The bathing crew

The winter of 1943/44 in Courland (Kurzeme) was very cold, a bitter cold that reached lower than -25 degrees Celsius with deep snow. The camp at Dundaga was still new, without any “facilities,” least of all crematoria for the burning of bodies, as existed in the more established camps. Of such a structure our commandant Kroeshl could not even dream. However, the Jews had no reaction to this, since in any case, they were dying off in droves. Each morning at least ten corpses and sometimes more were carried out of the cardboard tents as if there, in the heavens, they didn’t want to receive less than a minyan of Jews at a time.

During the summer and fall it was not difficult to bury the dead. The forest is large. One looks for sandy soil, hastily digs a pit, casts the corpses into it, covers with earth, over and done. But in the winter? Then the matter becomes problematic. The ground is frozen, hard as stone. Even so, this can be managed, too. A number of Jews can be made to hew a pit. This is of course hard work, but for Jews burial is after all a mitzva… In order that the Jews not run away, a number of guards must be posted, and then things have already gotten very bad. Why do they, pure Aryans, have to stand outside for hours on end in the freezing cold on account of a few dead Jews? It simply doesn’t make any sense. And this time, too, our experienced commandant found a “brilliant” solution. The distance from the camp to the Baltic Sea is approximately 20 kilometers. One need not drive there every day, twice a week will suffice. Let the dead Jews lie a few days in the snow by the fence behind the tents until enough corpses accumulate to fill the truck. After all, the dead won’t catch cold. By the frozen seashore, a hole can be punched through the ice and the dead can simply be cast into the sea. Said and done! Kroeshl needn’t ask anyone. In the Dundaga camp he is the boss not only of the living, but of the dead as well.

Throughout the entire winter of 1943/44 until the start of February, the dead who had perished of hunger, typhus, and other diseases were carted off in this way and dumped into the hole in the ice seawards. Suddenly, things warmed up. The ice began to thaw and the sea began to expel corpses on to the beach. The local inhabitants were finding corpses on an almost daily basis. The fishermen, too, found them in their nets and all of the dead were dressed in striped zebra clothes. This is when a commotion started up among Kroeshl and his minions: the local inhabitants might spread a rumor that the camp’s commander had poisoned the sea with the bodies of typhoid Jews. The Germans weren’t afraid of anything as much as from the disease of typhus. And that’s not all. The coast of neutral Sweden is not far away and all it would take is a change of winds and the sea might emit on to the beaches there too the dead in the striped clothes with the sewn on star of David and the numbers. In Sweden after all the International Red Cross was active, whose representatives the Germans invited and brought to Theresienstadt, in order to show them how nicely they treated the interred Jews. They arranged for there to be during these visits soccer games, theater performances, concerts, and exhibitions of drawings drawn by nursery school children. As soon as the Swedish and Swiss representatives left the place, then the soccer players, theater actors, musicians, and little children were sent to be exterminated in Auschwitz. They had after all to make room for new groups of soccer players, theater actors, and children, who were likewise destined to meet the same end as their predecessors. And now these deceived bureaucrats of the Red Cross, who had come to believe in German “humanity” and that indeed no harm in the slightest was intended towards the Jews, who are only being isolated from the local population and some of them sent to work in the occupied eastern lands, will find now on their shores the bodies of emaciated Jews in striped prisoners’ clothing. The matter could cause an international scandal and that, by all accounts, the Germans did not want.

Several days later a high committee of the SS arrives from Riga and relieves Kroeshl of his command. In his place Gustav Sorge24, known as “Iron Gustav” (Der Eiserne Gustav) is appointed. His first task is to correct Kroeshl’s mistakes. He immediately organizes a kommando of muselmänner25, Jews half-alive who have gradually become half-dead, who didn’t work anymore anyway and just wandered around the camp uselessly. The kommando even receives a fine name “the bathing crew” (Bade-Kommando). There were those who begged to be taken on to the bathing crew. The name seemed to suggest that they would work in a bathhouse and would at least be somewhere warm. But as happens in life, things turn out the opposite of what one expects. Instead of a warm bathhouse, the Jews of this group are cast into an ice-cold tub. All of these half-alive Jews are brought early each morning in an open truck to the Baltic Sea. They must immediately, dressed in the camp rags and the heavy wooden clogs, enter up to their necks into the icy sea water. There Jewish corpses swim among the ice floes. They must extract them from the sea, drag them onto the beach, stack them like logs into a large pile, pour kerosene over them, and set them on fire. The spreading flames are for the Jews of this group the only consolation of any kind. They may warm up a bit and dry out the rags that hang on them. But the guards do not let them linger for long. The Jews must return and re-enter the ice water, drag the corpses into piles again, burn them, and so throughout the entire day. They are allowed to emerge from the briny ice water only after they have found a corpse. No luck, you didn’t find a body, you stay in the water abandoned and frozen. Thus the work is accelerated, made more efficient, for as he drags a corpse from the sea and throws it on the flames, the dragger is rewarded and allowed to stand next to the fire for a few minutes. And here, by the flames, there burns together with the dead the belief in human civilization. And underneath its thin veneer appears the full barbarity of the man-beast that had lain hidden inside him. And by its light one might be warmed a little bit. Is this not the mocking of fate?

On a daily basis, a member of the bathing crew would die, from fatigue on the beach or from cold cramps in the ice water. There is no separate procedure for the newly dead. They too are thrown on to the fire, burning together with the corpses they had the fished out of the sea in a common pyre. A sort of “brotherly solidarity”, the dead brothers with their flames warming those half-alive - who themselves wondered whose turn it would be tomorrow…

This story is dedicated to the memory of a young Jewish boy, Herman Goldberg from Goldingen (Kuldīga) who lived in Riga in 1940/41. His entire family, parents, brothers, and sisters, perished in the Riga Ghetto. In Dundaga he was with his uncle, his father’s brother, Harry Goldberg. In the camp the three of us lived in the same tent. Young Herman lived through all the horrors of the bathing crew and as if in a fairy tale, remained alive. He also told me in detail and described to me the travails of this group. After a while he came down with epidemic typhus, lay in the quarantine room in the camp infirmary and died there.

Due to the suffering this young man had experienced in his fifteen years, he attained enough worldly wisdom and understanding to last several generations. He had already ceased to be angered by anything that happened to him or around him. Sometimes, relaxed and with a faint ironic smile, he would say: “There’s no point staying alive. There’s no need for testimony. When 40 or 50 years have passed, new generations will arise and no one will want to know or hear of what happened. More than that, no one will want to believe that all this really took place…”

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