoes. These were unfinished wooden clogs, crudely sawed and covered with oilcloth that had been cut from old tablecloths that were rotted and unfit for use. We had to wear these shoes without socks or shoelaces, tying them only with old electrical wire.

I was sent to bunk in block number two. Jews, those who had been in the concentration camp a long time, told me that I was lucky, because this block was the best in the whole camp. They really envied me. The reason for the good in this block was that the chief “kapo” (block elder) there was a German named Jacob, a former Communist or Social-Democrat who had been brought from a katset in Germany. He had been in concentration camps a long time and for this reason had become a bitter man. But despite this there was still in him a certain measure of humanity. One could at least still talk to him without incurring the beating of a lifetime. When I entered the second block it was already late at night and all three tiers of wooden bunks were occupied. Everywhere lay one or two sleeping or dozing Jews. I mustered my courage, approached Jacob’s cubicle at the entrance to the block, and informed him that new prisoner number 4199 had nowhere to sleep. I don’t know what impressed him about my petition. He didn’t answer me. He put down the cigarette he was smoking and went with me into the large and darkened block. After walking with me for a while among the plank bunks, he led me to a bunk in which was quietly laid a small, gaunt human form and said: “Lie here next to him, he’ll die soon anyway and you’ll have a place to sleep.” After he said these words, I climbed with a heavy heart to the third tier of the dirty and smelly wooden bunks, whose width was at most some 60 centimeters, put together with crude and unfinished boards, and not even bedded with a little hay. Carefully I lay myself down next to the bundle of bones and rags that in times past had been known as a human being, so as not to wake him. But he sensed that someone had lain down next to him. He opened his eyes the littlest bit as if he was bidding me goodbye and said that his name was Danziger, he was from Berlin, had been in the concentration camp already several weeks, all his family having died already before in the ghetto. Then he closed his eyes again, dozed off, and I heard no more from him. Early the next morning, at four o’clock, when the “kapo” men woke everyone with their shouting and blows from their sticks, I crawled down out of my plank bed, but Danziger remained peacefully asleep. I bent over him and tried to wake him up. I shook him, but it was no use anymore. He had given up his soul. It appeared that the block elder knew his charges well.

I must confess that then, when I was only 22 years old, I still thought to myself, what can one do? Such an old man (Danziger was at most maybe 55), he had already lived out his share of years. That is the plain state of things. Everything is relative, in all times and under any conditions.

Right after that first night, I decided that Kaiserwald was no place for me, and I must leave the place as soon as possible. Already the next day they announced that they were looking for young men for a new concentration camp in northwestern Latvia, in a place called Dundaga (in German: Dondangen). Not one of the hundreds of volunteers who signed up for this transfer knew what could possibly be there, what kind of work, under what conditions? Everyone simply wanted to get out of here, to be as far away as possible from Kaiserwald. From my schooldays, in geography class, I remembered that Dundaga is a small village in the midst of large forests, that it may be reached by a small train on a narrow-gauge track, and that there is a factory there that manufactures starch from potatoes and also a cheap syrup, that in bygone days the poor would spread on their bread instead of honey. Now it was we who were the poorest of people and if it were possible to sweeten our lives even just a little bit, then that was certainly to the good. All those who volunteered for “sweet” Dundaga, over two hundred people, were checked and asked each one as to his age, his profession, and his health. They didn’t delve too deeply into the answers because their decision was based mainly on profession and external appearance. I didn’t know which profession to give, because I didn’t actually have one yet. I abstained from saying I was a welder, a mechanic, or a carpenter, because they could exclude me from the transport on the pretext that they themselves needed trained professionals in the concentration camp so I should stay there. To say that I was an unskilled laborer with no profession was dangerous, because they might say they didn’t need people like that in Dundaga. I finally decided to say that I worked with roof tiles, a profession I had indeed worked in in the autumn of 1941, when I was still in the large ghetto in Riga, repairing the roof of St. Peter’s Church in the old city. It did fit the situation. If they’re building a new camp, they need some way to cover the roofs there. Thus I finally succeeded in becoming a “happy” member of the group sent to the unknown Dundaga.

The next day, September 20, 1943, we were ordered to present ourselves in rows, three to a row. The SS men read out the prisoner numbers, verifying that everyone was present, and led us to the kitchen. There they gave each of us a small aluminum jug, dirty and crumpled, filled with cold black chicory coffee, about one third of the heavy camp bread that tasted like mortar, whose weight was supposed to be 400 grams, and on this was supposedly spread a spoonful of cheap jam. Finally, they told us that we had now received rations for the duration of the entire journey to Dundaga, and only there would we be given food again. The announcement, a sort of warning, didn’t help much. Every Jew in the ghetto or in a concentration camp knew that only what he eats and swallows was his, because food left over has no guarantee of being found again. Everyone immediately started, still standing in front of the kitchen’s distribution windows, to spread the scant amount of jam on the bread with their dirty fingers and eat it. By the time the rest of the SS men arrived to take us away, there was no longer any trace of the food we had received. The guard detail returned and counted us several times, took us out of the katset and led us on foot to the nearby train station Sarkandaugava (“Red Daugava”). There three train cars for transporting livestock were already waiting for us, apparently loot from the defeated French army. I managed to read what was written on the cars in French: “No more than twenty people or eight horses.” The SS guards squeezed us in by force like sardines in a can, nearly seventy men to a car. The cars were empty, without any planks for sitting or lying down. The soldiers hastily closed the heavy iron doors and locked them from the outside with deadbolts and padlocks. So that we have some air, they left a small gap between the two iron shutters outside the small barred windows. After doing this, our guards disappeared for some thirty hours and we were left compressed and imprisoned in the darkened cars, which were placed on a side track, with nothing to drink and no way to get out. A number of older and frailer people, who had no strength to push the others, those younger and stronger, who were literally cast on top of them, or those who didn’t manage to push their way closer to the windows to gain a little air to breath, were asphyxiated and were left lying on the floor lifeless. With great effort we finally managed to drag all of the dead into one corner and stacked them on top of one another like logs. Only the next day, late at night, did they couple our cars to a locomotive and all of us, those half-dead of thirst, hunger, and lack of air, together with the corpses of those who had already passed into the true world, began travelling in an unknown direction. Come daybreak we arrived at a small train station and heard our cars being decoupled. Immediately, the guard detail loudly opened the doors and ordered us to exit quickly. We were like drunkards, inebriated from the fresh air that now deeply penetrated our lungs. We not only breathed the air, we truly gulped it down. Since we had been standing for nearly forty hours in that terrible crowdedness, our legs had become paralyzed and no one could stand. Everyone tumbled right out and fell on the ground. However, this soon passed, and only the dead were left in the cars. They made us stand up again on the platform in the train station called Stende. They counted the living several times, added the dead to the count (the count had after all to be precise), and handed the transport over to a new guard kommando, this one from the Dundaga camp. Then they transferred us to a small train and seated us on flatbed cars that were used for logging trees from the surrounding forests. At the head of each one of these cars, next to the brakes, stood two young SS soldiers, armed to the teeth, facing us while we sat on the floor in widthwise rows of three, six rows one after the other. Thus they seated us in twelve small cars and administered to us a stern warning: any slight movement or attempt to stand up will be considered an escape attempt and the soldiers will use their weapons immediately. We were off again and we travelled about 50km in almost four hours. The speed of the small train, which had first been used during World War I (1915) reached a maximum speed of 15 kilometers per hour.

But time passed quickly. Our route stretched through green and beautiful forests and the fresh air, something we were not accustomed to, strengthened us and heartened our mood. At the Dundaga train station, the problem of moving our legs arose once again. From all the extended sitting, we were not able to stand. And this time too it turned out that the best means of overcoming this was abuse, yelling, and beating. From the Dundaga train station to the concentration camp was a distance of three kilometers on foot. We had to pass through the center of town, which consisted of about fifty scattered houses, most of them farmhouses and homesteads. When we crossed the lone street, the local Latvians looked at us and were much astonished. The few families of Jews that had lived there had been executed by gunshot already two years ago, in August 1941. They were quite taken aback to see that there still existed living Jews who understood and spoke Latvian and it seemed to them as if the Jews had returned from the true world.
When we finally arrived at the place that was supposed to be our new concentration camp, it turned out that nothing was finished and ready. Even the barbed wire had not yet been wound on the high double fenceposts that had to enclose the entire area of the camp. A young Scharführer (sergeant) of the SS army, who was responsible for the camp until the  arrival its real landlords, the SS men of the concentration camp administration services, led us back to the small village and put us into a large hall that was dry and full of light. It was Dundaga’s cultural building, that during wartime stood empty. The Latvian in charge of the hall tried at first to object and wouldn’t let us in because “the louse-infested Jews will dirty up the club.” But after the SS man got angry and shouted at him: “These people haven’t slept for three straight nights, so you’ll clean up the hall after them,” he reconciled himself out of lack of choice and let us in. The beginning in Dundaga was pleasant. It had been years since anyone had called us “people”. At best we had been ‘dirty Jews” or “damned pig dogs” (Verfluchte Schweinhunde). When they later gave us flannel blankets, hot thick soup, and large slices of fresh bread, we completely forgot the troubles that we had suffered on the way here. Satiated, we curled up in our new blankets, stretched out our full lengths on the dry, clean wooden floor and fell asleep with the idea that we had made a good deal after all trading “Kaiserwald” for “Dundaga”. Such is the nature of man. When his belly is full and he can lay his head down somewhere, he already becomes an optimist and doesn’t think at all what tomorrow might have in store for him. Ideas of the future he pushes away and banishes with all his might. He looks at them as if through the wrong end of a binoculars. Then he is satisfied, at least for the time being, until new trouble comes along.

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