"MY NAME WAS FOUR- SEVEN-ZERO-ONE," said Elaine Welbel of Skokie, who survived the march to Germany of January,1945 in bitter cold that killed many along the way. "In the camps, we quit havmg names once we were tattooed. The guards called us only by our number." In 1942. Welbel was 16 and living in a small town in Czechoslovakia when the Jewish girls of the community were asked to volunteer for factory work at an unspecified destination. The invitation, which came on an ordinary postcard, seemed a good opportunity. Jews had been barred from most jobs in Czechoslovakia, one of the first countries to fall under Hitler's domination.
Welbel and her traveling companions set off from home in a railroad passenger car, but enroute, the job offer began to appear less innocent. Then they were merged with similar groups from other villages and packed into boxcars for the final leg of their journey to Auschwitz, the other side of the Polish-Czech border.
There, SS guards made the girls strip and shower, hurrying stragglers with a blow of a rifle butt. Exiting the showers, they found a long line of chairs, behind each of which stood a matroon, a pair of scissors or clippers in her hands."
"I was a young girl who'd just had her first permanent," said Welbel. "After our heads were shaved, we could scarcely recognize each other." Welbel's group was put to work clearing rubble for an expansion of the camp, which the Nazis had designated as the principal center for the extermination of Europe's Jews. At first, they couldn't fully comprehend the hell they had been caught up in. Some things, though, clearly didn't make sense. Among groups of subsequently arriving internees, they could see children and old people who obviously were not up to doing hard labor.
"Why were they being bought to Auschwitz? we wondered," Welbel recalled. "Then one day my cousin said: "I saw little baby shoes lying an along the road. I think they kill people here."
By the winter of 1942-3, death had become part of Welbel and the other girls' daily routine, as members of their group were winnowed for extermination. Auschwitz had been outfitted with unprecedented instruments of mass murder: gas chambers into which 3,000 human beings could be crammed and crematoriums for speedily reducing their corpses to ashes.
According to the Nazis' timetable, trainload after trainload of Jews shortly would be moved to Auschwitz from all over occupied Europe, and that flood of forthcoming arrivals inspired the guards to free up every bit of available barracks space. Space, though, is measured in different units in a concentration camp than in the rest of the world. "If you tell people we slept eight. even 10 to a bunk, they can't imagine it," said Fritzie Fritzshall, an Auschwitz survivor who lives in a Chicago suburb. "To hang onto even that tiny bit of living room, you had to remain just healthy enough to work."
Periodically, inmates were rousted out of their barracks for a selektion, a rough-and-ready medical inspection, presided over by Josef Mengele, the camp's notorious doctor. A simple wave of his hand routed those showing any sings of weakness from disease or the camp's near-starvation diet to the gas chambers. New arrivals went through a similarly quick inspection and the difference between living and dying might depend on the most random of happenstances or a moment of inspiration.
"I remember once thinking to pinch my cheeks to make them red so I'd look a little better for Mengele," said Welbel. "It was like I was putting on makeup for Mengele. We called him Malkh Ho-mavet, the Angel of Death."
"I only survived," said Fritzshall, "because when our transport arrived at Auschwitz, a man went up and down telling us children in Yiddish, "Remember, you're 15. Tell them you're 15." Later, I learned anyone younger went straight to the gas chambers."
Mark Weinberg had been a boxer and ski instructor in pre-war Poland, so when he went through the selektion, he opened his shirt to reveal his muscles. He told three young companions to do the same.
"I said to the guards, 'See, we can work,'" said Weinberg who lives in a tiny apartment in Albany Park. "That saved us, but not a Hugarian Jew without legs who we were wheeling in a buggy. He waved goodbye to us, as they loaded him on a truck."
Through 1943 and 1944, hundreds of thousands of Jews 94 percent of those brought to Auschwitz - were sent to gas chambers. The crematoriums worked constantly.
"We could smell a smell that never stopped," said Sol Goldstein, who Lives in Munster. "It was there in the morning when we were marched out to coal mines, 20 miles away. It was there when we came back to our barracks at night. Sometimes, I still seem to smell that unforgettable odor of burning flesh."
Welbel recalls the SS guards taunting prisoners with the idea that the chimneys towering over the crematoriums would be their only route out of Auschwitz. But when death becomes more normal than life, it comes to be spoken of with no more emotion than a shopping list, recalled Weinberg, who worked in Auschwitz's central kitchen.
"The kitchen commander, an SS man, would say: "Prepare 6,500 less meals tomorrow."