"Are you going to hear him?” Pauline, one of my dancing friends asked me, pointing out to the flier on the front table at our Israeli Dancing Club.
“Who is ‘him’?”
“Orenstein. You know Orenstein, the Yiddishist, having a talk about someone from the Warsaw Ghetto.”
“Orenstein?” A smile appeared on my face. Why that smile? Well, I always smile when I think of something nice, or someone nice.
“Do you know him?”
“No, I don’t, but . . . . “
You could see it, that small wooden – or was it brick – hut, hidden somewhere between the barrack No 1 and the lager personnel barrack in Ludvigsdorf slave labour camp. Only three by three metres wide it was, with a big door in front of it.
Its rear window was only a foot away from the camp fence. So, if one would want to sneak out through that window one would certainly touch the fence and die, as it was electrically charged with a few hundred volts.
But the occupants of that small hut never wanted to sneak out through that window and escape. In fact they couldn’t as they, the occupants, were already dead.
Ludvigsdorf slave labour camp, as I have mentioned in stories before, was not an extermination camp, there was no mass murder there, no crematoria or gas chambers. Prisoners sent here from other camps were mostly weak, but still able to perform some comparatively light work in that infamous, poisonous ammunition factory – Fabrik Ludvigsdorf. They were slowly dying from tuberculosis or other diseases.
The last stopover, so to speak, was that little hut, the Chevra Kadisha hut.
“What’s that?”, asked old Pilcer, pointing to that small hut, when our group arrived in Ludvigsdorf in January 1943 to extend the camp and build some new barracks. Old Pilcer always wanted to know everything and everyone.
“Oh, that!”, explained David, a young prisoner, sweeping away the snow from the front of the guard’s room, “That’s a penalty lock-up for prisoners. They keep them here for a day or more for some crime they committed, with no food and no clothes, but that happens very seldom as no one really commits any crime here – we only had one or two cases in the last three months”, continued David, putting away the wooden shovel he used to clean away the snow.
Incidents of death were very rare in the beginning of 1943. Those who died were taken away directly from the krankenstube and buried early in the morning in the little cemetery near Fabrik Ludvigsdorf. No one ever noticed that, no one ever wanted to see or witness those funerals, so to speak. No one really cared.
and March more and more transports arrived with mostly west juden, Jews from the west, from
“Pardonnez-moi”, someone approached our lager commandant, Iziek Abramczyk, with whom I just had a little chat about my family at home that he knew very well.
“Pardonnez-moi”. A small, skinny, fragile-looking middle-aged prisoner repeated again.
“Was wilst du?” (What do you want?) Abramczyk asked , annoyed and surprised that someone dared to approach him, especially when he was talking to someone else.
“Monsieur Abramczyk” continued the Frenchman, with his pale face and trembling voice, in a broken German, “Ich habe ein vorschlag zu machen.” (I have a suggestion to make).
The Frenchman didn’t seem to care or to worry that he obviously angered Abramczyk who asked “Vas fur ein vorschlag?” (What kind of suggestion?).
I wanted quickly to disappear, afraid to witness some sort of unpleasant incident I was sure was about to happen.
“Stay here!”, Abramczyk stopped me. “Let’s hear” (he said in Polish) “what that French prick has to say.”
“How come”, asked the Frenchman with an apologetic voice, “no one cares here about the prisoners who die daily. No one prepares them for burial, washes their bodies, prays for them or says “Kaddish?”
“What?” Abramczyk stood there looking at that little, pale man standing in front of him like he would be someone from another planet.
“Preparing for burial? Praying? Saying Kaddish? Did I hear you correctly???”
when one considers that in 1943 thousands of Jews were gassed in
But the Frenchman wasn’t kidding, wasn’t afraid of anything, he just stood there sort of waiting for an answer.
When a minute later, David Krauskopf, a close friend of Abramczyk, joined in, Abramczyk with a sarcastic voice, speaking in Yiddish, put him in the picture, pointing out to that nut standing in front of him with those idiotic ideas.
“Iziek”, David Krauskopf started, “maybe it’s not such an idiotic idea. You know, it could be done. Maybe it will bring a bit of normality and peace of mind, especially among the kranke (sick) or the ones about to die, or other frume (religious) prisoners.”
“It will not cost anything”, David continued, “and the guards wouldn’t give a damn what we do with the dead.”
“But David!” Iziek objected, “who would do it, when and where?”
“I”, exclaimed the Frenchman, “I will do it – where? – in that hut between the barracks. When? Every morning at dawn, before my shift starts.”
“Iziek”, David turned to Abramczyk, changing to Polish, “he is not a nut, he is a malach (angel) – do it Iziek, say O K.”
“O KI”, Abramczyk nodded, “You will do it”, he said, turning to the Frenchman. “And, by the way, what is your name?”
“My name”, whispered the Frenchman, “is Benyumin.”
The hut was
quickly changed, Glicksman the wash barrack master, a plumber from way back,
installed a water tap and a kind of huge sink.
A big wooden table was installed by the lager tishler (carpenter), some Dutch Jew from
Benyumin kept his word. Whenever needed (and unfortunately he was needed more and more frequently), you could see him working late at night, after his daily work in the factory, and sneaking out at dawn to the hut to deliver the corpse to be loaded onto a two-wheel wagon which was used as a hearse.
The Chevra Kaddisha brought a lot of relief to a lot of prisoners, especially the ones who lost someone nearest, a brother, a son, a father, securing for them some sort of a proper last service.
The column of prisoners marching down the hill back from night shift, cold, tired, hungry and miserable, could see the two-wheel hearse loaded with a few bodies, being pushed by a few prisoners up the hill on the way to the little Narvik cemetery.
They could see in front of that hearse a tiny, pale, skinny figure with a little prayer book (God only knows how he got hold of it!), moving his frozen lips with some appropriate prayer, a figure of a man so different from most of the other men who did lose the feeling of compassion for other prisoners, dead or alive, a compassion that most of us lost a long time ago.
It is so often that now, so many years later, I sometimes close my eyes and see that skinny figure of that malach, as David called him, the figure of Benyumin who was respected by everybody. His name, Monsieur Orenstein, will always stay in my memory.