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The Auschwitz SS guards put ropes around the necks of 10 Polish prisoners and made all inmates of the infamous extermination camp watch.

The guards had found a gun and were threatening to hang all their beaten and tortured suspects unless told how the weapon had been smuggled in.

"One by one, the prisoners screamed their innocence before they were hung," says Rajmund Pierzchaj這, 84, a Pole who survived Auschwitz to become a school teacher in Edmonton.

The guards kept the man they believed to be the leader until last. They again told him his life would be spared if he revealed how the gun had been brought in.

"The man, in very bad shape, nodded as if in agreement and the senior SS officer leaned close," says Pierzchaj這.

"The prisoner lifted his head and spat in the SS man's face."

The man was executed immediately. But the Nazi's plans had backfired.

"Those watching, most of them starving and very sick, knew their lives could be instantly snuffed out," says Pierzchaj這. "But instead of being more terrified, this man had returned their dignity by his bravery and defiance."

SPENT 40 MONTHS IN AUSCHWITZ

Pierzchaj這 spent three years and four months in Auschwitz and says he witnessed countless brutal beatings, executions carried out at the whim of guards, and countless Jews and others walk innocently to the gas chambers.

Auschwitz became the biggest killing machine the world has ever known. Estimates of the numbers who died vary between 4 million and 5 million.

The majority of them, and above all the mass transports of Jews who arrived beginning in 1942, died in the gas chambers. As well as Jewish people, more than 140,000 Poles, about 20,000 Gypsies, more than 10,000 Soviet prisoners and an estimated 10,000 non-Jewish Europeans were among those killed.

"Everyone knows the smell of a barbecue," says Pierzchaj這. "We had that smell in our nostrils every moment of every day. It was the smell of burning flesh. We of course felt sorry for all those who died. But there was absolutely nothing we could do."

Pierzchaj這's prison number, 12623, will be on his left arm until the day he dies. "They began tattooing numbers on people after those who died were so bloodied that they couldn't identify them," says Pierzchaj這.

DIDN'T SEE IT COMING

Born in Warsaw in 1920, Pierzchaj這 had no idea of the trials he would face when his family fled the city because of German bomb attacks in 1939.

He and his 16-year-old brother Wies豉w set off to join the Polish army in Deblin, near Warsaw. But with 45 others, they were found asleep in a barn, arrested and sent to a prison camp.

They were released a month later and reunited with their family. Pierzchaj這 later studied mechanics at a technical school.

But when the Gestapo knocked on their door during the night of Dec. 5, 1941, the family's real nightmare began.

"The Gestapo was looking for my youngest brother Romauld, who wasn't yet quite 16," says Pierzchaj這. "He had been circulating underground flyers. I mumbled my name so it sounded like his and they arrested my father and I." While dressing, Pierzchaj這 whispered to his mother: "They came for Romek. Send him away."

The Gestapo realized their mistake the next day and returned for Romauld. But he had escaped. He hid with relatives throughout the war and dodged death.

Pierzchaj這 and his father Piotr were held in the brutal Pawiak jail. Three months later, Pierzchaj這 was sent to Auschwitz, which at the time mainly housed Polish political prisoners and German criminals.

On the day he left, he wrote a hurried letter to his father saying: "Dearest Father, I am leaving in a transport. I am sending my latest greetings to you Daddy and the whole family. You will certainly spend Easter holidays at home. Please tell Mummy that when God permits we shall see each other again."

Pierzchaj這's father was executed 18 months later. His grave was exhumed after the war and his body identified by the letter in his pocket from his son.

And by two medallions he carried with him of the Madonna and her child.

EXPECTED TO DIE SOON

Pierzchaj這 didn't expect to last more than two weeks in Auschwitz.

Heinrich Himmler ordered the establishment of the first camp in April, 1940, and the first transport of 728 Polish political prisoners arrived in June. The camp was built near the Polish town of Oswiecim, 40 kilometres from Krakow.

"No one was said to survive there longer than two weeks," says Pierzchaj這. "I wasn't yet 21 and decided I was going to live longer, even if it was only a few days. I would then send a letter to my mother and she would be proud of me."

Prisoners were beaten daily, punched, kicked and sometimes attacked by dogs.

Pierzchaj這 had a close brush with death one day when digging a hole.

"Everyone was terrified of the guard's ferocious dogs and I jokingly said a dog guarding us would never harm me," says Pierzchaj這. "I'll never know why, but a man working with me yelled to the guard: 'This guy says your dog would never harm him.' "

The guard told Pierzchaj這 to get out of the hole and ordered his dog to attack. But the dog stopped a metre short of Pierzchaj這. He was again told to attack.

"When the same thing happened again, the guard immediately shot the dog and hit me in the face with his rifle," says Pierzchaj這. "Five teeth fell out. It wasn't until after the war that I was able to get the stumps removed."

Pierzchaj這 later asked a Pole in the camp furniture factory to show him how to operate machinery. His skills were tested by a German civilian supervisor, who told Pierzchaj這 he knew he wasn't a carpenter. "But he thought I was young and smart and would learn quickly."

SECOND CAMP BUILT IN 1941

The inefficiency and uneasiness of some (including German troops) when SS death squads murdered Jews in countries they overran made the Nazis decide on a secret extermination policy.

In 1941, a second concentration camp, called Birkenau, was built.

It was a huge SS extermination complex that included "bathhouses" for gassing prisoners; cellars for storing bodies and cremation ovens.

"After arriving by freight car, Jewish prisoners were subjected to selection.

"Strong young men and women were picked for forced labour while the aged, the infirm, children and their mothers were sent to the gas chambers. Some were chosen for medical experiments."

Jewish people worked alongside Pierzchaj這. Others he met as they worked under the supervision of guards.

"As a carpenter, I also visited the Birkenau and other sub-camps to make repairs," he said.

"I saw what was going on. I saw the never-ending black columns of smoke belching from chimneys."

He remembers trying to warn one man, selected to work, complaining about a bad leg and wanting to get onto a truck.

"He insisted and finally a guard smiled, nodded his head and told him to get onto a truck," says Pierzchaj這. "He didn't know he had just condemned himself to immediate death."

WATCHED PEOPLE MURDERED

Through cracks in the boarded windows of his barracks, Pierzchaj這 watched almost daily as Poles, Jews, Russians and sometimes Germans walked out of a "death barrack" and were shot in the back of the head.

"Once, a Polish girl of about 18, knowing she was about to be shot, shouted the first words of the Polish anthem before a bullet ended her life," he says.

Pierzchaj這 watched the first Russian prisoners -- about 500 top officials of the NKVD, the political police -- arrive after the Nazis invaded the Soviet Union.

"They looked well-groomed and marched with confidence, as if to say, 'Stalin wouldn't let anyone harm us,' " says Pierzchaj這. "But most or all of them were of Jewish ancestry and were placed in the death barrack."

They were starved and then, over several days, told to strip naked before being marched outside one by one.

"They were all shot in the back of the head," says Pierzchaj這.



AN ACT OF BRAVERY

A valiant act of heroism he witnessed one day was when a Pole brushed by him from the back of a crowd saying: "Excuse me, would you let me pass?"

A prisoner, who had his head wrapped in a paper bandage, had been selected to die by hunger in a death bunker.

In perfect German, the man who had elbowed his way forward asked he be allowed to take the condemned man's place. He said he didn't have a family.

When a German officer asked who he was, he replied: "I am a Catholic priest."

Pierzchaj這, who later discovered the man's name was Father Kolbe, says: "The German's face turned blue from anger. He stormed away. But he said the men could switch places."

Ten years ago, Pierzchaj這 met the man who was saved, Franciszek Gajowniczek, while attending mass in Phoenix, Ariz.




COVERED IN SORES FROM HUNGER

Stale bread and thin soup were the main diet of prisoners, and Pierzchaj這 says he was so undernourished that great open sores broke out on his legs.

"I made bandages from toilet paper," he says. "One day a guard needed a job done in the shop and I did it. Next morning he came by and pointed out a package on a desk that he'd left for me. It was four onions. I devoured them all immediately. My sores were better for a time after that. But I still have the deep marks on my legs today."

One incident of hope came when a truck and a vehicle with officers and men arrived and presented a list of 16 prisoners they wanted.

"They spoke impeccable German and were in Nazi uniforms," says Pierzchaj這. "They kicked and beat the prisoners they were handed and drove off.

"It was later we found out the SS soldiers were members of the Polish underground. They had come to save lives."

WORKED IN A BOMB FACTORY

In the fall of 1944, with the Allies closing in, Pierzchaj這 was sent with others to work in a German ammunition factory and then a bomb factory. American bomb raids forced evacuation and they were being marched to quarries when an American reconnaissance plane spotted them.

"When a tank with a white star appeared later, I thought we had unfortunately met the Russians," says

Pierzchaj這. "But the hatch opened and I saw a smiling black face. They were Americans. We kissed the tanks with joy." During his years of captivity, Pierzchaj這 said he and his friends talked keenly of hanging the Nazis in revenge.

"But amazingly, after being liberated all hatred of the Nazis and desire for revenge evaporated," says Pierzchaj這.

"We'd seen enough blood and killing. We wanted to live normal lives."

CAME TO CANADA

After the war, Pierzchaj這 studied medicine in Germany for three years and met his future wife, Jadwiga. Fearing the Soviets might enter West Germany in 1949, they emigrated to Canada.

"It's ironic, but 36 big sheds where the Nazis stored valuable items stolen from those they murdered were nicknamed Canada," says Pierzchaj這. "To us, Canada was a rich, wonderful, mysterious world. I couldn't believe we were going to the real Canada."

Pierzchaj這 worked on an Alberta farm, the railroad, as a cook and a handyman before teaching automotive mechanics at St. Joseph's high school for 20 years.

He and his wife have four children, one of whom they adopted to thank God for seeing Pierzchaj這 through his trials.

Pierzchaj這 believes it was his faith that kept him alive. "I prayed every day," he says. "That's when I wasn't too tired."

The memory of those dreadful times still brings nightmares.

When he finds his mind drifting back during the day, he makes himself think of the few lighter moments there were at Auschwitz. SS-Hauptsturmfhrer (Captain) Rudolph H飉s was the commandant of Auschwitz and never did find out what happened to his impeccably groomed German shepherd that vanished as soon as it arrived at the camp.

"The dog was cooked in the prisoners' kitchen," says Pierzchaj這. "If you have ever been close to dying from hunger, you'd know what a treat that was."

Edmonton Journal, Alberta, Jan 29, 2005

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