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1-Introductions, Jewish Practice, Language & Tattoo
Hello. It is April 10th, 2003 and we are interviewing Max R. Garcia in San Francisco.
Can you describe the Jewish practices of the other Jewish kids in your neighborhood?
Most of the parents – most of the men, because the women didn't work in those days, they were hausefrau at home – nearly all the men who lived – the families who lived in our neighborhood were all diamond polishers or diamond workers. Not far from us, maybe three or four blocks away, was one of the major diamond factories, as it was called, where diamonds were cut and polished. It was the Asher factory. Our neighborhood was about 60% or maybe a little bit more Jewish diamond workers and the rest were gentiles, basically in the trades of butchers, vegetable people, you know, non-professionals.
Could you describe the Jewish practices - how conservative were they?
Conservative? No. Everybody in that area in our neighborhood were either Social Democrats, SALAT or they were communists. The majority of them I would think, and this is pure guesswork on my part at my age now, were Social Democrats, which was the prevalent party in Amsterdam among the labors group. My father, for instance, was very active in his union, which was a diamond polishers union. He would go out in election campaigns and put posters up on buildings and tear down posters that the communists had put up. He got in some good fights and my mother would scream at him when he came home bloody. She would say, "What are you doing this for? What are you doing this for? You have a family. You have a family." And he said, "If I don't do it, who will do it?" Basically the neighborhood was solidly working class, blue collar. And I mean dark blue collar.
Specifically in your family, do you remember any holiday celebrations or rituals you did every week?
My father was very non-religious. On my mother's side they were religious to the degree that at Passover they would all collect the chomitz and have it burned up. We would all have matzos for Passover. Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, I do not recall it a family happening. Hanukkah was practically unknown for us in Holland at that timeframe. We as kids got our gifts in December during St. Nicholas Day as did the gentile kids. Christmas for the gentile families was strictly an event to go to church, it was a celebration. And Hanukah, the way I know it here in the United States, was unheard of in my neck of the woods in Amsterdam. So, In terms of social get-togethers, they basically were birthdays.
Did you learn German as a child?
No. My German was learned in a concentration camp because it was a requirement. Well, it was not a requirement, you didn't have to learn it. When I came to Auschwitz, after the registration procedures and all that crap, I was sent on to Buna, which was a sub-camp of Auschwitz. There were big tents, straw on the floor, big tents. There were no buildings. I was in a detail that schlepped cinder blocks to the job site. IG Farben was building the Buna facilities, that's why the camp was called Buna. Buna was artificial rubber. I was in the detail that took cinder blocks up to the level in which they were needing them.
After a few weeks there one night I just burst out crying because now I realized what I was in for. And a person came up to me – probably a man a little bit older than myself, probably in his mid-twenties, I don't recall at this juncture still what language he spoke to me in, I don't know whether it was partially French, German, Polish, whatever – and he made it clear to me that if I wanted to survive all this, if I wanted to live, there were some things I had to do. These things were, number one, I had no parents, I had no sister, I didn't come from Amsterdam, I didn't come from Holland, I actually fell out of the sky into this place. He said. "If you could do that, you're one step closer." He said, "Also you will not talk about any of the foods that you remember eating as a child." He said, "And it is very important that you learn how to use the number on your arm, the tattooed number, that you can listen for it in German, hundert neununddreissig acht neunundzwanzig  and that you be able to say it in German to whoever is calling you, ich bin, hundert neununddreissig acht neunundzwanzig [I am 139829]." And he said, "And if you can, learn it also in Polish."
It is then at that juncture – when I began to learn the number both in German and in Polish – that I began to realize that I should learn German. By learning German you would reduce the chances of being beaten up because you could understand what they were trying to say to you, they could pass the orders to you and you were able to reply in German because you didn't look like a dummy. That's where I learned my German. That’s how I learned it.
"Could you show us your tattoo?"
Could you show us your tattoo?
You said in the last interview, you talked about how it made you feel seeing the tattoo now. Has it evolved?
The tattoo is basically a reminder that I was in Auschwitz. When I shower in the morning or at night, I see it and it doesn't mean anything to me anymore. I have friends who had it removed. She's a doctor's assistant who lives in England. When we saw her last, which was '99, I said, "Where's your number?" Because she had short sleeves on. She laughed and she said, "It's on the shelf." I said, "What do you mean it's on the shelf?" And then he showed me in a jar of alcohol, or some substance, there was a piece of skin with a number in it. I said, "Why did you have it removed?" She said, "Well, it was a quirk, one of those things that I suddenly wanted to do because when I was in the doctors office working as a nurse, I had short sleeves and they would always ask me about the numbers. So, finally I decided to take it down, put it on the shelf, and that was one less question they would always hit me with about the concentration camps."
Were there nationality or language barriers between the prisoners?
When my German became more fluent – when my vocabulary was beginning to expand – one day I had a conversation with a Polish Jew, I think he was Polish because he spoke only Yiddish. And in his 'halfback' German – because Yiddish is a dialect of German basically – he was explaining to me that they, the eastern European Jews, did not consider us, the Dutch Jews, as Jews. And I thought I misunderstood him and I asked him to repeat what he just said. And he said, "We don't think that you Dutch Jews are Jews." I said, "Oh, will you do be a favor?" And he says, "Sure, what can I do for you?" I said, "Lets go to the SS and tell them that so maybe I can go home." Because it was so stupid. I was there for the same reason he was there: I had four Jewish Grandparents. Just because I spoke a different language or I came from a different country, by him, I was looked down upon. And I thought that was kind of bizarre.
Cattle Cars to Auschwitz & to Mauthausen
Could you elaborate on the interactions of the people around you in the cattle car?
Even though I was 19 at the particular time in 1943, it was very difficult for me to understand sex. I had never experienced it, not even at that age, and all of a sudden, I saw some couples on the train. We were not packed standing up, we could sit down and lie down. The car that I was in was not compressed. And I saw these young couples copulate, not caring who was around them. And I could not understand it and it was something new to me. Frankly I didn't know what they were doing to begin with but then when I realized what they were doing it was hard for me to comprehend that people let all kinds of taboos go by and do because they felt at that particular point in time perhaps that life was ending for them and they wanted to do just that.
People went in the middle of the train – in the box car where we had the drum – and they would take off their pants or whatever and they did their thing. They peed in it, they pooped in it and nobody cared about who was seeing it or watching it. It was absurd that all of a sudden that all of these things that we had prided ourselves up to a certain degree – when you went to the toilet you closed the door, other people shouldn't see what you’re doing – all of a sudden these became common things. Nobody cared.
How soon did this happen during your time in the boxcar?
Probably two days in it started off. The first day was the moping day. "What the hell are we doing here," type thing. "Where are we going?" And then all of a sudden, we have no control over it. That’s when these things begin to act up.
In other interviews we heard that people used the dead bodies as benches. Did this happen in your cattle car?
Nobody died in the car that I was in that went to Auschwitz. But later on in my "career," when I went from the railroad siding outside Auschwitz in January '45, we went to Mauthausen in trains with no roofs on the boxcars. At that time they died like... I asked my friend the historian, later on, how many of us survived that train ride – which again was in January of 1945, in the midst of the winter in that area, which is very brutal down there – and he said, "Do you really want to know, Max?" And I said, "Yes, I do." He said, "This is not a comforting thought." He said "90% of you on that train died, only 10% made it to Auschwitz alive." That was in three days and three nights.
Was that when you were going from Auschwitz to Mauthausen?
From Auschwitz we death marched to the railway siding. That was three days and three nights. We slept along the road, but basically we were on the road for three days and three nights. We came to the railway siding and at that point in time I was designated to go – which I didn't know where we were going at the time – on that train and that train was going to go to Mauthausen, which is located in Austria on the Danube River.
We went into these trains – into these cars – and again, we were not really crowed in there. You could sit or lie down. I was very fortunate because in Auschwitz, in the latter – from August to December and that portion in January – I had been working in the Packetstelle. My body had been really built up again with flesh and fat. As well I had reasonably well made clothing. All my prison clothes were handmade, tailor made. I had underwear, which the other prisoners didn't have. I had a winter coat, which necessarily the other prisoners did not have, and I had a lot of food in my pockets. I had a better chance of surviving than other people in that car who didn't have any off these benefits and they died like flies around me. And on that trip, I saw nothing wrong by now, having been in the camps since August 1943, that, "Hey, this guy is dead and I have to defecate," I would sit right on top of him and do my thing. I mean, these were the absurdities. But by that time, they had become the normal thing to do.
Pneumonia & Surgery in Auschwitz
How did you get ahold of the underwear and the special clothing?
The reason I got better clothing is because of what had happened to me prior to me getting to the Packetstelle. And it practically leads us all the way back into October of 1943 when my number was called out and I was assigned to the tischlerei, the carpentry shop. When I registered – when I arrived in Auschwitz I had learned from myself studying in architecture that in order to be a good architect you need to know carpentery well or masonry work well. So when I had put on my registration card that I was a carpenter by profession, lo and behold in October I got called and I was put in the carpentry detail.
To move fast forward, in the meantime I got one pneumonia, then a second pneumonia, and after I was cleared from my pneumonia I went back into the camp and that very same day I start having incredible pains. On Friday – this was on a Thursday – on a Friday morning I went back to the clinic and reported of my pains and they gave me two aspirin and a piece of paper that I didn't have to go to work. I went back on Saturday morning, the same thing two aspirin and a piece of paper. On Sunday the clinic is closed. On Monday I went back and the doctor who had seen me before who was a fellow prisoner said, "You're still here," and I said "Am I not supposed to be?" He got on the phone and he called the SS medical facility and a doctor with whom he spoke said, "I told the doctor that he had a 20-yr old Jewish boy here who had an acute apendicitis that was ready to burst. What do I do with him?" And that SS guy said, "Get him ready for operation I'll be right over."
After I had all that behind me and a friend of mine had been promoted – who was also from Holland and a trumpet player – who had been promoted to become the conductor of the new orchestra in camp. A Kapo came to see him and said, "Lex, I would like you to teach me how to play the trumpet." Lex said, "Fine, but you have to do me a favor." And he said, "I have a friend of mine who is coming out of the hospital who needs help. I want you to take him on in your detail." And that turned out to be the Packetstelle. When I came there – that is where you could steal food – and then after I think I was in the Packetstelle for two weeks when I was moved from the regular block into the Prominenten. Prominenten means "special people." Prominent ones. Because of my thieving and my stealing of food I was now able to have custom-made tailor-made suits, a tailor-made overcoat. I was able to buy shirts and underwear and shoes and socks and handkerchiefs. All the things that we had been accustomed to in Holland but as a piss-poor prisoner you don't get any of this.
And that's how I had these clothes when I hit the train to go to Mauthausen. And I'm convinced that Lex was responsible for my survival.