Angels of St. Valentine

By Nathan Grubman

Usually reminiscences from the Holocaust mean tales of terror and of brutality, which can never be properly told because no language in the whole world has the words adequately to describe what has happened. Some forty odd years have passed since. One would think that all stories that possibly could have been told have already been told and there is nothing more left to say. Not so. This is a yet untold story about a speckle of individual compassion and humanity, which sparkled in that time of darkness and indifference. It is a story about one nameless hero who, in his own ever so small way, while putting his own life on the line, eased the agony, and saved the life of an equally nameless victim – prisoner number 86916. It was early summer of 1944. I had not yet turned seventeen and already was a veteran of several concentration camps. My left hand, badly injured in a factory accident, was wrapped in old papers and rags. It was a painful reminder of the last slave labor camp, the infamous Plaszow camp in Poland.

 

If the war was winding down, I certainly was not aware of that. We were in transit to still another camp. Stuffed into freight cars with their doors sealed, we were not allowed out for any reason. Without food or water, many were getting weaker by the hour. The heat and the stench made breathing difficult. I lay on the floor, jammed against the door with my face down, gasping for the little fresh air which was coming from a crack between the floor and the sliding door.

 

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).

Finally, after days of standing on sidings or slowly moving from one track to another, we must have arrived at our destination. The train had not moved since the night before and when morning came, noises of increasing activity could be heard from outside. The door of the car opened with a thunder like explosion, and we poured out into the cold, fresh morning air. Some, either dead or to weak to move, remained motionless on the floor of the car, but no one paid any attention to them. We arrived to Mauthausen in Austria.

The day was bright and getting warmer. After days in the darkness of the freight car, my eyes slowly adjusted to the brightness of what appeared to be a harmless and peaceful place. We were standing in the middle of a wide, clean street lined with a few low, neatly painted white, buildings. Colorful flowerbeds in front of each building added to the deception. Then the selection started. Armed guards herded us, single file, toward a uniformed Nazi officer. With a barely noticeable wink of his white glove, he motioned some to the right and others to the left. Those who seemed stronger were moved to the right and the weak, the old, the women and children were moved to the left.

 

I was slowly approaching the point of selection. When my turn came, I looked briefly into his eyes. They were cold and indifferent. A faint nod of his white glove has sent me to the right to join a slave labor unit. When a sufficiently large group had formed, we were shoved into a covered truck. Truck after truck was being loaded this way until the selection was over. The group on the left, surrounded by screaming and jabbing guards was being moved toward one of the buildings. The trucks formed a long convoy and started moving out of Mauthausen. When I looked up, a huge smokestack began spewing a column of black, acrid smoke. The smoke hung in the still air like a giant black mushroom.The truck, swaying wildly from side to side, ground its way up a mountainous, winding road. The human cargo in the back sloshed around with every turn. Through a small hole in the canvas, I could see that we were passing through some village. Later it turned out that it was the village was St. Valentin, somewhere in the Austrian mountains. Nearby the Germans have set up a factory to manufacture tanks and a camp to house the prisoners who worked there.

 

After a few days, the life in St. Valentin settled into a debilitating routine of twelve hours of work in the factory and twelve hours off. Every morning at dawn, we were marched to work surrounded by armed guards with dogs. The route took us through the principal street of the village, which was usually empty that early in the morning. Just here and there, I could catch someone’s curious gaze from behind drawn curtains. What a strange sight this must have been. A slow procession of human skeletons, six abreast, dressed in strange striped suits, was winding through town in an almost total silence. The peaceful serenity of the morning was disturbed only by the clutter of hundreds of crude wooden clogs dragged on the cobblestones and by an occasional bark of one of the dogs. The same scene was repeated in the evening, but the return walk always seemed much longer. Occasionally there were some too weak to continue. Those who fell and could not get up immediately were shot on the spot by one of the guards. Their bodies were left in the ditch, by the side of the road, to be collected later by a special prisoner detail. In the evening, back in the camp, we stood in line to receive the only meal of the day. It consisted of something resembling heavy, dark bread and a cup of watery, cabbage-smelling, “soup”. Grabbing my portion, I headed for the barrack where we were locked up until morning.

 

The factory was relatively comfortable. As far as the eye could see, there were rows of dark grey machines that, with a relentless clutter, turned out hundreds of different parts. I was assigned to large turret lathe. My job was to move a big wheel two revolutions clockwise then two revolutions counterclockwise, catch a finished piece and advance the bar stock. I was repeating this cycle every minute or so for the entire twelve hour shift. Around noon, a screaming siren was announcing a short break. The factory quieted down for about one-half of an hour until another siren signaled the return to work. Immediately, one by one, the machines were starting their usual clutter until the evening siren announced the arrival of a shift change.

 

The monotonous movement of the wheel helped me to live through the shift in a trans-like confusion between daydreaming and reality. Flashbacks of family, parents, home, and food were constantly mixed with the stark reality of the big, dark grey machine in front of me. Months of starvation were taking their toll on my mental and physical ability to feel and to react. The initial hope and will to live were slowly giving way to a feeling of numbness and indifference.

 

The winter came upon us quickly. The factory siren was now used more often to warn of air raids than to announce breaks and shift changes. When the air raid warning sounded, we were rushed to a densely packed underground shelter with standing room only. We could recognize a hit by the flickering of the sparsely located lights and by cloudlets of dust falling from the ceiling. When the bombs exploded closer to us, we could feel the tremor of walls and we cheered. Toward the end of the winter, the raids became more frequent and the accuracy of the bombing increased. The factory was badly damaged. The gray winter sky peered through gaping holes in the roof. Entire sections of the walls collapsed. Not all the machines worked anymore, and it was very cold but the factory continued to operate. In spite of the successful bombings, the end of the war did not seem near. For us, there was no sign of relief, and a feeling of total resignation was setting in.

 

He must have been in the late sixties and looked it in spite of his closely cropped, completely black, hair. He wore blue work clothes. A black dilapidated jacket hung loosely from his shoulders. His shoes were old, oil soaked, of nondescript brown with worn down heels. He walked the aisle, between the machines, his gait slow and heavy. From time to time, he picked up one of the finished pieces for inspection. He looked at it critically, bringing it closely to his eyes and peering at it from behind his wire-rimmed glasses. His glasses were always sliding down his very small, somewhat tipped up nose. He was constantly pushing them back up with a quick, impatient motion of his hand with an expression of annoyance on his face.

 

Most of the time he just threw the inspected piece back into the tray and continued down the aisle without even looking at me. Never in any way did he acknowledge my presence. As a civilian, he was not permitted to talk to the prisoners and we were warned not to speak, under any circumstances, to the civilians. If he found that there was something wrong with the inspected piece, he would just motion me to move away from the machine. He worked on it, adjusting its controls and sometimes taking out the cutting tool to sharpen it. I watched him bent over the grinding wheel, fascinated by the stream of brilliant sparks coming from under his hands like a tail of mysterious comet. I watched him carefully set the tool back in the holder. His hands were big with long strong fingers, somewhat out of proportion with his thin, slightly stooped body. Their skin, crisscrossed with many black lines, indicated years of exposure to factory dust and cutting oils permanently embedded in its pores. When finished with the adjustments, he would just step back and motion to me to resume work.

 

Once, upon finishing his inspection and just about ready to leave, he gave me a short glance. He was much taller than I was, so I had to look up to him to catch it. Our eyes have met for the briefest of instances. He looked at me sternly, from above, with watery blue eyes through his wire rimmed glasses. The eyes of the guards have always projected hostility or cold indifference. His showed a spark of interest so short that I was not sure if it was only my imagination fed by a craving for some signs of friendliness in this inhuman, hostile environment.

 

Just as he finished adjusting the cutting tool and was ready to leave, the siren went off announcing the noontime break. It was a bitter cold winter. The walls of the building were partially destroyed and the wind was enveloping us with frigid, numbing gusts. A few steps from me, an old oil drum with some charcoal glowing in it was set up. I went up to that makeshift stove to soak up at least some of its warmth. The old inspector was now in his corner, slowly opening his lunch box as if following some sacred ritual. From it, he took out a small package wrapped in brown paper. He opened it with great care and with that unhurried motion, characteristic of someone very tired, took a small bite.

 

I could smell it! It was fresh bread! I could not take my eyes off him, sitting on his toolbox with the open lunch pail balanced in his lap, slowly, bite after bite, eating away his sandwich. When the last bite was gone, he slowly crumbled the brown wrapping paper into an almost perfect ball, got up, and walked up to a nearby trash barrel. When he raised his hand to throw in the paper ball, he held it in the air just an instant longer than necessary. At that instant, like commanded by an irresistible force, our eyes have met. He threw the paper ball in, closed the lunch pail, and slowly walked away without giving me as much as another glance.

 

An unexplained urge drove me toward the trash barrel, but a guard was watching me. In a moment of opportunity, I darted to the barrel, bent down into it, grabbed the brown paper ball, and quickly shoved it under my striped prisoner’s jacket. Within a second, I was back at my workstation. The guard did not notice anything. With one hand on the wheel of the machine, I tried with the other to pry open the paper under my jacket. I felt something soft. I smelled it before realizing what it was. It was a big chunk of soft, fresh bread.

 

From that day on, every day, the old Austrian tool setter brought with him two extra thick slices of bread, thinly covered with lard. Every day he wrapped it in paper and at the end of his lunch break threw it into the trash barrel. Every day I darted to retrieve it as soon as he moved sufficiently away so that no one in any way could suspect that he was helping a prisoner. Never did he speak to me, and never did I dare to speak to him. Between us, there was a form of a silent covenant that continued for the next four months. More than once did I wonder who he was. Did he have a family or did he live alone? What made him help me when no one else tried? Why did he pick me from the hundreds of prisoners working in the factory? Was he really just an old tool setter or was he a God-sent angel trying to save me from dying of starvation?

 

One day, the following spring, we were not marched to the factory. Instead, a line of covered trucks rolled into the St. Valentin slave labor compound. We were herded into the trucks and taken back to the Mauthausen death camp. We were unloaded in front of barrack number six and shoved inside the wooden structure. There, weakened by the prolonged starvation, most of us just fell on the rough-hewn boards of the bunks. The doors slammed shut plunging us into total darkness.

 

Being locked there day after day without food or water, I lost track of time. Next to me was a young boy faintly mumbling something in a language that I could not understand. I think it was Hungarian. He was very weak. Sometimes he tried to speak to me, but most of the time he just lay there, breathing shallowly, semiconscious. A few days later, he stopped moving altogether and his shrunken body just lay there motionless, cold and stiff, next to mine.

 

The air in the locked barrack grew very bad. It became harder and harder to breathe. As days passed more people quietly expired. It was impossible to distinguish between those who were still alive and those who were not. Like most of those who still showed signs of life, I stayed half-delirious and half-awake. The vision of the tall, old tool setter was keeping me up not allowing me to take the plunge into the final sleep. I almost felt his presence, right next to me, looking at me sternly from behind his wire-rimmed glasses.

 

Suddenly a loud explosion shook the wooden structure of barrack number six. The huge, barn-like doors at the end opened with a reluctant screech. The interior of the barrack was flooded with light brighter that the sun itself. I had to raise my hand to cover my eyes; the light was painful. I wanted to get up but could not muster enough strength. I have just succeeded to raise my head a little.

 

In the sunlit opening stood a tall, helmeted figure. The backlit silhouette looked like some supernatural creature from another world. Through the constant hum in my ears, as if coming from a great distance through dense fog, I heard the words, “Oh my God” spoken in English. At that moment, for me, the war had ended. Political prisoner number 86916 has made it.

 

Now, many years later, the physical injuries have healed. I have regained the use of all the fingers in my left hand but one. The visible scar continuously reminds me that prisoner number 86916 and the camps were all real. The struggle to survive in the now “normal” world has suppressed any attempts to unlock memories of the past. Occasionally though, uninvited, they race through my head and I can clearly see the slightly bent figure of the old tool setter peering at me sternly from behind his wire-rimmed glasses.

No memorials have ever been built for him, his name is nowhere engraved, there have been no speeches made in his honor. Let this short story commemorate this unknown hero’s determination to try to save a life and be a witness to his quiet defiance of the Nazi oppressors.

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).