English עברית
Chapter 7: Coal train
In Buchenwald, all prisoners mingled together. A prisoner’s status was denoted by his identifying patches, and since we had removed our Jewish insignia, the Germans were no longer able to distinguish Jews from Gentiles. On being re-registered, we presented ourselves as non-Jewish Poles, endeavoring to adopt names whose pronunciation or at least, initials, resembled those of our true names, so as to make them easier to memorize.
“Your name?” the clerk asked me.
“Adam Friderski,” I replied without hesitation; in an instant, I had given up being Abram Frydberg.
There was no room in Buchenwald for all the prisoners. That appears to have been one reason for the German decision to evacuate this camp too. We were loaded on a train. The Jews were sent to Theresienstadt, while the Poles and those posing as Poles were consigned to the nearby camp at Leitmeritz, which was a kind of labor camp for the Flossenbürg concentration camp.
In view of the situation and the rapidly growing chaos we observed in the camp, I approached two of my friends and suggested that we join the next transport leaving the camp in attempt to escape en rout. We did not know where any particular transport was headed, but we had no intention of reaching the final destination. We knew we were on what had formerly been Czechoslovak soil. Resolving to escape, we joined a transport which, in place of the customary freight wagons, was carried in passenger cars - an indication of Germany’s present predicament, which was marked by chaos and confusion.
We were convinced this escape attempt would succeed. We were experienced escapees. Like me, my friends knew that should we be caught once more, the Germans would lose no time in executing us. But we also knew that we had slim chances of surviving the present trek. Nonetheless, an escape attempt was preferable to certain death.
The transport set out. No one knew where it was headed. As for our trio - we were determined to seize upon the first opportunity to flee. At one of the stations, when our train halted alongside a coal train, we exchanged glances. The same thought ran through each of our heads: This is it!
As one man, we leapt from our seats; vaulting to the coal train, we flung ourselves flat onto the coal heap. The Germans had not spotted us.
The coal train arrived at the railroad station in the seventh district of Prague, the capital of Czechoslovakia. This station, located in the area known as Holishovitze, was at the time the site of coal stores.
We arrived in the morning. Still wearing our prisoners’ uniforms, we stood behind one of the station buildings, amidst the heaps of coal, uncertain what to do next.
Dawn broke, bringing a growing risk of discovery by some passerby. Suddenly, we spotted a boy and a girl, whom we took for high school students on their way to class. (We learned subsequently that the boy was headed for a pharmacy where he was employed as a messenger and apprentice pharmacist.) Taking our lives in our hands, we stepped out of our hiding place and stopped them. Addressing the boy with gestures and words of Polish and Russian - languages which bear a considerable resemblance to Czech - we conveyed our need for clothing. The boy replied in Czech, accompanied by gestures. Pointing to his watch, he said “Pockai”. ‘Czekaj’ in Polish means “wait”. We understood that he was advising us to wait for him. He hastened to return the way he had come.
The boy was Jindrich, only son of the midwife Jirina Sobotka and her husband Jindrich. Jirina was the sister of Vlasta Koushova, the secretary of Czech foreign minister Jan Masaryk. They were a family of Czech patriots connected with the anti-German underground.
Jindrich returned home, where he took three suits from the closet, packed them in a small suitcase and walked out.
Jindrich brought the clothing to our rail station hideout. While he served as lookout, keeping watch in all directions, we discarded our prisoners’ uniforms for the ill-fitting civilian clothes. Beckoning us to follow him, he led us by way of the alleys to his family’s modest home, a two-room apartment which also housed his grandmother. Mother Sobotka gave us one swift glance and hastened to put the kettle on the stove. Then she instructed us to undress and, drawing upon her midwifery skills, used a brush, soap, alcohol disinfectant, and hot water to scrub us clean of our accumulated concentration camp filth. Since we were circumcised, she must have guessed that we were Jews, but said nothing.