My first camp was Sachsenhausen. I arrived there in January 1940. Most prisoners were German. They did hard labor, had extra food, and slept in bunks. “Dangerous” individuals were isolated in special barracks and worked in so-called Strafkommando (punishment units). Jehovah’s Witnesses were usually assigned to the Strafkommando upon their arrival in the camp.
Jews were put in special barracks under murderous conditions. Four men slept on a single straw sack lying on the cement floor. Jews were not allowed to work. Instead, the SS had “fun” with them. The loudspeaker barked orders calling the prisoners to Strafsport (punishment sports). The dreaded Sachsengruss (Saxon greeting) meant we had to crouch down with hands behind our heads, only our toes touching the ground, and then came the rapid-fire order: Up! Down! Up! Down! Elderly Jews were beaten mercilessly, and if a man gave out, he had to roll back and forth on his stomach in the snow or the rain. When he collapsed from total exhaustion an SS boot would come down on his neck. Each prisoner felt so humiliated that solidarity hardly existed.
November 1940: I was sent to Neuengamme Camp with 29 other young Jews. The camp commander decided to put us in the same barrack with the Bible Students, who wore the purple triangle. Somehow camp life had not robbed these men of their dignity and humanity. Most of them had been in the camp for several years and had some kind of extra work responsibility. The cleanliness, respect, and cooperation in the Bible Student barrack was a sharp contrast from with the living conditions suffered by the Jews in Sachsenhausen. Loud quarrelling and theft were unknown. Each one had his own bran mattress, which had to be straightened or “built” with sharp edges each morning. They scrubbed the whole place meticulously clean.
All prisoners followed the same work routine; and it soon overtook our lives. The work was so hard, it was like being in a Strafkommando. I was near death when two Bible Students risked their lives to come to my rescue. They cared for Angora rabbits belonging to the SS. Despite the danger, these two Bible Students let me come and fill my pockets with rabbit food.If we had been caught, we would all have been executed.
Auschwitz and Buna—Extermination Camps
The working and living conditions were similar in these two camps. The death rate was extremely high, whether by slave labor, Mengele’s terrifying medical experiments, or the gas chamber/crematorium system. One day I was so weak that I couldn’t walk anymore. Had it not been for an SS man from my hometown who saw me being carried by two prisoners, I would not have survived. He ordered me to report to him the following morning and ordered me to work in the SS mess hall where I could find leftover food in pans on the floor or in the trashcans.
Surviving prisoners from Auschwitz ended up in a horse stable in Buchenwald. Typhus stalked the overcrowded bunks and claimed many victims. Two prisoners, a Bible Student and a Communist from my hometown, got me out from the disease-ridden stable and brought me into the regular camp.