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2-Kapos and Life in Auschwitz
Were you ever offered a position as a Kapo?
Was I ever offered a position as a Kapo? No. Never.
What did you think of them?
You think good and you think bad, depends who they are. I mean, not all of them are bad. Not all of them are good. They are all in-between, like all people. They have power. Some of them use their power very poorly. Some of them use their power to ammeliorate the conditions that their fellow prisoners are in. It's not a hard fact that you can say "All Kapos are bastards," because some Kapos did help out. It depends what type of person that Kapo himself is and how he wants to remain a Kapo in the sense that he is responsible to the person in charge of the block, which is a fellow prisoner, because that's how they all get assigned these duties.
We were told that there was some trading of goods in Auschwitz...
Every concentration camp has a market. Every camp had a black market in which things that came in the packages that people got from their families – which were all non-Jews who got those, Jews did not get packages. Basically non-Jews who came from Poland, Czechoslovakia, all the East-European or French countries, most of these people were farmers. They would send packages to their family members, be they sons, fathers, brothers. And in these packages – what wasn't already stolen by the SS – they could then trade on the "market."
There was also trading done - and I was involved in that, if that's what you're talking about - which was, having a needle and thread was very important. And why was it important? Because you could help sew on numbers on trousers and on jackets. And for that you could get bread. You gave services and you can consider that being trading on a market. Having a clove of garlic, it was very important because you could rub it on your bread and it gave a little bit of flavor. Of course we all have learned since then that garlic is very good for your health as well, but we didn't know that at that time. A piece of garlic which you guarded with your life if you had one - was, "You want to rub my garlic? I need a piece of bread." Everything had a value. Trading.
The very prominant ones, they trade for cigarettes. They wanted cigarettes. Or they would buy services."I want a shirt." Well, you didn't have shirts made, they would steal one from the people coming on the train, from the Kanada, and you get a shirt. Whatever you want could be done.
I remember Christmas of '44/'45, the last Christmas of the war, and I was in the Packetstelle and the Kapo of our detail said that we should give a very nice gift to the camp commander. And just think about it for a minute, I mean the absurdity of the idea, that you're going to give a gift to the guy who's keeping you in prison. Right? And who can kill you on the whim of a moment. So we all said, "What did he have in mind?" He wanted to give him and his wife one of those silver tea sets, or coffee sets, you know these big things that you can get at – what is it on Post Street and Grant, it starts with an "S" - a silvermaker, whatever his name is. And so we did. And they would not bring the whole damn thing in at once, but pieces would be brought in through the underground in the camps and they were all assembled and then he would put these on a cart. Looking at it now in my mind's eye it looks so weird, thinking back. And they would take it to the camp commander's home and give it to his wife.
And she would say "Ah, how beautiful." It was all stolen from the Jews who had come in on the trains. That's how it was done. It was a weird society. It was absurd. When you look back on it now, it was idiotic. But that was how you stayed alive. You gave favors to others, and they in turn would remember you.
Lex, whom I have mentioned, for instance, he used to play with a combo at the camp commander's house when he had a social. And when he was on a trial for his life after the war, he asked Lex to vouch for him, and how nicely he had treated him. And Lex told him to go "Kiss off." I mean, just because he treated him, thousands of others had to go to the gas chambers because of him. "And now I should speak good words of you? You must be insane." He was hung.
Relationship with Lex von Weden
Can you describe your relationship with Lex?
Lex and I met for the first time in the hospital when I had my first pneumonia. Lex had been active in the underground in Holland hiding little children. Lex had been since he was fourteen years old become quite a trumpet player. By the time he was 17 – he was five years older I am – by the time he was 17, he was really a professional jazz trumpet musician. He played in bands in Holland. When he was arrested – he was not arrested as a Jew, he was arrested being in the underground – but by the time he wound up in Auschwitz, he was a Jew. Which he was.
He was sent to the coal mining camp – these were all underground – and your life expectancy there was 90 days. After 90 days you were supposed to die. And one of the Kapos in the mine was a Dutchman who had known Lex as a trumpet player. And he went to one of the guards – one of the supervisory guards – and said, "Do you realize that you have here one of the best trumpet players in Holland, if not in Europe, working in the coal mines?" This was around Christmas, 1943 – '43-'44. So they brought him out of the mines, and they gave him a coronet. Do you know what that is? It's a trumpet without valves. They said, "Here it is, you got to play 'Silent Night on Christmas Eve.'" He said he looked at that instrument, and he said and there were so many holes in it, it took him a number of hours to hammer and close down some of the holes, put paper over it in other situations, and glue it all together. Ant then get his lips going again. He realized that his life was at stake.
And that night, he said, he played "Silent Night". He said, "And I played it over and over and over again," because the guys were getting drunker and drunker and they insisted that he play.
They had told him that if he played to their satisfaction, they would write him up as sick and would send him to Auschwitz to the main camp. He came to Auschwitz shortly after New Years Day. He was transported to Auschwitz on a truck. Now, I want you, if you can, to imagine for a minute an open-bed truck, side panels and a cabin in front. And in that cargo hold, they had stacked bodies, dead bodies, on which the number that you have on the arm is written in ink in big letters. Naked. They were stacked like pieces of wood. And so when they told him that he was going to go to Auschwitz, they told him to climb on top and sit on top. So they went to Auschwitz and he rode on top of all those dead bodies.
He came to Auschwitz and he was put into standard details, just working details. And about the same time that I started getting my first pneumonia, he had his first, which was approximately in April of 1944. And that's how we met, in the hospital. Until that time, based on what I have told you earlier, when that man had told me in Buna, "Learn to forget about Holland, about your parents, about the whole thing," and I had stayed away from the Dutch very much. The Dutch had a tendency to reminisce about all the good things that they had remembered – the meals, the restaurants they had eaten in, their families. Pretty soon many of these people died or ran into the electric wires to commit suicide.
Lex and I met on the same floor – Lex was a little bit taller than I – and we became friends. We had the same problems. And when you're on that ward – we were on the second floor – every so often you have to go through a selection. You know when you come off the trains when you first arrive in Auschwitz you go to a selection process where the women and the men are separated. The men and the women who are able to work are separated again, which is your first selection. And in the hospital you have selections ever so many weeks when their guy sits there and you have to walk towards him stark naked, come to attention, and he'll decide right there that you go to the gas chamber or you stay alive.
Lex went through that and I went through that several times and obviously we survived it. During that timeframe, in the early middle part of '44, the Germans were having their first setbacks in the Soviet Union when the Red Army began to move westward and began to beat up on the Germans.
Can you describe your friendship with him?
The friendship post-war. He had been placed on the train to go to Dachau concentration camp – which is near Munich in Germany – and I was sent off to Mauthausen. He had thought that I had died during these final months. I conversely had thought he had died. My wife and I and others began to setup the Holocaust Center here in northern California – which used to be called The Holocaust Library of San Francisco. Somewhere in the early 80's I sent a notice to the Auschwitz committee in Holland – we were putting out a little newsletter – in which I said in Dutch who I was and would they please publish what I was just writing them, which really was, I would like to get documents and things that they who had been imprisoned had no use for so we could use them in the library. Lex, having been in Auschwitz, got a copy of that particular newsletter. So he wrote me a letter, all in Dutch, and the opening paragraph was, "If you are the Max Garcia I think you are..." breaks here...Do you remember all that? [referring to previous interview]"
What more can you tell us about your friendship with Lex?
I did not know until I had met Lex again the first time around that he had been instrumental in saving my life. I had been led to believe that because I got that good job was the fact that I was an old number, had been alive for over a year, and that I needed a good job because I had persevered. It was only after the war when we first met when we had the discussion that he brought up the point that he got me that job. And I was flabbergasted by that because I had believed that all these years the other story. I had no reason to doubt him.
In the days that we're talking about in the early 80's – my office used to be on Sutter right above Maxwell Art Galleries and right across from Elizabeth Arden – and I would fly from my office window the flag of Amsterdam.You remember that from the other interview? So I don't have to go through that. He turned to take to the right instead of taking a look to the left. He said, "If I had looked to the left and had seen the flag of Amsterdam, I would have hightailed it over there and said 'Who the Hell is that person who has the Amsterdam flag hanging out there.'" And he said I never did. And I also mentioned I believe in my last interview that I did go back just before he died.