UC Santa Barbara > History Department > Prof. Marcuse > Courses > Hist 133D Homepage > 133D Book Essays Index page > Student essay

A Tale of Two Survivors

Book Essay on: Filip Muller, Eyewitness Auschwitz: Three Years in the Gas Chambers
( Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 1979), 180pages.

by Mara Bochenek
March 23, 2010

for Prof. Marcuse's lecture course
The Holocaust in European History
UC Santa Barbara, Winter 2010

About the Author
& Abstract
Book available at Amazon.com

About Mara Bochenek

I am a junior Psychology major who is interested in learning about the Holocaust. I am the granddaughter of survivors so I feel like I have a responsibility to know as much information as possible. In the summer of 2009 my family and I traveled to Poland to visit the town my grand parents grew up in and to get a first hand look at what Auschwitz is like today. It was a life changing experience to be walking around where so much death and pain happened. At that moment I decided I needed to know more about this camp. I also hope that I can tell future generations about what happened at Auschwitz so it is never forgotten.

Abstract (back to top)

Filip Muller's Eyewitness Auschwitz is about Muller's experience working in the crematoriums at Auschwitz. He was responsible for stripping the bodies and making sure the ovens were in working order. He was forced many times to cremate friends and family, one extremely hard time was when he had to put his own father into an oven. There were many times were he was ready to give up because he couldn’t handle doing one of the worst jobs at the camp. He was going to give up but a young lady told him that he had to survive so he could go on to tell his story. She didn’t have the chance to live on but he did. From that point on he took it one day at a time. He never looked back and never thought of giving up again. Filip Muller was a fighter and although there were times when he wanted to give up, he always found the will to keep going.

Essay (back to top)

A Tale of Two Survivors

In Eyewitness Auschwitz: Three Years in the Gas Chamber, author Filip Muller gives a first hand account of what it was like to survive during one of the most heinous mass murders in history. He recalls his day-to-day experiences while working in the cremation rooms of Auschwitz and the unimaginable trials he was forced to endure in order to survive. Muller suffered enormous hardships and considered giving up on life numerous times. In times of desperation, when life is on the line, there is always the will to fight. Even though may people give up and want to end their suffering. There are the few that want to stay alive to tell the stories of those that perished.

When Filip Muller first arrived at Auschwitz, he quickly made the decision to never give up on himself. Even though he was convinced that his life was going to come to a tragic end, he was willing to do whatever it would take to stay alive. His determination to survive was put to the test on multiple occasions. Muller managed to emotionally survive each day by taking these horrible events one-step at a time. He would focus on the task at hand. He wouldn’t think about what he had to do next or what he already did. He didn’t even want to think about it. He would just focus on what he was trying to accomplish right then and there. No matter how hard that task was. He followed every order as commanded and performed each one as perfectly as he could, to prove to the SS guards that he could efficiently do any task presented to him in order to survive.

My grandparents are both survivors of the Holocaust. Although I do not know much about my grandmother Dora’s experience, my grandfather, Ziggy, has reluctantly informed me of his dark past. Even though he didn’t work in the crematorium like Filip Muller, they both endured similar experiences in Auschwitz. Both of these men were extremely strong willed people. Like Muller, my grandfather also refused to give up on life when circumstances seemed too difficult to bear and survival seemed like an impossible task.

Around the time World War II began, my grandmother’s family was unfortunately separated from each other. Her eldest brother left Poland years before the war and died of old age in France. Her younger brother tried to flee the country, but was intercepted by the Russian army. He survived the war and is still alive today and currently resides in Paris. Her only sister refused to leave Poland. Both my grandmother and her sister were arrested and placed in a work camp. They were relocated to a number of different work camps until they were eventually placed at Auschwitz. During their lengthy struggle to survive, my grandmother was eventually forced to watch her sister be mauled to death by attack dogs in this work camp. Weeks after her sister’s death, my grandmother was placed in a group who was scheduled to be gassed. At the last minute, an SS guard pulled her out of line because she appeared to be healthy enough to work.

My grandfather, Ziggy, is the sole survivor of his four brothers and his parents, all of whom were executed upon arrival to Auschwitz. My grandfather continuously tried looking for his family members after he was released and always came up empty handed. It wasn’t until years after the war that he came to the devastating realization that his family had had a much worse fate than he. Although his experiences thoughout the war were dark, he explained to me that the events leading to his ultimate survival were filled with luck. He was initially placed in several work labor camps, where his feet sustained extensive blistering from wearing wooden shoes he was issued by the Nazi soldiers. He persevered through multiple work camps until he reached his final internment. He had decided that he could no longer tolerate the oppressive conditions he was forced to face every day. He knew that he was going to escape and that’s exactly what he did. He was able to run to a nearby Polish town. There the people were incredibly accommodating, providing him with food. Unfortunately, they would not allow him to say with them so as not to endanger their own chances of survival. He eventually was found and arrested by the Polish police. He begged them not to send him back to the work camp because he knew that if he was sent back to the one he escaped from he was surely going to be killed. They allowed him to rest until his feet heaed before sending him back to a camp. Little did he know that he was going to be sent to Auschwitz, this was the first concentration camp that he was in.

It was March or April of 1944 when he was sent to the camp. Like Muller, my grandfather was forced to shower, shave, issued a striped uniform and given his number, 188543. He was then sent straight to Block 2, a quarantine block. For months no one was allowed to step outside. The prisoners were forced to exercise within the barracks. These exercises were a random set of activities that the guards would yell out for the prisoners to follow. If the soldiers were not pleased with the prisoners’ performance, they would beat them. At some points, prisoners would be so badly beaten they would be killed. This was also a situation that Muller was forced to endure. My grandfather didn’t have a particular job, but he was assigned random tasks to perform around the barrack. He was becoming restless because of his restriction to his cellblock. He began volunteering to work for the SS guards just so he could experience the sun once again. He then managed, with a little luck, to get a job working in the kitchen till the camp was cleared out in January of 1945.

Filip Muller was sent to Auschwitz in April of 1942, two years before my grandfather. He was one of the earliest transports sent there from Slovakia. Within a month he was working in the cremation room. One evening he was lying in a bunker and decided that he was going to try and sneak some food for himself. In the process, he got caught and the SS guard that found him sent him into the crematorium. “We were met by the appalling sight of the dead bodies of men and women lying higgledy-piggledy among suitcases and rucksacks” (Muller, 12). He was then ordered to undress the “stiffs.” He proceeded to undress a deceased woman. As he did so he accidentally caused her stockings to run and was beaten for it (Muller,12). He was ordered to do a number of jobs centered in the crematorium. Not only did he have to undress the dead, he also had to learn how to load the dead onto carts so they could be placed in the ovens, as well as poke the bodies to make sure that the fire was still getting oxygen.

When the SS guards realized that there were more corpses then could fit into the crematoriums they had at the time, they had the cremation workers load the bodies onto trucks and drive them to a pit where they could be burned in a mass grave. The first time that Muller had to do this he almost drowned in a sea of dead bodies when a wave of them fell on top of him. “After [SS guards] had let down the tail-board and removed several corpses we were able to free ourselves. I was aching all over: I felt as though I had fractured every single bone in my body.” (Muller, 21). The next morning the workers went back out to where they placed the bodies, the SS guards were preparing them to be burned. This was the first time that Muller saw a mass grave being set ablaze.

Muller was eventually reunited with his father who thought that he survived by doing honest work; he didn’t have the heart to tell his father what he really did in the camp. He only got to see his father a few times, one of which he looked very unhealthy and Muller could tell that he was coming down with Typhus. The last time he saw his father, he was being brought in on a wheelbarrow to be put in the ovens.

My fellow prisoners bore his corpse to the crematorium and placed it on the trolley in the cremation room. In front of the blazing ovens a team-mate recited the Kaddish, steadfast in his belief, calm imperturbable and true to the ancient traditions of his forefathers, he praised his lord…(Muller, 48).

At this point he didn’t think that there was much reason to go on or that he didn’t have a heart left, but he still managed to go on with his day.

The hardest point for Muller during the war was when he stared thinking about what his life was going to be like after the war. If he survived, there was no one to go back to. No more family or schoolmates, not even a home, and the majority of the Jewish population in his town would be gone (Muller, 110). He thought at this point that he was going to give up and he decided to go into the chambers with the next group that was marching to their deaths. He was standing next to a pillar waiting for the chamber to fill up when a group of girls gathered around him and one of them spoke to him:

We understand that you have chosen to die with us of your own free will, and we have come to tell you that we think your decision pointless: for it helps no one.’ We must die, but you still have a chance to save your life, you have to return to the camp and tell everybody about our last hours. You have to explain to them that they must free themselves from any illusions, they ought to fight, that’s better than dying here helplessly. It’ll be easier for them, since they have no children. As for you, perhaps you’ll survive this terrible tragedy and then you must tell everybody what happened to you.

Before he could comprehend what she had just said to him, she grabbed him by the arm and pulled him to the door then gave him a final push out. He was now standing in front of the SS guards who ordered him to go upstairs and start putting bodies into the ovens (Muller, 114). As he was loading the ovens he could hear the screams and knew that the Zyklon B was taking affect. And thought to himself, “I hoped that perhaps I might be of use to the Resistance…I had come to the conviction that each minute, each hour and each day I could interpose between the day of my death was a gift from heaven.” (Muller, 115).

Art Spiegelman’s Maus I about a son telling this story of his fathers survival in Auschwitz. Vladek the father, had to endure many hardships as well. He had to find out that his first son had died while he was in the care of a friend. He was in hiding for most of the time. He was forced to put on a brave face and interact with Poles and Germans so he could get some food. He was very brave, and there were many times where he thought he couldn’t go on but he had to be strong for his wife. His wife was having a hard time coping with the drastic changes in her life, and wanted to end her life on many occasions. But Vladek wouldn’t let her. They both survived Auschwitz because Vladek was smart at could work, even when he didn’t know how to do a job he would figure it out or hire someone to help him. He always found a way go keep going.

Muller and my grandfather never knew why they were chosen to survive, they didn’t know if it was because of the strong will they had or if it was just pure luck or a coincidence. One main thing that they both had in common is that they never completely gave up, though Muller was very close to the end, he realized that he couldn’t and that he must go on. He knew that someone had to be able to tell the story of those people that were unable to tell it themselves. They always worked as hard as they could. Even when people around them were dying, whether it was loved ones or complete strangers, they never gave up. There were plenty of times when they both wanted to. The world would be a much different place if they had decided to give up. They were kept alive so they could go on and tell their stories, so that to make sure the story will never be forgotten for the 1.1 million men, women and children who perished in Auschwitz.


Annotated Bibliography and Links (back to top)(links last checked 3/23/10)

Book Reviews

  • , Kirkus review

    This review states that Muller did everything he could to survive. At times he wanted to give up and die but changed his mind because he needed to be able to tell his story to the world when he was liberated. He had to go through so many hardships, such as sending his own father into the crematorium and I think that if someone is able to do that and continue on with their life takes a lot of courage. This review was the reason I chose this book to read. I thought that the story sounded really interesting, and I had never read a story like this one before. It was a whole new perspective on a topic that I thought I knew a lot about and as I was reading I was pleasantly surprised to learn a new survivor's story.

Books and Articles

  • Scrapbookpages.com, Auschwitz-Birkenau: A History of Man-Made Hell (February 03, 2010)

    This article is about the history of Auschwitz, how it was formed, why it was built here. It describes what the town was like before the war and why it was chosen to be the main site of the camps. It is also a recently written article that relates how people feel about the camp now and how they felt about it then. Also gives an account of Auschwitz II and III as well as Birkenau. It also gives an account of what Auschwitz is like now and how it is a museum.

  • Shlomo Venezia, Inside the Gas Chambers:Eight months in the Sonderkommando of Auschwitz (Polity, 2009), 200 pages

    Inside the Gas Chambers: Eight Months in the Sonderkommando of Auschwitz by Shlomo Venezia is a story of another account of surviving Auschwitz. Shlomo Venezia was offered extra bread if he worked in the gas chambers removing corpses. He didn’t know what he was getting into when he first accepted this job. This book sounds very interesting and I would love to read it. I think that it would do a really good job of comparing the two stories and finding out different perspectives on the same story.

  • Lyn Smith, Forgotten Voices of the Holocaust: A New History in the Words of the Men and Women Who Survived (Ebury Press, 2006), 352 pages

    Forgotten Voices of the Holocaust: A New History in the Words of the Men and Women Who Survived by Lyn Smith is a collection of survivors stories. What they had to go through and the hardships they had to endure to survive. This is a collection of the brave survivors that were willing to tell their stories. And willing to let people read their stories and to gather a firsthand account of what they went through. I think that a survivors story is a very personal story to tell. I think that it is very brave of them to put their story in words for all to read.

Relevant Websites

  • United States Holocaust Memorial Museum,, “Holocaust History” (online exhibition) (July 30, 2008)

    I think this web page gives a lot of information. You can educate yourself on any topic related to the Holocaust through this page. You can gather history from different perspectives. There is a remembrance page, that will tell you when the day of remembrance is, if you want to donate and even a place for survivors to register and see if anyone they may know is on there also. It’s a place to reconnect with lost family or friends.

  • Memorial and Museum: Auschwitz-Birkenau, Auschwitz-Birkenau

    This home page of the memorial site at Auschwitz is great if you’re planning on visiting Auschwitz. It gives a history of Auschwitz and Birkenau. If you want to educate yourself more on the camps, there is a place to do so on the web page and it also tells you about lectures your can visit if you wanted more information then the web page provides. The web page offers a bookshop link, which takes you to countless books that can be purchased. Mostly based on survivors from Auschwitz, giving a first hand account of what they went through.

  • Jacobs, Auschwitz-Birkenau photo page (2006)

    This web site is composed of pictures by Alan Jacobs. He went to Auschwitz in 1979 through 1981. I think that pictures are a great way to tell a story. For those who can’t make it to Poland can get a look at what the camp is like without having to leave their homes. Pictures are one of the most important aspects of understanding history. People everywhere can know what it was like to be in the camps and see what it would have been like to live there. This web site does a good job of displaying the pictures as well as giving a description of what is going on in the pictures.

  • Wikipedia, "Auschwitz Concentration Camp” (accessed March 7, 2010)

    This Wikipedia page has everything you need to know about the camp. Its covers all the camps, takes you through a typical day of a prisoner including medical experiments. Tells about some resistances that happened, especially the Birkenau revolt. It talks about the death marches as well as the death toll. It also gives some detail of what life was like after the war and why the museum was created. Along with that information, this web page is so up today that it discusses when the iconic sign “Arbeit macht frei” was stolen in the summer of 2009. I think this is my favorite page because it has all the information needed to learn about the camps. It is also laid out in a very easy to understand way.

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Any student tempted to use this paper for an assignment in another course or school should be aware of the serious consequences for plagiarism. Here is what I write in my syllabi:

Plagiarism—presenting someone else's work as your own, or deliberately failing to credit or attribute the work of others on whom you draw (including materials found on the web)—is a serious academic offense, punishable by dismissal from the university. It hurts the one who commits it most of all, by cheating them out of an education. I report offenses to the Office of the Dean of Students for disciplinary action.

prepared for web by Mara Bochenek on 3/23/10; last updated: 11/21/10
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