After eight months in various prisons he was sent to Auschwitz. And it just got worse. From June and all through the first six months of , the SS were keen to kill inmates — beating them to death with batons — as the simplest way to cope with the camp's overcrowding. Today, the starvation, unimaginable brutality and physical labour that made the concentration camp a living hell are well documented.
But the details of Piechowski's memories still have the power to shock. Inmates were each given a spoon and a tin bowl — not just to eat and drink from, but also to urinate in at night. Sometimes the guards would murder just to get a holiday, he says. They would then order the prisoner to fetch it. As the prisoner was running, the officer would shoot them. Then they would claim the prisoner was trying to escape and get three days off for foiling it. How did people cope? For six weeks, Piechowski was set to work carrying corpses after executions.
They would line prisoners up and shoot them in the back of the head. Men, women and children. Yet he did not think of trying to escape until a friend's name appeared on a death list. Like many of the boy scouts in Auschwitz, Piechowski joined the resistance movement in the camp. As many of the scouts spoke German, they found useful positions — some were even among the prison police and were able to access the prisoners' files. One day, a Ukrainian friend, Eugeniusz Bendera, a gifted mechanic who worked in the camp's garage, came to him.
I was devastated," Piechowski says. The germ of an escape plan formed. The escapees would have to make it through the infamous Arbeit macht frei gate the legend meant "Work sets you free" , and also break out of the outer perimeter of the complex. Yet Piechowski could not dismiss his friend's plea. Slowly an idea took shape.
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But holding him back were the consequences for other prisoners. On 20 June — two years to the day after Bendera entered Auschwitz — the conspirators met in the attic of a half-built block to run through the escape plan for the last time. It was a Saturday, when work stopped at midday and the store rooms and motor pool would be unmanned. Before they left they said a prayer for their families, and agreed that if the attempt failed they would shoot themselves.
But we said: 'We have to do this, we have to believe. Picking up a rubbish cart containing kitchen waste, the four started walking towards the Arbeit macht frei gate. Here Piechowski told the guard he was part of a squad taking the rubbish away, praying the guard would not check to see if they were registered. Their luck held and they were able to walk freely out of the main camp and towards the store block.
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From that moment we did not only need courage, but intelligence. At the stores, three of them made their way to trap doors covering chutes to the coal cellars. That morning while at work, Piechowski had unscrewed a bolt keeping the doors locked so they could climb in. They made their way to the second-floor store room, broke down the door and dressed themselves in officers' uniforms. Meanwhile, Bendera got into the garage with a copied key and brought round the car.
The mechanic had picked the Steyr — the fastest car in Auschwitz, there for the sole use of the commandant. We took it because if we were chased we had to be able to get away. They drove to the main gate — passing SS men who saluted them and shouted Heil Hitler. But for Piechowski, the biggest test was still to come. We just planned that I would play the role of an SS officer so well that the guards would believe me.
Yet as they approached the barrier, the guard did not move.
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Escaping the train to Auschwitz
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