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Chapter 9: Spitzentrager

Before the sun rose, the prisoners were greeted by the frantic shouts of the Blockältester: “Everybody up! Fast! No Dawdling! Get moving!

Faster! Faster!” The prisoners had only the minimal amount of time to see to their personal bodily needs, and then the rush for “breakfast.” In the morning each prisoner got to fill his little tin bowl with some warm liquid that was supposed to resemble coffee – or was it tea? Whatever the weakly colored, noncaloric drink was, at least it was better than nothing.

Srulek received his portion, and had soon emptied his bowl when he heard the ominous voice of Fritz nearby. “Hey, you.” Srulek looked up.

“Yeah, you, 68818.”

Srulek’s heart began to pound. What could this fearsome Kapo want from him? Had he done something wrong? Here in the camps, having the attention of a guard or even a supervisor did not bode well. Srulik feared the worst, but did not dare ignore Fritz’s summons. He approached hesitantly.

“Give me your bowl.”

My bowl? thought Srulek. But how will I take my morning drink? How will I get my gemizah soup in the afternoon? Is Fritz going to take even that away from me? G-tt in Himmel, I’m so hungry. With a shaky hand, Srulek held out his bowl. Fritz took it from Srulek and, to his amazement, dipped the crude metal ladle into the enormous pot and refilled the bowl.

“Here, take.” Fritz handed the bowl back to Srulik. Srulik was even more stunned by Fritz’s kind gesture than he was by the Kapo’s general cruelty. Here in the various camps under the Nazi regime, cruelty was the norm, not acts of care and concern.

“Hey, you.” Now Fritz was calling to Chatskel, who, judging from his boyish face and curious green eyes, must have been about seventeen. After Chatskel, it was Avigdor who received seconds in his bowl. This must be his way. The young boys get that little bit more from the bottom of the pot. And even though Srulek and the others were always hungry, still that little bit more was something…and it helped.

Taibele had been dozing soundly in a hidden corner of the wooden roof of block 21 when the sudden commotion of the door opening made him raise his head watchfully. The rectangle roof of the block had a flat rim that defined the perimeter of the building. In the center of the roof, a smaller rectangle was raised up, providing a higher mid-section of the roof. The higher section allowed some natural light to enter the block through the windows that were built into its sides. There were no other windows built into the blocks, but these served Taibele’s needs very nicely. He could successfully spy on the activities in the barracks virtually undetected. Now he clearly saw how the Jews of the barracks were being urged out in the usual brutal way and taken to line up at the Appellplatz.

Taibele could not know the precise time, but like all birds, he did know to recognize the first rays of dawn. Why were these humans being sent out to start the day so long before sunrise? Taibele continued to observe. It was easier to go unnoticed now, since all of the lights were directed on the Appellplatz, and he could perch in the cover of the dark.

Fritz was ready to give each prisoner his work assignment.

“Häftling 67653, drilling.”

“Häftling 59828, drilling.” “Häftling 44332, cement.”

“Häftling 64995, haul debris.”

“Häftling 68818…” Srulek pricked up his ears attentively… “Spitzenträger.”

What’s a Spitzenträger? Srulik wondered. Although he’d picked up a few words in German, he still wasn’t familiar with that term. Since he’d become a captive of the evil Nazis, he’d learned that one didn’t ask questions. He’d just have to wait and see.

Taibele listened to the clump-clump of the prisoners’ footsteps – some still in their own shoes, some in ill-fitting wooden shoes – as they were led onto open-topped freight cars. The four-and-a-half-kilometer ride to their destination, a slightly longer distance than Podhoryan to Srulek’s talmud Torah, took about twenty-five minutes. The internees disembarked at the site of a mountain in an area called Roggendorf.

Why have they been brought here? Taibele wondered, cocking his head in suspicion. Sometimes when Taibele stretched his wings on long flights, he saw groups of prisoners being herded into remote forests and mountains by armed SS. Taibele trembled on his branch recalling what the Nazis had done to those prisoners.

But now the Germans had something else in mind. With their classic German precision, Obersturmführer Schulz and Obergruppenführer Kammler ordered all of the Häftlinge to take up their assigned jobs in a unit called SachBau, performing them as if they were experienced tradesmen, although in reality they were fathers, storekeepers, students, and scholars, who never imagined that one day they would be performing such laborious tasks. They were excavating a tunnel inside a mountain for the Germans, who wanted to build underground factories that were invisible to their enemies, the Allies.

Internees like 67653 and 59828 were to use jackhammers to excavate the mountain and form a tunnel. Then they’d be joined by internees like 44332 who would apply cement to reinforce the freshly dug tunnel so that it wouldn’t cave in (despite their efforts, that frequently did happen, burying the workers under thousands of pounds of sand and stone). Thereafter, internees like 64995 had to remove the sand and pebbles that accumulated from the excavations. All of that debris was loaded onto a special conveyor belt that ran deep into the tunnel. When the conveyor belt reached the mouth of the tunnel, the debris would move up at a slight angle, underneath a wooden platform, and then dump its load onto waiting carts outside.

How would Häftling 68818, the new Spitzenträger, help this process?

“Häftling 68818, your job will be to carry the pointers,” the SachBau Meister – a German civilian who was overseeing the work – instructed young Srulik.

“What pointers?” Srulik wanted to know.

“Ah, well, you see, the fellows who work the jackhammers have special steel pointers that fit on the end of their machines. But the pointers are only useful as long as they’re good and sharp. So you are going to collect the steel pointers from the men who are jackhammering, and go about thirty meters out of the tunnel to the open area where the blacksmith sits outside. The blacksmith will heat the pointers in his coals, and sharpen them using his hammer and anvil. Then he’ll return the sharpened pointers to you, and you’ll carry them back to the workers in the tunnel.”

Srulek nodded agreeably and began the task of a Spitzenträger. It was only with time that Srulek realized how fortunate he was that Fritz had assigned him this job. You might think it strange to call a fifteen-year-old boy fortunate when he had almost no real food to eat, had to work seven days a week for more than nine hours straight, wearing nothing more than a coarse knee-length shirt, a jacket of the same coarse material, a Mütze (a prisoner’s cap), and trousers, and didn’t know if a single member of his family was alive. Yet Srulek was certainly more fortunate than many of his fellow prisoners.

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