“Report what happened to us!”

  • 6 December 2009

Mendel Szajnfeld

“Report what happened to us!” cried the prisoners who dragged themselves up the death hill of Plaszow concentration camp. Mendel never forgot the desperate cries of his fellow prisoners. And he fulfilled their last wish.

Mendel Szajnfeld was a Polish-born Jew. He was born on 2. August 1922 in Sosnowiec, but grew up in the small Polish town of Lysowiec on the east of Krakow. Mendel was the youngest of seven siblings.

His father worked in a mill and Mendel began with fifteen an apprenticeship as a shoemaker. Later he changed to the plumbing industry.

When Hitler invaded Poland in September 1939, the whole family fell into the hands of the Nazis. At the outbreak of Second World War the Jewish population in Poland consisted of about 3.5 million people. Nearly six years later more than 90% were no longer there. Most of them were murdered, according to the Nazi plan of “cleansing” Europe.

Mendel’s family had to leave their homes and were accommodated in a ghetto.
They were given a large room of about 10 square meters. His mother, father and four children had to live there. The oldest children already moved out before they were sent to the ghetto. There were strict rules about how long the Jews were allowed to stay outside the ghetto. In practice the city was turned into a prison camp. Problems were manifold:

“We had many concerns, such as hunger, cold and ghastly sanitary conditions. It was virtually impossible to obtain clean water so it was very difficult to keep ourselves clean and wash our clothes.” Mendel writes in his book.

On 10 April 1941 Mendel was moved out of the ghetto, together with other unmarried, able-bodied young men. He had not the faintest idea what lay ahead of him.

After a long and arduous train ride Mendel ended up in the Rakowicki concentration camp outside of Krakow. He was informed that he was selected for construction work and various other mechanical labour. During his time at Rakowicki he fared relatively well, according to the circumstances. But in July 1943 he was transferred to a concentration camp named Plaszow, which would get well-known by Steven Spielberg’s film “Schindler’s List”.

“There were many worse alternatives, and only a few were better than than that. But that was little consolation. If only half of the rumours about Plaszow were true, it would get bad enough.” writes Mendelsohn.

Upon their arrival in the camp, the prisoners were rushed to a wash barrack. They were forced to strip naked and were all shaved. Then they were smeared with a disinfectant ointment, the stench was horrible and so aggressive that it almost burnt through their skin. After that they had to shower and they had to wear thin prisoner’s clothing. Mendel got the prisoner number 12219. It was literally vital to memorise this number immediately. One’s own name was now insignificant, only the number was used to address a prisoner. Not reacting to the number meant to get beaten by the guards or worse. Mendel had just turned 21 when he came into this camp.

In July 1943, there were 15,000 prisoners in Plaszow, even though the camp only measured approximately 60 hectares. During Autumn the area was increased to 80 hectares and the number of prisoners rose to 25,000.

Mendel began to work in the sheet workshop in barrack 84. His work consisted of smashing large tubs, buckets and containers into pieces and to straighten these pieces into metal sheets. He also had to fetch material from a huge stack 10 to 15 metres away from the barrack’s entrance.

One day he was out there, and a group of prisoners came by. He saw several familiar faces among the men, who were led to the “death hill”.

You could gather from the sight of these prisoners that this was their last way, that they only had to live for a few minutes. Most of them waved to me and called: “Farewell, hang in there!” And as they walked a bit further they called: “Report what happened to us!” This view left a vivid impression on Mendel and haunted him for all of his life.

An indefinable revolting stench covered the camp. Mendel wondered what this smell could be, and he asked a fellow prisoner:

“Do you really don’t know what this smell is?” the prisoner interrupted. “These are the fires of burning corpses. Every day they burn dead bodies, at all times, because there is no room for the dead. I know some prisoners who work there. At the bottom they put heavy wooden beams, then comes a layer of corpses, on top of that there’s a layer of wood again, and so forth. The Germans are even generously supplying gasoline, so that everything burns well, despite their complains of having not enough fuel for their war machinery. Don’t worry about the stench, you will get used to it!”

On 9 October 1943 Mendel was relocated again. He was put in civilian clothes and got an extra ration of bread. The journey went by train in cattle waggons. It ended in the future Warte munitions factory in Czestochowa. Mendel joined a group that was ordered to work in the plumber workshop. They were to build water-closets, basins and water heaters for the camp supervisors – of course the prisoners had no access to proper sanitation.

In late Autum in 1944 the Russian Red Army approached. On New Year’s Eve a group of Russian-Ukrainian prisoners were brought away from the camp. Despite the the rumours churning in the mill the life in the munitions factory went on as before.

But on 19 January 1945 something was different. The prisoners were told that they must not work on this day, because the production had been halted in the meantime. Later in the afternoon a small group of prisoners were called for being transported. No one knew where they were sent. The remaining prisoners got no notice on what would become of them. They sat in their barracks and waited. Outside there was no noise and there was no sign of the German guards. Did they understand that the front was near, had they fled?

Mendel acted quickly and saw an opportunity to escape.

It was dark and quiet in the German part of the camp early in the morning on 23 January 1945. Most inmates in the prison lay exhausted and apathetic on the ground. Many were dead. Mendel was still strong enough to clearly assess the situation and to escape from the camp. But he had no food and where should he go?

Together with three other prisoners he set off. The others were too weak and stayed behind in a barn while Mendel continued on his own. He wanted to go home to his village.

Several days later he arrived there. He stood on the veranda of his childhood home, but he could not muster the courage to open the door. His feet felt like being nailed to the flagstones, he was afraid, but he did not understand why.

Eventually he opened the door. Inside a neighbouring family sat around a table which was built by Mendel’s father years ago. They were aghast to see him. They stared at him full of arrogance and distaste, and they made no effort to let him in.

The reunion with the village he grew up in was depressing. All Jews were gone; shops, schools, workshops and meeting places were deserted. A community of several thousand human beings had been totally eradicated.

Mendel’s parents and several of his siblings died in the camps during the war.

Mendel was one of the 400 Jewish refugees that came to Norway in May 1947. He settled in Oslo, where he found work in Thune’s mechanic workshop.

He became aquainted with a Norwegian woman named Olfried and married  her. In 1957 he got the Norwegian citizenship.

Mendel made no secret of the fact that the experiences of the war tortured him:

“It was hard to come back to life, but you become used to everything. All the years I have lived with it. The thoughts and experiences will haunt me for the rest of my life. But fortunately the youth nowadays is fantastic. I have sincerest belief in the youth of today. We only have to remind them steadily of everything that happened, so that they can tell the story of our history to the next generation.” Mendel said in the documentary, that was made about this life.

Mendel dedicated the last years of his life to spreading his experiences during the war and with the persecution of Jews. He visted schools all over Norway and was an irreplacable contemporary witness for the foundation Hvite busser til Auschwitz (“white busses to Auschwitz”).

In 1993 Mendel Szajnfeld published the book ”Fortell hva som skjedde med oss” (“Report what happened to us!”) with Gyldenhal publishers.

Mendel Szajnfeld died on Sunday, 21 May 2000.

// Translated by René Pfeiffer v.k.a. Nightlynx, errors excepted.

// Anyone who does not learn from history is doomed to repeat it.

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