When the Washington Post ran wartime aerial photos of the Nazi concentration camp at Auschwitz, recently released by the CIA, one reander was so fascinated that he asked to see the originalglossies. His name was Jan Komski, an advertising artist at the paper, and the reason he pored over the pictures so long and so intently was that he had lived at Auschwitz for two years.
When I see those bums lying on the steam gratings outside the State Department in the winter, it all comes back. That's Auschwitz: life at its lowest. I still feel the camp today, the stench, the terrible stink, it's not human, it is always with me...."
Jan Komski is not a Jew. He is a Pole, a Catholic, and he survived four years in five camps where any prisoner still alive after three months was customarily exectued on the assumption that he must be a food thief. Average life expectancy was three weeks in some places.
Komski's story is particularly relevant today, proclaimed a Day of Remembrance by President Carter as part of the first official mourning, by any nation outside Israel, for the 12 million victims of the Holocaust.
Komski has a map of the Nazi labor camps. There were 900 of them, and they covered Europe from Norway to France. These were not the death factories; death was only a byproduct of these camps. Nazi testimony at the Nuremberg Trials revealed that the German economy was supported by 500,000 slaves at the war's height.
I.G. Farben was the largest employer. In one seven-month period, the SS at Auschwitz alone was paid 12,735,526 marks for supplying slaves.
Among the products they supplied the Third Reich, in addition to tanks and food, were human soap and mattresses and fabrics woven from women's hair.
"All these Germans who said they never knew of the camps -- how could they help but know? They were everywhere. The country depended on them."
At 24, a graduate of the Krakow Art Academy, Komski was captured trying to flee Poland for France in 1839 to join the Polish army in exile. He entered Auschwitz the day it opened, June 14, 1940, a few days after the first 30 pioneers, German criminals who were to be the capos, or supervisors. Komski's number was 564, which he was to shout instantly in German upon demand or face a beating.
"They would lay you on a rack, and two men would beat you with heavy sticks while the commandant counted in German. The yells would stop after about five blow.Usually a man would die after 50, but I knew one who lived through 95 belows."
You could also be beaten for not taking off your hat to a capo, or having your hand in your pocket, or carrying an unauthorized object, say, a homemade spoon.
Komski worked in the architect's office, drawing elevations for the designs of the new buildings -- for Auschwitz was expanding, and fast. That first trainload of 756 people lived in three long brick artillery barracks, but more were cleared of rubble and eight new ones built, along with electric fences nine feet high, the railroad siding and the death camp of Birkenau half a mile away.
"By that winter there were 150,000 prisoners in Auschwitz. Ninety-nine percent of these people were dead when I escaped in 1942. The Jews we never saw: They would be brought in and unloaded at the siding, stripped and taken straight to the gas chambers."
He said 1 million Poles died in the camps along with the 6 million Jews.
The architects who designed the Auschwitz killing rooms, the efficient ovens, the chimneys that came to be a standard sight all over Germany, were Walter Dejaco and Fritz Ertl, later tried in Vienna and acquitted in 1972 after they said they had not been aware of the purpose of the gas chambers.
SS Gen. Rudolf Hoess, the first commandant of Aushwitz, wrote in his autobiography that the record kill for one day was 9,000 peopel. But that was in the early, inefficient years. Though the labor-camp prisoners were registered and traced with maniacal thoroughness, the Germans curiously kept only the vaguest records of the death camp victims. Auschwitz-Birkenau claimed about 4 million. They could only be estimated by the number of trainloads that came to the siding.
In the peak period, the gas chambers killed 20,000 a day, but since the crematoria could only handle 15,000, thousands more were burned daily in trenches.
In August 1944 the crematory staff of 1,000 inmates achieved a record average of 24,000 bodies a day. The staff got some vodka as a bonus.
Architect Dejaco is still alive, Komski said, and working in Vienna. He designs churches now.
The daily routine: "The bell got you up before the sun, and you had ersatz coffee made from oak bark. Then roll call, everyone stood at attention in rows of 10 with the dead piled up at the end. About a dozen people died every night in each block, but they were counted with the living until they were officially registered as dead. Then if you passed the SS officer's inspection you were marched off to work.
"It was all done with military style; you stood at attention and the lines had to be just right, the salutes perfect. At the end of the day you got a quarter-loaf of bread, which was your food for the day. Sometimes there was soup, the consistency of canned mushroom soup, with a potato in it. There was supposed to be meat, but I never saw any, it never got past the cooks."
Few lasted long on a 16-hour workday with such a diet. Having an indoor job saved Komski's life, and he saved other people, including one of his professors, by creating work for them in his office. Since prisoners really ran the camp, being Polish and not needing translators as did the German captors, and of course outnumbering the others, a person could become influential.
"But you could die anytime. Some one could have been ordered to send you to the gas chamber but lost the record, so you though you were immune. But then the record would be found, and suddenly you'd be gone.It was so easy to die."
Some were shot, some were hanged, some went to the gas chambers, some were injected with gasoline "and screamed like an animal for half an hour before they died." Some went into the hospital to be tended by the celebrated Dr. Josef Mengele, stationed at Birkenau, or by the other doctors. There were many of them, in all the camps.The largest experimental center was at Dachau, where the research centered on inducing typhoid, malaria, drowning and freezing. Some camp doctors were more specialized, like the ones at Ravenbruck who worked on women.
(One doctor was studying the effects of extreme starvation on the human body. He would pick out a living skeleton, bring him to the lab, have him lie down on the zinc dissecting table, the kind with raised sides and channels along the bottom for the blood, and then he would interview the subject: did his joints ache? How was his hearing? Was his blood pressure down? Spots before the eyes? And so forth. When the interview was over, the doctor's assistant would hold the subject's arms and head and drive the long needle into his heart with the phenol injection. Then the doctor would begin dissecting the still-warm body...)
Some prisoners died trying to climb the electric fences barefooted. Some died by whim.
"Once I saw a guy strolling along the path near the no-man's-land strip by the fence, happily eating his bread. The tower guard beckoned him over, called him closer, finally lured him across the deadline. Then he ordered him to turn around and shot him. The guy fell with the bread still in his mouth."
A guard could get a 2-week furlough for stopping someone who tried to escape.
Wearing down a new prisoner: "People arrived in trainloads, maybe after traveling days without food or water. They'd be shoved out and screamed at and hit, knocked down, beaten for no reason. You'd see them lined up, hair shaved off, in the striped suits, and barefoot. Already some of them are hurting, standing there in their soft feet on the rocks. And this SS guy comes along in hobnail boots and walks on their feet. That's for nothing. That's just for being there."
Some people wouldn't eat the food until they were too weak to stomach it, and so died. Some people couldn't cope with the sheer illogic of it all, the irranonal vindictive fury of the guards, the fact that one had done nothing to deserve this, and so, failing to adapt, turned off their minds and faded away.
It wasn't always possible to fade away. One time Komski was caught with a cigarette when cigarettes were forbidden (later the policy changed, and captured Yugoslavian cigarettes were sold in the prison canteen). He was given three hours of hanging, one hour a day. Hands chained together behind his back, he was lifted by the chains until his feet were off the ground.
"The lower half of your body is freezing, but from the waist up you're sweating, the water running down. After awhile you don't feel the chains on your wrists and you only feel it in your shoulders, twisted in this unnatural position. The rule was, when you're hanging, regardless of pain, to hang quiet. Try not to make a move. Any motion was a terrifying thing. The guard would sit there to make sure you didn't die, and if you were unruly, he'd come and shake you."
Existing alongside this world of pain was another world; "Canada," named after the food packages some early pile was outdoors in plain sight, having overflowed from the warehouses. The pile was as long as a football field and three stories high.
"Once an SS guard was getting married, so we organized a new uniform for him, and a gown and veil for his bride, even the wedding rings."
Values: There were other amenities at Auschwitz, a large symphony orchestra and a marching band that played while the workers returned at the end of the day carrying their dead on wheelbarrows. A library. At Grosse Rosen a swimming pool, Komski painted portraits of the guards, their families (from photographs), scenes around the village done when he went on surveying trips outside camp. In the days of Canada he wouldn't paint for less than a fine watch.
At other times and other places, a man would yank out his own goldcrowned tooth for an extra piece of bread. Corpses were taken to the crematoria in wagons pulled by prisoners. It was not for lack of horses; there were many horses at Auschwitz, riding horses for the officers, racehorses for sport, but they weren't allowed to haul the wagons.
With its vast forms, its never-flagging supply of clothes and personal equipment, its mountains of shaving brushes and eyeglasses, its 248,820 men's suits and 836,255 dresses and 13,964 carpets and literally millions of prisoner got from relatives who had fled to Canada. Canada was a vast black market shared by prisoners and guards.
Polish civilians from the neighboring towns who worked in the camp, prisoner families living outside the gates, and most of all the Jews provided an insane conglomeration of fine foods, clothes, diamonds, whisky, gold from teeth, women ("the first miniskirts were at Auschwitz: some women wore their skirts up to here to attract SS officers"), medicines and assorted luxuries.
If you wanted a fur coat, you had only to steal one from the pile left by the Jewish victims of Birkenau. The toothbrushes, Auschwitz was economically independent.
The escape: From the very first, Komski had had the wits to use a false name, Johan Baras (he forgot it sometimes). This was to prove a priceless advantage in keeping ahead of the investigators, who went to incredible lengths to catch escapees. (If a man was missing at roll call, everybody stayed there, at attention or kneeling, until he was caught. It might take 12 hours. If longer, 10 people from the escapee's block would be shot.)
"Organizing" an SS uniform and a pistol, he and three friends drove out disguised as a work party, hauling some furniture on a wagon. They had contacted the underground outside the camp, and now they pulled into a barn, changed clothes and vanished into a nearby village. They turned over a list of 10,000 names of victims that Komski had stolen from his office.
"The man who saved us and hid us in his house had rescued many others, including some American fliers. When the Russians came in after the war, they sent him to Siberia for eight years. I met him later. He is the bitterest man I ever saw."
Meanwhile, the Nazis were searching for the four men. For miles around, every man between 15 and 30 had to remove his hat to prove his head wasn't shaved. After 16 days, the escapees reached Krakow and went to the railroad station to get a train for Warsaw.
Suddenly the station was surrounded by tanks. Everybody on the scene was hauled in, bound for the labor camps. This sort of mass kidnaping -- much like the British press gangs of old -- occurred whenever the slave labor force slacked off. Absolutely anyone could be taken: There were 52 nationalities at Auschwitz; Americans, Persians, even Chinese.
Realizing that if he went back to Auschwitz he would be recognized and instantly executed, Komski seized his moment as he was being loaded onto a police truck, raced off into the night.
He was shot in the right ankle, recaptured, beaten and taken to a prison infirmary. Through a window he saw one of his friends being put on the trucks for Auschwitz. He never saw the man again.
Then began a kaleidoscope life as Komski was herded from camp to camp: Birkenau, Buchenwald, Grosse Rosen, Hersbruck, Dachau. The SS regarded him as a mystery man, for his credentials didn't check out. He was tortured. He was cajoled into painting portraits of the guards. He became head cook at one place, serving 2,000 prisoners ("I couldn't cook, but I learned fast. You learn very fast in the camps.")
Everywhere he went, it was the painting that kept him from the mines, the gas factories, the killing jobs. Like the singers and soccer players and boxers, he was valued by Germans. Grosse Rosen had 15 soccer teams, all with uniforms. Some players were international stars. Grosse Rosen also had a marketplace where prisoners were sold to private businessmen.
"All this time, remember, the prisoners were running the routine. They were everywhere. They would protect each other when possible."
Dachau: The war was ending. On Easter, 1945, 20,000 prisoners were marched out of Hersburck to Dachau, 16 days away. About 9,000 survived the trek. When they got there, the camp was a shambles. Transports arrived daily, the SS ignored them, order was breaking down.
On April 29, the prisoners were told to remain indoors. All day it was eerily quiet. Then in the evening he heard artillery fire.
"Then I looked through the windows and I saw prisoners running through the barbed wire area, one of them carrying a rifle, so I jumped and everybody jumped. I saw the barbed wire is torn to pieces and prisoners already sitting on the towers.
"Then I see first one American and then a second and a third. Within half an hour the whole camp was decorated with flags of all nations, probably sewn together and hidden for a long time"
At that, it was luck. The Germans had reversed all the road signs to Dachau, and the Americans had found the camp by chance after coming upon a corpse-filled train in a field. The Germans had been ordered by Himmler to burn Dachau to the ground, with its prisoners, that same night, Komski said.
Later that year Komski married another Auschwitz survivor, and in 1949 he, his wife Jean (Zdzislawa) and daughter Christine came to America. He has been an artist at The Post for 25 years.
"How did I survive? I was a happy kid, at the gateway of my life. I never thought of the possibility that I could die."
Five years ago, visiting the Prado in Spain, he saw the magnificent and terrible Goya drawings of war. He decided to paint the scenes of camp life that burned in his memory, and already he has dozens of them, from watercolors to giant oils, painted with the same silent rage that one senses behind the quiet face and the polite laugh with which he tells of seeing babies brained. Most of the time he has three or four paintings going at once. They are mated works, matter-of-fact.
"It doesn't look pretty for someone outside," Jan Komski said, "but for me these were normal things in camp, everyday sights."
A few years ago he went back to Auschwitz. This summer he will visit there again.
It seems to draw him. CAPTION: Picture 1, Jan Komski with some of his paintings of life and death in concentration camps. Gerald Martineau -- The Washington Post; Picture 2, SS photos of Jan Komski when he was taken prisoner