THE ONE BUCKET JOURNEY
Here is a transcription of verbal commentary that Vrba provided to BBC in which he describes the dehumanizing process of being transported to Auschwitz in general, based on his accumulated knowledge at the ramp for Birkenau, as well as his own transit from the Novaky prison camp in Czechoslovakia onto Zalina and Zwardon near the Polish border (where Hlinka guards were replaced by SS) and then onto Majdanek. Just twelve days after his arrival at Majdanek, Rudolf Vrba boarded a train at Lublin Station, with 80 men per boxcar, for a two-and-a-half-day journey to Auschwitz. An SS officer whip cautioned them, “You are to be counted here and will be counted several times on the journey. If at any stage any man is missing, ten men in his wagon will be shot.”
A train was one day drawn up to this transit camp. The crucial point was boarding the train. This was usually a special procedure…but by that time, the younger people [men] were all gone [deported], so I am now boarding a train with thousands of women and children and old people.
Only two or three guards were necessary for such a train. The old people watched the children; the children watched their parents. The whole bunch kept together. It [the process] was a bit slow. Here and there, somebody got hit in front of the children, so everybody tried to discipline [obey] because it upsets the children [if there is resistance].
The only thing they had to do was put two soldiers with tommy guns by me. I was standing with my two guys with tommy guns who said, “Well, mate, you see if you move you are dead duck, so we are going to travel with you, and you won’t move from your seat, and we do hope we don’t have to use our arms in case you will try and stir up the peaceful population who understands discipline.”
They started boarding people into the wagon [train car]. And again more people into the wagon. And again more people into the wagon… Until the wagon was bound up with people. Packages, parcels, men, women, children. And then there is an undisciplined gangster like me who is taking up special space at the expense of others. I would say, on the whole, it was not exactly a first class train. There was not much sanitary conditions.
On the way the train picked up still more people. Old ladies were hoisted into the wagon. I remember a very dignified old lady. Full of old fashioned ornamentation. An Elizabethan-type lady. They had to hoist her into the train. She was very embarrassed because there was only one bucket for everybody. You know, those physiological things don’t stop to function at such occasions. I think the old lady was very embarrassed. But she took it with some dignity and the train rolled on. It reached the Slovak border between Slovakia and Poland. The Slovak guards went away. And then I saw the S.S. and they boarded the train.
Masses of young people had already been deported. Many people had received letters, written at gunpoint, from the people who had been deported to the people who had not yet been deported, informing them that the government had kept their promise, and so on. The older people had been promised, in the name of Christianity, to be “united with their families.”
A touch of Nazi humour: At the gas chambers, once, when they had transported thousands of people from Bohemia, when they were gassed, in the pocket of each of them was a ticket in which the German authorities [had] promised them that on their arrival “everything will be done [so] that you shall be able to join the members of their family”—who were gassed in the same gas chambers a year before. So that the promise was kept.
The train was a very important part of the whole procedure. For the first part of the journey there was a discussion going on. Where are we actually going? And what for? And how will it be. It was forbidden to smuggle out gold. Someone came to me and asked what do you think I should do with this smuggled gold? Another one asked me what she should do with twenty cigarettes because it was forbidden to smoke, to take cigarettes. And one said, “Even though I don’t know if it’s forbidden, I have got these new French letters [condoms].” This is not a breach of law. It is not gold. It is not silver. This went on for about twelve hours or so.
After 24 hours or so, I took notice that the train was going very slowly. There were long stops. And I couldn’t make out the route. It was a windy route without any logic. Unfortunately, when the train stopped, it was very far from any source of water. So after 24 hours, there was not one drop of water. The children started to be thirsty.
People, shall we say, had to perform the normal physiological functions. The whole wagon became suddenly a mess. There was a fight for the one and only bucket. It was not allowed to be emptied.
The parents were obsessed to just quiet down the children just through the journey. The children shouldn’t suffer too much. The old people shouldn’t suffer so much. And people suddenly stopped to be preoccupied, either with the future or with the past. Just with surviving the journey.
The thirst became over-riding because food was allowed to be taken. And there was no water. There was no water for the children. There was a terrific desperation for water. You can imagine the wagon with about sixty percent of people resting on top of their luggage after two days. Those people got obsessed with why they are there. And water. Nobody thought anything about the past and nobody thought anything about the future.
Suddenly you had hell on wheels. And no Slovak guards. And if you put out your hand out the window, it was shot off. It was pretty clear: the slightest resistance was deadly. I explained constantly to the people, “You are not going to be shot but you have to be disciplined. It’s not our fault that the train keeps stopping outside of the station, where there is no water, so be patient, be good.”
So slowly you get a dehumanization. Inside the wagon there starts a fight, a fight for access to the bucket, the inevitable bucket. Then the attempts to empty the bucket through some windows which were anyway closed with bars. Which led to soiling of somebody’s luggage. Which led to quarrels about their future. Mutual accusations. About being considerate to children. About being considerate to old people. There was a question of moral issue: Who has moral preference? An eighty-year-old lady or a one-year-old child?
Some people believed the eighty-year-old woman had the first right. Somebody who had a one-year-old child thought he had the first right. The whole thing started to lose any semblance of civilization. That was the pressure of suffering of very small children, old people, of lack of sanitation, of torture by thirst, and the people slowly changed into something considerably different from what they had been at home.
[So] Imagine a train arriving in Auschwitz after an eleven-day journey. I have been present emptying wagons where 30% of people were dead and they had probably been dead for four or five days.
There were great variations but the basic principle was one and the same thing. To break the people during the journey in an anonymous way. So as to pretend that the people are exposed to the torture unintentionally. The SS is there only to keep order. It is not their fault that there is no water. It is not their fault if the train stops for sixteen hours outside of a station. It is not permitted for them to go and fetch the bucket. The doors are locked. So very soon there came a point where all those people inside were drawn near to insanity.
It was not even announced that this was the last stop. Suddenly the doors are open.
I have made the journey once. I couldn’t make out anything about it. From my knowledge of geography I could see that the train goes somewhere in the direction of Auschwitz, somewhere to the direction of the east. Then I suddenly saw through the window and we were going In other words, the train was being shunted around. There was no free passage, so it looked, because military trains were passing by, and so on. The train was simply shunted out on some blind line. You never knew how long. But it was definitely kept out of reach of water. Or sometimes in reach of water but there was nobody to fetch the water. You could see water flowing in big streams, to a locomotive or something, or some transport that was passing by, but no water is available.
The people fight with each other because they think, well, we are going to be re-settled and the organizers of this journey were obviously stupid and they don’t understand the problems of such a journey. That was the reaction. Because they wouldn’t think that somebody would invent [this journey] to torture children with thirst.
In other words, they considered it [the journey] as a special case of mismanagement. They didn’t know this happened to thousands of trains. It happened to only one train and that was the last he saw in his life.
The train had stopped many times. This time something happened. Somebody opens the door. And there were machine guns in front of us. And somebody said, “All men between sixteen and forty-five, out. Quick. Who won’t be [come] out will be shot on the spot.”
Some women try to join their husbands. This was answered with shots. Or with clubs. Heads are broken. Hands are broken. Some children are killed. Things like that happen.
But it was always said, “This is not our principle [fault]. We are doing it only because you are making life difficult. We have ordered that the men should go [get] out. Can’t you understand an order?”
Next: VRBA IN ‘SHOAH’