The Price of a Rag
Maryla Neuman as told to Fred Amram

I had no idea what awaited me at Auschwitz. At the time I didn’t know that there were two options for new arrivals: the gas “showers” or hunger, filth and humiliation. The gas showers, of course meant immediate death. The rest of us were the “lucky” ones.

Anyone who looked old, weak or in the slightest way deformed was sent to experience the cyanide pellets in the gas chambers. Who made the decision? Some of the time it was Dr. Mengele himself. Other times it was his sadistic henchmen who understood his criteria. I had two points in my favor – I was a young woman of 21 and I had been arrested with false papers and therefore was a political prisoner. To the Germans that, not my Jewishness, was my primary crime. 

I befriended a girl my age who had a rather large bosom. We stood naked before the judge. Was it Mengele himself? My new friend was sent to one line and I was sent to another. Later I learned that the people in her line, the longer line, were sent to be gassed. Those of us who “passed” Mengele’s test were sure that her large breasts were outside the judge’s rule of “normal.”  

I was directed to the end of a line that led to a small shack. Women – we were all women – were crying. We were crying because when we stepped off our trucks and railroad cars we had seen the camp. Anyone would cry. The camp resembled a neglected insane asylum. People were wandering around like bewildered beasts, just wandering aimlessly. There was no system to their walking. They looked as if they didn't know what had happened to them. The ground was muddy, people lost their shoes in the muck, and they were bald so that, at first, I couldn’t tell that they were all women. They wore crazy, poorly fitting clothes and each of them clung to a metal cup as if it were her link to life. We later learned that the cup, their only possession, was indeed key to staying alive.

I didn’t know what to do. At the time I still didn’t know about the gas chambers. But the smell was unbearable. It was the smell of dead bodies. I smelled it as soon as I got off the truck. Later, Auschwitz old-timers explained the smell of burned bones.

When I arrived at the shack I received my tattoo – my new identity. I became number A-24201. Apparently the numbering of inmates had reached such a very large figure that the compulsive German pigs had to start a new numbering series. The “A” sequence. 

After the tattooing ceremony, everyone’s hair was cut off. Women screamed. To many of them, their hair was their beauty – their womanhood. I was pushed into a different line and my beautiful long blond braids were spared. A very few of us were given special treatment. We were the political prisoners.

Next I was assigned to a barracks-like building. Wooden boards were our mattresses. I didn’t see any blankets. The beds were three-decker bunks, each one about the width of one single bed. We squeezed six, sometimes eight, to a pallet. When one of us turned we all had to turn.

I was assigned to a group of workers, all political prisoners, all with hair. There were about eight of us. One was a Russian military captive and two were captives from the Ukraine. One was a prostitute who may have said something against Hitler and another was a captured underground worker. A few Poles were part of our group. I was the only Jew. Our primary “work” was to pick up stones as part of a “cleanliness detail.” Each of us was given a pail and, as a group, we were assigned an area from which we were to pick up gravel. Once our pails were full of stones we emptied them in an assigned location. When that location had enough stones to satisfy the guards, we were told to pick up the stones and bring them to another location. We were transporting the stones back and forth. Busy work! Does that make sense? Does keeping us alive make sense?

In fact, there was little effort to keep us alive. Our diet consisted of a cup of ersatz coffee in the morning along with a piece of dark bread. A cup of thin soup became our evening meal. Anyone who lost her cup starved. The cup was life itself. 

The evening meal began when a huge barrel of soup was delivered near our barracks. A lead Jew, a kapo, an Aufseherin, an overseer, had a ladle. We lined up and each of us received one ladleful of soup in our cup. When the barrel was empty, there was no more soup that day. Those at the end of the line sometimes went without. The stronger ones pushed their way to the front. 

Every person at Auschwitz was in a constant state of hunger. The bland soup over which we fought might have some traces of potato, perhaps a cooked cabbage leaf or two and occasionally another vegetable. “Health food.” There was little incentive to fight over the “dinner” except that we were starving.

It was still dark when they woke us each morning. I think that it might have been 5 a.m. Who knows? Who had a timepiece? There was no calendar or watch. The weather gave us a rough hint of the passage of weeks and months. Very orthodox Jews tried desperately to keep track of days so that they could say Sabbath prayers. Apparently God didn’t help them count the days.  

We hated mornings. An Aufseherin came with a club with which she beat the boards on which we slept. Sometimes she was called Oberseher, overseer. She shouted, “Aufstehen. Aufstehen! Get up!” If we didn’t move fast enough she beat us with her club. What was there to get up for? We were too hungry to sleep and during the day, there was nothing but boredom and humiliation – and more hunger.

“Aufstehen!” The first ritual of the day was the count off. “Stand up and be counted,” became an idiom with a new meaning. Those who couldn’t stand for the count were shot on the spot or were sent to be gassed.

One day we stood for two hours while we were counted and recounted – as if somebody could run away. How could anyone run away? The whole camp was surrounded with barbed wire, much of it electrified. Who could escape?

There was one girl, a rather popular girl in the camp, who had been in Auschwitz for a long time. I think she was from Warsaw. She was a nice girl. Somehow she acquainted herself with an SS man and that created an opportunity for her to run. Of course they caught her. Where could she go? The guards brought this poor girl to a large square and made us all stand in rows for a long time. Then, to teach us a lesson, they hanged her while we watched. It was a horrific blow to us all. We had wished for this girl’s success so that we, too, could have some sense of optimism. The lesson learned from the hanging was that there was no reason to hope. 

We looked in the air for an airplane, but none came. We asked each other why the Allies don’t bomb us. A bomb would tell us that they knew we were here – that they knew there was an Auschwitz. But no one seemed to know or care. When I was first captured and locked up in the Montenegro prison I hadn’t known there was an Auschwitz. I didn’t know until I arrived. Who could imagine an Auschwitz? 

The Aufseherin, Oberseher, kapo was one of us. A Jew. A prisoner. These women were trusted by the Germans; they earned that trust by beating us and betraying our secrets. Often the Aufseherin was more brutal than the German guards. That’s how they stayed alive and earned a little extra food. Often they were Polish Jews like me. They could be Romanian Jews or Czech. I never saw a German Aufseherin. Perhaps the Nazis didn’t trust the German Jews. Perhaps the German Jews didn’t want to beat up other Jews. Who knows?

Not one woman ever menstruated. We speculated that the Nazi pigs had drugged the coffee. Diarrhea was common and sometimes a woman soiled herself. That often earned a beating or a bullet.

We were never issued clean clothes. We wore what we could steal from the piles of clothes left near the gas “showers.” An elegant dress was as welcome as a torn skirt and blouse. Did the dead know that they were bequeathing their clothes to the living inmates? 

I was always hungry. And dirty. I arrived at the camp in late summer of 1944. When winter came I was cold. The freezing inside my body wouldn’t stop. It seemed to penetrate my bones and wouldn’t leave. Uninterrupted, perpetual cold. Those who had boots could walk in the snow with some comfort. Those who had sandals suffered frostbite.

One cold day I was standing in front of my barracks waiting for the morning Ersatz Kaffee. The coffee was never hot, and I was very cold. Snow on the ground did not help my spirits but there, lying on the ground, was a piece of a German army blanket – not a whole blanket, just a piece. I picked up that shmate, that rag, and wrapped it around my middle. 

The Aufseherin, one of us, a Jew like me, a prisoner, became enraged. Insubordination! Sabotage! She could make points with the authorities if she played her hand correctly. The Kapo called a uniformed SS woman. The SS guards wore pistols in holsters and always walked with two dogs. And still they were afraid of us. 

The SS woman came at me with her two dogs. I thought the dogs would swallow me – huge dogs. “Raus,” hollered the Nazi bitch. I mean the SS woman was the bitch, not the dogs. I stepped away from my group. The SS bitch then took me to the square at the entrance of the camp – the front gate where the sign reads, “Arbeit macht Frei,” work will make you free. She took me to a spot where the ground was covered with gravel and made me kneel on those tiny cold stones. She told me to hold my arms up over my head. I kneeled there on the gravel for many hours. When my arms started to come down I was beaten with a peitsche, a whip.

Hour after hour I kneeled as the sharp little stones cut into my knees. My shoulders ached and I became dizzy. Gravel, snow, cold, bright sun, leather whip. I fainted three times. I don’t know why the SS guard didn’t just shoot me. 

After too many hours exposed to pain and cold, I was sent back to my barracks.