A Pipel’s War Story

My latest book, a critical biography entitled The Gospel According to Elie Wiesel, has just been released after 15 years in the making.  The book is available here: https://www.amazon.com/Gospel-According-Elie-Wiesel/dp/B0BKSCY45K/ref=tmm_pap_swatch_0?_encoding=UTF8&qid=1667295669&sr=8-8

     I am writing a series of profiles related to the book.  This is part iii.  Part iv will take a leap.  With Elie Wiesel, there’s the general framing of a righteous man, known in Jewish traditions as a Tzaddik.  These days, the narrative surrounding Kobe Bryant frames him as a Tzaddik.  It’s a terrible corruption.  Look for “Who was the real Kobe Bryant?” coming soon. 

There were many hangings at Auschwitz.  Many times camp prisoners were forced to watch as a hangman placed a noose around the neck and kicked out the chair.  Many times prisoners were forced to watch the bodies writhe on the rope until last breath.  Many times camp prisoners were then forced to file past the dead.

     “Mützen ab!” the order came down, and the prisoners would remove their caps from their heads.  “Mützen an!” a second order bellowed, and the prisoners would refit their caps.

     In Elie Wiesel’s iconic memoir, Night, he chronicled one of these hangings in layers of detail.  He wrote about three males hung at Monowitz in the fall of 1944.  Of the three, Wiesel wrote, one was a boy.  “A child with a refined and beautiful face,” Wiesel described, “unheard of in this camp.”

     The framing, combined with many other details in Wiesel’s description, seemed dubious.  As detailed in The Gospel According to Elie Wiesel (GAEW), I undertook a thorough examination of the hanging.  Were there documents of the hanging?  How did other eyewitnesses remember the event?  And, how did that testimony differ from Wiesel’s?

     To put it succinctly, Wiesel framed an outlier.  He alone described the boy prisoner as a “sad angel.”  He alone framed a Christ-like death scene.  Crucifixion 32, C.E., shifted to Crucifixion 1944.  Golgotha met Auschwitz.

     But Wiesel didn’t end his reconstruction there.  He alone introduced the boy victim as a “pipel.”  Let’s dig into the term as it pertained to the concentration camp universe.

     A pipel was a boy in a food chain.  In Survival in Auschwitz, Primo Levi’s account of his ten months in the camp, he offered significant size and shape to the “pikolo,” as he altered the name, or “little whistle” in his native Italian. The post of pikolo, Levi wrote, “meant the messenger-clerk, responsible for the cleaning of the hut, for the distribution of tools, for the washing of bowls…”  According to Levi, the pikolo represented “a quite high rank.”  The pikolo “does no manual work, has an absolute right to the remainder of the daily ration to be found on the bottom of the vat and can stay all day near the stove.”

     These privileges – extra food, removed from the grueling exhaustion of the work detail, protected from the frigid climate (except during roll call), and shielded from the selections – came with a staggering cost.  These boys were sexually abused.  In exchange for the privileges, these boys became the sex slaves of their overlords.

     In his memoirs, A Greek Jew From Salonica Remembers, Yaacov Handeli wrote of the threat to himself: “As I was part man and part boy then, there was a danger I could become a pippel.”

     Handeli was 17 years old at the time.  As he noted, he received the protection of a former Greek boxing champion.  According to Handeli, this boxer “let all and sundry in the kitchen know in no uncertain terms that I was under his protection.”  Handeli continued, “He was a mountain of a man; he ate a lot and all the kitchen workers stood in dread of him.”  Handeli felt “protected and secure” in the presence of this boxer.

     Another Auschwitz survivor chimed in.  When asked in an author interview if he knew the term, Ernie Michel replied that a pipel was a “homosexual” who “became involved with a kapo or blockältester” to “save his life.”

     Those details would be corroborated, in part, by another Auschwitz survivor.  His name was Siegmund Kalinski, and he introduced a nuance never before suggested of Elie Wiesel.  But let’s save that detail for the moment.

     Asked for his description of a pipel in an author interview, Kalinski initially didn’t want to talk about the subject.  Then, without much coaxing, he replied that there were “homosexual friendships in camp.” 

     His terminology implied consent.  Were these boys consenting to the sex act, or were they victims of fate based on age and chance, as described by both Handeli and Michel?

     Kalinski went further.  He used the German word zärtlichkeiten.  Caresses.  “Caresses were exchanged,” he said. Kalinski’s description then not only implied consent but a new word entered the fray.  Pleasure.

     In Night, Wiesel went in an altogether different direction.  In Auschwitz, “the pipel were loathed,” he offered, placing the entire description in parenthesis, “they were often crueller than adults.  I once saw one of thirteen beating his father because the latter had not made his bed properly.  The old man was crying softly while the boy shouted: ‘If you don’t stop crying at once I shan’t bring you any more bread.  Do you understand?’”

     Wiesel’s characterization set up a notable juxtaposition.  On the one hand, he detailed the general hatred of the pipel.  On the other hand, he described one tender, lovable child, who writhed on the hangman’s rope.  Was the contrast a plot point, made to engender a reader’s sympathies to this one particular prisoner?  

     In my investigation into the hanging at Auschwitz, I took this question to all eyewitnesses.  Siegmund Kalinski, who died in 2015, offered some eye-popping detail.  He did not use the word “hate” to describe the pipel.  He favored another word: disregard.  He used an analogy: “Is a prostitute well respected?”

     The analogy seemed applicable.  For the persona of the pipel implied prostitution, sex for protection and food.

     Kalinski, who was born in Krakow but spent his adult life as a doctor in Frankfurt, continued.  He chose a German idiom: “In der Not, frisst der Teufel.”  If necessary, the devil eats flies.  In other words, you do what you have to do to survive.

     With that description as baseline, I asked Kalinski why Wiesel would then include the pipel detail.  Initially, he shrugged off the question.  I found that Kalinski tended to laugh off what he disagreed with.  Only then would he explain.  On the important Norbert Wollheim Memorial Website, an information center concerning the history of Auschwitz, I found some background material of Kalinski that seemed critical.  He was one of those Holocaust survivors who were reluctant to talk about his experiences.  For instance, he waited decades to tell his colleagues in the medical field.  He wore long sleeves to cover his Auschwitz tattoo.

     “You have to understand,” Kalinski eventually continued, “Elie, when he came to the camp, was very young, 14 or 15…”  He cut himself off.  He left his statement dangling.

     What did he mean?  That Wiesel was too young to understand the workings of the camp?  Wiesel had been in the camp for four months by then.  Four months was an eternity.

     Was Kalinski hinting at something else?  My mind went to Yaacov Handeli’s testimony.  Wiesel was 15 years old when he entered the camp.  If you were a certain age at the time of arrival, a teenager say, you ran the risk of becoming a pipel.  Was Kalinski hinting that Wiesel wrote about the pipel as a kind of self-referent?  Or, was Kalinski offering a veiled reference of himself?  His age at the time put him in danger, too.

     I tried to clarify with Kalinski.  He responded, “You have to ask him.”

     Wiesel, though, wouldn’t talk to me.  Let’s be clear about Elie Wiesel.  He was an incredibly fragile person.  He couldn’t handle critical evaluation.  For that reason, he never allowed anyone outside his circle to write on him. Unknown to Wiesel’s writers, perhaps, Wiesel used his circle to control the narrative.  He held autocratic authority over the telling of his tale.

     No hard evidence renders Wiesel as a pipel.  Only my interpretation of Kalinski’s nuance, and Wiesel’s strange inclusion of the pipel figure in his Night detail.  Again, no other eyewitnesses identified any of the hung prisoners as a sex slave.

     But Kalinski’s nuance, and Wiesel’s original detail, set my mind racing.  In my investigation, I sought a wider lens…

     Let me here offer a warning.  The following history did not make it into GAEW.  What the reader is about to encounter is very raw, very biting, very bleak.  I found a survivor who endured a most brutal war history.  His concentration camp story did not specifically conform to the established definition of a pipel.  Different perpetrators abused him.  Stephan Ross did not serve one boss and that boss did not, in return, protect him.  But in Ross’s story, a parallel emerged.  Ross fit inside Kalinski’s idiom.  He did what he had to do to survive.

     An Internet search on Stephan Ross these days brings up the idealized persona.  Szmulek Rozenthal was born in Lodz in 1931.  He was the youngest of eight children.  He entered the concentration camp universe in 1940.  His Holocaust history passed through ten camps, including Auschwitz.  He was liberated at Dachau by American soldiers.

      Rozenthal sailed into the New York Harbor in April 1948.  He settled in Boston.  He changed his name.  He put himself through school.  He gained a doctorate degree in psychology.  He got married.  Two children came into his world.  He went on professionally to provide guidance to inner-city underprivileged youth in the Boston area.  He also pushed for a Holocaust museum and memorial in Boston.

     In the idealized man story, he spent decades trying to find the American soldier who had, at Dachau, offered some food and an embrace.  As Ross told The Jewish Advocate for a biographical story in 2009, that soldier “gave me a will to live.  He restored my faith.  He was the first person to show me compassion.  He took me back to the civilized world.”

     In an author interview, conducted over the phone, I found the unvarnished Stephan Ross.  The effects of the concentration camp universe remained vibrant.  “I live it today,” he said.  “I’m still living in the camp – here, now, in America.”

     Asked about those experiences in the camps, Ross answered, “I cannot tell you the truth.  It is beyond the truth.”

     Then he began.  He wanted to talk about his thirst for revenge.  He wanted to talk about his anger.  His experiences came out in shards, in broken sentences, in references, in silences.  This was his language.  The shards and silences were as pregnant as the stories.

     Suddenly, he started to tell the story of the first attack.  It was in the morning.  He went to get a little water in the washing barracks.  There was a trough in the washing barracks, with faucets.  The anger in Ross’s voice rose: “The faucets were frozen, no water coming through, no heat.  We had no hot water for five years – in every camp the same.  Five years.  Can you imagine?”

     He immediately answered his question.  “You cannot imagine.  You do not know.”

     He jumped into an angry rant: “We should have put a knife into the bellies of these sadistic murderers.  We should have killed them.  We didn’t know.  We were too much involved with the rabbis, with God.  We were the Chosen People.  It’s a lie.  We should have been taught to kill.  We were taught lies.”

     I felt small, sitting in my apartment in New York City.  I felt incompetent.  I was used to the Elie Wiesel Gospel.  Sorrow being the overarching marker of his experience, bereavement.  The Wiesel Gospel rejected revenge.  The Wiesel Gospel rejected anger, violence, hopelessness.  In that moment, I could understand why.  Stephan Ross emphasized the knife slicing up those “sadistic murderers.”  The listener felt inadequate, burdened, strained, defeated.

     I worked through my feelings to steer Ross back to the topic.  He went there, unwillingly, through explosions of anger and hatred.  He spoke of the Ukrainian guards: “They became part of the Schutzmannschaft Battalion – they became supporters for Germany, for the Führer.  They were promised a Greater Ukrania, after the war.”  He spit out the words, “Sadistic murderers.”

     I felt the wrath of spittle from some 200 miles away.  I tried to focus on the history.  The Schutzmannschaft Battalion, to be accurate, differentiated from Ukrainian guards.  The battalions were indigenous policemen.  For the most part, they volunteered for duty.  Wage earnings might have been a significant part of their volunteerism.  Policemen earned more than unskilled workers.  In addition, they became eligible for state benefits, including extra food rations and health care.  Were they sadistic murderers?  According to the historical record, they were evacuated with the Germans in 1944.  Clearly, they weren’t going to reintegrate into Ukrainian society.

     Meanwhile, the Ukrainian guards ranked “among the most notorious perpetrators of the Second World War.”  In the autumn of 1941 the SS began to recruit guards to assist in labor camps.  The SS recruitment drive turned up at Soviet POW camps, where prisoners were dying in droves due to appalling conditions.  The SS offered life.  Estimates vary on how many prisoners volunteered for the work, but it seems that some 3,000 to 5,000 men went to Trawniki, a town near Lublin.  There, the Trawniki men, as they became known, received training from the SS.  The Trawniki trail then led from labor camps to the death camps of Belzec, Treblinka and Sobibor.  Trawniki men turned up as guards at Auschwitz and in the camps in Germany and Austria.

     (For information on the guards and the Ukrainian police battalions, please see Frank Golczewski, “Shades of Grey: Reflections on Jewish-Ukrainian and German-Ukrainian Relations in Galicia,” in Ray Brandon and Wendy Lower, eds., The Shoah in UkraineHistory, Testimony Memorialization.)

     The “sadistic murderer” who raped Stephan Ross was probably a Trawniki man, not a member of the Schutzmannschaft Battalion.  The distinction would mean nothing to Ross or any other victim.  Nor should it.  I understand that, at least.

     “I went to get water,” Ross continued, hesitantly, recalling the trough in the washing barracks.  “I was captured by a Ukrainian guard with a gun to my head.  I was forced to do an act…”

     Silence followed his words.  So much muffled seething.  For me, the intensity led to imagery.  To a guard with a gun sodomizing a nine-year-old boy.  I sat quietly at my desk in New York City.  Stephan Ross seethed in Boston.  A guard with a gun sodomized a boy in southern Poland.

     I shook off the imagery.  “In the barracks?” I asked.  “Right there?  Weren’t the barracks full of people?  Weren’t the barracks a congregation place?”

     In her memoirs, I was a Doctor in Auschwitz, Gisella Perl described the latrine as “our community hall, the center of our social activities and our news-room…  The latrine was also our black market, our commodity exchange building.  Here you could buy bread for your sausage, margarine for your bread, exchange food, shoes, a piece of cloth for ‘love.’”

     “Love”: the word felt so hollow.  Maybe she meant it that way?

     “They ran,” Ross continued.  “They saw a guard with a gun.  Everyone ran.”  His anger didn’t go to his fellow prisoners.  He understood their reaction.  “Life was so cheap, so bitter,” he said.  “We had no compassion for each other.  Everyone of us knew we were going to die; we just didn’t know when.”

     Silence followed.  So much seething.  Then another repeated phrase, “I cannot tell you the truth.  It is beyond the truth.”

     The next question in my head proved tricky.  I wanted to know, during the rape, what he focused on, what he felt.  But how do you ask that kind of question of a man who lived it everyday?  How do you balance his right to privacy with the historical record?  What’s more important?

     I made a cruel decision.  “Was there consent, even in its remotest sense, during the act?” I asked.

     “Consent?” Ross yelled.  “These were sadistic murderers.  These were butchers.  They should have been murdered after the war.  I was exposed as a boy.  Consent?  How?”

     Ross quieted.  Then he added, “When you’re hungry you don’t think about sex.  You only look for sex when you have a full belly.  We were starving.”

     Silence again.  The imagery, again, in my head.  Ross seething in Boston.  My struggle with taking in the history in New York.  A Ukrainian guard sodomizing a Jewish boy in southern Poland.  I heard Ross’s voice in my head.  “Sadistic murderers,” spit out.  My mind went to Gisella’s Perl description of the latrines.  “Love”: the word felt so hollow.

     Again, I made a cruel decision.  “Can you talk about another instance of abuse?” I asked.

     Silence on his end.  I could feel the seething, the absolute rage.  “Fuck you!” he could have yelled at me.  Maybe he considered the words?  

     He didn’t answer my question directly.  Instead, he told a story.  His mind flashed to a selection process.  The guards were deciding whom to murder.  To hide himself, Ross jumped into a fecal trough.  He submerged himself in shit.

     In the movie Schindler’s List, Steven Spielberg used similar imagery.  Did he hear of Ross’s story?  Was jumping into a fecal trough a regular occurrence?

     Ross continued with his story.  After the selection, other prisoners helped to wash him down.  But there was little water, no soap.  They could remove the fecal matter from his skin; they couldn’t remove the smell.  That night nobody would sleep near him.  That made him a target.  He risked the wrath of his fellow inmates.  His brother had an idea.  There was a bucket in every sleeping barracks.  During the night, the prisoners were not allowed to go to the washing barracks to urinate.  They were not allowed to go outside their sleeping barracks.  If they did, they risked a bullet.

     So every barracks had a bucket for urination.  With the contents of that bucket, the older brother washed the younger brother.  “I smell urine everyday,” Ross said to me.

     His voice, suddenly, broke into a howl.  He began to howl-cry.  I’d never heard anything like it before: so much anger mixed with so much sorrow.  A howl-cry.

     I felt pulverized.  I sat there knowing that in between the forbidden and the permitted I had crossed over.  I’d interfered and there was no going back.

     The interview was over.  I tried, in my inadequate way, to bring it back to some kind of normalcy.  “Can I call you again?” I asked.

     “No,” he answered.  “Why would you?”

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