ISSN 2692-3912

The Great Escapes

 

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The holocaust literature written by survivors has overall two fundamental purposes: one being the portrayal of the horrifying event itself in order to awaken the collective consciousness for those individuals who are unaware of the infamous past, therefore the history ought not to repeat itself and stay true to the principle Never Again. Secondly, is to explain the historical origins of such horrifying event. Within the second category writers often intend to depict how it was possible for a human being to adapt, survive and withstand the infamous route of humiliation, de-humanization, inferiority and subordination. A path that starts with the capture, leads through deadly interrogation and d if survived, death awaits in forms of labor or concentration camps When WWII started Kazimierz Piechowski (1919-) and Ryszrad Rieff (1923-2007) were polish boy scouts, once captured and had witnessed the route of dehumanization, humiliation and hard labor in two different concentration camps, Nazi and Soviet, respectively. Nevertheless, they managed to escape. Piechowski and Reiff did not have normal childhoods; instead they were shaped by the seeds of war and became extraordinary soldiers, willing to fight and give up their lives for their fatherland. Although the enemy may have managed to suppress their humanity, the men’s remarkable will to survive and fight back remained. The memoirs of Piechowski and Rieff pay homage to those who suffered, died and the few who were brave and lucky enough to escape and survive.

This essay will explore their journey in order to compare and contrast the circumstances of capture, the transportation methods, camp life in Auschwitz, and Soviet Labor Camp, and essentially to portray the great run-away. In his memoir Gra o Zycie (=The Game is to Live) (1993) Reiff reconstructs his story as partizant [resistance fighter], soldier, commandant and political prisoner in remote Soviet labor camp near Ostaszkow. Moreover, he escapes on foot nearly 1,500 miles and returns to Poland with two other fellow prisoners. Eventually, he becomes the president of Poland, which is illustrated in Archiwum Stowarzyszenia PAX (1990). The recently filmed documentary “Uciekinierzy” (2003:2010) [Escapers] depict from retrospective point of view Piechowski’s flight from the mostly feared Nazi Concentration Camp, Auschwitz. Piechowski visits Aushwitz for the first time in 55 years and narrates the escape while film goes back in time and reproduces in detail this remarkable event with Piechowski’s voice retelling the story in the background. The production by M. Pawlowski received numerous awards in Poland and outside of the country (Felis:1). Piechowski’s memoir My i Niemcy (2008) [We and Germans] allows for further investigation of camp life, conditions and attitudes towards both the oppressors and the victimizers.

 

   The Capture:

The beginning of war was very harsh for Poland, the country in question was attacked on both fronts, approximately at the same time. Piechowski comments: “[in] September 1939: The German [Nazi] war-machinery begun. The Germans attacked Poland with fury. We were too weak in order to defend our country. In eastern Poland [invaded by Red Army] intelligence, teachers, clergy and councilman were shot on the spot” (2008:56). Possibly the invasion of Red Army alludes not only to killing, but also to massive captures and transportations that took place in the later event commonly known as Katyñ Masacre, which was carried out on the orders of Stalin in March 1940. Meanwhile, on the western front the agenda was simple, namely to out-root the Polish habitants and inhabit the same land with Germans (56). WWII begins with the great battle of Westerplatte, the Nazis enter shortly after and the Polish Resistance collapses (Paw44; 3:48). Piechowski was a twenty-year-old boy-scout at that time, “when the war begun, the Nazis hunted for scouts and shoot them on the spot” (Paw44; 3:55). To avoid the death row he and other boy scouts were planning to run away to France through Hungary in order to form Polish Alliance in France; unfortunately, they were caught by Gestapo before they crossed the border of Hungary (Piechowski, 2008:96). It is commonly known that boy-scouts in Poland were considered a criminal organization, and thus they normally were executed without any exceptions. In the city of Bialygrod, he and his friend Alek were held in a basement for six days; “[a]fter six days they [gestapo] took us out and let to the office, they wrote in the protocol: Illegally tried to cross the Hungarian border, with the intention of joining the armed forces in France and fight in armed combat against the German nation” (2008:96). However, Piechowski adds that the Gestapo refused to execute him and the other boy-scout because they had “something more interesting [for them], which turns out to be KL Auschwitz” (96). Perhaps it was Piechowaski’s young age and his will that made the Gestapo change their mind, or an act of unconditional luck.  Consequently, his painful trajectory begins. Piechowski with others prisoners were sent to Gestapo prisons only to arrive in the end in Auschwitz.

Before WWII Ryszard Reiff studiedlaw at the Warsaw University, nevertheless the path he is forced to take in life makes him a unique man. When the war breaks out Ryszard Reiff was a seventeen year old student and a boy-scout. At this very young age due to the surrounding circumstances he entered the Polish Resistance Movement and became a partizant fighter [resistance fighter], later Underground Movement and finally, Armia Krajowa (AK) [Polish Army] and he became a real soldier and at last a commandant (Lodzinski, M: Interview 1). More specifically, his exquisite military abilities allowed him to achieve this military rank, in fact he was in command of Kadrowe Battalion when he fought Germans near Nowygrod (Interview 1). He used to be good at conquering Bunkers, his grandson – Mikolaj reveals:

He used to tell us, grenades and bunkers were the most important strategic points to obtain, all you had to do is to get relatively close, one soldier created a disruption and the other comrade threw few grenades to the bunker, ka-boom, it was a bloody mess he used to say (Lodzinski M, Interview 1).

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Rieff fights for his fatherland from the very beginning of the war, eventually he runs out of luck towards the spring of 1944. At that time the Red Army is no longer cooperating with Nazis because Hitler declared the war against them, but in 1944 the Soviets are recuperating the territories from the Nazis. Rieff and his squadron of soldiers found themselves outside Warsaw, earlier they intended to liberate Wilno under the command of general Stryczanski, “[but]many perished among ours in vain” [Reiff, 1996:20]. Reiff received an order to mobilize the troops outside Warsaw in the region of [1]Puszcza Rudnicka. Unfortunately, the entire situation was not beneficial, those soldiers and partizant fighters who were joining his troops belonged to distant squadrons, “[the troops] they were unsure, undecided, they could not determine from which squadrons they were coming from, probably they belong to a small conspiracy” (21). Moreover, they were hungry and exhausted, also there was a badly wounded friend Satyr, who was transported on horse; the morale was overall very law, on top of that, the Red Army fighters were advancing through the fields. Due to the highest rank, Reiff was in charge, but he was in an uncomfortable situation, he was forced to select five soldiers for patrol, hence the “small conspiracy,” he did not want to select from those with whom he fought and were close to his heart, for this very reason he justifies his decision as follows “…I called for volunteers, not underlining that I am exclusively interested in those new comers” (21). The soldiers had overseen his plan, that night no one slept, two of his close men and three of the others headed together with the mission to encounter safe passage (22). Rieff looks at his florescent watch, according to his estimate, after fifteen minutes, there is an exchange of fire, the Red Army soldiers welcome them with heavy caliber guns; Reiff comments: ”From the patrol two out of five did return, there was no chase. It was a miserable relief because the situation has drastically changed. Now we were de-conspired” (22). The commandant decides to retreat to Warsaw instead of plowing through the wilderness of Puszcza Rudnincka the route was twice as long and besides the soldiers were exhausted and hungry.

Under the cover of night they move out towards Warsaw and after three hours of marching those additional resistance fighters discretely go their own way. Reiff and his small group of thirteen soldiers find refuge in a random farm, they do not need to take it by force because the owners are very friendly Poles and let them rest in the barn. Reiff ordered one of his men to watch the station because behind the farm there were only fields and the enemy would be visible for miles, they sleep for about six hours; “everything happened so suddenly. How did it happen, I have no clue. It was an experience different for every one of us and it would require individual stories” (25). Everyone was separated and intended to safe himself individually; scattered soldiers woke up from deep dream while Soviet soldiers were surrounding the farm. Reiff is the only one, who sleeps in the house in a real bed while the rest of soldiers occupy the barn. Reiff sleeps with the gun by his side, rapidly puts the shoes on and runs towards the forest, and this is when the unbelievable encounter takes place. The soviet shoot in the air avoiding hurting those running towards the forest, some of the polish soldiers lay face down holding weapons. Rieff runs side by side with Zbyszek, bullets fly by and hit them, luckily only the caps get holes in them, suddenly a few armed Soviets appear holding machine guns and guns with bagnets, a few of Rieff’s men fall down aim but do not fire (26). “This very bagnet [knife at the tip of rifle] stopped me. It was a brief but a significant moment, there was no time for thinking. The instincts decide. I could have pulled the szmajser gun. I did not fire, he neither. It was unbelievable” (26). Reiff explains in the stream of consciousness that if it were a Nazi soldier or SS-man pointing his bagnet in his stomach, he would never give up, they would both shoot. Not only because the death from bullet is better, but also the tortures that the partizants must withstand and suffer are simply unbearable. After the capture there are led to the center of the Puszcza Rudnicka, they do not know what to expect. Reiff again follows his intuition “[i]ntuition is an immeasurable component of decision. At least in those times, which I describe, surrounded by bushes forests and steps,” and it was the only reason why they all survived, they did not intend to regain arms form the Soviets in order to fight and flee.

Reiff’s son explains that normally, the Soviets would have executed any military officers on the spot, without any trail, but my grandfather was smart and lucky enough to use false documents, when they captured him and his unit, the Soviets thought that they were acting as partizants not soldiers from Armia Krajowa [Polish Army] explains Lodzinski (Interview 2). Moreover, Reiff used to have a lot of documents that he acquired in Warsaw underground the more you had the better, and this is how he gets away with his military identity, in other words the Soviets thought they were either regular residents smuggling arms or random partizants (Interview 2).

After the long march they reached the enemies camp, where he describes the brain washing methods of Soviets and finds out that they will be sent for “2,3,5 or 10 years on the far East in order to work and live until we experience so called rehabilitation” (34). Rieff was unable to decipher the whole situation, although the atmosphere in the enemy camp was affected by the fact that he did not fire at that time. He explains additionally, under the Ribbentrop-Molotow Pact, Stalin was supposed to clean up the terrains from Nazis because Poland was supposed to exist, however, now he was abusing his power executing soldiers especially from the Polish Army (AK) without any mercy (34). Perhaps the fact that Rieff did not fire had changed the trajectory and he became a prisoner instead of being one of the fallen corpses. There was no trial. He was interrogated shortly; the questioning lasted for two hours, the Soviets confirmed his false identity, afterwards without any trail he and his men were sent to a train station (Interview 1).

  Both Rieff and Piechowaski did not have a normal childhood; the best years of their youth were consumed by the seeds of war. They were very young boy-scouts when the war broke out, yet their extraordinary skills and will to survive was not suppressed by the enemy. They were forced by the brutal circumstances to adapt and survive, at the same time they never lost their patriotic spirits, and it was perhaps what kept them alive. At the same time, they were lucky enough not to be executed on the spot by the enemy, and consequently were sent to two brutal and very different labor-concentration camps. Reiff had the opportunity to fight before he was captured, however Piechowaski did not, yet once he ran away from Auschwitz he fought in the Polish Army (Felis: 1). Unfortunately, the route to freedom was filled with everyday dangers, starting from the interrogation and including the transportation.

   The Interrogation and Transportation:

Piechowski (2008:97) reveals: “My way to KL Auschwitz from the beginnings of November 1939 till 20th June 1940 lead thru Gestapo in Bialygrod, prison in Sanoku, prison in Krakow-Montelupiach and extreme Prison in Nowy Wisnicz.” Nevertheless, the documentary Escapers portrays more sentimental thought towards the same matter, after the survivor mentions the above institutions, he adds “[a]nd finally we were taken to this darn hell in Auschwitz” (Paw44; 13:15). Overall, Piechowski was held seven months and visited four different prisons before reaching the final destination, darn hell. In this vein, Piechwoski gives inside of how the oppressive state apparatus looked like and who was held within. These jails used to be polish official buildings, which were modified by Nazis to accommodate and interrogate prisoners (2008:97). Namely, political prisoners accused of conspiracy, involvement in Underground, or those captured who tried to run away were so brutally treated during the interrogation that oftentimes they did not even reach the trial, however, “[t]hose who survived were sent into concentration camps where they suppose to stay at least till the end of the war” (2008:97). Naturally, the seed of hope uttered by the Nazi “till the end of the war” was very sarcastic, perhaps it gave people hope, but once they reached the destination, they probably understood that they sadly might not survive till the end of the war. After all, Piechowski is removed from the inhuman experience of transportation, oftentimes witnessed by Jews, especially by those who were brought from distant countries; hordes of people squeezed in commercial wagons like sardines, traveling for days with no food or water.

A celebrated author Elie Wiesel (1928-  ) illustrated such treatment in the remarkable memoir The Night (2006:23-27). Wiesel reproduced his own and his father’s experience. They were transported in 1942 from Hungary into the same camp as Piechowski – Auschwitz. On the other hand, Piechowski had been captured in 1939 at the beginning of WWII and he was already gone before Wiesel and his father had arrived. Moreover, Piechowski was among roughly 320 Polish prisoners, who reached the concentration camp on 20 June 1940 (Felis: 1). Furthermore, he was in the second transportation that reached Aushwitz, the first one came from a Polish city Tarnow in which Edward Galinski was held (Felis: 1). Galinski becomes the co-organizer of the great escape from Auschwitz. On June 20 1940 Piechowski becomes number 918 what also reflects his early arrival (Piechowski, 2008:197).

Reiff was twenty one years old when the Red Army captured him in Fall 1943. He and his soldiers left the camp and after four hours of marching they arrived at the railway station (1993:35). Only four soldiers stood by each wagon, moreover the wagons had not been inspected, Reiff spotted few loose boards, a possible escape was an option in a future station, Rieff had passed a notice among his inmates. The train used to stop a lot for hours, gradually his man started to flee, Reiff also managed to run away with his comrade Zbyszek. They returned to Warsaw and acquired again false papers, later on Reiff functioned as a priest for nearly six months. In January 1944 he was captured by Soviet Secret Police, NKWD, this time he got into real trouble. An authentic and brutal interrogation took place, it lasted five days, they got out of him what they wanted to hear, he was suspected of conspiracy and spying, but he held to his false identity, did not give away any names and was not executed. Finally, the fifth day he was transported to a railway station, where unknown destination awaited him. Perhaps Piechowski does not witness the horrors of transportation, but Reiff indeed does. The lector encounters similar images to those described by Elie Wisel in The Night. Reiff started the fifth chapter of his book with the following description:

We were squeezed, when six of us was standing, six could seat, the worse were nights half-seated, half laying individuals slipped on the bottom, those underneath were trying to get on top, and so the human mass was in constant movement (97).

This time the wagons were heavy duty and carefully inspected every few hours, thick roofs and floors, no lose boards, each wagon had two guards on each end, this time the escape was nearly impossible, “although five men tried to escape once they got out were immediately shot” (98). This created an unusual situation among soldiers, a reaction one would not expect. The soldiers were afraid of lost prisoners and the future count, therefore the next day they picked up five random farmers from fields simply inviting them to the wagon, “these poor peasants were only worried about their left horse, if they knew where they were going” Reiff adds (98).

The food consisted of dried bread, a cube of sugar, and even a smaller cube of bacon, during the entire journey they did not get anything warm, although tea in raw form was given by the Soviets, the inmates used it to make cigarettes. The wagons were overcrowded, men, women, and even older children, all looked like random civilians, it was hot and humid, after the first twelve hours people would do their physical needs in silence, but no one would say a word (Rieff: 99). There were moments when the train stopped for couple hours, and each time more wagons came, or some were exchange at the longer stops soldiers opened the door for the moment and gave single bucket of water for the entire wagon, and it was when the massacre begun, explains Reiff’s grandson, Mikolaj (Interview 1). And indeed, so it was, according to Reiff’s experience, starved and thirsty men fought about the single bucket ripping each other throats out screaming and yelling, one old man nearly suffocated in this fight. Eventually they ended up spilling the water all over, and everyone was blaming each other, “After watching this happen once I decided to put end to this insanity” says Reiff, together with five strong man formed a “committee of five” and took control over the water distribution, they established a hierarchy in which firstly “the sick with hemorrhoids received water, the lack of liquids and dry bread gave them additional pain, then women, and finally males; those who opposed were held by force and oftentimes received a brutal treatment, such as being knocked out (Reiff: 99). Same behavior confirmed Mikolaj and Antonio Lodzinski in their stories emphasizing that oftentimes the long wait outside the train for other wagons was especially troublesome because the water would come from both ends of wagons and those in the middle did not get enough water, or no water at all. Reiff (100) informs “[i]n such case those who did not get last time, received a double portion, and this is how the game is to live used to be”. Most likely, from this passage the idea regarding the title was born, although he refers to this phrase numerous times in his book. In addition, according to his grandson for Reiff the survival game was the daily bread, the double capture, maintaining the false identity, a false biography was indeed an art, especially in front of the enemy, it was a deadly game to survive (Interview 1). Overall, the transportation was a long and exhausting journey according to Reiff:

[f]inally after twelve days and nights of drugging, we arrived in our wagon at Ostaszkow station. Bad omen, the name Ostaszkow awakes the worst memories…I said to myself five years. This is the price I have to pay, this the limit I give myself. I was thinking about the escape from the very first day (102).

It took the Soviets four days to take them to former border of Poland, Wilno, and Nearly two weeks to reach the final destination, Ostaszkow. It was surely a memorable journey.

Both Rieff and Piechowski, were extremely lucky, to outwit the enemy and to receive unconditional “mercy”, respectively; mercy filled with irony because it bought them precious time to live but in the same fashion with each moment, they found themselves sinking deeper into the oppressive apparatus of the enemy. Both men experience the horrifying interrogation, performed by the two most fearful institutions, the Gestapo and NKWD respectively, yet they managed to withstand. Reiff experienced the horrors of transportation similar to those described by Elie Wisel in The Night, moments well remembered by his son and grandson, resting in the banks of long term memory that awaken strong memories as if they were their own. Consequently, the interrogation and the transportation were just the beginning of the hell. Reiff found himself nearly 1500 miles away from home, while Piechowski entered “the darn and forgotten place” Auschwitz (Paw44).

 

  The Labor Camps:

When Piechowski revisits Auschwitz for the first time in 55 years and crosses the gate sign Arbeit Macht Frei, he utters: “The Auschwitz syndrome is deep inside in me” (Paw44). To follow the same path of thought one ought to link this reasoning towards the introduction of Piechowski’s book We and Germans, in his proper words:

[t]his extermination camp was a place where human to other human makes something, what cannot be expressed or defined in any language in the world…What allowed them to survive such human forsaken place? This question I try to answer in this unusual book (2008: 3).

He witnessed the Auschwitz from the very beginning considering he was in the second transportation. Consequently, he narrated the development of Auschwitz-Birkenau camp and after the war he also studied the Nazi archives. Between January 1940 until the end of January 1942 the development of Aushwitz costs live of thousands of people and according to the documents from KL Auschwitz 36.285 people had been held there (2008:68). In this time frame the Nazis killed around 1.775 prisoners with Cyclone, 2.435 were moved to different camps, 76 were “dismissed” and 5 ran away, but got killed (68). According to his calculation, 31st January 1942 the count should be 32.014, unfortunately, at that day the total was 11.449 (68). Consequently, over 25.000 prisoners perished from hunger, disease and slave labor (68).

During his first days in the camp they were performing so called sports:

[t]he aim for that was to break our will and suppress any idea to runaway. Kapos and SS-man gave us an entire repertoire of tortures Kniebaun, Hüpfen, Rollen [bands, jumps, rolls]. It lasted for hours, whole day I was rolling, covered in mud and sweat. There was no break, later Tanzen, [dancing]…(197).

The purpose of the executive SS man in Auschwitz was not only to physically eliminate the inmates, but the SS rather wanted to make their victims lose the leftovers of their humanity and dignity before their death. The main tool serving this very purpose was hunger and inhumane conditions. Piechowski adds (73): “[t]herefore, the most important matter of a prisoner was to survive till the next day. People were weakened by starvation and forced to slave labor in any weather conditions: paralyzing cold, deep snow, intense heat, and in the mud reaching the knees.” Hence, the metaphorical translation of the sign in Auschwitz Work Makes Free, once the Nazis work prisoners till, they were incapable of working such individuals were not useful and died either from hunger and abuse or by the hands of their oppressors. The highest death harvest took place usually in the fall and spring, many people perished by diseases, and others were shot, and their corpses burned in the crematoria. Piechowski elaborates this very matter in the documentary with greater detail. Moreover, he recalled cases of inmates who were enormously exhausted from the prolonged physical labor and while pushing wheel-barrel the prisoner was simply unable to straighten his back although he tried,

A SS-man notices it [crooked back] and calls him. He tells him to take his cap off. The prisoner takes the cap off and gives it to the SS-man. He knows that he has only seconds of life left. He is fully aware of it. The SS-man throws the cap far beyond the work site and tells the prisoner to fetch it. The prisoner slowly walks step by step waiting for the shot to be fired. The prisoner falls to the ground. Afterwards the SS-man receives three days of leave for preventing escape (Paw44).

While Piechowski narrated this event, a slide show of black and white pictures reproduced this horrifying trajectory. His voice was sad, monotonic, yet powerful as it left the spectator with goose bumps, wondering what it would be like to know that the moments of his or her life were counted. Piechowski (2008:75) explained the secrets of survival, which were contrary to those individuals who over-worked their bodies and as a result were unable to straighten their back, consequently a SS-man considered them useless. In the first place one needed the will to live as one ought to sustain the strength. Piechowski played along, when there were no Kapos or SS officers watching he rested, when the inmate was observed, he pretended to work hard (75). However, there were moments when Piechowski himself was at the threshold of losing his will.

In the documentary, he explained that after months of hard labor and hunger he lost his strength and was at the point to giving up, yet on the morning roll-call he stood next to a true Muselmann, who estimated that he reconciled with his limping death and he did not want to live or to withstand until the end of the day, after the roll-call he threw himself on the barbwire (Paw44). This shocking experience lead Piechowski to understand the paradox of lost will. In other words, one will lose faith and become a Musulmann, only if an individual will not get a grip of oneself. This was a breakthrough experience for Piechowski because he found strength in his weakness, hence the paradox. Otherwise, the Nazi strategies to starve and physically extinguish people were very effective, and as a result they were able to reach their goal, mainly to see that their victims losing the rests of their humanity and dignity before their death. Consequently, many people were selected by SS-man and were simply executed outside the work field in the manner described above, or at the infamous Wall of Death.

The documentary portrays Piechowski appearing from a deep fog and walking towards the Wall of Death, a short one way street surrounded by two brick buildings on the left and right. Moreover, the survivor explained that when he was brought in that place for the first time, he nearly fainted (Paw44). The camera offered a close-up on this reinforced wall full of bullet holes, which is located in front of a much taller brick wall (Paw44). Below the Wall of Death one recognized a homage to the victims, dozens bouquets of fresh flowers layered on the ground (Paw44). Piechowski uttered that his task was to pick up the corpses after the execution took place; before the execution naked prisoners came out from the building next to it, and were lined up facing the wall, “[t]hen Palitsch, the master of death would shoot them in the back of their head…And the heap of corpses grew” (Paw44). Suddenly the camera became blurry and foggy once the sharpness was restored Piechowski stood next to a cart-wagon full of corpses, although it was a computer trick, he was pasted on an old black and white snapshot portraying a cart full of corpses by the Wall, it seemed real and dramatic to the spectator; then the survivor explained the loading methods and mistreatment by guards (Paw44). Although they worked in pairs throwing the bodies by the legs and arms, they were repeatedly kicked while loading, because for the Palitisch the criminal it was always too slow, [o]nce we had the cart wagon full of corpses, the gate would open Tur Auf, and we would trout towards crematorium number one” (Paw44). At the end of this scene, the protagonist walked out while the camera offered a close up on his wrinkled face, this is when the survivors disclosed that he still felt the aftermath of the work “in the gates of hell inside of him” (Paw44). The inerasable experiences were also transparent in his memoir.

Once the Crematorium was built the new arriving wagons were often welcomed with the words of Schutzhaftlagerführer Fritzsch: ‘“You came here not to sanatorium, but to German concentration Camp, from which there is no way out, but thru the chimney in the crematory…”’ (2008: 68). When the trains arrived people were driven out with clubs and had to line up to two big warehouses, they had to undress and were given soap because it was good for disinfection. Once they entered, they were gassed (80). Piechowski (81-82) himself described the awful event:

From the chimneys those thick clouds came out, combined with spontaneous red flames. With high volumes of bodies ventilation system was used to enhance the process of cremation. In such a case, from the chimneys tall bloody flames came out. There were times when the crematories worked day and night since the transportations came one after the other. Sometimes the ventilation systems did not help and the reminiscent of the bodies were burned in large gravel pits. […] The thick smoke that came out the chimneys caused not only breathing problems to the prisoners, but also to inhabitants of Auschwitz the city. Among the supervising SS man, there were no cases of psychological breakdown, rather the other way around, they exhibited sadistic pleasure from their work.

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In the first place it was really out of the ordinary that the Nazis would take pleasure in liquidating people rather than to develop bad conscience. Furthermore, it must have been a horrible experience for the inmates to see their fellow prisoners go away in such inhumane process. On the other hand, there are two notions regarding the inhabitants of Auschwitz the city, mainly the first one commonly known as I haven’t seen anything and the other one, described by many poles who reminisce those times as the sky would grew red, vapors unpleasant for the throat and ashes. Afterwards, Piechowski was lucky to have a friendly Kapo transfer him to work indoors, and this was when he meet co-escapers Edward Galinski, and Eugeniusz Bandera, the driver and the mastermind of the great escape.

For Reiff, the years of service began. He was truthful to two rules not to involve in conspiracy and not to run away in first occasion, but rather take time for a solid preparation (104). The daily ratio was based on 600 gram rule, this how much they received daily, which is twice as much as in Siberian Gulag described by Alexander Solzhenitsyn in his One Day in the life of Ivan Denisovich (1962) where only 250 grams were given, yet people managed to survive on this fraction of daily calories. There was always not enough food, one day someone traded leather shoes for whole bread, he ate it at once, but his stomach could not withstand that, and he died in the hospital (104). His death was described by fellow prisoner as a happy death “with full stomach” (104). Those who used to trade a loaf of bread for tobacco and newspaper to role some cigarettes died first. Besides the daily ratio of the bread twice a day watery cabbage soup was served,at lunchtime with buckwheat grouts and finally the coffee alike beverage for breakfast (105). Most likely, a beverage made of nuts and the soup of weeds. There is no wonder why they fought about food all the time. Many songs were born bearing the theme of warm tasty foods. Reiff adds that the starvation was the worst enemy, the second one was the extensive physical labor. His 21-year-old system was “screaming from hunger” he weighed 125 lbs and measured 6 feet which was not a crisis however, due to his past experience and interrogation he felt exhausted, Reiff lost 50 pounds overall (105). His grandson adds that he had to keep track and watch of what he said; any wrong information could cost him life due to his acquired identity, the camp was simply full of snitches (Interview 1). He was again lucky enough that very few people actually knew him from Poland, but they did not reveal any information regarding his true identity.

The large rooms accommodated 300 men, they slept on three level bare beds as they stood and this being the manner in which they went to sleep. The worst were rainy days, after thirteen hours of labor they came soaking wet, people had no clothes to change, so they took some pieces of clothing off and slept in the rest, the humidity was immense especially in the summer. The situation changed when, the next transportation came after six months, Satyr, and Bull his comrades were in it. Bull due to his medical background received work in the hospital, one day he even saved Reiffs’ life when he had a stomachache. When the next transportation appeared after next few months, Reiff was transferred by train to a different camp, he found out later that he was at Diahilaw near Riazan. In this camp he found a number of his former soldiers and friendly major called Bear (because of his last name Niedziwiedzki) and many other officers, it was clearly a camp for political prisoners, partizants and enemies of communists’ ideology (119). Reiff restored his contacts together with Major Bear they become in charge of trading and food distribution from the magazine. This is how he was able to gather necessary supplies for his escape. For all this time the young Reiff was learning Russian language in order to trade with the outside world, to bribe guards and also to use it in the great escape. In 1945 he was selected to work outside the camp, “[t]hey took off zapretna zone in other words forbidden to leave the camp. The crew consisted of 50 of us and eight guards” (135). They were hired by local farmer to help with the field-work around October, during the day they were supervised by civilians, at night they set a camp in an abandoned chapel. All the guards slept in a rear locked room, besides only two guards who were in the front of the chapel, of which one went to sleep on a bench, the other always left the front door opened. This was an excellent opportunity for him and Lopatka to set their rather hasty plan into motion.

After a long while my fellow prisoner Lopatka, who is fluent in Russian offered the supervising guard a cigarette and asked for lighter, they talked work a while, this is when I slept out. The other one who was a sleep came back to substitute his comrade, yet his alertness was very weak, once they change Lopatka slept out and joined me (136).

Excellent opportunity to run away, yet it was taken too hasty, no food, no compass, and especially no pot. Clearly, Reiff broke his second rule not to run away unprepared. They walked over ten miles, crossed muddy fields in the pith black night, it was raining, and they were following their intuition rather than a compass. Suddenly, they found a chapel and realized it was the very same chapel they escaped from, just approached from the back. They cleaned the muddy clothes with hey and sneaked in through the main door passing the sleeping guard, everyone was still asleep. They lied down under the leaking roof and pretended to be fast asleep, in such a fashion the wet clothes were easy to explain. That day they worked 10 straight hours, the first run away was a failure, their morale was broken.

Both Rieff and Piechowski experienced the horrors of labor camps. They witnessed starvation, exhaustion, and inhumane treatment. Although they had to face their own enemy, the human mind which plays tricks especially when starved and suppressed, yet they managed to overcome their weaknesses. Piechowski conquered his destabilized will when the Musulman on a morning roll-call gives up his life and throws himself on barbed wire. Reiff survived due to his simple and effective rules and thanks to Bull, a friend who saved his life when he had a serious stomachache. Unlike Auschwitz, the Soviet labor camp was not an extermination site, however in both places one could easily die due to harsh labor, inhuman conditions and simply lack of nutrition. Furthermore, both campsites followed their different ideology respectively, the Nazi purpose was simply to exterminate or work inmates until their death, while the Soviets intended to clean the minds of prisoners and impose Stalin’s propaganda. Over all, it was God forsaken places, in which the human will was easy to break. Yet Reiff and Piechowski maintained their strong will, it was the driving force, as it allowed them to live to the next day, similar drive was described by the young Jew who fought in the Warsaw ghetto, Abraham Foxman (1995: 255) “On Resistance,” who underlined “[o]ne ofthe strongest drives in a human being is his will to survive. No man want to believe that he is about to be killed.” Consequently, this inner vigor was the driving motor, which kept all these people alive.

  The Great Escape:

After the first unsuccessful runaway Rieff and Lopatko were depressed, their morale was overall low; moreover, they calculated that the runaway will have to take place in the next summer just after the field work is required again, so they have at least 10 additional months for the preparation. Meanwhile, Reiff was interrogated by NKWD, luckily it turned out it were only gossips from the previous camp in Ostaszkow, the NKWD had still no rigid evidence to send him to Siberia. In the late summer 1946, Reiff worked on construction site KECZ outside the camp in the city limits of Riazniu. KECZ was a Kolkhoz, a dirty Soviet collective labor site, it required farm work and some primitive construction work, however the guards were friendly because the civilians worked there as well. Reiff’s ability to speak Russian at that point was excellent. He planned the escape carefully this time; in the first place he got a hold of false papers due to his connections, what he called “legalization” (171). It seems that he was obsessed with false papers, but it was something mandatory if one wanted to enter a city or take a train explained his grandson (Interview 1). Moreover, he managed to gather salt, spicy crushed chilies, pepper, a pot, a few rubles, a self-made compass and a knife. That summer a small group of men with just few guards was sent 30 km (approximately 18 miles) north from the Kolkhoz to load turf for winter, the work was supposed to last three days (172). Among these men there were two of his good friends – Czeslaw and Kondrad, the little conspiracy took place, they decided collectively to make the move once the opportunity presented itself.

After being transferred to work indoors, Piechowski becomes friends with Edward Galinski and Eugeniusz Bandera. According to Piechowski (Paw44, Zawadzki): “Bandera Eugeniusz (number 8502) he came up with the plan. He fixed cars for the SS-man, so he had easier access to them. Moreover, they trusted him [in their own way] as he could drive around the camp without any guards.” Unfortunately, in May 1942 Bandera received a death note, it was a matter of time until he was shot under death wall or ended up in the chimney (Paw44; Zawadzki). This was when Piechowski became a part of the plan. The main obstacle was their outfit, it was impossible to drive away in stripped pajamas. Although Piechowski was not the initiator of this plan, without his careful reasoning and his excellent ability to speak German, they would have not succeeded.

Piechowski, (Paw44) worked once a week at Zucker’s magazine where one day he located on the second floor “Bekleidungskammer,” [Uniform Room] the door remained locked at all times, however one day the prisoner was able to enter. That day he was confronted by an SS man, to whom he uttered first thing that appeared in his mind: ”Herr SS Führer, Sie sollen in Hause-Büro kommen” (Sir SS Fuhrer, you should come to the main office). Although he received a harsh beating for entering the prohibited area, yet he was able to analyze the chambers in detail, the price he paid was very low; inside the Nazis stored grenades, ammunition, uniforms, literary everything, explained Piechowski (Paw44). Some other day Piechowski and Bandera worked outdoors unloading coal to a central hatched, which to their surprise was inter-connected with many tunnels beneath the camp, and some of them lead to the magazine with all necessary supplies (Paw44). Due to his sharp mind, he was able to notice an important detail, the gate was fastened by screws after the work, and he took care of them at night because otherwise the plan would have failed as they would not have been able to enter the hatchet. In this fashion, nearly everything was ready, besides one troublesome aspect.

According to the camp rules if they escaped from the work place, the Nazi would kill ten workers per person who intends to flee, if they escaped from the block or commando the same would have happened. After a sleepless night, Piechowski (Paw44) came out with a “false roll-car commando, if they let us out, they let out a fictional commando,” in such case Nazis will not be able to punish prisoners per camp rules because their work squad went back to camp and a fictional commando that did not return. A genuine idea, however it required at least four prisoners to roll a small wagon cart; consequently, Reiff and Bandera were forced to find two reliable inmates to fulfill the task (Paw44). Józef Lampart, a former priest and Stanislaw Jaster joined them. Saturday afternoon was the only reasonable day and time to run away because the SS man were gone for weekends and limited guard was held, besides the inmates worked only until noon (Paw44; Zawadzki). “The day of the planed escape came – 20 June 1942…”(Paw4).

After the first unsuccessful attempt to escape, Reiff carefully prepared the plan. He was forced to run away with some befriended Poles, instead of Lopatko, his comrade. He gathered the crucial things, legal papers, a compass and the most important ingredient – crushed chilies. Bandera, although named the mastermind of the operation, without the sacrifice and wisdom of Piechowski would not have been able to fulfill this plan, and would definitely have endangered the lives of many prisoners. How they had succeeded, is worth retelling!

After the soup was served, Piechowski and his collaborators gathered on the ethic to check the final preparations, they put on workers commando bands and discussed that in case of failure they would take each other’s lives, finally they took a minute to pray (Paw44). As previously mentioned, the documentary reconstructs the escape from the retrospective point of view, now its 1942 and Piechowski’s voice narrated this powerful event: “we went down took the cart filled with some leftover of potatoes and empty boxes and we go towards the gate Arbeit Macht Frei. (Paw44). Piechowski reported the working commando, they were lucky because the officer did not verify the book, “first step to freedom behind us, but not the last one, “the narrator uttered. After they had established a safe distance, they abandoned the cart, Bandera opened the door with a replica-key, inside was the famous Steyr 220 (Paw44). Meanwhile, Jozef was watching, Piechowski and Staszek opened the hatch and went down the coal bunker; furthermore, they went to boiler-room where they found crowbar behind the stove, then they broke the door leading to the uniform magazines (Paw44). Afterwards, they entered the building and broke the door leading to appliances chamber, they put on uniforms quickly and took whatever was necessary. Piechowski received the uniform of Untersturmführer [Storm-trooper], this is when they experience the first cliff hanger (Paw44). Piechowski narrates: [w]e go downstairs, fully armed, towards the car ramp, suddenly we hear approaching car…Nazis” (Paw44). They did not enter the magazine; again, the odds are in their favor. As a result, Bandera pulled in the front of the magazine in the car, got out and saluted the Storm-trooper according to the instructions, an armed guard in a watch-tower observes them from a distance, Piechowski ordered Bandera to get inside the magazine where he put the uniform, afterwards: “[t]he boys loaded the guns and ammunition into the car. Bandera walked out in his uniform, we close the storehouse, and we get into the car, in direction towards Wladowice” (paw44). They drove alongside the camp towards the main gate, the soldiers on the street saluted them each time “Heil Hitler.” The cliffhanger was to come, Piechowski (Paw44) with the over voice narrates while the documentary shows the deeds of these brave men:

The gate was closed, Bandera slowed down on third gear. We approached the gate, the gate still did not open. We were 60 feet away and the damned SS-man did not move. [Piechowski suddenly lost it because he thought they would not make it]. Suddenly Jozef hit me on my back and hissed ‘why don’t you do something!’ I regained control of myself, I opened the right door, shove out my shoulder so they can see my rank and shouted: Are you asleep a##hole?! Open the gate or I’ll wake you up good…! The gate opened, we drove away…We felt not only free but also confident of ourselves.

And this is how four Poles left the mostly feared extermination camp. Their escape was successful and no one died. They became free men again. In the Far East, on the other extreme of evil labor camp somewhere 30 kilometers north of Riazna, where Reiff and two other Poles were collecting turf, another unbelievable story took place.

Reiff and his two friends collected turf just by a forest, once Reiff and Czeslaw finished the job, he asked in fluent Russian for permission to collect blueberries; he and Czeslaw went into woods holding a pot. Meanwhile, they walked deeper in woods overdressed Kondrad (hiding bags of salt, chills, pepper underneath his cloak) started to walk towards the woods

[a] guard screamed kuda idziosz [where are you going], he drops cigarette and walks towards the frozen Kondrad, it was over, now or never. We ran like crazy…The bushes were high, only the movement of leaves would indicate our path. The alarm rang. Soon after the dogs barked like crazy (1993:175).

They could not start the chase right away because they had to supervise the remaining prisoners; they managed to cross about 2 kilometers. They caught a breath and started walking in a row one after another, the last person placed small pieces of wood seasoned with the crushed chili peppers: [t]his how we wanted to eliminate the dogs, because they were the worse” (175). This trick worked, the dogs at once sniffed the spicy seasoning, were sneezing and lost the trail instantly. According to Reiff’s grandson the chili pepper was the most important component of the entire runaway, “it worked like magic” Reiff used to tell him (Interview 1). Indeed, the crushed chili peppers did the magic trick and dogs did not chase them, accordingly they lost the trail very quickly. They traveled east and then south, in such a fashion they were able to decrease chances to come across a special battalion linked to the in-famous Gulag Archipelago (176). The second step was successfully accomplished due to Reiffs’ intuition regarding the directions. The third crucial obstacle was to cross the bridge or the river Riazan near the city.

Unfortunately, they were forced to walk down the river because Kondrad did not know how to swim (Interview 1; 1993:177). After walking for hours down the river they spotted a rowing boat behind the guarding point (Interview 1). Reiff did not want to take any chances of killing the guard and thus raising the alarm, instead they decided to steal the boat at night and hoped that the guard would not notice. Reiff’s grandson explains that he did not want to take any chances because if he were caught, he would have been shot in front of the entire camp because he was responsible for the group incident (Interview 1). The same line of reasoning confirms Reiff. Eight hours later they silently crossed the river, there was no guard, and after a two day walk they made first rest stop, where they emptied five pots of cooked potatoes. Reiff himself remembers the following “After we ate, it rained immensely, we made a tent from branches, however the exhaustion was stronger. I do not remember what I dreamed off; it was the first day we were free men” (179). According to M. Lodzinski they traveled at night and slept during the daytime, sporadically they would meet some random groups of people traveling, they did not hide, and they walked simply as if nothing happened (Interview 1). Such a strategy was indeed effective, but the first observation they made each time was to see if these random men were armed, luckily none of them wanted any trouble. Their fluent skills in Russian were especially useful in such encounters, mostly individuals who crossed did not want to be noticed (Rieff:180).

Each day Reiff felt stronger, his journey reminded him of his life as a resistance fighter, they were surrounded by nature and lived from it, they dug out onions and potatoes from the fields and encountered edible mushrooms, which when occasionally added enrichedthe “King’s meal [potatoes]” (182). They crossed mud fields, it rained a lot, they slept in hidden places oftentimes in hay, they avoided any major cities, explains Lodzinski (Interview 1). Once they ran out of food and strayed from the path they found themselves in some abandoned looking farm, where Czeslaw found accidently a concealed large bag of grain, “this accident saved our lives, it was something sacral” explains Reiff (189). Once they were lucky and entered a village, where the people gave them some food and shelter (Interview 2). They quickly realized that by train, they will get there quickest, Lodzinski Antonio, Rieff’s son, added that in order to look like civilized people, they had to wash their rags in stream and shave themselves with that self-made knife or pieces of glass before entering any city (Interview 2). They indeed managed to blend in; unfortunately, at some station they have lost Kondrad due to some riots masses of people were moving suddenly, “[t]his is the last time I saw Kondrad” (196). They searched for their comrade, it was a horrible loss, especially his Russian was surpassing their oral skills, and it was native alike. Later it turned out that he walked to the next station and blended in, he found a Pole who bought tickets for them both, and this was how he got to pre-war border of Poland, Wilno. Czeslaw and Rieff were forced to sell Czeslaw’s two year old pullover, they cleaned it for fleas, and went into market screaming ”kamu [wool] sweater, kamu pullover, a big lady came and gave us rubles which were just enough to buy tickets to Wilno, the magic word, Wilno” (Rieff: 199).  In Wilno they were able to restore old connection, which enabled them safe refuge to homeland.

 

  Aftermath of the Great Run Away:

After Piechowski and his crew fled, the same day later on, the camp commander sent out telegrams with detailed descriptions to Gestapo, Criminal and Border Police, the organized chase begun, yet they never found them. The car had a malfunction after thirty kilometers and they took on foot as they went in separate ways. Bandera and Piechowski took refuge with their family (Zawadzki 1). The former priest, Jozef threw away his tonic and started a family; he died in 1971 in an unlucky car accident (Zawadzki 1). Wladyslaw got involved in conspiracy activity shortly after and was also extremely unlucky to get caught by Gestapo and this was his end (Zawadzki 1). Piechowski joined the Polish Army, and he was lucky, after the war he was forced to spend eight years in Polish prison as he was suspected of conspiracy. Once he was freed, he traveled around the world and visited over 50 countries.

Regarding the Auschwitz event both the prisoners and Nazis were astonished. Tadeusz Sobolewicz, survivor number 23053 was aware of Piechowski’s escape, in his proper words: “The escape of Piechowski and his colleagues was a major event due to its psychological impact, on the morale of prisoners” (Jancio1974). Soblewich added in the documentary that this story was told by prisoners over and over again. It was a significant event because it was the first runaway in the history of Aushwitz who managed to flee in the SS uniforms, the very matter of re-labeling, or in other words, the dress up as Nazis opened the conciousness of the remaining inmates. The entire event was so unbelievable that Nazis made a detailed investigation (Felis 1). Furthermore, the Nazi did not want to admit their lack of responsibility, therefore the Kapo Kurt Pachala was found to be guilty of aiding these men, he was sent to death by starvation and abuse in an underground bunker, where he perished 01 14 1949 (Felis 1; Jancio 1974).

.For Rieff, the runaway was as dangerous and risky as the daily life in camp, indeed for two years he was hiding his true identity under a stolen name and false Curriculum Vitae. After he came back to Poland the war was already over, soon after he engaged in Political activity and organized councils. Afterwards he became the president of The Third Rzecz Pospolita Polska, what is depicted in Archiwum Stowarzyszenia PAX (1990).  Piechowski’s post war period was unfortunate, because he had to spend eight years in prison, however afterwards he and his wife traveled around the World, so far they visited over 39 countries including a memorable visit to Cuba (Paw44).

Both Reiff and Piechowski are exceptional men. They survived the notorious period of human history, WWII and the Holocaust. They were adolescent when the war began, due to their circumstances they had to adapt in order to survive. The extermination and boot camp despite its inhumane nature and harsh conditions, made out of them even stronger men. Their inner vigor was a primary motor that held them alive. Both were young patriots driven by the will to fight and never to give up their humanity and moreover their homeland. Both stories depict remarkable events, unknown to many holocaust survivals. The memoirs of Piechowski and Rieff pay homage to those who suffered, died and to the few who were brave and lucky enough to escape and live on.

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The Bibliography:

Reiff. Ryszard. (1993). Gra o Zycie: Wieelkie Ucieczki. Unicorn, Poland.

___________. (1990). Archiwum Stowarzyszenia PAX Tom 1. Comandor. Warsaw, Poland.

Rees, Laurence. (2005) Auschwitz : a new history. Public Affairs, New York.

Auschwitz (Concentration camp) — History. Holocaust, Jewish (1939-1945) — Poland. Holocaust survivors — Interviews. War criminals — Germany — Interviews.

Jancio1974. (2010) “Uciekinierzy” (Kazimiersz Piechowski 1-6). Film. www.youtube.com.

Prest. Benjamin. How Four Prisoners Escpaed From Aushwitz in A Stolen Nazi Car. Web. Jalopik.

Zworoazwora (2012). Kazimierz Piechowski przemawia do studentów PWSZ Oświęcim. Youtube.com

Felis Paweł. (2007) <http://wyborcza.pl/1,101708,4648865.html>, “Ucieczka z Auschwitz”, Gazeta Wyborcza.

Lodzinski Mikolaj. (2013). Interview 1.

Lodzinski Antonio.(2013). Interview 2.

Piechowski, Kazimiersz. (2008). My I Niemcy [We and Germans]. Drukarnia Lorteñska. Warszawa.

—- (2004). Bylem numerem…

Świebocki , Henryk. (1999). “The resistance movement”. Web. En.auschwitz.org.

Wisel, Elie (1958:2006). The Night. Hil and Wang. New York.

Alexander Solzhenitsyn One Day in the life of Ivan Denisovich (1962)

Zawadzki, Wojciech. (2011). Bendera Eugeniusz. Przedborski Slownik Biograficzny. On line.

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  1. A natural reserve – an enormous extensions of raw nature, very dense environment with enormous bushes, mud fields and immense forests

 

 

 

 

Lukasz D. Pawelek, (Ph.D. Wayne State University) is an Assistant Professor of Spanish and German in the Department of Humanities at University of South Carolina Beaufort. His research interests encompass U.S. Latinx and diasporic literature, literary representations of nostalgia, collective memory and globalization, and the evolving Latinx identity in the United States; secondary field of interested: Post-Wall Ostalgie memoir and film. Pawelek is a co-founder and co-organizer of the annual Gateway to Interdisciplinary Graduate Studies Conference. He established Polyphony Research Group that engages students in undergraduate research, conference presentations and service in the Latinx Community of Lowcountry.

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