Voice/Vision Holocaust Survivor Oral History Archive

Alexander Karp - September 14, 1995

Conditions in Birkenau

And what was the barrack like?

The barrack was a wooden barrack with, uh, there were several levels. And, if I am correct, it was either two or three. There was a lower level, middle and then an upper level. And, uh, we took our place and everything was still very mysterious, unknown, until we started to talk to some of the people who were already from previous, uh, transports in the barracks. And, by that time, it started to, to reveal, it started to open up the whole situation that what is going on.

What did they tell you?

Um, first of all, when we were going toward the barracks, um, we saw some people behind a cyclone fence and we couldn't understand. We started to go in the, we couldn't understand that they had to be from some other countries. They were women, who were totally separated and some of them were saying loud in Jewish language, that don't believe anything what they tell you because most of the people are being cremated. And, uh, when we, so, when we heard these, these kind of things, all of a sudden the whole world crumbled because we knew by that time that we are, we are in the midst of something what is--what it was unexpected. It was totally as a surprise. Not knowing anything and being so, so mysterious about the whole thing that it, it just, we couldn't, we couldn't even say anything. It was--so, we kept going further and by that time, we had, we had contact with the people who came from previous, uh, transports. So, that was the beginning of the end. And--so, certainly we acclimated ourselves with the, uh, in the camp. And we found out that there is a crematorium. At first, didn't even know what it was because we saw smoke going up. We felt a smell, what it was, uh, like you are roasting or, you know, it was, it was like skin and, and. We were dumbfounded. We just--we said, what is going on. Until finally we found out that, that smoke and the fire really was open fire in an open pit. Because the transports were coming in with such frequency and, uh, in such great numbers that crematoriums could not handle all the people, all the bodies. So, what they were doing is they were either people are alive, or they executed them and they were just throwing them into the open fire. Now, this was in from June through, we were there July, August, to the early part of September. And, uh, this kept going on because the people, especially at that time, the Hungarian Jews were brought in. And in between a few months, there were 600,000 people who came in. So, they had to resort to these kinds of things in order to eliminate the bodies.

Did you think about your mother and your sister at that point?

We, we certainly thought about them every single minute of the day. And there was only that one little hope that maybe, maybe, but that maybe never will materialized. But, as far as definitely, we didn't know what happened. We were only being able to guess. And, by that time, the way all the news came over to us, we knew that the chances are very remote that anybody would have survived other than the few youngsters who had been selected for labor.

The weeks that you were in Birkenau, you were in Birkenau?


Does any incident particularly stand out in your mind? Did you see any people beaten, killed, hung?

Yeah, yes, over there. Hanging I haven't seen over there. Beating, yes. It was, it was not a daily routine. It was a constant routine. The only thing what we were doing is we were making like cobblestone roads and we were digging some ditches. Because there was nothing to do. It was no industrial complex and, uh, barracks were already up. So this is the only thing what they had us to do. And there were older people who couldn't bear the burden and they either fell out or they slowed down. And they were solidly beaten.

You would watch them? You would see the beatings?


What did other prisoners do while this was going on?

Well, other prisoners really couldn't do an awful lot because, um, even if you tried to go and help somebody, they wouldn't let you.

But, was it safe to watch? Were you made to watch?

No, there was--you didn't stop to watch it. You kept going and just with your eyes, you know it's like, uh, non-existing situation. Because no sooner if you stopped, then you were next.

And you were with your uncle?


The two of you talked to each other. You said he helped, he saved your life?

Yes, he helped. It's, uh, not only that physically or physical help, but perhaps more mature then suddenly in as much as I was a nineteen year old, strong and, relatively speaking, a stable man, but all of a sudden, when all these things fall into, fall into your lap, you know, you just, uh, your resistance collapses. And this is what he, he was very instrumental of, uh, keeping the spirit up and just to keep going, keep going. Until, after awhile, you know you got, uh, sort of, you lived yourself into, into the situation the way it was and hoped to go where the, uh, hope became more of an important thing than anything else because if you didn't have any hope, then you were lost.

At what point did you decide, at what point did you think you were going to be out of Auschwitz?

Um, we didn't know when we are going to be out of Auschwitz. The only thing we knew is that was, well again, I wasn't in Auschwitz. I was only three miles or three kilometers away. Birkenau, it was Birkenau-Auschwitz. Auschwitz was the labor camp. Anybody who went there, they were tattooed and they were assigned to various different, uh, work schedules. Some of them in between the camps. Some of them outside of the camp, but Birkenau was truly so-called Vernichtungslager, that was the "camp of extermination." It was a camp for selection and a transit camp where people stayed there who were selected to take place in the labor force. Some of them may have been there a month, some of them two months, some of them three months, but subsequently, we were shipped out. And there was always new people coming in. So, it was like a revolving situation.

© Board of Regents University of Michigan-Dearborn