Auschwitz-Birkenau is the most infamous of the Nazis extermination camps. Based in south-east Poland, as many as 3 million people were murdered at Auschwitz-Birkenau. As the Red Army of Stalin’s Russia advanced to Nazi Germany in 1944, the Nazis did as much as they could to make Auschwitz-Birkenau ‘disappear’. However, some did survive Auschwitz-Birkenau and lived to write their memoirs. Ben Stem was one of these people. Those who survived Auschwitz-Birkenau, have provided historians with a vast amount of detail and their memories are a vital source of information.

Ben Stem spent six months in the Kieice ghetto and then was taken to a forced labor camp called Henrykow. In 1943 the ghetto at Kieice was disbanded and the people in it sent to concentration camps. Ben was sent to Auschwitz-Birkenau.

I’d heard rumors that Jews were going to Auschwitz. But I didn’t know what Auschwitzmeant. I didn’t know what “extermination camp” meant. People told me, but I couldn’t imagine or understand it. We were rounded up and packed into cattle cars like sardines. We could not move our arms or legs. We traveled for two days – day and night. The heat was unbearable. Then one morning at dawn, we looked through the cracks in the cattle car. I saw the name Auschwitz or Oswiecim in Polish. I was paralyzed. I got numb. I didn’t feel anything. When daylight came, they slid the car door open. All we heard was, “Raus, raus, get out of here, get out of here!” 

I had to crawl over people who had died from the heat and from lack of food and water. When they opened the doors to the cattle car, we jumped off as quickly as we could because we were under orders. SS men with the skulls on their hats and collars stood in front of us stretched out at intervals about every ten feet. The SS officer in charge stood with his German shepherd. The officer had one foot propped up on a little stool. We lined up and filed by him. Right there the selection took place. As each person passed by him, he pointed left or right. The thumb left and right was your destiny. The people sent to the left went to the gas chambers, and we went to the right. They told us we were going to be given some new clothing, but before that, we were sent into the showers. 

Luckily, when we turned the faucets we saw water instead of gas. We started washing ourselves. We got out and stood there. We were deloused because we had lice. One guard stood there putting some kind of a chemical on our heads. Another put it under our arms. A third one shaved our heads. Then we were given some prisoner’s uniforms, very similar to the uniforms a prison chain gang used to wear here. We got wooden shoes. We didn’t get the sizes we normally wore. We had to make do with what we got. Then we were lined up again in single file and tattooed on the forearm. My number was B-3348. We were marched to a barracks in Birkenau. Birkenau was a part of Auschwitz. Above the entrance was an arch with an inscription which said in German, Work Makes Men Free, pretending that this was a work camp. There were two rows of barracks with a wide street between them. In front of us was a crematorium and gas chambers. We smelled the flesh of human bodies burning. We couldn’t mistake that smell for anything else. 

The Daily Routine at Auschwitz 

Every day we were awakened by a German prisoner who served as the block or barrackcaptain. He woke us at 5:00 or 5:30 each morning. We slept in beds stacked three high and about three feet wide and three feet long. We laid on straw. We were told to get out of the barracks as fast as we could. We lined up and everybody was counted. Then we stood there and did absolutely nothing for quite a while. We got a little soup at lunch time, around twelve or one o’clock. We got soup or just plain warm water in a metal tin like a mess kit. It wasn’t hot. We each had a spoon, and we were fishing all the time in the soup to see if there was anything in it to eat. Unfortunately we could never find anything in there. In the evening we got a slice of bread about a quarter of an inch thick. On Sunday we got something with the bread like a tiny piece of margarine and a slice of salami.

Sometimes I was too sick to eat my soup, but I treasured it so much that I hid that little soup behind my bunk. One day when there was an inspection, the guards found thesoup I was hiding. We weren’t supposed to have any soup in the barracks. They took me outside and beat me. I passed out after three blows. A friend gave me coffee. He saved my life because I felt so sick I couldn’t even move. With the coffee I was able to stand up when the camp officials came into the barracks for the next inspection. Anybody who couldn’t move from his bed was taken away during the day sometimes. German guards on trucks ran back and forth telling prisoners to jump on.

One time I was taken to do a little work carrying steel beams. It was winter time, very cold. Fifteen or twenty guys were lifting each side of the beam because it was a wide beam. Eventually they told us to place it somewhere. But when we tried we couldn’t tear away our hands from the steel because they were frozen to the beam. The skin came off and started bleeding. They didn’t permit us to put any kind of cloth over our hands. We had to carry it bare. The next day we put this same beam back in the original spot. We stayed there until the end of 1944 when the Russians started pushing the Germans from the eastern front back to the west. The SS loaded us into cattle cars and took us to a forced labor camp in western Germany called Sachsenhausen. There was no crematorium, so it was by far a better feeling. I was there about a month or six weeks. At the end of 1944I I was moved again. This time I went south to a German concentration camp called Dachau closer to the Austrian border. By this time I was just a skeleton. Shortly after I arrived, camp officials decided it was time to leave. We could hear the machine guns and the heavy artillery booming and they told us to march. The Allies were getting closer. I marched for about five kilometers to Allach which was a tiny little camp. Then I felt I couldn’t walk anymore. The rest of them continued walking. The Germans killed all the people who kept walking. That was the death march. I survived because I could not walk.”