VAULTS AND ATTICS
In the comer of the rectangle, where the camp's buildings are situated, there are the barracks for penal detention. They hardly differ from the other blocks in this row. They are built in the same style as the old barracks, which were in use during the Austrian regime, where they housed the Royal Imperial artillery, and the new ones, built by the prisoners, for the ever-increasing number of new companions, arriving from the world outside. They are all of the same dull shape and of the same dreary red brick.
The ones for penal detention are twin-barracks, consisting of two blocks, connected with each other. That is the first variation from the rest of the camp's design. The second is the number of small windows at the bottom. They look sinister and secretive, those little windows – and no wonder, because behind them are the dark vaults from which no one has ever returned. Today it is unusually lively in the neighbouring barrack. Removal. The whole detachment, about 300 people, are being transferred to the next block, built recently. Into the empty building they are going to bring the seriously ill from the hospital.
"They must be enlarging it," one prisoner supposes. "High time, too; it was incredibly cramped."
The activity around the barracks for penal detention does not stop even when night falls. The gravel grinds under the steps of many people; their sound echoes down the stairs and gets lost in the vaults.
A new batch of prisoners is arriving: 500 Bolsheviks. Who is it, who is not yet included with the Polish nucleus? There are already Czechs, Germans, Jews, and Serbs, and now they have brought in those Russians. But why are they going to be housed with the seriously ill? They cannot be ill – they came marching into the camp.
The prisoners in the nearby barracks don't even attempt to sleep; they listen to what is going on in the next house, that has been emptied so hurriedly and refilled again.
A short interval separates the noise of the steps on the gravel from the inhuman screams that follow, penetrating through every crack of the windows. The dominating note in these screams is that of shock, but the prisoners' ears, experienced in listening, are able to discern precisely the notes of pain, cries for help, and the final despair. Several times this 'tune' is repeated: first the rhythm of the steps, and then the chords of the screams. And then there is silence. The silence of the grave. It creeps sinisterly around the twin-barracks. The next day, these barracks, now silent, give the impression of a tombstone over a huge grave.
For three days the stillness around the barracks for penal detention remains undisturbed. The fourth night lifts the veil of secrecy. The gravel grinds again, this time under the wheels of carts, that drive up in front of the barracks. Another removal – but not of people, only of objects. Clothes which a few days ago had been worn by the sick Poles brought in from hospital, and others that had belonged to the Russians – they will all, the Russian army uniforms and the camp's drill overalls, find their way to the storeroom blocks.
After some time, the carts carry other loads and roll off in the opposite direction. Naked human bodies are piled up high. The carts move towards the crematorium.
Five minutes are sufficient to cover the distance between the corner barracks and the green, turf-covered hill of the crematorium. Even the prisoners, though pushing the carts, heavily loaded with the corpses, do not need much more time; they are in a hurry to get rid of their ghastly load. But their work will not be finished very soon, for the twin-barracks continuously supply them with fresh loads. For several nights the men will have to push the heavy carts from camp to crematorium and back. During the day there is deadly silence around the barracks for penal detention, but at night the turning wheels speak of the secret of the vaults.
The naked bodies, thrown in disorderly fashion along and across the carts, take their last ride. The pale moonlight is their only shroud. In this light their dead faces look even more dead and the pallor of their limbs is intensified. The men harnessed to the carts are not driven on by anybody, but they quicken their steps by their own impulse. One cart, unevenly loaded and clumsily handled, sways and turns over. For a moment the corpses seem to come to life once more; they jump one over the other, roll down the road, wave their hands, turn on their sides, and then again lie motionless, their faces turned skywards or towards the ground.
The moon in the west throws a feeble light on the scene; it is already mingled with the light of the dawn, but the greenish tinge on the dead bodies does not disappear: it seems rather to become more distinct now in the new light of day.
One of the grave-diggers, holding a corpse in his arms to throw it back on the cart, gazes into the greenish-grey face for a while. Years ago he saw similar faces: a deserted trench with corpses of soldiers. The same ghostly pallor. It is the discolouration of poison gas.
The secret of the vaults, from which nobody ever returned, filters through with the dawn of a new day. The secret of 800 people killed is revealed.
To the short 'tune', beginning with the steps on the gravel, the words are found. They killed them with gas.
A group of prisoners, ordered for weeding, is working on a beetroot field. The small young plants with hardly any leaves, have to be avoided carefully, and the quickly increasing weeds must be pulled out. The monotony, terrible in the uninterrupted repetition of short, restricted movements, is relieved only by the picture of rails, stretching in a smooth curve on the horizon. From time to time, a train rushes along, traveling from the world into the world. For a moment the prisoners lift their eyes from the ground, and cease to distinguish the reddish little leaves of sugarbeet from the greenish small weeds. Either the threat of punishment or a brutal hit from the guard calls back their glances from the vision of freedom and fetters them again to the ground.
The railway has open or closed wagons, carrying people, timber, machinery or coal; to the prisoners it seems to be a symbol of a former, pre-camp life: perhaps of a future after-camp life as well.
Unfortunately, amongst other trains that pass the field, there comes one full of wounded soldiers. At the sight of the bandaged heads, hands, and feet of German soldiers, it is as if an electric current passes through the men on the weeding field. They jump up, straighten their bent backs, shake their clenched fists, and shout loudly, hope surging through them once more.
The guard, furious and frightened, cannot understand what is going on. He throws himself on the man next to him, who dances around madly; the other guard, who rushes up to help his colleague, assists in 'putting down' the mutiny, by beating five men to death: Then the order to cease work is given and the prisoners are marched back to camp. The rest of the detachment, numbering several score, only semi-conscious, as if intoxicated, march back into the camp, to the barracks for penal detention. The subterranean vaults swallow them forever, together with their last strange outbreak of joy.
The twin-barracks possess, besides the stairs that lead down into the vaults, others that lead to the attic. In the former one is nearer to the earth, in the latter to the sky.
The attic, too, has small windows, invisible from the ground, as they are up in the roof. The light, filtering through them at dawn, shows posts, supporting the beams of the roof. On these posts people are hanging. They are alive and move violently. A hook is fixed on every post. Each of the hanged men has his hands fettered with a chain, and this is hung up on the hook. The prisoners' feet do not touch the ground; they dangle some inches up in the air. Their hands are crossed behind the back.
The row of posts stretches the whole length of the attic of both barracks. Not one post is empty. On each a chain creaks loaded with a human body.
This is one of the most usual punishments, the so-called 'post', meted out in the attic near the sky.
The only support of the hanging bodies is their, joined wrists. There the dreadful pain begins: as if a fissure had broken open in the skin and each joint split in two. If their feet could only reach the floor – it seems they need only a little stretching to feel ground underneath-the body could rest. Pain and torture would cease.
Those who apply those torments know that only too well. The hanging men instinctively seek support for their feet, stretching their legs towards the floor, and increasing with every movement the pain in their wrists. It spreads over the shoulders, neck and hips.
This punishment takes place early on Sunday mornings, so as not to waste a working day. It is usually divided over two or three Sundays, an hour at a time. Why do the torturers of Auschwitz mete out torments in weekly instalments? There must be the same reason for that as for the torturing of prisoners who have been sentenced to death; they have to suffer all the torments available, sometimes for a whole year, until the sentence is carried out.
After some minutes of hanging the whole body grows numb, but this does not reduce the pain, it only changes it. The numbness creeps from the toes to the head, but the pain in the chained wrists, the twisted neck, and the wrenched-out shoulders, continues. The joints and muscles, in order to find some relief, try to assume other positions. But how can a man, hanging on a post, do this? He jerks on this martyr's stake, cries out with pain, and counts the long minutes of the longest hour of his life. And when at last the hour of the 'post' is over, groaning with pain, he has not even a corner where he can lie down and rest after the torture. As 'post' takes place in the early morning, and the rule strictly forbids the spreading of mattresses during the day, he has to carry round the pain of his tormented body between the walls of his barrack or on the hard gravel in the yard. At night he lies on the thin pallet through which he feels the floor stamping its imprint on all the painful joints in his body. The next morning he drags himself to work again.
For what crime are people sentenced to such cruel punishment? The man on the first post dared to smoke at work; the second was caught by a heavy downpour of rain as he worked outside and tried to shelter; the third stole a loaf of bread from the stores; the fourth spoke during roll-call, without being asked.
A long row of posts supports the beams in the attic of the twin-barracks. On Sunday mornings every post carries its blue and white pendant – a prisoner in his overall.
Every Sunday morning this Golgotha of Auschwitz takes place.