It was a warm spring day when I first saw Dachau. The fields were green and the birds chirped in the nearby trees. But as my fellow prisoners and I marched through the camp’s gates, a horrific stench overpowered us. We looked around and instantly knew why: Heaps of dead bodies lay scattered on the ground, rotting in the sun.
It was April of 1945, and I was 23 years old. Starvation had shriveled my body as well my hopes. Kazimierz Dolny, my hometown in central Poland, was reduced to a Jewish graveyard. And as I later learned, my parents, grandparents and all my siblings were among the dead.
At this point in the war, the Nazi camps were in complete disarray. Allied bombs had forced the Germans to scramble, and the SS was so worried about surviving, they no longer paid us much attention. There was no roll call at Dachau, no food or anything resembling a functioning prison. If a deranged inmate screamed "bread," all of us would attack each other, flailing our hands and bony elbows, only to discover there was nothing to eat.
For several days, we lay around the camp, starving, until the front drew closer. One day, the SS herded us into open cattle cars with barbed wire ceilings, then shuttled us away by train. Apparently, there wasn't even time for them to kill us. One night, the train stopped in the middle of the forest. Snow fell from the sky and settled on my eyelashes. I was cold, I was hungry, but I felt strangely at peace.
Soon, however, gunfire shattered the stillness. The Germans and the Allies were shooting at each other, and we were caught in the crossfire. Bullets ripped through the cattle cars, and all around me, prisoners dropped. I fell to the floor, listening to the thud of metal piercing flesh. Then, as quickly as the battle started, it stopped. Silence returned. Dawn rose over the hills. The snow continued to fall. My friend Yitzhak and I lay on the floor with our hands over our heads, listening for the slightest sound. In the distance, we heard it, coming from the cars ahead of us: Loud, jubilant voices, speaking in Yiddish.
“Mir zenen frei!”
“We are free at last!”
We lifted our heads. I looked over at Yitzhak. He had a baffled expression on his face and I assumed my own face mirrored his. We looked around and saw that there wasn't an SS soldier in sight. But I was still afraid.
“Let’s not move yet," I whispered to Yitzhak. "We’ve got to be cautious."
We lay there for awhile, listening to the others step down from the trains, running, screaming, singing and laughing in the snow. I raised my head and saw them, my fellow prisoners, my fellow Jews, buzzing in all directions. One man was dragging a huge sack of food on his bony shoulders. Another died in front of me from pure elation, his cold fingers clutching a loaf of bread. I felt the chill in the air. I felt the floor below my body. I felt my friends lying beside me, and then I felt tears on my cheeks. I was starving, I was cold and I was infested with lice. But for the first time since 1939, my life was my own.
My friend Yitzhak and I stepped off the train and stumbled through the cold, looking for food and shelter. Joining us, was another friend named Yakov. Before long, we arrived in Allach, a town northwest of Munich. We knocked on the first door we saw and waited. No one came. Yitzchak turned back for the road, but I sensed that people were home. I knocked again and again. At last the handle turned and the door creaked open.
“Please don’t hurt us,” a feeble voice said from behind the door.
Looking through the crack of the doorway, I saw an elderly woman.
“Don’t worry,” I said in German. “We are just hoping you can spare us some hot food. Please, we need your help. We are starving.”
She looked at my torn black-and-white-striped prison shirt then tried to close the door. “I’m sorry," she said. "We don’t have enough to eat ourselves.”
I stopped the door with my foot. “We aren’t criminals," I said. "We’re just Jews who have been in the concentration camps. Please, we won’t hurt you.”
I looked at her, and she looked at me. A moment passed, and then she opened the door. When I stepped inside, I saw that she was crying. So was her daughter, a beautiful blonde-haired, blue-eyed girl of about 16. We kept our distance and assured them in our broken German that we meant them no harm.
As the elderly woman heated water for the tub, we stripped down naked, right there in front of them in the foyer. The older woman took our clothes outside to burn; the lice had infested the fabric to such an extent that you could actually see the bugs. The daughter went to find us clothes from her father and brother's closets (the two had been drafted into the German army some years before). Then the older woman scrubbed us with soap and disinfectant for the better part of an hour.
The woman wasn't lying: There wasn't enough food in the house for all of us, so we promised to steal them groceries from the SS cellars. In exchange, the women said we could stay with them for a few days until we regained our strength. That first afternoon, the mother prepared a small pot of hot soup and some plain oatmeal. Yitzchak and Yakov feasted, but I ate little. My body was so exhausted I could barely keep my eyes open, let alone lift a spoon to my lips. The young woman led me upstairs to a bed with white sheets and a down comforter, and I instantly fell asleep.
At daybreak, I heard muffled voices coming through the floorboards below. I felt the warm glow of sunlight on my face and slowly opened my eyes. I saw my white bedding and white nightgown and couldn't understand where I was. For several moments, I thought I had died and God had finally taken me to heaven. But as I began to recognize the muffled voices, reality returned. Still in a daze, I crept downstairs and padded across the kitchen where my friends were enjoying breakfast with the two women.
“Welcome back, Pinek,” they laughed. “Did you have a nice rest?”
“I slept through the whole day and night?”
“You slept through two days and nights," Yakov said. "Are you hungry?”
I was famished.
This story has been excerpted from Judith Schneiderman's memoir, I Sang to Survive, which was written with her granddaughter, Jennifer Schulz, and is available on Audible. Judith's husband, Paul Schneiderman, died in 2013.