“The train started moving. We had no idea where it was taking us,” recalled Eddie Weinstein of his perilous journey to Treblinka, one of the six infamous death camps manufactured by the Nazis to destroy the Jews of Europe.
“Nobody - nobody in his wildest dreams could have imagined what they were going to do to us, what they were going to do to our mothers, fathers and children,” Weinstein said.
According to Bonnie Gurewitsch, the archivist and curator at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in Manhattan, the term “concentration camp” is a generic one used to refer to the forced labor encampments created by the Nazis, but also to those establishments created to kill the Jews and other persecuted groups as efficiently as possible.
The first mass deportations to concentration camps began a year after the ghettos were formed. People were sent to camps based on proximity to the ghettos and detention centers where they were held.
Methods of mass murder were soon developed to replace the slow and messy method of a shooting death. First, people were gassed with carbon monoxide in vans driven by mobile killing squads. Ultimately, Weinstein explained, the Nazis’ “Final Solution” to the “Jewish Question” became so fine-tuned that they could liquidate 20 cattle cars of human beings in a mere two hours upon their arrival at places like Treblinka. The bodies, burned in crematoriums, disappeared in curls of smoke.
Treblinka, along with Belzec, Chelmno and Sobibor, were the camps constructed exclusively for large-scale extermination. Auschwitz and Majdanek, Gurewitsch explained, served the dual purpose of forced labor and execution by a toxic gas called Zyklon B. All six death camps were in Poland.
The thousands of work camps from Austria to Yugoslavia, however, were also factories of death. While the infamous Nazi gas chambers - into which Jews were herded and told they were freshening up in “showers” - did not grace the grounds of work camps, death ran its course in other ways.
“You could die from a cut on your finger because there was no medical attention,” Gurewitsch explained.
The interned were slave laborers, sent to toil in factories or on neighboring farms, where, undernourished, they were often worked to death.
“We were working in the snow, in the rain. In Poland there is more snow than in Buffalo,” explained Weinstein, a Little Neck resident who, before entering Treblinka, was sent to the Siedlce concentration camp in Poland.
At Siedlce, Weinstein and the other prisoners turned boulders into gravel to maintain the main road that led to the Russian front. They slept in unheated barracks and had practically nothing to eat.
“Over there it was labor. People were dying from sickness, but they didn’t kill you,” said Weinstein, explaining that Siedlce and other work camps were harmless compared to the extermination camps.
Often times, the journey to the camp alone amounted to a “selection,” thinning out a population of Jews who were packed into trains with no food or water and a lack of oxygen.
“You could see mothers still clutching their babies, husbands still embracing their wives. In some, three generations died. I knew those people - they were from my town,” Weinstein said of the asphyxiated Jews who often made up 70 percent of a train car.
Many of those who were still alive upon arrival kicked out train windows and, out of desperation, ran toward the water pump.
“Every one of them was shot - killed,” Weinstein recalled.
Minia Moszenberg, of Ozorkow, Poland knew about the horrors of the concentration camps long before she arrived at the gates of Auschwitz. She had seen the notes people had thrown out of the trains whisking them away from the Lodz ghetto.
Moszenberg was alone, having seen all of her family paraded off to their deaths during one “selection” or another.
“They died. People just died; they died all around you,” said Moszenberg, who was nearly chosen for one of Nazi officer Josef Mengele’s infamous medical experiments.
“All kinds of horrible things,” took place, Moszenberg recalled, such as the castration of innocent males, not to mention the hunger and the beatings for stealing something as small as a potato to eat.
Nothing rivaled the mass killings, however.
Steven Berger, originally from Hungary and now living in Little Neck, was forced to work as a mechanic while at a concentration camp.
A valued worker, Berger was spared a harsh beating when he lost his glasses and instead, was given an address where he could go pick up a new pair.
Upon arriving at his destination, Berger was led into a massive warehouse with hundreds of thousands of pairs of eyeglasses piled onto tables; they came from the dead at Auschwitz, he was told.
“We were in complete darkness,” said Berger of the knowledge most Jews lacked regarding the vastness of the Nazi killing machine.
“I didn’t know what a concentration camp was” before I got there, he said. “I had never heard the word.”
However, Berger, like the other Jews of Europe, quickly learned what was happening. Twelve thousand people were being killed every day, he said. The rest were forced into slave labor, working dawn to dusk.
“We just prayed we wouldn’t get sick,” said Berger, who collected tobacco from cigarette butts to trade with other prisoners for bread.
“If we got sick, that was the end of the line.”
Those who maintained the will to live - the camps robbed many of that desire, propelling some to throw themselves onto electric fences or into the sightlines of Nazi rifles - were willing to go to great lengths to survive.
At one point Weinstein drank urine and Moszenberg ate coffee grinds.
“I often say…to understand Auschwitz you had to have been there,” explained another survivor who needs only to stare down at the identification number tattooed on her forearm to recall the daily “selections” in which hordes of innocent people were sent to their deaths while a Jewish orchestra provided the melancholic soundtrack.
“Thank God not everybody was [there],” the survivor added.