“What I would like to convey to humanity is a warning against selfishness and duplicity. I want people to see the person living next door as someone close to them. Respect and willingness to share goodness with another person must be instilled in small children, so that in the future there will not be a generation of lords of life and death.”
Maria Wiercigroch – I was born in the mountain town of Sól in Żywiec County on July 26, 1930. My childhood basically ended with the outbreak of World War II. From the age of 9, I witnessed events that have left a mark on my life until today. The tragic experiences began with our arrest on May 10, 1944 when we were taken, my parents and two older sisters and myself to the Gestapo in Bielsko for interrogation. It was there that attempts were made to extract information from our parents about the conspiracy through the beatings and torture that I witnessed.
After a week of investigation, we were taken to Auschwitz to be tried. There I saw a ghostly sight of prisoners in striped uniforms pulling a cart with corpses, accompanied by screaming SS men dressed in black and beating whoever fell. In addition, there was a strange odour in the air. Later it turned out, it came from the bodies burnt in the crematorium. Before we were brought to the cell in block 11, we were separated from my father and subjected to humiliating disinfection, delousing and shaving private parts. It was one of the most embarrassing experiences for me. When the hairdresser, a young desperate girl saw me, I was still less than fourteen years old, she stopped shaving and let me go. Despite disinfection, block 11 was swarming with bedbugs, and the ceiling was literally coated with insects. We were imprisoned in block 11 until November 11, 1944. At that time, executions were not carried out at the death wall, but many people were brought to the square between the blocks to be tried, most often insurgents from Warsaw. After selecting the prisoners, they were packed into specially prepared vehicles for prisoners, which, as it turned out later, during transports to Birkenau, the prisoners were gassed with exhaust fumes.
For us, the square between the blocks served as a walking area. When the selections were taking place, the prisoners in the block had to be quiet and were not allowed to watch. Despite the ban, I sometimes watched what was happening in the courtyard through scratches on the glass which was painted with white paint. In August, my middle sister Ania fell ill with typhus and she was transferred to the camp hospital, thus separating her from us. Ania stayed in Auschwitz until the end, and she escaped during the death march. Then I fell ill with typhus. The prisoners hid me on the top bunk because I was unconscious for several days. I miraculously regained consciousness because there was no medication. It was thanks to the prayers of my mother, sister Stasi and the prisoners, and the Mass that was celebrated in secret for me.
It was a terrible noisy day because the summary court was taking place in the block, during which many people were sentenced to death. In fear, waiting for death, we were imprisoned in the death block until November 11, 1944. Then we were taken to the prison in Mysłowice. There we suffered from lice and hunger. Thanks to a prisoner who knew how to read cards, I learned this skill, which later allowed me to earn my bread. Giving hope to the prisoners helped us to survive the hunger. On January 18, 1945, we were loaded into cattle cars and transported in an unknown direction. The severe frost was entering the wagons so that our hair was frozen against the knobs that had previously been used to tie the animals. In inhuman conditions, which lasted a long time, we were brought to a mountain camp in the middle of the night. It was Mauthausen. Our father was deported there to the men’s camp a little earlier on another transport. This place turned out to be a new hell. It was a camp which was to exhaust the prisoners with hard work in inhumane conditions, hunger, cold, lack of hygiene. As a result, we were devoured by lice which deprived us of all hope. In the camp, we were employed to carry building materials and water in heavy convoys to build shelters for the Germans. We collected stones previously poured with slurry in the field to cover the bomb craters, we cut the reeds above the water which allowed us to wash ourselves stealthily, because there was no water to wash in the camp. The worst job I was assigned to, I was not yet 15 years old, was washing men’s cells. I had to clean the floor and walls of the men who were sick with diarrhoea with cold water and a rag. I could not cope with this task, so my mother volunteered to replace me. In the meantime, I was directed to segregate vegetables, which later ended up in the SS kitchen. Despite working with vegetables, my mother and sister suffered from a terrible hunger. For dinner we were served a watery turnip soup which was cold.
At the end of April 1945, we saw bombings of nearby factories. During these raids, the prisoners working there died. During the air raids, we were herded to a pseudo-shelter which was a deep hole dug in the ground at the bottom of which we stood in water up to our ankles. Guards watched us with two wolfhounds. The dogs were so afraid of the explosion that they did not harm the prisoners.
The end of the war was approaching and the desired freedom was brought to us by the American army on May 3, 1945. After a few months of convalescence, we returned to our family home. My sister Ania arrived back earlier, and my father returned at the same time as our mother and us. Despite the care of liberators, my health deteriorated significantly. I walked bent in two from the pain, and at night I had nightmares and often woke up screaming. All these events have become embedded in my memory and although I would like to forget about them, I cannot.
Today I am 90 years old, disabled, and despite the fact that I lack words more and more, and confuse the names of family members, I still remember the names of my fellow prisoners and the kapos, and the SS men who were the guards over us. I often don’t remember what was for dinner yesterday, and what we talked about a moment ago, but I remember the taste and smell of the camp soup. I remember every situation that took place in the camp.
One day my children asked me if knowing what awaited me, I would have given shelter to someone who was fleeing death? I said absolutely yes. After all, the fate that befell us did not result from the fault of our parents or a hidden soldier, but by a man who was an egoist. The camp showed me how much the help of other people means while surviving the worst.