My Meeting with Mingele
Maryla Neuman (as told to Fred Amram)
The worst thing about Auschwitz was the latrine. We were not permitted to go to the toilet by ourselves. Most people were sick. Many had diarrhea. We didn't have enough to eat and disease was everywhere. We slept with so many in a bunk that if one person sneezed we all caught cold. But we were only allowed to go to the latrine at two specified times-in the morning and in the evening. And we were always escorted by an armed guard. It felt as if a platoon of women were relieving themselves at the same time.
The first bathroom visit was in the morning after we were counted and after we had our meager breakfast of cold, bitter ersatz coffee and dry bread. We were all marched to the latrine and entered in groups.
Imagine an outhouse. Now imagine an outhouse with more than 60 seats. We sat back to back in long rows in a cold building. Walls and ceiling had boards missing so that the rain and sleet were blown in by the sometimes fierce winds. That same wind served as an air freshener. On a windless day some of the weaker women vomited or even fainted from the horrendous odor generated by the excrement of hundreds of women.
To me it was disgusting. I grew up in a fine middle class home. My mother kept the house spotless and we were taught the finest personal hygiene habits. And we valued privacy.
No one was permitted to go to the outhouse at night. We simply couldn't use the bathroom. Anyone who moved during the night was shot immediately. No questions asked.
If someone had an accident at Auschwitz, the SS woman, if she found out, would shoot them. I remember one morning a prisoner had an accident and she was crying, "I can't help it, I'm sick. Please, can I go to the bathroom?"
The gruff SS guard grumbled, "No, you wait here and stop your crying." The poor woman couldn't control herself. She soiled again and then she cried some more-and the SS woman shot her. That was it. Just shot her dead. Then the SS woman pointed to two prisoners and commanded them to take the corpse away. They used a homemade stretcher-two unfinished sticks and a sheet.
The stretchers were not unusual. Every night women died in their sleep and in the morning we had to carry them away. We put the corpses on a pile and just left them. I never found out what happened to the piles. Some argued that they were pushed into a ditch and buried. Other prisoners thought that the dead were brought to the crematoria. I never found out. I only know that women who soiled themselves were shot.
But the hunger was almost worse than the latrines-we lived in fear and hunger. Day and night we were hungry. We did our work slowly because we had no energy.
I was part of a group of political prisoners. Most of the Auschwitz inmates were Jews. Because I was arrested with false papers, I was considered a political prisoner and given a lighter work assignment. Perhaps the Nazis hoped to get secret information from me.
Our work assignment was to pick up stones and to create a gravel pile in a different part of camp. We walked as a group as we picked up gravel and dropped it into our pails. There were about eight of us. One was a prostitute who must have said something against Hitler. Another was a German girl who had been arrested for working against the Nazis. One was Russian and one was Ukrainian-I think they had both been arrested on the Russian front. There was a girl from the Polish underground. There were others. I was the only Jew in our group, perhaps the only Jewish political prisoner in Auschwitz. We were all pretty young-around twenty years old.
One summer day we were walking around in the middle of the day and we were thinking about lunch-but in Auschwitz there was no lunch. We wandered around picking up gravel, inhaling dry dust. It was the kind of day when a beer would have felt good on our parched throats. We walked about imagining food when, all of a sudden we saw a horse-drawn open wagon heading toward the kitchen. The wagon was loaded with kraut. It was probably the daily cabbage delivery from a nearby farm.
I don't think the farmer was driving the wagon. It was probably a prisoner. If the farmer were let inside the gate he would see what was going on and he might tell the world. The Nazis would never allow that. So I think the farmer had to wait outside the gate.
Nevertheless, we were looking at more cabbage than any of us had ever seen. We looked at each other and we hatched a plan. We would each leap on the back of the wagon, steal a cabbage, put it into our pail and cover it with stones. Then we would meet behind the barracks to eat our cabbage.
It happened quickly. Each of us captured a cabbage and hid it in our pail. Suddenly, behind us, we heard a shout. "Halt!"
It was Josef Mengele. The Mengele. Every Auschwitz prisoner knew about Mengele. Mengele was one of the doctors who met the trains and trucks to decide who would be sent to the "cyanide showers," the gas chambers, and who would live. It was Mengele who was in charge of human experimentation at Auschwitz. Perhaps I had seen him the day I arrived, perhaps not, but I knew what the other women said about him-that he was very tall and very handsome. They called him "The Angel of Death."
"Halt!" There stood Mengele with his two enormous dogs and a contingent of assistants. He was at least a head taller than the others in his group.
We stood frozen in place and we waited. "Come here, all of you." We shuffled forward looking at our feet. I dared not look up. I had been warned that whoever looks Mengele in the face dies immediately.
He gestured for us to form a semi-circle. We placed our buckets at our feet. "Wer hat das Kraut gestohlen?" he demanded.
Silence. I think I stopped breathing.
Mengele repeated, "Who stole the cabbage?"
Another moment of silence and the Russian girl looked Mengele in the eye, pointed at me and said, "Die Jüdin hat das Kraut gestohlen."
And then she added, "Yes, the Jewess stole the cabbage and she put it in her bucket."
I knew I was done for. I looked at his pistol. I waited for it to jump out of its holster. I listened for the shot. I could smell the smoke.
But no shot came. Mengele stepped close to me and kicked my pail. The cabbage rolled out along with some stones. He stepped closer still, so close that I thought his large boots would crush my feet. Suddenly he slapped my left cheek with his open hand. "That's for stealing," he said. I didn't even feel any pain. I was so frightened I couldn't breathe.
"Go back to work," and with that Mengele turned on his heel and walked away with his drooling dogs. By now I shook all over. I was dizzy. I felt as though I were drowning. So much had happened in those few moments and I couldn't take it all in.
The group walked behind the nearest building. We didn't dare sit but I had to lean against a wall because my head was still spinning. My cheek started to burn.
Now, in this moment of quiet, I could think. First, I was angry. That Russian bitch had snitched on me to save her hide.
Second, Mengele chose to kick only my bucket even though every bucket held a cabbage. "The Jewess did it."
And, unbelievably, I was still alive. The pistol never left its holster.
When we had calmed down a bit, each of the girls took out her cabbage and enjoyed a feast at my expense. Even though we were standing near the latrines, hunger was more powerful than the choking stench. I can't remember if anyone shared a cabbage with me. It certainly would not have been the Russian girl.
I experienced a lot of bad behavior from the Russian prisoners. They regularly stole bread from the Jews. They especially victimized the weak people. They'd give them a kick and take their bread. And they stole cups from the weak. Without a cup, one couldn't have coffee or soup. There were no plates. Those Russian women would steal a cup filled with soup. Or they would steal an empty cup and get extra food.
It's strange how some memories stick out. How can I end my Mengele story without relating a postscript? After the Mengele catastrophe and after the cabbage feast, the prostitute, a beautiful German girl, tall and blond, stunning, came over to me and whispered, "You should consider yourself lucky that such a gorgeous man touched your face."
Maryla Neuman had a happy childhood following her 1923 birth in Poland. Then the Nazi butchers came in 1941 and she experienced the Lwów (Lemberg) ghetto, hiding on a farm, two prisons and two concentration camps. Currently she is a working member of Temple Israel in Minneapolis, where she also talks with youngsters about her experiences in the Holocaust.