As the German military pushed from the west, millions of Polish mothers and their children hit the road to drive, ride, or march east. Sobolewicz then became the man of the house as the father was off fighting with the Polish military. He and his mother headed to what soon became the Soviet Zone, i.e. in the wake of the Hitler-Stalin Pact. On their way in search of safety from the Germans, the Sobolewicz family witnessed again-and-again Guernica-type horror scenes with horses and farm animals running here and there-and with trucks and railroad yards being bombed along the way before their eye. The family also watched as unprotected cities were attacked again and again by the German blitzkrieg.
In the eastern part of Soviet occupied Poland, Mrs. Sobolewicz had relatives, but after a few months of staying with them and with others from whom she rented property, the Sobolewicz family received word from Tadeusz' father to return to the German occupied zone to the west. After making the dangerous crossing, they rejoined the father, who had become a regional leader in the resistance movement for Poland. Soon young Tadeusz was following his father's footsteps.
However, shortly thereafter, the SS and German occupiers are quickly after Tadeusz and his dad. In order to get the two to turn themselves in, the mother is arrested and sent to a prison in Germany named CampRavensbrueck for women. She stays there for the duration of the war. One year later both Tadeusz and his dad find themselves being tortured in SS-run prisons and finally sent at different times to become political prisoners in one of the Auschwitz camps prior to Christmas of 1941.
Although there were many traitors in Poland aiding (or forced to aid) the occupying forces, even during his days in SS prison and while he had been on the run from the Gestapo as a freedom fighter, Tadeusz always found one or more role models who gave him help or served to tell him how to live and survive. (Tadeusz was always particularly trusting of those who had served in or had led boy scout troops. Even during his years in death- and internment camps, he would seek out fellow former scouts and scout leaders to gain assistance.)
Tadeusz received the number 23053 in Auschwitz. He had heard rumors of the camp and rumors about what awaited him there, but the beatings in prison had been so bad that he had actually looked hopefully to the transport to Auschwitz, where he could at least see the sun. (He had been in a dungeon or cellar of the jail for many months-without ever seeing daylight.)
On his first day in the Auschwitz camp, he saw a Polish criminal, who had been give charge of his bunkhouse. This man who was given so much power over his fellow prisoners soon beat a prisoner to death for having diarrhea--and stinking up the room. When Tadeusz asked why this occurred, the reply from the long term residents was, "Here they don't need a reason to beat you at all, don't you understand that?"
Within weeks Tadeusz physical frame was worked almost to death by the heavy outdoor work that winter. In the meantime, he observed several suicides by those who had given up all hope. These prisoners would simply either walk up to a wire and touch it or start walking away from their workplace at a slow pace, only to be mowed down in rifle, pistol, or machine gun fire. Another time, he observed capos and bunk leaders killing prisoners simply to hide their bodies under the bunkhouse for a few days. (During this time, these criminal types could take the food rations of these other dead prisoners unnoticed by the German higher-ups for a week at a time.) Likewise, German soldiers were given holidays for every prisoner they shot escaping-a lot of prisoners who weren't escaping just so the soldier could "earn" a holiday.
Just as Tadeusz was giving up all hope, he fell ill with tuberculosis. This is when he came across several miracle workers in the camp. First, Tadeusz was taken to the camp medical hospital and put in isolation-instead of sent straight to the gas chamber. In his interim of delirium at the so-called camp hospital, Tadeusz was taken care of by prison clinic assistants and a few Polish doctors who actually did their best (with next-to-know medicine) to take care of the few prisoners they could. When Tadeusz had recovered a bit, some of his former cellmates then smuggled bread and food into the clinic for him to help in his recovery. Likewise, amongst the prison clinic and the camp kitchen Tadeusz observed, there were teams of volunteers who smuggled food regularly to assist the sickest prisoners among them in the camp-excepting, of course, those who had not been shot, killed, or beaten to death.
It was in this context, Tadeusz was even able to receive a visit from his own father. Soon Tadeusz was well enough to volunteer to help out in the clinic. Tadeusz helped other victims of illnesses, particularly those with tuberculosis which was sweeping the camp. Even after he was well, the doctors and helpers in the hospital clinic kept Tadeusz there longer than normally permitted as an all-around clinic assistant-i.e. cleaning beds, changing sheets, etc. These same prisoners and doctors in the clinic had also protected Tadeusz from various SS "selections", whereby sick prisoners were marked to be shot, sent to gas chambers or to experiment centers.
Finally, Tadeusz was forced to rejoin the world of work- and death camps. Suddenly, he had one of the most dreaded jobs of all. This occurred because it became clear that he could speak and read German. Therefore, Tadeusz was assigned as a translator and transcriber for the Auschwitz "train welcoming committee". This meant he daily faced scenes like one witnesses in the film, SOPHIE'S CHOICE, whereby loved ones were, separated, parted and selected from one-another. Some were sent to various parts of the camp to work--or to their immediate deaths.
It was during this short period of great shame as translator, that another major miracle or stroke of luck occurred to Tadeusz. An elderly Jew who recognized that they were originally from the same township in Poland gave Tadeusz an expensive watch because, as the old man said, "I can't use it wear I am going and you can." Tadeusz looked around and pocketed the watch quickly.
Within a few hours, Tadeusz was out looking across the camp for a benefactor who could use the watch and get him out of the horrible job as translator and statistician for new arrivals. Tadeusz came across the right man-a national champion boxer of Poland who had connections all over Auschwitz. His benefactor-to-be admired the watch.
Tadeusz asked if the Polish boxing champ had been a Boy Scout-and the man nodded that he had. Tadeusz then handed him the watch and asked the boxer to help get him transferred to a better job in the camp. The man promised to do so, and a week later, Tadeusz found himself working in the camp kitchen-where for the first time ever in the camp he began to actually build himself up physically, i.e. as he received regular nourishment for the first time in a year.