b. Hamburg, Germany, 1907
In early 1943 my wife Edith and I were deported from Prague to the concentration camp Theresienstadt (Terezin), located about 60 miles north of Prague in the heart of Bohemia. Because of my background as a chemist I was attached to the Sanitation Department, called Entwesung—a peculiar German word. This department was concerned with general hygiene and with fighting insects.
My first job was to distribute baited rat poison and, the next day, to collect the rats. Amusing as it may sound, this job saved Edith's and my life!
Terezin was an intermediate camp. Transports, usually about a thousand people, were brought in frequently from all over Europe, and just as frequently transports were sent out of Terezin.
During the time of my “Rat Patrol” Edith and I were ordered into the next transport. But the head of the Entwesung stormed to the “Elder” in protest, claiming that nobody knew where my rat poison was distributed, and that they would have mass poisoning! We were taken off the list as being indispensable for the camp.
Soon after this I was made second in command of the department and assigned to more serious work, like the gassing of the large barracks when the plague of fleas and bedbugs became intolerable. The gassing was done with Zyklon, which was essentially hydrogen cyanide, a volatile liquid whose vapors cause death within moments. Wearing gas masks, we applied several hundred kilos to a building, which within less than twenty-four hours was free of insects.
I was also in charge of the delousing bath, a measure to prevent typhus outbreaks. Typhus is a bacterial disease which was prevalent in eastern Europe. It frequently results in death. It cannot be transmitted directly from one person to another; the bacteria have to go through the body of a louse to be effective. In other words, if a louse stings a person who has typhus and then stings another person, the latter is almost certain to be infected. Since lice were frequent where people were crowded together, as in army barracks or in concentration camps, only vigorous exclusion of lice would prevent a deadly epidemic.
Somehow, the original five thousand “pioneers” to Terezin were able to instill the fear of typhus into the Gestapo. The Gestapo then supplied us not only with all materials necessary for a delousing bath, but also with buildings,