The First Train to Auschwitz
25th March 1942: The first transport to Auschwitz leaves the Slovakian town of Poprad with 997 teenage girls and women
The first Nazi camp at Oświęcim in occupied Poland was a Polish army barracks which the SS converted into a detention camp for Polish political prisoners. It was notorious for the sadism of the guards, recruited from German criminals. The site also saw the first ‘experimental’ use of Zyklon B gas to kill a number of Soviet POWs in August 1941. It was now identified as a key site for the ‘Final Solution’ - the planned murder of all the Jews in Europe.
Unlike the Operation Reinhard camps built to directly kill Polish Jews, Auschwitz was designed with a dual purpose. A large part of complex would be an industrial facility where Jews would work as slave labourers. Those prisoners not deemed capable of work - children, the old and the infirm - would be sent directly to gas chambers. Those no longer capable of work would go to the gas chamber when their working life was over.
First the facilities to house thousands of prisoners needed to be built - with slave labour.
The Slovakian Republic was closely allied with Nazi Germany and shared its anti -semitic policies. It became the first state to agree to supply Jewish ‘labourers’ to Germany in February 1942.
Edith Friedmanwas 18 in the town of Humenné. Her father had already been forced to sell his business to a Christian and was now an employee in the same firm, the family now living in much reduced circumstance:
One morning we wake up, and we saw outside on the street glued on the sides of the houses an announcement that all the Jewish girls, unmarried girls, from 16 up have to come to the school the 20th of March 1942 for work.
The word was that they were needed for three months ‘contract labour’ in a shoe factory.
After reporting for what they thought was just ‘registration’ the girls found themselves swept off by passenger train to a Slovakian barracks at Poprad, 75 miles away. There was no time to say goodbye to their families. More trainloads arrived at Poprad from the surrounding area of Slovakia.
Then on the 25th March they were loaded onto cattle wagons. The authorities believed that they had gathered together 999 girls - a number of mystical significance to Heinrich Himmler. In fact they had miscounted and had 997. At the Slovak border they were handed over to German guards. The next stop was Auschwitz:
All of a sudden, they opened the doors and we jumped off the train. We took our packages and went to the gate, which read “Arbeit Macht Frei.” There was nothing much else there: three or four buildings, three storeys tall, and us. We put down our packages and waited to see what would happen.
An hour after we arrived, the German prisoners came: 999 German prisoners who were numbered from one to just under one thousand. They were already in prisoner uniforms, and they had their numbers and also the sign of a triangle.
By the colour of the triangle, we came to know what they were: the criminals had green triangles, the prostitutes and “asocial” prisoners had black triangles and the political prisoners had red triangles. There were mostly prostitutes and “asocial” prisoners there.
Our camp was made up of women only. Later, we saw men who came in to fix this and that, and to collect the dead bodies.
After a few days, another transport came. People began to get sick, and there were no hospitals, no antibiotics.
The girls were to work in appalling conditions in expanding the facilities at Auschwitz and the sister industrial facility Birkenau.
We had to go to work every day, even in the snow and rain, and we had to have our shoes in our hands when we went through the gate because the clapping sound of the shoes on the ground was irritating to the Germans, the SS who sat by the gate, so we had to keep them in our hands even if we were walking on the snow, on the ice, in the rain. We walked barefoot through the gate, and only when we got beyond the gate could we put our wooden shoes back on.
There was a fence around the camp that was electrified at night. During the day, when people went out to work, the electricity was off. But at night, when it began to get dark, they switched on the electricity and nobody could leave the camp....
“Thousands of books could be written on the disaster that was called the Holocaust; this disaster is so big that I think it cannot be fully described. Ever.
And I was there; I lived with it, even seventy-five years after I was taken.
I lived it. I saw it. I had the diarrhea, the typhus, and I had tuberculosis. Through so many years…
You cannot describe how this situation was…”
Edith Friedman survived, although she saw her elder sister Lea die in Auschwitz:
I saw her there almost dead, and the rats were visiting her. She was a beautiful girl. And nothing is left over of her.
If they survived the first year of the construction phase the first prisoners in Auschwitz were better placed to find relatively ‘easier’ work - such as sorting through the property of the dead and similar work, which gave them a comparative advantage over other arrivals. By the narrowest of margins Edith Friedman survived to tell her tale.
George Grosman remembers the life of his mother Edith Grosman, nee Friedman (1924-2020)
“She videotaped an interview for the Shoah series by Spielberg and did countless radio and TV shows. She traveled to Auschwitz with tours more than once. She repeated to whoever was willing to listen that there was only one reason God had allowed her survive the camp: to become a voice for the 6 million voiceless, the 6 million murdered souls of whom her beautiful sister Lea was one.”