Excerpt from "A Boy's Story, A Man's Memory - Surviving the Holocaust 1933-1945" by Oskar Knoblauch
Aktion, or forcible roundup, became a frequent way of life in the Ghetto. The very old and the very young, people with chronic ailments, and those with terminal illnesses were the first to go. If one could prove that he or she was performing a needed and important job for the Germans or a service within the Ghetto walls, he or she was excluded from the deportations, at least until further notice. If you couldn’t prove your value to them, you were loaded onto cattle-cars at the rail station and sent to death camp Treblinka in eastern Poland!
At the advice of my father, I went to the Sanitation Department and signed up for the garbage removal squad. That gave me a so-called “steady” job, hopefully excluding me from round-ups. The department had only two horse-drawn wagons for all the trash removal in the Ghetto. Each wagon could carry approximately a ton of waste. There were four men assigned to each unit, plus the driver of the wagon who was Polish whose only job was to drive the garbage out to the city dump and return for more loads.
Work started at seven in the morning and we usually were done by five p.m. Three of us would carry each garbage container out from the backyard and lift it to the fourth man in the wagon, where he would empty it and lower it back to us. At this time, all the cooking and heating in Poland was done with coal. After coal burns out, it leaves a residue of very fine ashes. The garbage containers were filled with layers of garbage and ash. Each time we dumped a container into the wagon, clouds of these ashes would descend upon us, covering us from head to toe. Ashes would find their way into our clothes, ears and nostrils. On top of that, we were inhaling all the rotten decomposing garbage mixed with human feces. We took turns lifting and standing in the wagon. While working on top, not only did we have to stand in the reeking soggy mess, but also we had to cope with foot-long rats jumping out of garbage cans, scurrying about, and sometimes trying to get up our pant legs! We learned really fast to tie our pants at the bottom of the legs with rope.
In the winter, work was more difficult. Everything was frozen and covered with ice. The handles on the garbage cans at times would slip out of our hands as we lifted them up, sending those heavy cans crashing down on us. On one such morning, the man in the back didn’t get out of the way in time and he suffered a broken leg. The trash in the cans was also solidly frozen. We had to use huge pickaxes to loosen it. The Ghetto had a community kitchen that served vegetable soup with half-rotten carrots, turnips, rutabagas, cabbage, and whatever else the Germans deemed fit for the Jews. Peelings and rotten parts of those vegetables were dumped in the back of the kitchen in a big covered yard. At times the pile was five feet in height and covered the whole yard. It would sit there for several days until we were able to get to it. We hauled four loads of this fermenting and decaying garbage each week. It was not possible to back the horses and wagon into the backyard, therefore we had to shovel the decay into containers first and then carry it out to the wagon. As we got further into the pile, hot steam rose from within the garbage—the fermentation produced methane gas! The intensity was so great that even when we covered our mouths and noses with scarves, we still had to hold our breath! We were forced to take a break every few minutes as we loaded this hazardous garbage. Days after those removals, it seemed that my lungs were still saturated with gas, and my clothing smelled with that offensive odor! Later that spring, I collapsed due to massive methane inhalation. I was taken to the clinic and released after several hours.
Despite our regular pickups, the situation continued to grow worse. The lack of proper nourishment and the difficult working conditions made every one of us weaker, slowing down the whole operation. Our driver was a quiet man by the name of Jasiek. From the beginning of our working encounter, Jasiek showed some concern for me. For many weeks, he smuggled a big round loaf of brown bread, hidden in a box underneath the wagon every day and gave it to me! Jasiek wouldn’t accept money for the bread. He was a simple man who believed in his God and in performing a good deed. He most certainly did a great deed! I always thanked him dearly for the “daily bread.” The garbage loads leaving the Ghetto were usually piled up high, and consequently some of it spilled over and littered the streets on the way to the dump. The Polish authorities began to complain that “Jewish diseased garbage” was contaminating the streets in Kraków! They ordered that the wagons would have to be covered with a tarp while on the way to the dump. Jasiek elected me to hold the tarp down on our trips through the city.
One of the workers on our team, Leon, was a tall man in his late thirties with an oversized tattered jacket and pants draped over his skinny body. His big eyes and nose protruded from his deflated cheeks. His face was covered with gray ashes and dirt from the garbage. His appearance gave no indication that he was an understudy at the Vienna Opera House before the war. When we were tired and frazzled, Leon would climb the wagon, and while standing on top of the garbage, he would pretend that this was his stage. Leon would do what he enjoyed best, and that was to sing!
His voice was a little weak, but it was a beautiful voice! Leon performed arias from Aida, Tosca, and Carmen, all sung in French or Italian. People passing by stopped to hear him. As he sang, more and more people would crowd around the wagon. Inspired by his beautiful voice and the familiar melodies, people listened in awe, some with tears in their eyes. Some people just stood there with their eyes closed, perhaps recalling better times: times of freedom and laughter, times of plenty, and times when we were a part of the human race! This unforgettable, withered figure brought beauty and some sunshine into our wilderness, even if it was only for a brief moment.
The next morning, while collecting garbage in one sector of the Ghetto, members of the Einsatzgruppe had begun an Aktion just down the street from where we were working. The soldiers ran and shouted, “Raus du verdamte Juden!” (Out you dammed Jews!). I heard shots being fired and saw people being shoved out into the middle of the street. Men, women, and children screamed in horror. They realized that this was their final call. All through this mayhem, we kept loading the garbage. I prayed that we would be spared from the roundup. When the wagon was fully loaded, Jasiek without hesitation told me to get on top of the wagon, gave me the reins and whip, nudged the horses on, and shouted: “Go, go, unload it at the dump! Take a long time coming back!” Jasiek believed that if both of us were on the wagon, the soldiers would have pulled me down and thrown me into the line of those poor innocent people being marched to the train. I still remember the nervousness I felt as I held the reigns in my hands and nudged the horses to keep on moving. I directed the horses and wagon into the middle of the street and proceeded toward the Ghetto’s exit. On my approach, the guards had the gate wide open for me to pass. They urged me to move on quickly because of the reeking smell of the garbage. As soon as I was out of the Ghetto’s sight, I slowed down and took my time getting to the city dump.
I waited at the dump for a very long time before returning. I was told later that I was gone for over five hours! On my return, Jasiek informed me that all the men of our crew were taken away while the Aktion was in progress, including Leon, the man who had charisma, the man who shared his gift and lifted the spirits of other people, the man who showed us a glimpse of beauty in a desperate time. He was taken away, and his voice was silenced forever. I knew that. Millions of other innocent people would share the same fate as the 2,500 who were sent away that day.
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