Daimon Publishers

Prison on Wheels
Eva Langley-Dános


Reserve-Lazarett Sankt Ottilien, June, 1945. The medical round has just reached our ward. White-robed doctors and white-veiled nuns proceed from bed to bed to bring us healing, to restore our strength. Everything around us suggests the peaceful ambiance of a sick-room. Only the German Wehrmacht's uniform, which keeps peeping out from under the white coat of the kindly doctor-in-charge, reminds us of the horrors of the last months. Here, everybody is good, everybody wants to help us - maybe even those who, not so long ago, applauded and rejoiced over our misfortune. The hallowed walls of the monastery-turned-hospital, the beauty of the park, the calm serenity of the small lake, all offer God's peace to the tired souls. Indeed, we are tired and thirsty for peace. After the inhuman camp-life, we yearn for the warmth of our homes; after the system of mass torture, we long for the embracing love of our families; after the bestial suppression, we need the freedom of human dignity. As yet, we are barely able to savor the fresh taste of that freedom: images of past horrors are still far too vivid in our minds.

Good God, maybe it is only a dream that I am lying here between sheets white as driven snow and, as soon as I wake up, the oppressive memory of a nightmare will materialize into stark reality ...

Shuddering, I utter the name that contains all evil:

R A V E N S B R Ü C K !

And indeed, as if the word still had its magic, the June sunshine suddenly pales, the until-now bright picture fades into a black landscape, and I find myself in the dismal Vernichtungslager [extermination camp].

February 4th, 1945 ... The dark, icy dawn of Ravensbrück. Here and there, a few cold stars appear from behind the leaden clouds. In the background, the flames of the crematorium redden the sky. The odd lamps cast but dim lights on the streets between the buildings. In their pale glow, only the outlines of the SS-women may be discerned as they march past the motionless masses of humanity. But the German words of command and curses do penetrate the darkness: "Hände aus der Tasche! Verfluchte Judenbande! Gerade stehen, es ist doch Appell!" [Hands out of pockets! You cursed band of Jewesses! Stand erect, you are on roll-call!]

Yes, this is the Appell [roll-call]: 60,000 women are standing in line on the icy ground. They have been out in the cold night since 3 a.m. They stamp their feet to ward off frostbite and only the sound of stifled sobs or laments now and then enlivens the monotonous rhythm. "How long can we last?!" - this is the desperate question which trembles on lips and is reflected in weary eyes.

I stamp my feet and shiver and wait for the dawn which would also mean the end of this seemingly endless roll-call. Around me, women dressed only in rags and debilitated as much by starvation as by the freezing cold, collapse one after the other. But we, the four friends from Budapest, are holding our own and reassure each other:

"Look, there is a faint glow in the blackness of the sky! The sun will rise soon."

The sun rises and brings along the usual suffering. The Ukrainian and Polish 'slave-drivers' will arrive to drive us to work with their whips and coarse words. Without any warm breakfast in our empty stomachs, we line up and, goose-stepping in strict formation, march out beyond the triple stone fence of the camp. We shall toil in the open air the whole day long and carry out the most absurd and most arduous chores ever invented by the human mind: we have to unload, with bare hands, wagons full of coal while potatoes are to be shifted with pitchforks; we shovel sand from one side of the trench to the other; we push lorries; or perhaps we shall be drafted by an Anweiserin [supervisor] into the worst brigade, the 'ragsters,' who work in a nightmarish Arctic landscape composed of loot of unimaginable quantity and variety that had been pillaged from Poland (and other occupied countries) and is now rotting out in the open. We have to 'sort' whole mountains of pillows with their slips still on, wet and icy from the snow and heavy beyond belief, so that our hands freeze and our lungs rattle under the back-breaking strain which does not allow for pause or slow-down.

'Lunch,' too, is eaten out of doors. Our numbed fingers can barely hold the mug and the spoon with which we ladle the swiftly-cooling, malodorous and watery Mangelwurzel [large kind of beet, used as cattle fodder]. If the supervising SS-woman is not of the worst kind, she may allow us to stand for a few seconds near the fire burning in the open air - but this is the utmost we can hope for.

Come 5 p.m. and rest is still far away. After the saving whistle sounds and we can put down our shovels, we have to stand in wait, often for hours, in front of the camp-gate until the SS on guard counts our numbers and 'receives' us back.

And what awaits us when, at last, we reach our 'home': the cold barracks with broken windows, shared with 1 200 others!

The blocks of three-tiered bunks (6 side-by-side, 4 deep) where we have to clamber over people to reach the unremitting night of our niche and where we sleep four on the narrow paillasse, fully 'dressed' in the same rags we wore at work. What awaits us is the battle for even a moment in the communal washroom. There, the uncrowned rulers of our barracks, the Polish 'blokkowas' [barracks-elders] and 'stubowas' [room-elders] are busy preparing their copious evening meal on the little iron stove and chase us away with their whips if we want to cleanse ourselves. What awaits us is our supper: half a mug of thin soup and a third of a loaf of ersatz bread, part of which we are supposed to save for the morrow. What awaits us are the millions of lice which invade our bodies as soon as we enter the dirty, infested barracks. What await us are the whips of the camp police and of the stubowas: the beatings are as unavoidable as they are unprovoked. And what awaits us, above all, is the hopelessness, the depressing knowledge that everything that happened today was just like this yesterday, will happen again tomorrow, and tomorrow, and will perhaps continue thus till the fullness of time - at least so it seems to us, straining under the camp's iron yoke.

But behold, in contradiction to these thoughts, I suddenly realize that today is somehow different from all the days that went before. What is happening? There are no slave-drivers, no beatings.

Our Häftling [prisoner] instincts cannot rejoice over our momentary good fortunes - on the contrary. With trepidation, we expect a new trick ... 'Danaos et dona ferentes' [[The full quote reads: "Timeo Danaos et dona ferentes" (Virgil)
[I fear the Greeks, even when they offer presents] ]] ... a new twist in our suffering.

And again, the pessimists are right. After two hours of nerve-racking suspense, our whip-happy stubowas turn us out into the wide, sealed main street of the camp. We are lined up four deep - and lo, the rumor is spreading: there is to be a transport selection, some of us will be picked for factory work. This creates new suspense, and, of course, new dangers. Broken-hearted mothers tremble, lest the SS, who know no human compassion, separate them from their daughters. Sisters fear that one of them may be judged too weak to work. Those who long to leave behind the ghastly concentration camp with its death-breathing barracks, are now patting their cheeks to produce a healthy red color, force a smile onto their tormented faces, straighten up and seem to wish to draw attention to themselves. Those who, for various reasons, prefer to stay, those who believe in the saying "Nie kommt etwas Besseres nach" [that which follows is never better], now try to elude the selection by seeking temporary refuge in one of the many barracks.

The four of us are standing in the same row. Our inner tension puts red into our faces without any patting. No words are exchanged, but we are holding hands and we know that it is all the same to us whether we go or we stay: we do not want to influence our in any case unpredictable destiny. Only one thing matters to us: that we be not separated from each other.

Another two-hour wait in front of the Revier [hospital]. It must be nearly mid-day by the time the Selection Committee arrives: an SS Officer, the Arbeitsdienstführer [Head of Camp-labor Supply], a doctor and a civilian.

"The manufacturer ..." whisper the prisoners to each other and add, full of hope and fear: "... This is the man on whom the shaping of our lives depends."

What ensued may be described by two words: 'cattle sale' - but perhaps it was worse than that.

The first command: "Off with your clothes!" is followed by the standard German-Polish exhortation: "Los, aber dalli!" [Hurry!], and for good measure, the whips give it more emphasis.

In haste, we throw off our rags, take off the torn and heavy wooden clogs, pile everything into a heap - thus exposing our meager earthly possessions to the danger of theft - and start running, barefooted and nude in the icy cold, towards the corridor of the hospital where the selection will take place. Hundreds of naked females are jammed together in the passage. The emaciated, skin-and-bone bodies exude the death-smell of the camp and fill me with nausea, but there is no escape: the fist of the Polish camp-police hits the exposed skin with a loud thwack if we don't press tightly enough against each other. The scene gives me a shock. In the mind-numbing monotony of the daily grind, I got used to looking at those around me without really seeing them. But now that we have shed our rags, reality hits me for the first time: in only two short months, we have become so much thinner and weaker and have very few reserves left - we don't even look like human beings any more.

We are shivering. Lest we enjoy a little warmth, the corridor's windows have been opened wide by the 'caring' camp-police. The seemingly endless queue diminishes slowly and we can see into the room which we enter one by one. Each one of us files past the Commission, turns around under the scrutinizing eyes of the 'experts' when so ordered, smiles, shows her teeth, her palms - and the verdict is pronounced forthwith whether she makes it into the transport or not. My heart beats madly: on account of my right foot (which had undergone several operations because of childhood polio), I fear to be judged differently from my friends, who are able-bodied and muscular, much stronger and taller than me. Klara, Lili and Hanna enter the room one after the other. All three are declared fit. Then it is my turn. I try to smile artlessly, display my perfect teeth, and do my best to conceal the weakness in my leg. Already I march past the SS-doctor who gives his approving nod. But before relief could overtake me, a woman-SS on the other side of the 'catwalk' beckons me back and shows him the scar on my right foot. All is finished! In vain, is the pleading, to no avail my faultless German, which until now has always been effective. Because of my handicap, I am not admitted to the transport.

Woebegone, I retrieve my little bundle outside, don the familiar rags and turn my head away from the mute question in my friends' eyes. Dosed with bromides, numbed by constant beatings, we no longer possess the relief-bringing gift of tears, but my heart weighs a ton and I can barely lift my feet as we walk back to our barracks, which somehow look more ominous now than before. The whole night passes without sleep. The horror of impending separation weighs on us. We try to comfort each other, but it doesn't work: the knowledge that presently I shall be left behind, alone, oppresses all four of us.

Morning arrives at last but with it only the usual Ravensbrück working day. Another day follows, without any noticeable change. Lili, the eternal optimist, predicts that the whole transport selection will prove to be nothing but another trick of Deutsche Lügen [German lies]. Hanna, too, believes that even if it was done for the stated purpose, the Germans won't be able to transport us due to increasing Allied bombing.

"We shall stay together, little one," sounds the warm voice, and the sky-blue eyes regard me with infinite tenderness.

"All is well, Eva," Lili greets me every morning - "We shall return to Budapest together!" - and gives my hand a reassuring squeeze.

Roll-call and labor, roll-call and toil ... Days pass. "The Russians are barely 80 kilometers away" - the latest rumor of unidentifiable source spreads amongst the inmates and bolsters their ebbing hopes. The rumored distance keeps getting less and less, the air strikes against Berlin, a mere 82 kilometers away, are increasingly fierce and expectations grow more and more sanguine. Gradually, the trauma of the selection fades into a memory on which we don't dwell with anguish any more.

One night - I remember, it was on February 14th, 1945 - Berlin was hit with particularly heavy bombing. All night, the barracks shook, the camp's generator was damaged and the lights went out. Hearts trembling, we listened to the roar of the Russian planes - full of hope that they also meant our liberation in the perhaps not too distant future.

It was nearly dawn when the room-elder entered our quarters and announced that, on account of the black-out, there would be no roll-call. We scarcely had time to rejoice when, at the light of a candle, she started reading out names, ordering those on the list to line up, with all their belongings, in front of the barrack. Those who had been selected a fortnight ago - the realization hit me. Without a word, Lili gave my hand a squeeze, Hanna stroked my head, the conscientious Klara started 'packing' already. In the ghost-light of the flickering candle, our blokkowa appeared to me an emissary from Hell ... And there echo the familiar numbers: 92 943 - Lili Strausz; 92 945 - Hanna Dallos; 92 952 - Klara Erdélyi. A hasty farewell, the parting sob of Hanna, Lili's brave, even in sorrow, courage-inspiring smile - and I, the poor number 92 944, collapse, bereft, on the suddenly empty bunk.

At daybreak, I inquire about the lot of the transport and learn that, for the time being, they are in barracks 17, under special camp-police guard to prevent anybody escaping. As it is, only a small part of the selected 500 women could be assembled in No. 17. Ten days had gone by since the triage, and during that time, many had become emaciated, fallen ill, or died, so that even the SS had to discount them as workers ... I try to approach barrack 17, but the police-cordon keeps me firmly away. My loneliness is almost overwhelming as I return to barracks 23. My 'home' appears alien. I feel I have nothing to do with the grotesque crowd thronging within its walls. Admittedly, there are well-known faces amongst them but, bereft of my friends, none of them interest me. I cannot begin to imagine how I shall survive the difficult weeks, nay months, until we meet again at home. ...

The night of February 15th finds me orphaned and alone on the blanketless bunk. As yet, no new 'tenants' have turned up and the vacant spaces stare at me with blind eyes. The cold that makes me shiver is not only an inner one: with my friends gone, there is nothing that would give me warmth in the freezing, drafty barracks.

All night, again, the drone of planes, the thuds of bombing. Maybe it will be impossible to send off the transport ... - the wishful thought keeps going around in my head. Finally, I fall asleep. Again, the flickering of a candle awakes me. Again, our blokkowa makes an announcement: on account of the insufficient number of recruits in the contingent to be transported, those who wish to do so may join. I jump off the bunk and in mad haste start throwing my few belongings, amongst them the miraculously found and strength-giving French prayer-book, into the Beutli, the pouch which permanently hangs from our necks. A speedy good-bye to the Radvanyis, to little Olga Gábor, to the skeleton-like Erdész sisters and, with my heart beating in my throat, I rush to the place of conscription, to the Office of the Arbeitseinsatz [Office of Camp-labor Placement]. The camp has to deliver 500 females: no longer is there any circus, any 'selection.' The identity numbers of the volunteers are taken down, and lo, they can proceed to barracks 17. I run as fast as my broken-heeled wooden clogs let me, and almost literally fall into the barrack. A moment later, I am surrounded by my friends. The happiness of that meeting! It was perhaps the last ray of light in the unremitting blackness of the camp. Now we don't want to listen to any pessimistic forecasts. I even refute Hanna's worries:

"I only fear, my dear Eva, that you, the weakest amongst the four of us, won't be able to do the hard work."

"Nonsense, Hanna," I retort. "What others can stand, I can, too. In any case, you only have to look: the others are in no better condition than I am."

This certainly is true. Rarely can one see as many sick, worn-out, skeleton-thin, benumbed and bedraggled women as in the 'selected' Ravensbrück contingent, intended for factory-work. ...

Another night in Ravensbrück, in barracks 17. Again, I share a bunk with my friends and the customary sleeping arrangement seems to fill us with renewed strength. We are in good cheer when we wake up in the morning, in spite of the lice plague. We only start worrying when we discover that, in the night, one of our fellow inmates got away with three of our four bread rations which we had been saving for the journey. Not having even a drop of water to wash oneself is a special torment to Lili, erstwhile teacher of personal hygiene. "Wait till we get to the bath-house," we try to cheer her up, because rumor has it that we shall be taken there before departure and what is more, that our current rags will be exchanged for clothing better suited to the February cold. Personally, I don't have much faith in this 'fitting out,' but Hanna scolds me: why always be pessimistic, some good things may happen once in a while. ...

If 'some good things' may happen, 'some bad things' may, too. And in Ravensbrück, of the two possibilities, only the latter one will occur.

We line up in front of the barracks early in the morning and march to the wash-house. After a long wait, we enter the building in groups. I am between Hanna and Klara. Lili is in a group behind us and we now fear that we might be separated. First, we are led into a cavernous room where we are told to undress. We have to get rid of our lice-infested rags under the contemptuous glare of the SS-women.

"Ihr verlauster Sauhaufen!" [You lice-infested heap of sows!] shrills the charming form of address.

Naked and shivering, we tender our pouches to one of the SS-women behind a row of tables for her to select the items which we are allowed to take with us for the journey. Our group finds itself in front of a particularly stern-faced SS who confiscates even the pouches and puts back into our bare hands a toothbrush and a small-toothed comb: from now on, the sum total of our earthly possessions.

Armed with the toothbrush and the comb, we are driven to yet another room where, under the direction of a new set of SS-women, Polish inmates wield clippers to shear our heads. Clip go the shears, and the last shreds of humanity in these emaciated, enfeebled women fall victim to SS sadism. My companions stare at me with faces of dumb strangers. I take the shearing lightly: there go the razors and my head, too, is cold - that's all. But, alas, it is Hanna's turn now: Hanna whose magnificent crown of blond tresses evokes Hungary's golden fields of wheat. Hanna, whose ankle-long hair so bewitched the SS-woman on duty at the time of our arrival in the camp that she spared her blond head from the shaving which was everyone's lot. Hanna has always called her 'escape' a lucky omen and considered her untouched crown of hair the gauge of her return home. Clip go the shears, and this time, there is no mercy, the Hungarian wheat fields are being trampled under SS boots. Clip go the shears, God alone knows what they whisper into Hanna's ears ... When their job is done, the fixed stare of extinguished eyes looks out, unseeing, from under the bald skull and the tight lips curve downwards. But this is not the time for being sentimental, the blows resound, and we are practically pushed into the actual shower-room. We fight for a place under the taps (which we are told will work for only 5 minutes) so as to get rid of at least some of the weeks-old grime. We wash ourselves in great haste because the whip is already at work at the other end to urge us on. I stumble onto Lili under the shower, and lo, her blond hair shines untouched. She happened to be with the last lucky few who were hastily ushered directly into the shower room, thus escaping being shorn. The sensitive Lili looks with compassion at the wretches around her, but says to me, encouragingly:

"Why, Eva, the bald head suits you well, you look like a little imp of a boy."

Oh yes, I am mainly 'little.' I look twice as small and weak as Lili, whose body has kept its well-built proportions despite months of camp life.

After the hurried shower, we get fresh clothes which, it is rumored, come straight from being sterilized and thus are deemed lice-free. They are given out randomly, without regard to size. The new 'outfit' consists of a pair of short socks for our clogs, a pair of flimsy open-cut panties, a summer-dress and a thin raincoat. That is all. It may be mentioned as an illustration that Lili's raincoat is so small that, without hesitation, I exchange it with mine. However, she is lucky because the SS-woman's unpredictable whim has returned to her not only the pouch, but also her white-dotted red neck-tie which she had kept since Budapest and with which she immediately covers my head. In the mad haste, we could only half-dry our bodies with the scanty towels given to us for a few seconds and now we shiver in our flimsy summer-dresses. But there is no time for lamenting: quick, quick, we have to leave the building. It is then that, horrified, we notice Hanna leaning against the wall, still naked. Her emaciated body is shaking with sobs, she holds a piece of soap unseeingly in her hand. Shocked, we rush to her to get her dressed as there is no more time to shower. She suffers our ministrations and meekly obeys as we pull her outside, away from the menacing blows. But her lips monotonously repeat:

"What will become of me? My hair has been cut off. I shall never get home."

We try to console her and reason that the haircutting has no special meaning. All is in vain. Something has been broken inside Hanna. From now on, we shall have to act in her place.

In this cold February afternoon, we march along the main street of the camp. With our freshly-shaven bald heads, shivering in our summer attire, our total denudation is conspicuous even amidst the misery of Ravensbrück. Even the powerful Anweiserinnen look with shock and pity at the dehumanized, disfigured host of scarecrows.

Spectaculum facti sumus mundi [We are made a spectacle to the world ...(1 Cor. IV.9)], the words of the Apostle form in the mist of my mind, and without noticing, I murmur the Latin quotation. Lili nods in approval. Indeed, we have become the spectacle to the world of concentration camps. We are such a pitiful sight in our rayon dresses and torn raincoats that, wherever we pass, the inmates of the barracks offer their own rags to cover our naked bodies. We don't accept the proffered help. Relieved to be rid of lice at last, we would rather freeze than put on any of the treasures coming from the lice-infested barracks. We had no idea then that the 'delousing' had been nothing but deutsche Lügen and that the light summer dresses covering our bodies were full with live nits. This will become evident only during our journey.

We are led to the deserted, ice-cold barracks No. 30 and, by way of lunch, are given a tepid mugful of Mangelwurzel. It is our bad luck that we have no spoons and that our numbed fingers have difficulty extracting the solid pieces. This can't be helped - but, then, who cares? We get through lunch in no time. Then back to the wash-house, where we are to receive food-rations for three days. So, our journey will take 3 days, we reckon and look forward to getting our provisions. We were not overly optimistic, but the reality was well under the minimum we had expected. Each one of us clasps three portions of camp-bread in her frost-bitten hands, and lo, we are marched out, past the camp, towards a new phase in our lives.

After a few minutes' walk, the stone gates of the camp close behind us. We are not sure whether to rejoice or not, since here in Germany, we don't know any more if we dare be pleased about anything ... Still, we reassure each other, we can't possibly land at a worse place than this one.

"We shall be workers," says Klara, "and we shall be treated accordingly."

"You are right, of course," - we agree and sigh, "at last, we have turned our backs on Ravensbrück! We never wish to see it again!"

"But I would like to!" we hear a voice behind us. It is the little idealist, dreamy-eyed Elizabeth, whom Hanna, way back on our outward journey, nicknamed 'Puck,' because of her uncanny resemblance to the goblin from Midsummer Night's Dream. "I should like to return here in peacetime. And I should like to have enough power then to be able to transform this place of horrors into a children's holiday camp."

"How can you even contemplate such a thing?!" We are quite shocked by the idea, but she continues, enthusiastically:

"You see, I would have the ugly dark barracks painted white, flower-boxes in the windows, and all the walkways edged with masses of multi-colored flowers ... Why not transform what had been so bad into something good?..."

Poor, sentimental, bald-shaven, little Puck! She will never set eyes on Hungary, let alone on Ravensbrück, again. Perhaps she is watching us now from somewhere behind the clouds to see if we are able to change into good that which had been so bad in the past.

We march on and the exertion lessens our shivering. We press onward in almost good spirits in the grey February twilight and don't particularly mind that we have to continue, without stopping, across a little village, right along the railway lines. We reach the waiting cattle-cars just before nightfall. We embark straight away: 75 of us are packed into the smaller wagons and up to 110 into the larger ones. By the time the train is full, total darkness envelops us. Fittingly, it signals the start of the darkest phase in our lives - for many of us, a journey into death.


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