Oral History: Auschwitz

Ted Lehman
Polish Survivor

Ted was born in 1927 in Poland. He and his family were placed in a ghetto after the German occupation of Poland he would eventually be sent to Auschwitz in 1943. Here he talks about the surreal nature of life in Auschwitz: 


I: Do you know if the other prisoners were all Jews? Were there political prisoners?

TL: No. There were many in Auschwitz. There were quite a few Poles. Quite a few French Jews. Many, many soviet prisoners of war. Stalin did not sign the Geneva Convention, the soviet union did not sign the Geneva Convention. So, the Germans considering the Slavs less than humans did not keep them in POW camps but sent them directly to Auschwitz. And most of them died. All people in the prime of their life. There were Germans, political prisoners. Absolutely, yes.

I: What kind of work was done in Auschwitz?

TL: Primarily, we learned to become Kotsetsla. They called us Kotsetla because this is what we refer to shortcut for konzentrationslager. K and Z. So we learned how to march, how to obey orders. How to form in lines. How to rip off our caps at the commands. And this was not easy who did not understand German. I knew the commands because I used to imitate the SS and I spoke like the SS. It was very easy for me. You had to assemble. Get ready. Come to attention. Take off that hat and sometimes turn to the right. They had, and to the left. And we had to march in cadence. That was very important. God forbid you. Which was not easy to do, especially on muddy days. We were in these clogs that came off. I think everybody who left Auschwitz knew how to fall in, Retouche! Actung! Mesent! Upt! Algenrich!

And we did that very well. Everybody in Germany during Hitler screamed. Hitler screamed. The SS screamed the best. Ruish! Life and death. We had to step aside off the sidewalk, what in Beekanow was a sidewalk, if we saw a German. There are very few of them. Therefore, all the killings inside were done by trustees.  They did the selections, the Germans. But everything else, the killings, was done by the prisoners. And we had to come to attention and rip off our cap and stay down until he passed. I didn’t see him coming and I bumped into one. All of the sudden I’m in front of a German whose looking at me and he says “Ruish! Whasa lauchaleek!”  I knew he was going to shoot me so I say ‘well, you can always send me to Auchewitz.’ In German. So, he started to laugh and walked by. That’s how one died in Auschwitz. Bizarre things. Prisoners were not allowed within three or four meters of the first wire. So to amused themselves and take a prisoners cap, a German, and throw it next to the wire. Now he had a choice. Obey the order to pick up the cap and be shot, or be shot by the man whose order he did not obey.

You must understand that a German who stood in a guard tower who shot a prisoner got a weekend pass to go home. There was incentive built into killing. The place was a killing place. It was spelled out that use the Jews or use the prisoners as much as you can. But het ultimate goal is destruction of the Jews and the gypsies and whoever else you could depopulate Russia and make it into a Ladenshoum. Of course you realized this whole thing was a total fallacy because after the war, in Europe, Germany that lost land around its borders to its neighbors and was cut in half. East Germany on the Soviet side. What was left of Germany remains today the greatest economic power in Europe. Hilter needed Ladenshroum like a, they say in Yiddish, like a lockencup. But that’s what we went through.

It wasn’t, you know, once you were in the camp you learned to live with it. Death in the camp was not such an awful thing. Dying was not a problem. Living was a problem. Does one want to really continue? Do we want want to go home? To what? An empty house? Because there was no doubt among in any of our among us what was going on. So the question was always ‘Do I really want to go on?’ It was easy not to. It was an out. And some of course, took it. Particularly the young men, I’m speaking of men because I was in a camp only of men, particularly young people with small children that they knew were dead. So when you talk about places like that, death was an option.