Elli Kamm: Deportation to Skirotava
Elli Kamm: Deportation to Skirotava
My mother was religious and believed that God would help her and release my father and we would be able to leave. As it turned out, they were not released. In the meantime, we had learned - this was late 1941 - that we should be ready for them to transport us to labour camps and so on and so forth. But we didn't know where and how.
In January 1942, they crammed us together in a large waiting room and put us on trains. The transport went to Riga, in Latvia. The trains were very cold. I don't remember exactly, it was five days, six days. It was cold. Some people's fingers, toes, feet froze, it was terrible. We heard the planes, there was shooting, bombing, but anyway, we arrived at Riga at the end of January, beginning of February. The place was called Skirotava. It was freezing, it was cold. And remember, before we left Germany, they told us we could only take so much. We put on two undershirts, three sweaters, three blouses, three, four pairs of underpants, so that if they took away our luggage, we would still have what we had on our bodies and so we would have the opportunity to change for a while. Sure.
When we arrived in Skirotava, the SS were standing there, I think Obersturmführer (SS Lieutenant) Lange was his name and some others. With dogs and snow up to their necks and they were saying, "Out, out, out!" It was just terrible; I mean such a mess. It was unbelievable. The baggage had to go there, you had to go there, and they told us, they ordered us to stand there in threes or fours and march off. Somehow, before all this happened, I had met a girl from Duisburg, and we became very friendly. Her name was Lotti Berger. She had left maybe a month or so before us, and we weren't sure if she was in Riga, because they were taking people to Lodz, which they called Litzmannstadt at the time, and to very different places, but we were taken to Riga.
And now I see Lotti here, this friend, and she told me very quickly, she had to be very careful, she instructed me on what to do and what not to do: "Go, talk to me, don't turn around, don't do this, don't do that, I'm here so-and-so, I volunteered to help with the people, to help them go to the ghetto, we're going to a ghetto, don't touch anything, don't say anything, try to be as inconspicuous as possible, and do what they tell you to do." She really instructed me, so that when I got to the ghetto, we knew what to expect. Every few days other transports arrived - I think the first one was the Cologne transport, then there was the Leipzig transport, Czechoslovakian, ours was called the "Dortmund transport". When they came into the ghetto, they had districts, this is the Cologne transport, this is from this town and this is from that town, those were the different districts in the ghetto.
When the first Cologne people came to the ghetto, they had just finished killing the Latvian Jews, mothers with their children in their arms, the streets were still full of streams of blood. They came into the rooms, the houses, where the food was still on the table, sometimes still warm, food was still in the oven. They had been rounded up so quickly, they had been killed and they had been taken away, I don't know how many. So there was shelter for these new people.
Anyway, we were the Dortmund transport. And again, there were four or five families in one room. Later we managed to find larger accommodation, I mean, more rooms just for the family, the rooms were cleaned, cleaned by the clean-up squad from whatever was left. They also took people from the ghetto to places outside it every day, so that there was more space again and we could have that one room. Anyway, the ghetto was divided between the German Jews and the Latvian Jews. The Latvian Jews were mainly men, because most of the women and children had been taken away.
In the beginning, there was quite a bit of discontent because their wives and children were gone, and here came the German Jews; maybe they thought they had to make room for us. Food was scarce at the time, but later they had the ghetto better organised. They even had small schools, rooms where the children were taught, they tried to make it as normal as possible, I mean maintain a normal life. They had a hospital, "Lazarett" they called it, they tried to make it as normal as possible.
In the meantime, transports came in, some never made it to the Riga ghetto, some were immediately murdered outside the ghetto. Obviously, we were among the lucky ones to be able to stay there. And then we were herded together to work. Every day, each district had a work detail; somebody was responsible for choosing people to work, there was a camp elder, they were quite organised, as the Germans tend to be. My mother was not able to work. My youngest brother was 7 years old at the time, he was not able to work. So, I was the one who could go out and work, which was good: you could - if you had something left over - you could exchange it for some butter or some bread, or pieces of wood, and take that to the ghetto. And if you couldn't do it yourself, there was somebody else who could do it for you, but then they would take half. Especially the Latvian Jews who spoke the language, and they could do better than we could, because we had language difficulties.
I was very lucky: most of the time I worked for the Wehrmacht, and they were much more compassionate than the SS. But we were led out in columns, marched out of the ghetto with people from the workplace, with column leaders and, there was always someone in charge, and then the armed guards who guarded us, and we went to work in the street. If you worked for the Wehrmacht, it was good. They tried to be as strict as possible, but behind your back, they tried to help you.
For instance, it happened once that a young man came over to me and said, "Go upstairs and clean my room," very gruffly, "and quickly!" And I went upstairs, and upstairs I didn't have to clean his room: there was bread, butter, jam, so I could eat a little better and not be hungry, and my ration that I would get in the ghetto would be for my mother or somebody else. Now the question was, how do you get it into the ghetto? So you cut it into pieces and you put it all over yourself; if you wore pants, you tied your pants, because when you came into the ghetto there were spot checks, they would come over and check you to see if you were bringing anything in.
I don't know, when you're young, you're so brave, you don't care, you do it anyway, you don't think things can happen to you. Because it happened that if they found something on you, they immediately took you to the "Thingplatz" (place of execution), as they called it, and shot you. Well, I managed to get things in, I was lucky, bloody lucky, obviously, and helped my mother that way.
My mother sewed and mended something that I might be able to take out and exchange again for food, so that we could keep ourselves alive. Well, this went on from 1942 to 1943. Gradually people disappeared. They said they were being sent to different work camps, they needed them here and there, but we knew they didn't arrive, they shot them, and they had to dig their own graves. One day, towards the end of 1943, the ghetto was already getting smaller and smaller, fewer people were there.
The man whose job it was to assign workers was someone who had once worked for my parents in Gelsenkirchen, I think he did the bookkeeping. He tried to save my mother, who was a sick woman, tried to keep her name out of the so-called labourers for outside the ghetto for as long as possible. But there came a time when he had no one available, he had to turn in names, people who didn't work, and boy.
And so we were told that on such and such a day they had to stand at the roll call square, they would be transferred to another labour camp, including my mother and my little brother. I was working all the time, my name was not there. I said, "I'll go with you, I wouldn't let you go alone." So, there we are, standing in the roll call square, my mother, my little brother, waiting for whatever to happen, we see some trucks there. At one point my mother says, "Gee, we're standing here waiting, maybe you better run back to the room and try to get another pair of shoes." There was a better pair of shoes. This one had a terrible hole in it. "Why don't you go, see if you can get through and get them."
Well, every few yards there was an SS man with his rifle, with his machine gun, to make sure that no one got through. Somehow, I was young, and they had realized that I was one of the workers, they let me through. I got back, and the room was already in complete disarray. Somehow the SS must have gone there and looked to see if they could find anything, jewellery or gold or money or whatever. I found the shoes, I went back, I didn't see any SS people at all, and I came back, and they were gone.... I was all alone...
I didn't know where they were taken at the time. I was absolutely certain they were dead. Killed here in Riga. Later I found out that they had been taken to Auschwitz. And I had a brother in Auschwitz. Someone from my hometown who had been sent on the same transport said, "Freddie, I saw your mother, your sister and your brother, I know they are here." Oh, I forgot to tell you about Sachsenhausen, Oranienburg.
While we were being taken to Riga, they took them away from there and took them to Auschwitz. And when they got to Auschwitz, they selected my father to the left, my brothers to the right, and my father was taken straight to the gas chamber and Freddie and Leo stayed in Auschwitz. Well, Freddie was young and was able to get along and he had protection, as they called it, he was liked by the camp elder and he was trying to find out where I was, if they had sent me to Auschwitz. He knew that they wouldn't let my mother and my little brother live, that they would send them straight to the gas chamber, but I was a teenager, young and comparatively healthy, able to work, so I could have survived.
And he tried his best to find out if I had survived and to contact me. But it didn't work because I wasn't there. Here I was, left all alone with a few other young people and the ghetto was liquidated. They sent us to Riga-Kaiserwald. It was already a concentration camp. There the men and the women were separated by barbed wire and the SS. There we were greeted by professional criminals who were imprisoned there, and by political prisoners. It was simply terrible.
They put us in a room, we had to strip completely naked, they called it delousing. But nobody had lice at that time. And they took everything that you had from the time in the ghetto. And we were stripped completely naked and put into a shower, showered, and deloused, whatever that might be, and we were given camp clothes. They were too big, too small, the shoes weren't your size, and they put us in barracks. At first, they had two people to a cot, top and bottom.
I forgot to tell you how sick I was in the ghetto, with boils from my neck to my toes and on my arms. You can still see the scars today. And it wouldn't go away, it wouldn't heal, it was unbelievable. Well... Here we were, in the Riga ghetto, no, in Riga-Kaiserwald, trying to live life as it came, every minute, you didn't know what the next minute would bring. From there they brought people to work again, and people disappeared, and they called it "out-of-town barracking." Some people worked in a certain place while they were still in the ghetto. They called it the RBR, that was for the Wehrmacht, where they sorted military clothing and got it ready for the front and so on, that was the most wonderful place to work. This place was able to take the whole group, while they were in Kaiserwald, to stay with them in the headquarters where they provided areas for them to eat, sleep and work because they thought that was better and cheaper for them.
I was lucky, I had a friend, a young man from my hometown who was on good terms with a man who was also from my hometown, who was an auto mechanic, and the SS needed good auto mechanics and only a handful of people were allowed on that job. They said it was the elite workplace where the working conditions were still somewhat normal for the workers. They provided them with food because they had a couple of people in the kitchen, women cooking there, so they had enough strength to fix the trucks and anything that needed to be fixed to go to the front. And through this young man, he was able to give me a job.
I was unskilled, I was a young girl. I told them I had office experience, which I didn't have at all. I could hardly type, and they gave me the job in the office. But you had to be as careful as you could be and not be seen too much with the boy, uh with the man, and I mean every minute you had to watch, you had to be careful what you did, what you said, how you acted. The man who was in charge - I've forgotten his rank, he was a high-ranking SS man who had an office, there was a glass wall right near my chair, no matter how strict he was, every time he came in people would shudder, every once in a while he'd throw me half a sandwich he had left and say, "Here little one, little Jew," he used to call me, "here, this is for you!" barely finishing his sentence, so that no one noticed when I took it and he gave it to me. With these things from the outside, I was able to keep myself alive again, I no longer had to worry about my mother bringing home something to eat, I was alone.
No one knew what the next minute would bring. They still shaved off the women's hair in the Riga ghetto, but in this particular squad where I worked - as I said, it was the elite squad - they didn't touch it. It was a handful of women, and we were able to keep our hair. Of course, the other women looked at us jealously.
So we worked there, until one day Riga-Kaiserwald was liquidated. They put us on a boat in conditions I can't describe. We were crammed like sardines in one big room and people had to do their business, were sick. The Baltic Sea was very rough, it was chaos, just chaos. How many people died, just like that! And finally, they took us off the boat and put us on launches and the only thing I remember is narrow rivers and we sat on these launches for I don't know how many hours and they sent us to this place, Stutthof.
"Stutthof," some people we met immediately told us, "Watch out, this is an extermination camp!" We saw the smoke rising every night and there was no labour camp. In the Riga ghetto we could go outside and in Riga-Kaiserwald we had contact with people from outside and worked. In Stutthof: forget it! It was an extermination camp and nobody was allowed out.
We were huddled together again and were greeted by the SS and by the prisoners who were criminals, many of them were Polish women, and they were just unbelievable. They were not Jews and they treated us like animals. We crowded into a barrack and there were four people in one, no, I mean two upstairs and two downstairs. In the beginning there were four and then they could organise it and then there were two and two. The conditions there were unbelievable. Constant roll call, roll call, morning, noon, and night, and count, count, count. And the people right next to you were dropping like flies. And somehow, you were young, you looked out of the window over to the men's camp. And there was a man standing there all the time, and he was talked to me. He was a political prisoner, from Liepaja I think, also from Latvia. And since he was a political prisoner and not a Jew, he must have been there for quite some time, and he was also an insider, and he managed to ask one of the women who treated us like animals to give me bread on his behalf. I was terrified by this because I was afraid that I would stand out and that I would suffer, be denounced by her to an SS man, "Look, she's getting something from the other side." They would shoot me and that would be it. But it wasn't like that.
He must have known them very well. There were always insiders in the camps, people who got it and people who didn't. And I succeeded. They assigned me to an area that was awful, and I had to scrub four times a day. That meant getting double portions. It was a pretty big area, it had to be scrubbed on all fours and as soon as you were done you had to start all over again. But that gave me the right to two pieces of bread and a little bit more soup. And so again I was someone who was a bit more protected than the others. It was terrible, the conditions were just unbelievable. People were dying like flies from typhus.
And that's how far I was able to escape. Every night we deloused ourselves. It was inevitable, they were in our clothes, in our things, take care, the typhus came from the lice. And we tried to escape that, get infected as little as possible. And I didn't get sick at all, until near the end. Then they put together a huge transport, and most of them were the elite. We had an elite in the camps, people who had more because they knew people. And understand, it was a march to Magdeburg. I had a friend who was from Vilna; I was very young, and she was a little older, and she was very protective of me. And she was told that they were going to this place, to Magdeburg, that they were going on a march to Magdeburg.
By now I was bedridden with such a high fever that I couldn't have walked fifty yards, because I was already burning up. And she came over to me and she said, "Look, I've arranged for you to go to the aid station. You can't come with us. You'll be fine." And I accused her of putting me in the gas chamber, because you couldn't get out of the aid station. That was definitely your next step towards the gas chamber. She promised me, "No, go there". After a while I couldn't walk any more, I was weak from high fever. And how they got me there, I have no idea. Apparently, I was delirious with fever for days. No food, no medication. And I remember the person that was above me was also in the same state, and it came down, she was doing, you know. When I came to, I couldn't find my shoes that were tucked under my neck, couldn't find my clothes, nothing. It was bitter cold, and what do you do? You have no shoes, you have nothing, if they see that, you're an instant candidate for the gas chamber!
In this room, on the other side, in the upper part, there were three girls on a cot. I mean, they had been sent here from Auschwitz. Somehow, we tried to talk to each other. One was from Berlin, and two were from Poland. And when we came to, the high fever went down, and we were able, I mean, to be normal, not delusional anymore, we were able to communicate and talk. How long I was there, I have absolutely no idea because I don't even remember how I got there. By now there were very, very few people in Kaiserwald because the Russian front was getting closer and closer and closer. As the front came closer, the Germans took the Jews and went elsewhere. Bombs must have fallen there, because there was no more water; I remember drinking water that was as bitter as bile.
And whoever was left there at that time, they sent them to another place, near Stutthof. Stutthof was near Danzig. Again, the SS, whatever was left there, few people were left, were pushed into trains, into cattle cars, cattle trains, and because of this high fever, I couldn't even lift my foot enough so that if a step was a little higher, I wouldn't be able to get up there. And here you were crammed into these cattle cars, and it's quite high to get up there. The SS behind you, how do you get up there? I don't have the strength, I couldn't. Well, these three girls were already in better, sort of healthier shape, and they were up there, and they were all pulling me up, and one from behind to push me up, so I managed to get in because I was afraid they would shoot me in the back right away.
Somehow the SS was already a little nicer, because the Russian front was getting so close that they suspected that their days were already numbered, too. And they sent us on this train to a place called Trojmiasto (Dreistadt) near Danzig. It was again crowded there, and when we got there, we saw some political prisoners, a lot of boys, from Warsaw, they were students, they were in this labour camp, this was no longer a concentration camp, they called it a labour camp. And they didn't know what they could do for us. They brought us soup and food because they were already sort of well off, and they had the facilities, there weren't so many people, and the restrictions weren't as rigid as in the camps. We were there for a while, and again the Russians were bombing, again the Germans were trying to liquidate. One day I met a young man, a German, not a Jew, he was close to the commandant, whatever he was, not commandant, the camp elder of this labour camp, and he also was well liked by the SS.
We talked now and then because the rules were not so strict. And he would ask me, "Do you have lice? Do you have this?" and I'd say, "No," and so on. But it was more leisurely, the atmosphere there. He said to me, after a few weeks, "Listen. The Germans are leaving the camp, they're taking everybody with them." I had these three girls that I had met in the station, in the hospital, we had become friends and we were attached to each other, we were, became friends. And we were reminiscing and at the same time wondering if we were going to survive, if we were ever going to get out of this mess, to the point where we even said, "I don't think we could even act like human beings anymore." If we got out, would we have table manners again? Would we know how to hold a fork and a knife? Things like that. Those were just conversations, you know. Nobody believed that we would survive. Because of all the people we had known, very, very few had survived. It was sheer luck that I managed to meet and get extra things here and there.
Now, getting back to this young man, he warned me, he said, "Tonight is the night. They're leaving. They're taking everybody with them. You have to flee because the Russians are close by". Because the Katyushas were flying, you could hear the bombs. Every time it went "Ssssssss!" you knew it had passed you by and you were safe. So they flew right over you, the barracks collapsed, fires, you could see the flickering fires in the sky, it looked like daylight, a beautiful sight, but very scary. And he said, "Try to hide". I told my three friends, "Please, we have to hide". They're rounding up everything that's left here, and they're putting us on a boat." Again, onto a boat. They escaped but wouldn't be able to use the Jews. Well, the SS came with clubs and rounded everybody up, "Out! Out! Out! Out!" And we hid. And we succeeded. Because they had no time, they also had limited time to leave. It was quiet. It was, I can't even begin to tell you, what a feeling it was! It was so quiet. The bombs stopped falling, it was UNBELIEVABLE!
Andreas Jordan, August 2006
Translated by Toby Harrison, November 2021