The story of Shmuel the Glazier, as told by Ovadya ben Malka, formerly of the Birenau Sonderkommando
So, Shmuel the Glazier…. He was from somewhere in Poland and came to Birkenau after they’d taken his entire family. No illusions. Lasted about four weeks in Quarantine. Winter was coming on, but he was pretty sure he needn’t worry about it. He gave himself about ten days. One can usually tell, just from the signs.
So Shmuel knew he was going down and he knew already not to expect a miracle. But it seems they do happen occasionally, to some people. The next morning at Appel, a German officer showed up, accompanied by a couple of Poles in civilian clothes. It was announced that a workshop was being opened up and they needed some skilled workers:“Two electricians, four carpenters, and a glazier.”
Now one of the unwritten rules of that place is: never volunteer. Never! But poor Shmuel…what could he do? He knew how things would go with him if he didn’t get out of Quarantine. The evidence was all around him. He had to take a gamble.“ Electrician is out,” he thought to himself. “I’d electrocute myself the first time I tried to connect two wires. I can do that tonight right here with less bother. And carpentry…I scarcely know one end of a hammer from another; the others will out me in no time. But glazier? Well, I don’t know what a glazier does, but…nothing to lose anyway.” So he raised his hand and the overseer took his number. Shmuel was out of Quarantine! He and the other six volunteers were escorted under guard out the motor gate and down the road toward the Stammlager. There, the Germans had set up a little industrial complex right on the main road—factories, small tool shops, carpentries, the works.
The first thing that meets Shmuel’s eyes when he’s escorted through the door to his new job is a huge room full of unidentifiable machines. Glass cutting machines, beveling machines, machines that did God-alone-knew-what. The Germans must have denuded every factory in the region to gather together this lot.
“Gevalt!” says Shmuel to himself (for he was an Ashkenazi Jew, albeit from a decent neighborhood). “I have no idea how to operate any of this!”
But of course, he didn’t let on. He was playing for his life. He walked around the room, examining the machines, making little expert grunts and comments on the make and manufacture. “Ah yes! A good make! Hmmm…but this one…a piece of crap.” He examines the huge sheets of glass stacked up on racks and gives the outer sheet a flick of his finger, then puts his ear to the glass as if judging the quality of the “ping!”
Then he turns back to the Polish foreman and says, with an air of authority, “All right, you’ve got some excellent resources here, but most of these machines need two men to operate. I’ll need an assistant. But listen! Make sure the man has at least three years of experience, because I don’t work with amateurs!”
A toast to Shmuel the Glazier, may his name be long remembered in Israel.
(An excerpt from Returning.)