Story from Bill Tope

I Held My Breath


We had been crowded into a low-ceilinged

room the size of a small church.   Cement

walls and floor.   The soldiers had confis-

cated all our clothes, our shoes, what jewel-

ry and personal effects that had remained

with us.  Most of it had long ago been

bartered away for food or clean water or

other privileges scarce in the compound.


We were completely naked:  the men, the

women, even the little children.  Our heads

had been shaved.  Rumor had it that the

Huns stuffed their pillows and mattresses

with our hair.


The room was entirely vacant but for the

human bodies; our pale white flesh was the

color of a fish’s belly, and we were stuffed

into the room like oysters into a turkey.


We had all been shipped to the death

camp--Todeslager--like cattle to the

slaughter, in box cars, with no food or

water.  With scarcely enough room

to breathe.  Once or twice a plane flying

overhead had strafed the train with

machinegun fire.  Perhaps our own

brave pilots.


There were no youths or middle aged men

and women; they had all been absorbed into

the vast slave labor network the Huns oper-

ated.  Only the crippled, the maimed, the

feeble and the old, like myself, were here,

save for the very young, who weren’t hardy

enough for slave labor.


We were in Treblinka.  It was June, 1943

and the rumor was that the camp would

be closed soon.  We had no room to lay or

sit or even turn around.  We were like the

kippers that were packed in oil or mustard

and that the inmates in labor camps--the

Arbeitslager--got from the Red Cross.  At

Treblinka we never received our kippers.

There were nothing but rumors flying

throughout the compound:  I had heard it

said that the German women made lamp

shades with our skin.


Some of the old men stared up at an aperture

in the ceiling, about a foot and a half over our

heads.  That, they said, was where the Ger-

mans would deposit the Zyklon B, the poison

they would gas us with.  The Commandant,

addressing the prisoners some time ago, had

bragged that superior German industry had

created many wonderful things.  This was per-

haps the example he had in mind when he

said that.  He had seemed very proud.


One of the younger of the men had been a

helper, removing the bodies from the chamber

after the gas had dissipated.  After everyone

was dead.  He told us all about how it worked. 

The poison--prussic acid--he said, worked fast. 

There would be a rattling over our heads, in the

chute that the poison was fed into.  Someone,

he said with a grotesque grin, always tried to

keep the pellet from descending.  But fall it

always did.  For his labors he had received

an extra crust of Brot.


We waited.  And waited.  Suddenly there was a

clattering overhead, in the chute.  The pellet of

Zyklon B was descending.  A tall man, as if act-

ing a part in a movie, attempted to prevent the

pellet from falling, where it would crack open and

then dissipate in a cloud of murderous vapor. 

His hand slipped.  Suddenly, a large white pellet

crashed to the floor, burst open and a deadly,

diaphanous cloud rose up.  A woman cried out.

The lethal “showers” had begun.  I held my


This piece was originally published in Children, Churches and Daddies.