Birthday in a Concentration Camp

By Simon Wiesenthal, Translated by Jessica Cohen

It was April 20, 1943. The town was festively decorated. The streetcars were adorned with flags. Above the concentration camp in Lvov, the sun was shining gloriously that day. Perhaps not in honor of the 'Fuhrer,' but rather in order to provide the the hungry, weary prisoners with some warmth. It was a real spring day. On beautiful days such as these, the view enclosed within a frame of barbed-wire was truly heart-breaking. The SS patrol guards had been drunk since the morning. The camp administrators took advantage of the opportunity to drown out the bad rumors coming from the eastern front, in a sea of wine. This was after Stalingrad had fallen.

The work brigades set off to work outside the camp, in the sun-drenched world, which to them seemed gloomy and dark. Tired and weakened figures, heads bent, who once were human beings. At the exit gate they were ordered to sing, so that people would see how happy they were to go off to work. The patrol guards took part in the singing.

At the mess in the guards' barracks, many preparations for the festive gathering were underway. At that time I was working as a sign-maker and painter in the camp workshops. The camp had to make an outwardly impression of being perfect and organized, so the signs were frequently repainted. The windows of the death-huts were always repainted.

At ten o'clock, second in command Diega came to the camp workshop and took myself and two other people outside. There, we saw that a few people had also been taken from the technical office. We were taken to the place called “Nad.” The inner courtyard was surrounded with a double layered barbed-wire fence with a two-meter gap between the layers. This passageway was called “Nad.” One of the exits from this “Nad” led to the sand pit where all acts of murder were committed. The “Nad” had taken on the meaning of a passageway to death.

A group of some twenty prisoners was already waiting at this “Nad,” including a few women. We were all the remainder of the professional intelligentsia: doctors, engineers and lawyers, who only by chance were still alive.

Why? No one asked this question. That word had been erased from our vocabularies, along with another few words. At last there would be an end to our daily suffering.

As if to complement the gloom of our thoughts, the skies darkened. True April weather: rain, snow, sunlight…much as hope rises and falls.

And then came the SS second in command, Kautser, with an automatic pistol and eight SS men.

“Go!” he ordered curtly. No one said a word. We were each lost in our own thoughts. At that time, none of us had any family left. Some of them had walked down this very path, or through other factories of death. We were alone, and that was our strength. Our borrowed time was coming to its end.

After walking for half an hour, we came to the sand pit. I counted exactly thirty-eight men and six women. A long pit, about two meters deep, sprawled out in front of us.

It contained naked corpses and puddles of blood which had not yet dried from the previous days. They only covered the pit once it was completely full.

A truck stood in front of us. “Undress!” “Separate shoes from clothes! Underwear in one pile!” The bloodthirsty SS men screamed. “Quick! Hurry!” They beat and struck us during the last few minutes. And the clothes were piled up as ordered. The first six candidates for death load our clothes and our shoes on the truck (after all, the Nazi Reich government was eagerly awaiting our possessions).

The truck sets off on its way. And now it began. “Stand!” Kautser screams at the naked group. One behind the other by the pit! I was the twenty-second in line. Kautzer stands holding the pistol a few steps in front of the row of people.

“Turn!” he commands loudly.

And now he is read to shoot us in the back. I see the first man being shot and falling into the pit, then the second, the third…one of them does not fall straight into the pit, and an SS man has to kick him into it. Only six more before me! We are all wet from the rain, and stunned from the shots and the screams. My life passes before me like a film screened in the wrong direction. I am in shock.

Suddenly we hear a long whistle. The shots stop. Are we already dead? We stand there lifelessly. An SS man is in the distance, approaching. After a few minutes he is here, it is the work commander, Kolanko.

I hear a shout, but I cannot understand it. When it is repeated I answer.

“Step out of the line!” Kolanko growls. Kautzer turns to him: “And the others?”


I walk as if drunk and my face is slapped, which brings me back to consciousness.

I look back, the final shots ring out, the entire group has been killed.

The way the prisoners in the camp look at me reminds me that I am naked and wet. Kolanko leads me to the clothes warehouse, where the SS man Blum gives me torn trousers, a coat and shoes.

Now Kolanko leads me back to the workshop, where the SS squadron-head, Schultz, waits for me with a task: to prepare announcements for the celebration.

“You were lucky we still needed you,” he said with a twisted smile.

The time is one o'clock. The work divisions set off for their afternoon shifts. The sun is shining again, covering the new corpses with a glimmering veil.

The camp band plays: “Everything will pass…” An old friend says to me that night in the hut: “On April twentieth, two people were born.”

“What do you mean?”

“The 'Fuhrer' and you!”

Linz, Simon Wiesenthal