The sirens wail: An alarm in the camp! The ominous, penetrating voice can be heard within a radius of six miles; it grips the hearts of thousands of prisoners.
It means death perhaps for only ten men, but the siren's voice sounds like a death-call to all the 10,000 prisoners10 because nobody knows yet whom they will choose this time.
The siren wails: Flight. Somebody has escaped from camp, and the fixed price to pay for the escape of one is the life of ten others.
The siren summons to roll-call. The men assemble in the yard and stand in ranks. They wait motionless. Only their eyes, gliding anxiously along the silent rows, seem to say: You are here and you and you too – who then is missing? Perhaps nobody from my detachment, perhaps one from the next-or maybe it is from another group that one man has bought his own freedom with the lives of ten others? The wandering, searching eyes find a gap. In the fourth row, a thin man who stood every day just in the middle of the row is missing. But he might have gone to hospital, or died at work, or may have been transferred to another block.
Nobody knows. At the moment, death stares into 10,000 pairs of frightened eyes and cramps 10,000 hearts.
The column of men stands motionless for one hour, a second, a third. The time for the midday meal has passed, for the evening roll-call, and for sleep. Around them everything else is moving. From the West, dark-clouds are coming up, spilling little cold drops. The wind tears at the prisoners' thin overcoats, made of synthetic yarn, and pulls at their round caps. The frozen columns of people remain motionless. Feet grow stiff, backs are aching, hands begin to lose feeling. Cold and anxiety alternately fight for priority in the standing men. All of a sudden, some rows of prisoners at one side begin to flutter with their hands, their legs move convulsively, their heads shake. A violent quiver seems to run through them and stops as suddenly as it came. It all happened in a moment when the guard turned away his watchful eye. The effect of the stolen movement, relieving the muscles and giving a little warmth, only lasts for a few seconds. They are followed by further unbearable waiting for hours till the next turning away of their Cerberus, or the decision of their fates. The whole body stiffens and a kind of mist darkens the brain. A crash! Someone fell down. There is already one less who is interested to hear if he is going to belong to the party of ten. He will add another one to it. The column stands stiffly. It is not allowed to lift up a fallen companion. After a while – like a belated echo of the first crash – another falls. If one could only pick them up, carry them to the barracks, put them down somewhere, and rub their stiffened limbs, one might call it ordinary weakness and fainting.
For 24 hours the column waits in the cold wind and rain, to pay at last with ten lives for the flight of one. The cooling bodies of the fallen men do not count; they are just an addition.
The last of the 24 hours is drawing near; the sleepless, starved, and motionless people are waiting for death, and at last his envoy appears – the camp Commandant. Without a word he walks up to the rows of prisoners belonging to the same house from which the one man is missing. The Commandant, about to choose the ten victims, will certainly take the weakest, the most worn out, the most useless for work in the camp. Even in Auschwitz strength means something, and weakness is always linked with death.
His glance travels slowly along the prisoners; whenever it stops, the man he is looking at, stretches himself, pushes forward his chest, lifts his head, and looks with crazy bravado in front of him: only strength can predail. The rows of worn-out, exhausted bodies try for this one moment to recover their former strength and fitness.
"Komm."11 The first death sentence has fallen. In a last, desperate effort the prisoner stiffens his muscles, stretches his frail thigh-bones and breathes a double portion of air. The Commandant does not take away his eyes from his victim. He repeats "Komm." And then the prisoner shrinks, seems to become smaller. He understands and gives in. For a long while to come, the eyes of death's messenger will wander along the rows: Each of his stops causes the prisoners passed over to sigh with relief. So it's not me. And one desperate groan: it has happened.
The ten men who have been chosen leave the ranks. They walk down into the vaults of the death barracks. Although the 'law' of the camp declares that if the fugitive is found during the next three days, the hostages will be released from the dark rooms, experience has shown that nothing of that kind has ever happened. The fugitive, even if he returns, would save neither himself nor his companions. Auschwitz does not acknowledge a return to life.
A squad of 20 prisoners is working at the demolition of a house near the road. Nine are breaking down the front wall with iron bars, six cart away the rubble, five are putting the wooden frames of doors and windows into neat piles. The guard is pleased with the party; they are all 'new' ones, they have not yet discovered the ways of feigning work and so saving some strength. Only one, in the group of the last five, does not behave as he ought to. Time after time he emerges from different corners, piling up the boards in different places. The guard keeps an eye on him, but he does it so cunningly that the prisoner becomes more daring. Finally, at a certain moment, after having dropped his load, he does not appear at the window any more. He vanishes. The guard notices a figure pressed against the ruins, and watches the prisoner slipping between heaps of broken bricks. The guard waits for a while and then begins to shout, without losing sight of the blue and white figure: "He has escaped!: Find him!"
The guard is going to have the time of his life. With what fury, seasoned by the fear for their own skins, the others will look for him who is endangering their lives by trying to regain his freedom! The men scramble all over the place, looking among the heaps of rubble, the piled-up boards, and the mounds of earth. The guard, playing the role of a beater at a hunt, leads the pursuit cleverly in the direction of the hidden man.
There, his furious companions are already dragging him out from under the great rubbish heap, and one of them hits him on the chest with his iron bar. "Don't beat me; you've found me, and I won't run away any more." But the men, maddened by the fear he has caused them, fall upon the boy, lying on the ground – and unable to get up, and wallop wherever they can. The guard looks on at the show with pleasure, though he begins to understand that it will be over only too soon, without any continuation after the return to camp – with or without the culprit. He tries to intervene: "Stop it! "; but this unaccountable kindheartedness only pours oil on the fire. It is already too late; another hit – this time on the head – has finished off the culprit. He has fallen by the hands of his mates who do not agree with a freedom bought with other people's lives.
Once an escaped man came back: he had crossed ten rivers, climbed over ten hills. He had learnt again to breathe without fear, he had felt the budding desire for the good, for justice and truth. They found him in his friend's house, two months after he had so miraculously regained his freedom.
And here he comes back, the man they caught. In triumph. Solemnly. Dressed festively. On his head he wears a jockey-cap, and on his breast a poster with the inscription: "Hurrah! Here I am with you again." The whole camp looks at the procession with excitement; they run out of the narrow passages between the buildings. Even shouts of joy are heard from his camp-mates who are glad that they will not have to pay for his, two months' absence.
The whole thing is like a show, organised by the camp authorities. The chalk-white face under the ridiculous jockey-cap reminds one of the well-painted white face of a clown. The drums beat a grating roll, which will, in a short time, become: one of farewell. The procession walks round all the barracks and reaches those for penal detention with their greedily lurking little windows. They open their vaults for the fugitive.
The participants of the spectacle disperse. They have to attend the evening roll, call which will make sure that there is nobody missing from the ranks this time.
A distant salvo shatters the quietness of the late afternoon, announcing the exit from the stage of the only actor in today's performance.
10 At the time to which the story of the flight refers, there were 10,000 inmates in the camp.
11 Germ. Come along.