Much has been said and written about the horrors at the concentration camps and the crimes that took place across Europe during the Holocaust. A number of writers have shared their experiences of the camps during the Second World War, but Last Stop Auschwitz: My Story of Survival from Within the Camp by Eddy de Wind is believed to be the only book written from inside a concentration camp.
De Wind was the last Jewish doctor to graduate from Leiden University in the Netherlands, before the German occupiers began forcing Dutch universities to exclude Jewish students and faculty. He volunteered to work at Westerbork — a transit camp for the deportation of Jews in north-eastern Netherlands — as he was told that his mother, who had earlier been taken to Westerbork, would be exempted from deportation in exchange for his work. However, at the camp, he found out that she had already been sent to Auschwitz. While working at Westerbork, he met Friedel, a nurse, and soon they got married. The couple was deported to Auschwitz in 1943.
Located in southern Poland, Auschwitz — the largest of the Nazi concentration and death camps — was set up in 1940 as a detention centre for political prisoners. However, it soon became a network of camps where Jewish people and anti-Nazi activists, politicians, resistance members and luminaries from the cultural and scientific communities were detained. A sub-camp within the Auschwitz complex — Auschwitz II-Birkenau — contained the notorious crematoriums.
It is believed that, during the Second World War, about 1.3 million people were sent to Auschwitz, out of which 1.1 million lost their lives, including 960,000 Jews. Those who were initially spared, died of starvation, exhaustion, disease or beatings; many were subjected to brutal medical experiments.
In January 1945, an estimated 60,000 prisoners were forced to make the death march to other locations, as German officials left the camp in fear of the approaching Soviet army. On entering Auschwitz, the Soviets found thousands of emaciated detainees who had been left behind.
Seventy five years after the liberation of Auschwitz, English readers get an extraordinary account of life in a concentration camp
To avoid the death march, De Wind hid in a pile of old rags and stayed in the camp. He found a register and some pencils and began to write about his experiences. He was so traumatised by the horrors of his experience that he created the character of Hans to be the narrator of his story, which was initially published in Dutch at the start of 1946, titled Eindstation Auschwitz. In 1980, it was republished and now, 75 years after the liberation of Auschwitz, the book has been translated for the first time in English under the title Last Stop Auschwitz.
Hans and Friedel arrived at Auschwitz with a thousand other prisoners, locked in an ordinary freight carriage with a bucket for a toilet and no food or water, for a trip that took three days. Upon arrival, the De Winds were separated, as men and women were to live in separate barracks. After their personal belongings were confiscated, they were put through a brutal selection process — children, the aged and the infirm were immediately sent to the gas chambers, while those considered fit for work were stripped naked, shaved, sprayed with disinfectant, tattooed with a number, ordered to pick clothes from a pile of used garments and sent to overcrowded barracks.
Most were employed as slave labour to work in mines, quarries and heavy construction or in factories within the Auschwitz complex for the production of weapons and other products that Germany needed during the war. Here, the thinking reader realises how the Germans had progressed in the world of inventions — manufacturing synthetic rubber and building a plant to extract energy from sludge while utilising prisoners in the form of free labour.
The conditions in the barracks were inhuman. The diet, which consisted of “one litre of soup a day and a ration of bread, then twice a week, 40 grams of margarine, a spoonful of jam and a 40-gram slice of sausage” totalled about 1,500 calories per day — insufficient to sustain even a sedentary person. The detainees were given straw mattresses and often slept in triple bunks, and could be subjected to things such as an unannounced foot inspection in the middle of the night.
Prisoners assigned to places such as a hospital, food preparation facilities and warehouses in Auschwitz had a greater chance of surviving. In De Wind’s account, we read of people exchanging favours for their ration of food, or the privileged (mostly Poles), who received packages from home, for part of the contents.
Each day, each hour, at the camp was a battle for survival. While Hans had to negotiate with the volatile guards in the medical barracks where he was kept for the most part, Friedel had to concentrate on avoiding the Schutzstaffel (SS) physicians conducting horrifying medical experiments, which most probably were aimed at sterilising non-Aryan races.
Despite such daily stresses, Hans and Friedel maintained contact; they grabbed every opportunity to pass notes through a barbed wire fence between their barracks, or steal a brief embrace, sometimes taking great risks. Whatever the circumstances, Friedel and Hans clung to life, giving hope to each other.
To avoid the death march, De Wind hid in a pile of old rags and stayed in the camp. He found a register and some pencils and began to write about his experiences.
During the final days of Auschwitz’s existence, Hans saw Friedel leave on one of the death marches, heading west towards Germany. He kept thinking of her; whether she had made the journey safely or perished somewhere on the way, lying in the snow; how once they had stood alongside each other and now he was alone. But then he thought he was not entirely alone.
He writes: “He still had her image before his eyes. Inside him this vision would stay always forever. He would draw strength from it for what has become his task in life. She would exist through him, so that her life had not have been in vain, and her soul would live through him, even if her body was resting there in those hazy blue mountains.”
Last Stop Auschwitz is an extraordinary account of life as a prisoner in a concentration camp, a real-time report of the daily struggle to survive, of the horrors and suffering, as well as occasional humanity that Hans witnessed, or was told of by the other inmates. Especially horrifying are tales narrated by those who somehow escaped the death march and were left at Auschwitz as the Russian forces marched in, such as one Professor Kabeli who had worked in the gas chambers for a year.
Although Hans felt guilty that he survived while so many others couldn’t, he wanted to live to tell the world what happened at the camp, just like the young Dutch woman Roosje Vos, who had escaped from a death march and said: “I have to stay alive to tell all of this, to tell everyone about it, to convince people that it was true.” De Wind’s book is a testimony of the horrors they faced.
However, it is not just a story of the brutalities in the camp. It is also a testament of De Wind’s love for Friedel and the joy they found in each other. De Wind himself saw the book as a story that illustrates “how some people can continue to support and love each other even under the most extreme circumstances, retaining a certain freedom of their mental faculties.”
It also shows “how intolerance and an extreme sense of superiority can lead to the most unimaginable deeds”, as said in ‘A Note on the Author and the Text’ by the De Wind family at the end of the main text. The note not only gives background information about Eddy and the De Wind family, and the publication and translation of the book, but also tells the reader how De Wind reached Westerbork camp, as well as his life after Auschwitz.
An article, ‘Confrontation with Death’ that De Wind wrote in 1949, in which he introduced the idea of concentration camp syndrome and his philosophy of death, is also included in the book.
The reviewer is a freelance journalist and tweets @naqviriz
Last Stop Auschwitz: My Story of Survival from Within the Camp
By Eddy de Wind
Translated from Dutch by David Colmer
Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, February 28th, 2021