Collins, Steve

Collins, Steve

Plonsk (Poland), Nosachevichi, Mlawa labor camp, Auschwitz-Birkenau, Sachsenhausen, Oranienburg

Collins was born in Plonsk, Poland in 1918 to a family of seven children. His father had a small tailoring shop in which robes were made. He remembers a close-knit, happy family life in which he did not realize that they were poor.

Collins was twenty-one years old in 1939 and recalls proudly enlisting as a soldier in the Polish army when the Germans captured Warsaw. When he returned to his home town, he found Jewish citizens sweeping the streets of Plonsk with their brooms. His family was forced into the ghetto, and he was conscripted into forced labor.

He was put into the construction crews that built work camps and worked on the construction of barracks in several work camps such as Nosaczewicze and Mlawa in Poland. From the first summer of 1940 until liberation in 1945, Collins was interned at several camps in and near Auschwitz-Birkenau. He remembers the numerous cattle cars arriving during the four-year period the crematoriums were constantly being fed.

Collins tells of the Gypsy Camp he worked in for several months, until the Gypsies were marked for liquidation. He recalls “Canada,” with mountains of shoes, clothes, and valuables, where he was beaten for not informing on fellow workers. He recounts working at the disembarkation ramp where the cattle cars arrived and the selection process occurred. He saw the transports from the Lodz ghetto; a transport of American Jews caught in Europe in which an American woman grabbed a guard’s gun and shot several guards; and a transport of perhaps fifty rabbis who were made to write propaganda letters to rabbis in other countries before being killed.

Collins also talks of the mass grave sites where 5,000 bodies had been thrown to lay all winter. The workers then had to dig up the corpses and cart them to the crematoria. He also saw mass grave sites where thousands of bodies had been thrown into piles and burned because the crematoria could not handle the volume of Jews being exterminated.

Collins relates two particularly unique experiences:

In Birkenau his living conditions were improved and he was living in a barrack with prisoners who were camp doctors. On several occasions Dr. Mengele would visit the barrack to spend evenings talking medicine with these doctors, one of whom had been Mengele’s professor in medical school. Because Collins had been a tailor, he was told to sew a white jacket for Dr. Mengele to wear during hospital rounds. He recounts fitting the jacket to Dr. Mengele’s proportions.

The Germans trained Collins to be a brick layer when he was involved in the construction of the camps. In 1944 he was ordered to lower himself by rope into the smokestack of the Birkenau crematoria for repair work. He found himself in the interior of this very tall structure gazing at its clean porcelain walls, fearful of falling into the ovens below.

Collins’s entire account bears witness to the savagery he saw the wanton killing by kapos and commandants, and killing amongst prisoners.

In the final days and during the death march out of the camp, Collins found himself on the road with a small portion of bread. After a few days of marching, he saw that his chances of survival were slim, so many of his fellow prisoners were dying, so he decided to run to the woods to escape. He lay hidden for five days until the liberation. He stayed in Germany until 1950, when he immigrated to the United States.

Interview Information:
Date: May 10, 1982
Interviewer: Eva Lipton
Format: Audio recording

Date: July 21, 1985
Interviewer: Ellen Collins
Length: Approx. 2 hours, 30 minutes
Format: Video recording

Date: March 26, 1986
Interviewer: Esther Weine
Length: Approx. 2 hours
Format: Video recording

Date: January 10, 1990
Interviewer: Rabbi Charles H. Rosenzveig
Length: Approx. 1 hour, 30 minutes
Format: Video recording