By Nathan Gutman
It was a fresh, bright spring morning. A few small white clouds lazily moved across the pale blue sky. Several hundred prisoners from the Plaszow labor camp stood silently, in a rectangular formation, on the brown-gray field. Surrounded by armed guards with menacingly looking dogs the prisoners stood motionless as if frozen by a super natural spell. A chirping happily stray swallow not aware of the developing drama occasionally interrupted the tense silence.
In the second row, dwarfed by the men around him, stood a small boy. A light breeze gently swept his blond hair. His wide blue eyes were riveted on the wooden scaffolding in the center of the field. In clear view there was a limp, lifeless body hanging from the end of a rope. With its head unnaturally bent sideways and down, the body swayed slowly from side to side like a bizarre pendulum. Next to it, a man dressed in a black uniform with knee high spit-shined boots carefully aimed a revolver at the swinging body. In quick succession, two loud pops cracked the silent air. Kapo Beim was no more.——————-
The room on Twenty Nine Slowackiego Street was large, elegantly furnished. The red painted wooden floor was waxed to perfection. In the middle, on a thick oriental carpet, richly upholstered solid oak chairs surrounded a massive dining table. Heavy maroon and gold drapes covered the two tall windows, filtering out most of the light and giving the room an air of stately, imposing reverence.
It was quiet. Street sounds from down below barely penetrated the thick brick structure. In a corner, next to a window, an elegant black Bechstein grand dwarfed the small blond boy at the keyboard. His feet barely reaching the pedals dangled in the air. His bright, blue eyes focused on the sheet of music in front of him. His small fingers teasingly struck a chord, then another. Suddenly, the piano came to life impregnating the silence with Beethoven’s “Fur Elise”. The lovely song filled the room echoing from wall to wall.
And then it abruptly stopped. The melodious call of the pot fixer, the clutter of the horse drawn wagons on the cobblestones from the street below were irresistibly seducing. He tiptoed to peek out while fantasizing about Karl May’s Wild West stories, the redskins and the palefaces, about Winnetou, the noble Apache chief and Old Shatterhand the honest German surveyor who became his blood brother.
An admonishing woman’s voice came from the back of the house:
“Don’t forget to practice your Czerny.”
She dreamed for him to become a pianist and be famous.——————————-
Mother wanted me to become a concert pianist. One balmy Sunday afternoon we went for a short stroll in the nearby park and sat down on one of the benches when an old gypsy woman appeared. She took my hand and squinting her bloodshot eyes closely examined my palm. I was little frightened but nevertheless curious.
She examined my palm carefully and mumbled toward mother:
“Your boy has strong fingers. Do you see their tips? They are round and cushioned. These are fingers of a pianist. Someday he will play for kings and be famous.”
Mother, beaming with happiness, reached into her pocketbook and gave the old gypsy woman a whole zloty. The gypsy uttered some thankyous and fixing her colorful scarf disappeared into the wooded path.
But piano, with its boring exercises, was not what I liked. I would rather sneak out to see Albert, our handyman, who lived in a shack in the corner of father’s shop yard. Albert and our huge German shepherd dog, Rolf, were my best friends.
Albert knew how to drive the Daimler. One Sunday morning when aunt Stefa, my mother’s sister came to visit us from Krakow, father decided to take us all for a ride into the country. With Albert driving, we enjoyed the outdoors and stopped at one of the many, beautiful meadows to indulge in goodies mother packed for the trip. We all had a wonderful time. All but aunt Stefa who got terribly carsick on the way back home. She was so miserable that she promised never, never again to get talked into riding in a motorcar. And poor Albert? He spent the whole week scrubbing the fine leather upholstery and polishing the finish. He never forgave aunt Stefa for messing up the car.
Albert was my hero. He knew so much about all the different machines in the yard. He could take them apart and put them back together with that unquestionable confidence of a skilled craftsman. I felt so important when he, at times, trusted me with some simple tasks. And, of course he knew how to drive the car. When behind the steering wheel of the boxy Daimler, donning his chauffeur’s cap, in the chauffeur’s compartment up front, Albert was the indisputable master of the road. And then there was Rolf the tireless playmate, full of mischievous energy. I loved to spend time with Albert and Rolf.
Albert used to say to me:
“Someday you will be like me, a mechanic. Or, you could even become an engineer.”
That was father’s dream. He already had a place for me in his business. I was only twelve but he had it already all planned out. I was to attend the Polytechnicum in Lvov to become an engineer.
“Look”, he used to tell my mother, “look how easily it comes to him to work with machines and tools. He has such a talent for that. We must send him to the Polytechnicum.”
My parents had both different dreams of what would become of me when I grew up. And I? At the age of twelve my head was full of stories about the Wild West, about the redskins and the palefaces.
The summer of 1939 passed like most of the summers. School vacation was almost over and except for the annual pilgrimage to the mountains, nothing exciting or unusual was happening.
No, I take that back. There indeed was one incident of a somewhat unusual nature. One day, mid afternoon, the front door bell rang. It was not that assertive ring of someone invited and expected, but a shy, hesitant ring of someone who would rather not intrude. When mother opened the door there, in the dimly lit hallway, stood a middle-aged man pressing his hat to his chest. He was clean-shaven, well dressed and had the appearance of a respected banker or a lawyer. But, there was a look of embarrassment on his face.
In polished, polite German he hesitantly asked for some food, a piece of bread maybe. He was from Germany, he said, where he had a hardware store. The Nazis, he said, had demolished his store, confiscated all of his belongings, put him on a truck and drove him with some other Jews to the Polish border where they let him go. He was forced to cross into Poland. He had no money and no place to stay. He offered to wax the floors in return for some food. No, he did not know what happened to his family.
Mother quickly set the kitchen table. She put in front of him some leftover chopped liver with a piece of coarse, rye bread and a large bowl of thick beef stew with carrots and potatoes. He ate eagerly but quietly, without ever looking up. No, he did not want to stay. He wanted to look for his family. Mother stuffed a few zlotys into his hand. He hesitantly kissed mother’s hand, quickly put on his fedora and silently dissolved into the shadows of the stairwell.
There were a few days of summer vacation left so mother decided to visit aunt Stefa in Krakow. Krakow was only an hour’s train ride from home so we packed a small suitcase with some necessities and off we went.
Aunt Stefa was thrilled to see us. She lived in the city in a small apartment. Those were beautiful late summer days. We slept with the windows wide open. The cool night air felt wonderfully refreshing. One day, just before dawn, I awoke to the whining of airplane engines. Not the steady grind of an occasionally passing plane but the penetrating whining sound of diving and climbing followed by thunderous explosions. I jumped out of bed, rushed to the open window and saw a few small silver specks circling the city below. They were barely noticeable, maybe three or four of them. One by one they dove over the roofs of the still sleeping city, each dive followed by an explosion and a small cloud of smoke. Within a few minutes a siren started to whine. Then another and another, till their frightening cacophony completely filled the air. Nazi Germany had attacked Poland. The city of Krakow woke up to the start of World War Two. It was Friday, September 1, 1939.
Trains were disrupted. We were stranded in Krakow. A few days later father and Albert arrived in the Daimler. They said that the Germans had already entered our hometown, Katowice. But father remained optimistic.
“It will be over in a few days”, he said, “The Germans just want a piece of the industrialized Silesia. Here in Krakow we are safe.”
But the Germans did not stop in Silesia. From that day in September, our lives were to change forever. Our peaceful everyday existence was to be replaced by an unimaginable nightmare. A nightmare from which, those destined to survive, were to never fully recover.
The Germans quickly converged on Krakow from both west and south. Most of the Jewish population worried but not fully aware of what happened to Jews in Germany, tried to flee east towards the Russian border.
So did we. We packed as much as we could into the box-like Daimler and headed east towards Lublin. Normally, the two hundred and fifty or so kilometers would have been a short journey. But, it seemed like the whole city was on the road. The narrow, county road swarmed with hundreds of soldiers and civilians, many on foot, some pushing overloaded carts, others in horse drawn wagons, a few in motorcars, all pressing eastward to the Russian border away from the advancing Germans,
A faint sound of airplanes came from the sky behind us. The planes quickly caught up with us and made a few passes above our heads. They looked so harmless; some of us waved. They made a few more passes then dove and opened fire on the unsuspecting column of refugees. From everywhere screams of the wounded rose to the sky. Father quickly threw me from the car into the roadside ditch and jumped on top of me almost smothering me with his body. The two planes made a few more passes and disappeared north as quickly as they came.
This was my first real encounter with the war. The peaceful countryside was filled with moans of the wounded. The thundering artillery fire from the rear stopped. A thick cloud of smoke hovered low over the horizon. Then, from behind us, from the direction that we came from, appeared two dusty, green motorcycles with sidecars. In each of them were two men in unfamiliar green uniforms. They waved their guns and yelled in German as they tried to get through. Pushing through the crowd they frantically motioned us to get off the road. Albert ran the car into a roadside ditch and we all got out curiously looking at the screaming Germans.
Then from beyond the bend, slowly appeared a German tank. Its engine roaring and its tracks cluttering, it cautiously advanced in the middle of the road. Like a monster from another world, it rolled passed us and pushed ahead, toward Lublin. The Germans had caught up with us. There was no point in continuing. There was no escape.
Father knew that we would not be able to outrun the Germans. He decided to go back towards Krakow. We abandoned the Daimler laying helplessly in the ditch. Taking whatever we believed we could carry we started back to Krakow on foot. Some people still tried to press east but most turned back towards Krakow.
We walked several days till we came to the small village of Wieliczka, about ten kilometers west of Krakow. Father knew a farmer there who, for a sum of money, agreed to shelter us in his house. He gave us one very small room. It had no running water and an outhouse for a toilet. Water was brought in from a well outside. There was a small iron stove in the corner, an old bucket with some coal in it, one high bed and a small, rickety table next to it. We spent our evenings clustered around a small kerosene lamp speculating when the war would end and what might happen next.
Every morning father was disappearing somewhere. Back usually just before dark, like a magician, he was pulling out from under his coat, a small chicken, a chunk of bread or a few raw potatoes. I did not know where all that came from but if anyone could outsmart the Germans only he would. Sometimes he would come back with a relative or two in tow. One day he came back with aunt Stefa and my maternal grandmother Esther. The small room became crowded. There were eight of us here now. There was Grandmother Esther, aunt Stefa, uncle Jacob, his wife Regina, their seven years old little girl Tusia and the three of us.
Every day new Nazi edicts were being announced. Jews had to wear a yellow Star of David. Jews could not use the sidewalk. Jews could not own property. Jews could not run any businesses. The list of restrictions was getting longer and longer. We heard that in Krakow Jews were being herded into a small-dilapidated area of the city declared as the Jewish ghetto. All Jews had to leave their homes and go into the ghetto. Only a few personal belongings were permitted.
Life in the Wieliczka hideout became very difficult. The Germans swept through the village every few days to drag out any Jews they could find. Helping and hiding Jews became a crime punishable by death. The farmer, our host, had become very frightened. He insisted that we all leave, but father convinced him to agree to hide just me. With my light, blond hair and blue eyes, I could pass for a Polish peasant boy. He could tell his neighbors that I was his nephew from a distant village so that they would not inform on him. Father was going to pick me up after the war.
And so, one day, they all left. For a few weeks I lived with the farmer and his family helping with the daily chores. I fetched water from the well, collected eggs from the chickens or weeded the vegetable patch. Most of the time, though, I to stayed out of sight.
One day the Germans came to Wieliczka and searched door to door looking for Jews. The farmer hid me in the barn under a pile of hay. The Germans did not find me, but when they left we knew that we had to come up with a more secure hiding place.
In one corner of the house we lifted a few floor planks. Underneath, next to the foundation wall, we dug a hole barely large enough for me to squeeze in. We made a small opening for air. Every time the Germans came to look for Jews, the farmer would lift a plank, let me crawl in into the hole and put the plank back in place.
The Germans were not satisfied that there were no Jews left in the village. They were making surprise raids day or night and started using dogs to locate Jewish hideouts. The farmer kept me now in the hole for days at a time, daring to let me out only at night. When I had spent in the hole an entire three-week period, the farmer gave up and told me that he could no longer hide me. I had to leave.
One cool, moonless night he pulled me out from the hole and handed me an address scribbled on a small piece of brown paper. He also gave me a chunk of dark, coarse bread and a burlap bag. I was to pretend that I was a poor peasant boy collecting coal that fell off the trains. In the dark of the night he took me to the nearby railroad tracks and told me to walk along them till I reached the Jewish ghetto in Krakow.
I walked only by night hiding in the fields during the days. I knew that I could trust no one. On the fifth day I sneaked through the streets of Krakow into the ghetto section and miraculously located my parents. We were united again.
One day, early in the morning, the ghetto was sealed off. No one was getting in or out. Only men with German issued identification cards assigned to special work details were lead out to work. Father and I were assigned to different work details and were marched out from the ghetto to
different locations. When we returned to the ghetto that evening, its streets were empty and quiet. The ground was littered with papers, toys, pieces of clothing and discarded suitcases. Mother was gone and so was grandmother, all of our relatives and most of our friends. They vanished never to be seen anywhere again.
A few weeks later the ghetto was liquidated. Father and I were moved to a labor camp in the nearby Plaszow. It had two rows of high, electrified wire fence and machine guns in watchtowers. We were now called political prisoners in spite that we just were ordinary people whose only crime was being born as Jews.
Life became distorted attaining a bizarre unreal quality. The stately living room with the Bechstein grand piano in the corner, mother’s voice from the kitchen, Albert the mechanic and Rolf became a distant blurred vision, a faded dream. The brutal reality of the prison camp was difficult to comprehend. Senses were dulled and many just milled around like ghosts of the persons they once were.
Every morning at dawn under heavy guard we marched, six abreast to work in the nearby factory. After twelve exhausting hours we were marched back to the camp. My survival instincts took over and I slowly adjusted to the dreary routine of avoiding the SS-men, the Ukrainian guards and the Kapos. Father was in a different work detail so we did not see each other during the day. Some nights though, in spite of the risk, we would sneak out from the barracks. Hiding in the shadows to avoid the circling searchlights, crouching low, we would meet in the dark and spend a few precious minutes together.
One evening upon return to the camp I saw an unusually large number of armed guards. We were herded into the barracks and locked up. Armed guards patrolled the grounds. From a small window next to my bunk I could see them in their long black coats, rifles slung from their shoulders pacing back and forth.
Then, an SS-man accompanied by a number of armed camp guards barged in. They shoved in a short, skinny prisoner who carried a small toolbox. The guards screaming, using butts of their rifles herded us into a corner of the barrack. The skinny prisoner with the toolbox set up a small table. He opened his toolbox and took out a few strange instruments. The guards supervised by the SS-man and helped by the barrack Kapo started dragging people to the table. Two guards held each victim down as the skinny prisoner at the table quickly tattooed on his left wrist the letters “KL”.
In defiance, I dodged their grabbing hands. I wished to become invisible or shrink into a tiny dot. There were fewer and fewer people left on my side of the barrack. It was getting harder to hide. Someone from behind pushed me up to the front. The Kapo and one of the guards grabbed me and forced my left hand to the table. I kicked and screamed trying to get out from their grip. But within seconds, the ugly “KL” was embedded in blue ink on my wrist.
When let go I darted to my bunk high under the ceiling. I felt violated and was enraged. I looked for a knife or any other sharp instrument to get the tattoo out, but I could find none. In a quiet determination, I tried to suck the ink out but the blue pigment was deep under the skin. Stubbornly, defiant I bit into the skin deeper and deeper till, together with pieces of flesh, all the ink was gone. My wrist healed, the tattoo was gone but the scar it left was more than just skin deep.
Then, the executions started. Every night a long procession of slowly moving prisoners passed by my window. They dragged their feet in silence. One could only hear the clanking of tin utensils dangling from their belts. The wind would bring the staccato bark of machine guns followed by a subdued roar of tractors burying the dead. The scent of death relentlessly clung to the air.
Rumor spread that belonging to a work detail would save us from execution. Father noticed that one of the Kapos was regularly taking a group of prisoners to work outside the main camp. Joining that detail could mean an opportunity to escape. One day, father walked up to talk to the Kapo while I stayed at a distance. I heard them intensely arguing in Yiddish. The Kapo occasionally turned to look at me as if assessing my abilities.
Finally, giving in, he just waved and so we joined his detail. This was how I first met Kapo Beim.
No one knew much about him. We just called him Kapo Beim. The rumor was that he came from one of the nearby villages, that he was captured by the Germans as he and his family tried to jump onto a train to go north. That he succeeded in sending his wife and two daughters into hiding somewhere in the city.
Most of the Kapos were hand picked by the Nazis from among hardened renegade criminals who in return for a few extra privileges were willing to perform the henchman’s most despicable tasks. Often, in their eagerness to please their masters, they were more vicious than the Nazis themselves.
Kapo Beim was different. He was a tinsmith by trade. Most of his life he fixed leaking tin roofs in Krakow. Judging by the language he used, he was a man of little or no schooling. He yelled and cursed a lot in his juicy, unpolished Yiddish, pretending to be tough, especially with the guards around. In spite of no soap or razors he always managed to appear clean and shaven. His clothes ragged as they were, always looked as if they had been just washed and ironed. And, with his pants legs neatly tucked in into his boots, in his dark, olive green jacket and a black beret, cockily tipped over his right ear, he looked like a soldier from some unknown army.
Kapo Beim was not a big man. He was short and of small frame, but he had that springy gait and the wiry appearance of one who most of his life did physical labor in the open air. I never saw him subdued or quiet. In contrast to most of us, Kapo Beim was always full of explosive energy. His fiery, black eyes glowed with strength and an intense determination to survive. Kapo Beim was a born leader. People around him were intoxicated by his humor, his wit and by his unshaken belief that peace was just around the corner. Using a seemingly inexhaustible supply of cigarettes, money and other bribes he devotedly watched over us and shielded us from the viciousness of the Ukrainian guards and other Kapos.
From the very first day Kapo Beim took me under his protection and watched out for my safety. I became his personal helper. I carried his toolbox full of battered tin snips and hammers, his beaten up kerosene blowtorch and an assortment of soldering irons. Loaded with all those I followed him through the winding narrow stairways up to fix roofs. There, he was in his element. While I moved hesitantly, cautiously placing my feet on the slippery incline, he hopped around erect and surefooted like a mountain goat.
Up there high above the city we felt free again. From there the world appeared as normal as it once was. On a clear day we could peer deep into the horizon while letting the breeze fill our nostrils with the delicate smell of flowers from below. We could forget the war, the camp and the guards. There we were, two friends, a small boy who once played the piano and a village tinsmith. But this blissful illusion always ended with a shrill, bone chilling, factory whistle signaling the end of the workday and calling for the return to camp back to the brutal reality of electrified fences and wooden bunks.
Once, when we broke for our meager midday meal, Kapo Beim reached into the cavernous depth of his breast pocket and carefully retrieved a small, creased, photograph. It was a photo of a young woman and two small girls. His eyes aglow with tenderness, he pointed to the blurred image and said softly: “You see, this is my wife and my two girls. Some day we will be together again.”
Then, with his gaze hardening, fixed on the city below, he mumbled: “They are safe out there. Those Nazi bastards will never get them.”
One day, when we assembled for the trek back to camp and Kapo Beim just finished counting his detail, I knew that something was amiss. He was unusually agitated. He jumped back and forth feverishly from the head of the column to its rear and repeated the count several times. There was no mistake; we were short two. Two men escaped.
Kapo Beim, like any other Kapo, was held responsible for bringing his entire work detail back to the camp. The guards at the gate counted the rows in the morning and again in the evening and the Kapo was held responsible for the two counts to match.
For a few days, we cleverly covered for the missing. Usually we created some diversion to confuse the guards and slip them up on the count. Someone, for example, would drop a smuggled potato and while the guards were busy searching for more we would successfully shuffle around to confuse the count. One day, one of the guards at the gate noticed the shuffling and sounded an alarm. We were instantly surrounded, ordered to stand still and counted. The escape was discovered. Kapo Beim was taken into the guard booth while we were quickly escorted to our barrack and locked up.
Next morning, the camp was unusually quiet. The normal commotion created by the formation of work details was missing. No one came to take us out to work. We speculated on what would happen next. The Germans did not tolerate escapes from the camps. They often retaliated by executing the entire work detail. The day dragged on with one rumor chasing another. The night came and still nothing was happening. Even the nightly executions seemed to have stopped. The camp was ghostly silent, tense with an anxious anticipation.
Next day, about midmorning, hundreds of armed guards poured from about a dozen of military trucks and took positions around the barracks. We were ordered out, arranged in front of each barrack in long rows, six deep then marched onto the “apelplatz”, a large, rectangular field. There, we were arranged along the four sides of the field. The armed guards with their dogs took positions all around us. Machine gun barrels menacingly peered from the watchtowers. I was sure that the guards from the towers would cut us all down. With my vivid boyish imagination, frantically, I plotted schemes to duck the bullets.
Then, I noticed the strange structure in the middle of the field. It was a small platform, about five feet high, with a high pole on top of it. It looked like a huge street lamp. A thick rope with a large noose hung from the pole. Under the rope there was a small, three-legged, stool.
It was a lovely morning, bright and sunny. A slight breeze brought a faint scent of the nearby wheat field. On occasion a large fly, one of those big and noisy ones, unaware of the developing drama, buzzed over my head and disappeared. An anxious silence fell over the field. From one of the corners a small ensemble appeared. There was one SS-man in a black uniform, stiffly walking in his knee high, shiny boots and a man in a white coat next to him. Immediately behind them were four tall, armed guards. Among them I could see the small figure of Kapo Beim.
His small frame was barely visible from behind the big Ukrainians guards. He walked briskly with his head high, his black beret cockily pulled over his right ear. He still had his old, green jacket. The legs of his pants, as always, were neatly tucked into his boots. His hands were tied from behind. The group quickly approached the platform. Two of the guards effortlessly lifted him up and positioned him on the three-legged stool. One of the guards tightened the noose on his neck.
Suddenly, the electrified silence was pierced by his clear, high pitched, voice.
“Brothers”, he yelled in Yiddish of the top of lungs, “the war will be over soon. Take care of my wife and children…”
And while the wind carried his voice to all four corners of the field, the black uniformed SS-man, with one quick, decisive motion yanked the small stool out from under him. He fell, his feet frantically feeling for support that was not there. Within seconds his listless shape just slowly swayed in the bright sun, from side to side, back and forth, like a bizarre pendulum.
The men in the white coat walked up as if to examine him. He whispered something into the SS-man’s ear who nodding slightly pulled a small handgun from the holster on his belt and fired two shoots into the hanging body. Kapo Beim was no more.
Nathan Gutman, a Holocaust survivor, has written fiction and nonfiction short stories about the Holocaust, lives with his wife in Simsbury, Connecticut. They have three children and thirteen grandchildren.
Voices of Hope was recently given permission to share articles written from Holocaust Survivor Nathan Gutman, of Simsbury, CT. During the Holocaust he was in the ghetto of Krakow, and camps of Plaszow (Poland), St. Valentin and Mauthausen (Austria).