At first I tried to get to know the men I was working with, but the death rate was so high that it was a complete waste of time. After those first couple of days, when so many men were hurled into the roaring flames, they just became numbers to me: one and two, eins and zwei in German. To them I was ‘Oss’. Not given a triangle to show my status as a prisoner, I wrote the word on my striped prison shirt with a finger dipped in ash. I’d told them, ‘Call me Aussie,’ but ‘Oss’ or ‘Ossie’ was the closest they could get to pronouncing it.
There was another reason why I stopped trying to remember the names of the men I worked with. After about three months of working on the furnaces, I became quite attached to one of the men, a skinny little Polish chap who seemed to have held on to a bit more of his character, a bit more of his dignity, than the others. We didn’t talk much – couldn’t talk – with the guards all around us waiting to strike, but somehow we formed a bond. There was something in his mannerisms that I took to, the way he rolled his eyes and shook his head, and shrugged his shoulders at what was going on. This was his way of living with death and horror every day, and I suppose it struck some sort of a chord in me. There was also something in me that he took to – possibly that I was such a foreigner. Anyway, we became mates, or as much as two people could become mates in that place.
I forget his name now, but I remember what he looked like: slightly built, slightly stooped, and with a thin face and expressive eyes. I also remember he wasn’t well. At first he kept up well enough with the workload, but he soon weakened and after a week or so, perhaps longer, he was falling behind. At first the other man in the gang and I covered for him, working that bit harder, standing in front of him when he just stood there, unable to move, shielding him from the guards’ prying gaze and their willingness to commit on-the-spot murder. But, eventually, the fatal combination of remorselessly hard, physical work and an unending diet of poor food took their toll, and he simply became too weak to carry on.
No matter what we did, there was no way we could cover for him any more. Then, one morning, the guards saw him standing there, not working, pathetically ill, dead on his feet, and screamed at him. They unslung their rifles and bashed him to the ground. Then they called the Capos over, just two of them, and gave the order. The Capos lifted him up and carried the little fellow the two, three, four paces to the furnace door. Just as they lifted him up to throw him in, he looked at me and his lips formed the word ‘Ossie’.
I looked at him and shook my head, ever so slightly so the guards wouldn’t see, to show that I could do nothing. The look on his face changed then, to what I can only describe as an expression of resigned understanding, and with that the Capos threw him in. He screamed, of course, for a second or two, as the flames engulfed him. A minute later he was barely recognisable as a human being.
I still have nightmares about that little man. In the months and years that I have been putting these memoirs together, his image has come back to me, night after night. The look on his face, the expression in those sad eyes, when he realised he had come to the end of the road, is something that will haunt me forever. Even now, as I write these words, I can see his face and I can’t help crying.