The straw in the sacks on the floor of the barracks has been beaten down times without number by the prisoners' bodies, and has been broken into tiny pieces. The sacks, filled with these broken stalks, have now only two dimensions: it is difficult to imagine a 'mattress' as flat as that. For each sack of straw there are at least two prisoners, and often a third has to squeeze himself in. One blanket must do for two of the freezing, tired-out bodies. Besides the blanket, they have only the darkness to cover their pain, longing and agony, which even permeate their sleep, if sleep comes at all.
Whispers arise from those on the pallets; during the day and their torturing work, there is no chance of exchanging words. Only now, at night, friendships are formed and memories are exchanged.
A former exile from Siberia begins to tell of a prisoners' revolt under the Czarist regime. It broke out after a warder had beaten up a companion. He tells them of the ensuing trial and their defence by lawyers, of the sentence – and the work done by those exilec on the land they were given in Siberia. His tale is not a success: those who are lying near, begin to laugh, or they shut him up brutally: "Stop that rot." They are right – because the fate of a prisoner in Siberia under the Czar, compared with the ghastly reality of Auschwitz, jars on the nerves. A prisoners' revolt, ending with their victory and followed by peaceful work on soil which might often even become their own; trials, for armed resistance; the calling of witnesses, the seeking for proofs of guilt-all that sounds absolutely like a fairy tale: The "room commander," one of the prisoners, barks an order to be quiet from his comfortable mattress, spread out on the table. Sometimes he condones a breach of regulations-he himself likes to listen, but only to a really interesting story, one that makes him forget the spectre of the camp and the degradation of his soul which he sold for better food and a better bed. During the day he makes his companions, who depend on his favour, suffer-but now his only desire is to forget together with them.
The rebuffed 'Siberian' is silent. And again there rises a whisper, and this time it is more favourably received. The 'room commander' raises his head, listening quietly and the whisper grows into low talk. A boat sails over endless seas to a distant unknown country. Widely spread branches of trees, with queerly shaped leaves, rustle high above over the heads of the recumbent men. The stars look down on them, forming an unfamiliar pattern on a strange sky. A thousand recollections of bygone years – menacing, amusing and unexpected – are revived and woven into thrilling stories. There is the story of the man who went to the Argentine, many years ago. In a very short time he certainly will cease to be a guest in the barracks of Auschwitz; tonight, perhaps under the influence of a very high temperature, he makes the past live again, and displays its pictures for his companions.
The, silence that fills the prisoners' room, listens to the distant echo of delirious dreams of freedom, beauty and fulfilment. Suddenly the sound of groans is heard. It comes from the third mattress from the window, where a boy is lying who today has had to suffer a public flogging. He got 25 strokes with the heavy cat. Slowly and methodically it cut through his skin, in many places cutting through the muscles as well, and his overall, torn to pieces, sticks to open wounds. These clogged-up wounds are the worst when they begin to suppurate. The boy is feverish and he writhes on the narrow mattress, every moment moving over his own narrow space, and pushing first his neighbour on the left and then on the right."
"Sleep, you ass," one admonishes him.
"He got his full share of sleep during roll-call; that's enough for the moment," the other laughs.
The boy had been punished for not having appeared at the afternoon roll-call. It had happened like this: When he came back from work – he had loaded wagons with sacks of concrete, each weighing 150 pounds – he was so livid in the face that his companions thought he would collapse on the spot; but somehow he had dragged himself in the ranks almost as far as the camp. A kind board near a shed tempted him, he threw himself on it and fell asleep.
He will moan till dawn; then he will certainly drag himself to the morning's roll-call, and, ordered to join his detachment, he will have to march to the station again to unload the trucks. Oh, if only he need not wake up any more! But in the meantime he cannot go to sleep at all-pain and the fear of another punishment keep him awake.
From the pallet against the cupboard, a monotonous noise can be heard. There lies prisoner 'X', whom they call 'The Ingenieur'; carefully and slowly he moves his hands up and down-up and down. By doing so, he is trying to ease the pain and numbness in his wrenched-out, paralysed shoulders. He had been hung up on
a post the previous day. And why? Because he had been caught smoking a cigarette during work. For that he had to pay with two hours on the post-in two instalments. Since the Sunday before last, when they had hung him up for the first time, on the hook, fixed in the post, he had not slept. But it is not only the pain in the joints, and the numbness of the whole body, that keeps him awake: he is suffocated with fury, helplessness, and, most of all, the senselessness of his own and all the others' suffering. He breathes silently, rubs his tired hands along the pallet and misses the short hours of sleep of tired barracks of Auschwitz.
He feels stiff, lying in one position for too long. He pushes the neighbour with whom he shares the pallet; "Let's turn to the other side! " He is not able to do that by himself. There is not room enough to turn on their narrow "beds," crammed tight with bodies.
It is not difficult to recognise all the different noises of the night in those barracks. The regular moaning of the men whose bodies are covered with boils. The slight noise that reminds one of the scratching of mice from under every blanket; it is the scratching of nails on their itching skins, where the microscopically small but inevitable scabies spreads over the prisoners' bodies throughout the whole camp. Impatient hissings accompany the bites of flies and lice, which increase quickly in spite of the systematic and officially ordered daily 'kills'.
Time after time three different sounds are heard: someone dragging himself through the labyrinth of mattresses, curses from those on whom he treads, and the patter of bare feet over the empty space of the room near the door. Those who are suffering from diarrhoea, which is epidemic in the camp, and those with bladder trouble, form an endless procession to the latrine and back to their pallets, until dawn. Sleep, that has been banished for so long from the threshold of the barracks; leaves them for good. As a bad substitute there remains a kind of doze that comes over the worn-out people for short whiles but bringing neither oblivion nor rest. Nights at Auschwitz provide no relief.