"Why should I help you?," he said. "What can you give me?"
"My finger, my arm, my soul, what do you want? All I have is a spoon and a bowl."
"Give me your soup in the evening, and I will show you how to repair shoes."
I gathered up all the materials and brought them to him, and he taught me. By 5 o'clock when the boss came in, I was ready with the shoes.
In the evening when I got my soup, my mentor--the whole camp called him Mickey Mouse because he had such big ears--said from behind me, "Give me your soup." I gave it to him, went off to my bed, covering myself with the blanket. I hadn't eaten the whole day and couldn't bear to look at them with their soup. But I had the chance to go out of the camp to repair shoes again. The next day we marched the eight kilometers to town in snow and mud. I was so hungry, I had very little strength. All of a sudden I saw something in the road, and even though it was not allowed--the guard had the right to shoot if someone bent down--I bent down and picked a potato out of the mud. I ate it raw. No cake in the world could have tasted as sweet or as good as that dirty potato. It was delicious!
Later, as I was working on my six pairs of shoes, the boss came in asking, "Who knows how to read and write?" I was the only one to raise his hand. The others were Polish Jews from little towns and villages, and they didn't know how to read or write in German.
"You can read and write?"
"Yes. I had my schooling in Berlin." I told him which gymnasium I had attended.
"Come with me!" He took me into the office and showed me a little window where civilian customers came in with shoes for repair. He showed me how they accounted for each pair with three slips of paper: white, blue, and yellow--one to put in the shoe, one for the books, and one for the customer as a receipt. I got the job, and life became a little easier.
One day a fat man came to the window. I had on a white coat and my hair was completely shaved off; he didn't know I was a prisoner.
"Heil Hitler! Here are my shoes. Put leather soles on them."
"Mr. Schultz, I'm sorry," I said. "We have no leather, only rubber."
"No, I can't use rubber! It's impossible! I want leather!" He got a little bit too loud, so I called in the boss.
"The gentleman here is insisting he wants leather soles, and I told him we don't have them."
The boss turned and said to him, "We don't have leather!" Schultz took his shoes and went away.
The next day this Schultz came again, with a red stamp from the camp commandant authorizing him to have leather soles.
"Mr. Schultz," I said, "I told you I have no leather. I have to give you rubber."
"Listen, I work in the kitchen on a wet concrete floor. It's slippery and I'm afraid I'll break my neck."
"Oh you work in the kitchen?"
"I'm the head chef."
"In that case, I would like to help you. I'll have to steal it for you, (which wasn't true), but I will find you leather. In exchange, I would like to have something to eat. We have twenty-five prisoners here and we are all nearly starved to death."
"Sure. Send two men with a kettle, and we'll fill it up."
But how to do it? I went to have a talk with the guard who was watching over us.
"We can get a kettle of food and a special plate just for you," I told him. "Would you go with two men to bring it back?"
"Are you crazy? How can I leave you here?"
"You can, don't worry. If one of us runs away, you can shoot me. I guarantee it with my life--no one will run away."
He took the two strongest men and in ten minutes they came back with a full kettle of mashed potatoes. This was really special. After that, little by little we got everything--we could eat our fill. We even took a kettle home to the barracks to feed the others, marching eight kilometers with this heavy thing--it must have weighed seventy-five pounds. You took five or ten steps, put it down, then someone else picked it up. We had to be careful because sometimes the commandant came down the road in his car.
In 1945, near the end of the war, I was put in a transport with about a thousand other people, for Bergen-Belsen--for the gas chamber. We were in closed cattle cars, standing back to back, with no room to even sit down. Sixty or seventy people were in each car, with nothing to eat, without water. People were dying like flies; every morning there were no less than ten corpses. I and another guy volunteered to carry the dead bodies from our wagon--one took the hands, the other the feet--to the two open cars they kept at the end of the train for the purpose. The next day, the same thing. But at least I could be outdoors, and it gave me the chance to steal a sharp-edged stone from the railway bed. Later I used it to cut my tongue; with this little bit of blood I got through four or five days without food or water. I think that's what kept me alive.