I sat there and hadn’t moved a muscle for over three hours; my feet and hands were numb because of the cold. The only form of entertainment was trying to count the number of slow heavy paces that the nearest guard made before he turned around and repeated the process again and again. I was actually starting to get quite good at it.
I had begun to wonder if it was all worth it, it was so cold and my fingers were dark blue but then I remembered what the alternative was- a gas chamber!
I could have been mistaken for thinking that I was trying to escape from a concentration camp in Siberia never mind Auschwitz, southern Poland.
Every minute seemed like an hour, every hour seemed like an eternity, although there was the comfort in knowing that the guards were due to end their shifts any time soon, I knew this because I had made a copy of the timetable for their shifts, the week beforehand in preparation for my attempted escape.
Finally I heard the phone ring from inside the rundown cabin beside the main gates. I knew every step of this next sequence, phone rings; guard answers phone; guard comes out and gets into truck; gates open; truck leaves. I knew this because I listened to the same routine every single night for 15 months.
I scurried from behind an old tractor that I had been hiding behind for shelter, the air was thick with the smell of burning bodies coming from the incinerator, I jumped onto the back of the truck and nestled underneath some damp bags that had a musty smell.
Every noise I made seemed to be amplified by a thousand times. I couldn’t help but think that one of the other nearby guards had heard me but my fears were quashed when I heard the truck door opening and the engine starting.
The gates creaked open and one of the guards shouted something in German, my heart thumped against my ribs but thankfully I was quickly reassured when it was followed by a laugh and when the truck started to pull away slowly, it hit me that I was nearly free, after 15 months of torture, I could be free.
A tear weaved its way down my cheek and fell to the floor. I had to pull myself together and focus on the task in hand.
The truck was on its way down to the nearby tavern to collect the next group of guards, but I didn’t intend to stay on that long, in approximately two minutes, around twenty slightly intoxicated Nazi killing machines would be sitting right on top of me, and that is an experience I would prefer to steer clear of!
I waited until we were going around a corner so the truck would slow down slightly, but I think the driver was more concerned about breaking the national land speed record than trying to accommodate me. I slid away from the bags and held on to the back of the vehicle, I lowered a foot until it skimmed across the ground and hesitated, but luckily instinct took over and I jumped on to the grassy slope at the side of the road and tumbled down the hill, I crashed my head against the ground several times before I finally came to rest in a pool of freezing cold water at the bottom.
I lay there still. I could hear the noise of the truck fading away into the distance. Any feeling in my body had long gone. The sound of the Wisla meandering its way through the mountainside nearby was somewhat therapeutic. But time was a commodity that I didn’t have much of.
I knew that there was no going back now, I could survive and make my way to some acquaintances in the north of France or I could die. It was as simple as that. I had about an hour before my escape was discovered, and I was determined to take full advantage of that.
I dragged myself up and had a look around to get my bearings. I was about five hundred yards away from the railway line – but I was in a bad way and the terrain was rough. I knew if I could get there then I would be able to relax for a while.
All those nights lying in that flea bitten excuse for a mattress, listening to trains come and go close by, had paid off. I had memorised the times almost subconsciously. I took the makeshift watch from my back pocket and prayed that it hadn’t been damaged. Fortunately the pieces of torn newspaper I had wrapped it in had spared it. It was 4:15 am and I had about 15 minutes to smuggle myself onto the only train for three hours. The next train was useless; by that time the ever-helpful Gestapo will have given me a generous dose of cyanide if they didn’t shoot me at first sight.
Everything was going according to plan until I heard the faint noise of dogs barking. Normally this would not be significant but only I knew what that meant.
The only time I have ever heard dogs’ barking near Auschwitz was when someone had escaped or when Heinrich Himmler was staying and I don’t think the Gestapo were expecting a visit from Mr Himmler at this time of night!
It was a race against time. The trains that passed by Auschwitz were freight trains that brought supplies from Poland, straight through Germany and my destination was a small northerly town in France called Metz. The train didn’t stop and if I could board it, I’d be there in the morning. Then I’ll be able to meet up with a small pocket of French resistance and within a day or two I could be home in my beloved Ireland.
I could hear by the frantic barking that the dogs had already picked up my scent so I took a little detour up and across a small river to try to help my scent elude the dogs. I had learned this trick from a catholic Italian Gypsy who I had been with inside Auschwitz.
I could see the lights of the train through some trees, I homed in on it like a bullet and ran as fast as I could but I kept stumbling and falling. It was like I was in a nightmare and no matter how fast I tried to run, I couldn’t, it was like I was in quicksand.
Every bark was getting louder, they were following close behind. I knew they still couldn’t see me because if they could they would shoot. I was so close to freedom and yet so close to certain death.
This was it! The final furlong! I could smell the smoke of the train as it started to draw away from the station. There was no one in front of me. The dogs were about 30 feet behind me, and the guards were further still behind them.
The train was starting to accelerate. I was so close! I held onto the back of the train and ran, with it pulling me. I just needed one last surge in energy to haul myself up. The dogs were almost right behind me. I heaved myself on to the back of the train and almost died with relief. I took the soaking wet overcoat off me and flung it off the side of the train.
I crawled and leaned my back against the train. A smile spread across my face as I watched my coat being torn into a thousand pieces. The rain beat down on my face as the remote cries of the Gestapo finally arriving faded away. I was on my way home. I was free at last.