Holocaust Education & Archive Research Team
Extracts from the Tragedy of a Jewish Teenager
1. Opole Ghetto
Precisely on the 10th May 1942 with spring in full bloom, the last fearful summons came. All the hundreds of refugees who had escaped up to that moment, would have to go to the notorious place and at the same hour as before. They warned us very seriously that no-one should try to oppose them or try to hide, since those who did so would be immediately shot down. They added that , as of that day , our community would be extinguished, and for that reason it would be useless for us to stay. They gave us some other orders and threats and at eleven o’clock next day, the ill fated square was filled by those Jews who had been left behind, each one with his bundle at hand.
Among them were my parents, my brother my sister, my nephew and myself. In our group was also one of my cousins from Wolwonice, Nojech Szmajner. It was then we learned about our destination, although we did not know why we were being sent. Rows and columns were made and we left the ghetto of Opole for the last time. Outside the gate we saw a large number of carts, since we already been counted, we left and in a few minutes we were far from the town, crossing fields covered with multi-coloured flowers and leaving Opole Lubelskie behind.
We were now facing something imponderable. I later learned that only the members of the Judenrat and of the Jewish police , as well as the privileged elements who orbited around that organisation , were not part of this transport. They had been solemnly promised by the Germans they could continue in the town. So as soon as the last Jew had left the ill-fated ghetto, they went back to the square to talk to the Nazis, as if to render them an account of the good job they had done. The latter put them all together and immediately shot them, regardless of the pleas and begging of their perplexed collaborators.
Such was the sad end of those who had always tried to excel in their fidelity and total subservience to their unfeeling masters, who gave them indisputable proof of the deep scorn they felt for them. This has been, still is and always will be so.
2. Journey to the Unknown
In the carts on the front rows were the old men, the invalid, the women and the children. The men followed on foot. I was placed on one of the first rows, the third or the fourth, with my brother my cousin and my nephew. All of ours took long strides to be able to follow the same rhythm of the animal – drawn carts, as our escorts would not let us get far from them. The long train thus formed was led in the direction of Wolwonice. The Germans accompanied us in cars, on bicycles or on horseback. We were deadly silent and the only sounds which could be heard, were those of the trotting horses and the hum of the motors, the shrill sound of a whistle or a command shouted in German or Polish. Once in awhile this monotone was broken by the crack of some firearm and we were frightened.
A few minutes later a whisper passed along the column, from the back to the front until the news reached the ears of those walking on the first rows. The Germans were shooting all those who could not follow the others and right there, on the dusty road. For many of us the worries and the pains, which seemed endless were finished. Some tried to look back so as to see what was happening, but terrible shouts from the soldiers made them change their minds. After we had walked some kilometres I saw something, which filled me with the utmost horror.
Right before me an elderly man started to slacken his pace due to his pitiful physical condition. When one of the Nazis noticed he was limping, he came near him and jumped off his bicycle thus throwing it to the ground, so furious was he. Not wasting a single minute he elbowed his way through the crowd at the front and rudely pushed the unhappy Jew away. The poor devil, already weak, fell heavily to the ground, while his aggressor got hold of a rifle and sent a bullet through the nape of his neck. Then he mounted his bicycle again and rode away as if nothing had happened. As the whole awesome scene took place before my very eyes I could watch it down to the least details. I was so appalled that I doubled my efforts to avoid the same happening to me and all those around me did the same.
After we had been walking for about three hours we came to a village, the name of which escaped my memory, but which I believe was called Kiwuel. We heard a long whistle followed by a shout - which ordered the disorientated crowd to come to a halt. It was the time for rest, not for us though, but for our escort. They did not let us sit on the ground and if in some way we succeeded in lessening the effects of our tremendous stress it was due to the rest the Germans took. At this stop something disturbing happened and it deeply hurt the feelings of us all.
A few minutes after we had stopped some of the carts were taken away from the convoy and driven to places far away from where we were. We then heard a series of shots followed by total silence. We later learned that the Germans had selected exactly those who were better dressed and killed them. They had then called some Polish peasants from the neighbourhood and sold them the clothes of their poor victims. The peasants were then told to get the clothes off the dead bodies and most certainly this command must have been given with smiles on the Germans faces. The Germans came whistling back and said that from now on there would be lots of elegant people in the village and that was all the comment they made.
As the gang which kept us, had already had lunch and some rest, we proceeded towards Wolwonice, which we soon reached. We went by the town and turned towards Nalenczow. On leaving Wolwonice the road had a steep downward slope followed by another steep upward one which could very well be known as the ‘Death Climb’. In this sadly notorious place there was a horrible slaughter in front of us all.
Notwithstanding the steep climb we were forced to go on walking as fast as we had walked down. In order to make us do that the men with the Swastika whipped us without ceasing. Many of us could not hold on any longer and started to lag behind. They were summarily taken out of the files and shot without any warning. We were already used to these barbaric Nazi shows but we had never witnessed at close quarters such a gruesomely revolting scene, without being able to do anything to help our brothers. Dozens of Jews were killed in that way by the sole reason that they were exhausted by the long painful journey.
Meanwhile all those who could still walk silently watched the carnage. From the front carts, women and children looked at the spectacle of death with eyes, made glassy by the violence of what they saw, clouded by the tears which welled up without stopping, while their throats could not hold back the sobs which broke uncontrollably. Countless Poles who passed by on the road instead of stopping to try and help us in some way by giving us some food or water or even a small gesture of tenderness or pity, would only come near us, to stare delightedly at the vandalism which was performed there. This did not happen only once, before we reached Naleczow, an incalculable number of men were shot dead by Nazi bullets, thus littering the road with bodies.
These despicable Polish gentlemen of their own will were immersed in their own indignity and in their own carelessness. Their country was the victim of the worst abuse, and the tradition of pride and fight, moulded in the reaction against the Russians in 1920, was being trodden by Teuton boots for almost three years. They were the ones who could somehow oppose tyranny because they were relatively free and could get weapons. However, they opted for the role of obedient and flattering lambs instead of doing what we the Jews, lacking everything, had done in the heroic Warsaw ghetto where thousands of brave men had fought the Nazi troops and tanks, without any weapons for three weeks.
Finally, with large spaces in our ranks, we arrived at the station of Naleczow. They caged us inside a plot of land surrounded with barbed wire, as if we were animals, without water or food. Eating and drinking to their hearts content, the German jackals delighted in sarcastically staring at us, while we sank in the pain and worry which the death of so many of ours had caused us. Only then could we check the tragic account of casualties, we gathered in small groups made up of several families that existed there with the aim of counting how many were no longer with us. Nearly all the families had been deprived of some loved ones who lay on the long road from Opole Lubelskie to Naleczow.
I saw many Poles come near the wire fence to sell bottles and pitchers of water. Taking advantage of our anxiety they were demanding and would only give us the water in exchange for a gold wedding ring, a watch or some other valuable thing. Many Jews had been able to keep, through all those long months, precious belongings hidden from the plundering Nazis. However, in a few minutes, they had to hand them all over to the voracious Poles for little more than a carafe of water, which should never be denied even to a dog.
I came then to understand that they had gotten used to making money out of the misfortune of others since the former groups had passed that way some time ago. They belonged to the same class of toadies who had taken delight in the unhappiness, which assailed us over the long walk to Naleczow. They tried to exchange water for gold, nuzzling in the murk of their own misery, instead of doing the same thing that their countrymen in the Polish Brigade had done only a little earlier in Torbruk, when they helped in the epic defence of that military stronghold in the African desert, against the long and unsuccessful first attack of Rommel’s troops.
It was May 11th 1942 and when night fell most of us were hungry and thirsty and the only thing we heard was the weeping of our women and children. Some chanted the Kaddish – the Jewish prayer for the dead – for those who were gone forever. And thus we spent the night, all of us lying on the ground in the open air and although we were absolutely worn-out with tiredness and suffering we could not sleep.
Before daybreak the guards entered the enclosure to put us in rows once more. When this was done, we were led to the station platform under strong escort. When we got there we saw a freight train waiting for us: all its wagons were totally closed and had very little airing. They had sliding doors which were locked from the outside.
Shouting and pushing, they threw us into the wagons until they were saturated with Jews. A minimum of one hundred people were put inside each one of them under conditions which would not be proper even if the cargo had been swine. When the whole bunch of people was crowded inside the cattle wagons we heard a shrill whistle, and then the train whistle which preceded departure. With the train at full speed the constant shaking of the wagons made the situation inside reach a state of unbelievable panic and despair. I have no words to exactly describe what happened in that hell. Children were stifled to death, thrashing about frantically, trying to breathe some oxygen which would keep them alive. Old people were trampled and pressed in all possible ways, women some of them pregnant were suspended in the air, without ever being able to set foot on the floor, as they were crushed by the heavy crowd which oscillated from one side to the other, like a pendulum, following the swing of the wagons which ran very fast.
The almost total lack of air made the heat become torrid and the thirst unbearable. There was no water or toilets and many relieved themselves right there. Dizziness and fainting came in quick succession and the turmoil got worse by the minute and no solution was found to all of that.
Once in a while the train would stop but we did not see or were told anything. In these short moments the only hope we had was that they would open the doors and let us breathe some air which we so badly needed. However, this did never happen. Another whistle, another train whistle and the convoy would continue its ruthless course. Each minute the number of corpses grew at our feet, although some of the dead were held upright by the pressure of our bodies, so crowded were we. The smell of sweat, urine and feces mixed in a nauseating odour which actually transformed the wagon into a sewer.
The day before we had travelled from Opole to Naleczow . We had been up the whole night, near the station. Now we faced unprecedented ordeals, unparalleled up to that moment. Thirst tormented us more than hunger, and a single drop of water would be more precious to us than a diamond of the same size. We were not able to even squat and whoever tried it was trampled. We had to stand and the sea of filth grew bigger at our feet, and we went on and on like this for the whole day, locked inside the wagons, as if we were real beasts, in a stifling nauseating place, filled with dead bodies and putrid air. To add the finishing touch to the gruesome picture once in a while we would hear shots fired by the German soldiers who were on the outside of the convoy. They did that to make our terror even worse. Some of us tried to open the door with the help of knives and pocket knives but with no success, since the door was very strong, and was tightly closed. Many came to the point of using their own nails. In a desperate attempt to rip the boards off the side of the wagon, to get some air to breathe.
The only ventilation we had come through a small window closed by iron bars intertwined with barbed wire, and the air was not enough for the needs of a hundred people. We could do nothing with pocket knives or nails ,the heat was increasingly more stifling and the air more difficult to breathe. I do not believe that even the slaves dragged away from Africa by the slave traders ever suffered so much, with the only exception of the length of the trip. The human mind cannot accept that this could have ever been done, in the middle of the twentieth century, against rational beings, when these medieval methods had already been banned for a long time before the Nazis made them come to life again.
Our family gathered somewhere inside the wagon and all of us made superhuman efforts to stay upright. Some were young and were successful, but my father and especially my mother could only manage it at the cost of tremendous exertion. Many times only the pressure of the crowd did not let them fall. Uncontrollable revolt still fills me when I remember them and what they had to suffer due to the bestial inhuman Germans.
There was nothing to make us believe there was any hope of things getting better because the war was taking a course, which might lead to unpredictable results. On the Pacific the Japanese, were at war against the United States and they had already seized a large portion of China and South Eastern Asia.
A few days before our tragic trip they had captured the last pocket of American resistance in the Philippine islands. In Africa, Rommel was completing the siege of Torbruck. in the following month, the important citadel would fall in their hands and the victorious German- Italian troops would invade Egypt and would head for the Suez Canal. Simultaneously, on the Russian front, the Wehrmacht would start its second largest summer attack against the Soviet forces and would besiege the strategic industrial town of Stalingrad. The Russian army was withdrawing and did not seem able to curb the progress of the German armoured divisions. Most of continental Europe was under German domination, excepting Sweden, Switzerland, Turkey and the Iberian countries. Everything made us believe that victory would smile on the Axis.
In Germany and in the occupied territories, the persecution against the Jews had resumed and great names already pontified in the malign profession of sweeping Israelites off the surface of the Earth, such as Julius Streicher, Heinrich Himmler, Martin Bormann, Baldur von Schirach, Artur Seyss- Inquart and so many other murderers which mounted, under Hitler’s inspiration, a real Death Autarchy. They thought their crimes would go unpunished and they started specialising in the most efficient system of mass murder.
Enthusiastic about the successive triumph of their armies and as they thought they would win the war, the Germans had built immense extermination camps in Poland among which the most remarkable were Sobibor, Belzec and Treblinka.
It was late afternoon when we noticed that the noise made by the train wheels on the rails had slowly lessened its speed. Next, we heard the squeak of metal caused by the brakes and the train stopped. We soon noticed they were manoeuvring the engine and suddenly the wagons started to be pushed instead of pulled . A few seconds later we stopped again. We were all silent, since we were worried at the continuous comings and goings of the engine. We felt that it was finally separated from the rest of the convoy and was going fast away from the place we thought should be a railroad yard. Some more minutes went by while we waited for the results of all that fluster.
We were all filled with intense anxiety and only whispers were heard, broken at times by the cry of a child, immediately silenced by its mother. All of a sudden, the door was opened. All the other wagons were opened at the same time and we saw dozens of SS soldiers, whom we already knew very well, waiting for us along the whole long convoy. Scattered among them were approximately as many soldiers and this fact surprised us since they were a novelty for us. They wore special uniforms of which the most remarkable element was a black cap with a skull emblem right in front. They carried wooden truncheons; whips and guns were in their hands. Their uniform was different from that of the Germans and it was forest - green in colour.
They had been recruited in Ukraine among those of German descent and many of them also spoke German. Some Ukrainian Russians also succeeded in joining the army, by claiming they had Aryan blood. This way, they joined up in order to escape the Nazi yoke. They had been assigned to relatively independent units and they had their own hierarchy. In spite of that the Commander in Chief was a German SS officer. Their object was to perform auxiliary tasks for the Germans, such as guards and sentries in Concentration Camps in the countries occupied by the Reich.
We thought our misfortunes had ended on arriving to our destination and we eagerly wished for some fresh air and for freedom, as little as it might be. We felt the compelling need to rest our tired muscles and bones after the pitiless journey. We had gone without water, food, light and pure air for hours, together with excrement and corpses. For all these reasons, our eyes were fixed upon the door which, once opened, showed us the deadly view of a gang of criminals with their sombre threatening look. Thus, all our anxiety had been in vain. We immediately heard violent shouts and curses, followed by an incisive command – "Outside quickly."
This was the reception the bandits gave us making the hopes of the most optimistic turn to pessimism which was already latent. The Ukrainians and their German masters, using the whips in an indiscriminate way, instigated the immense human cargo to make us leave the crowded wagons, hurriedly and violently. We had hardly had time to breathe and we were forced to hurl ourselves disorderly out, like an excited herd.
We stepped on each other and pressed against one another, walking over the bodies, which hampered our way and slipping on the foul slippery paste which covered the whole floor of the freight car. On their part, the soldiers never stopped shouting and whipping us, so as to deliberately increase the tumult, while we were unable to attempt even a single rebellious gesture against all that. Our reasoning abilities were dulled by the din they made and we could not even get any orientation as to where we were at that moment, since we could not find any point of reference.
At the exact moment when the crowd left the wagon and even before we had all come out, I had the opportunity of seeing, with my own eyes, a man in an elegant uniform.
He wore grey trousers, which characterised the German Army, a perfect white jacket and a cap handsomely placed on his head. He was using his pistol to shoot at the Jews who were coming out of the train, and he was accompanied in that by, an extraordinarily tall officer. Not to mention some others who were practising their marksmanship on defenceless targets. Due to this solid attitude, dozens of ours lay there, at the very moment of arrival, by the side of the wagons, on which they had come. The aim of this monstrous scene was to impose, right away, terror and obedience on the Jews, thus discouraging them of any rebellious act.
As soon as the wagons were emptied, we were impelled towards a long corridor flanked by two fences made of barbed wire. There were guards all around us, urging us to walk as fast as possible, in spite of the state we were in. At the end of that passage there was an arrogant Nazi officer accompanied by two Ukrainian soldiers holding their truncheons. This corridor was the stage of an unforgettable scene for the sophisticated cruelty, which was practiced there.
The three criminals stood at the end of the corridor, positioned as to form a triangle, with the higher- ranking officer, a little behind the two guards who stood on either side of him. Both of them had a menacing posture, with their fearful truncheons and their vicious faces. Meanwhile, the mass of Jews was coming by fits and starts and, when they came within reach of the morons they were violently separated – the men to the right and the women to the left, with the beast-like sectarians fiercely wielding their cudgels and hitting everyone pitilessly.
The picture we saw was very painful, with whole families being separated: mothers were separated from their children and husbands in tears: young people were driven away from their parents and siblings: babies were deprived of their mothers love.
As we were being separated according to our sex, we were thrown into a larger yard, located at the end of the corridor. This area could not hold us all and we had to be pushed and pressed to one another until it became totally saturated with people, because about two thousand of us had come in our transport.
The cursed SS were waiting for us at the entrance to the yard, which looked like a football field. They did not intend to waste any time, since they immediately aligned the women into four rows and made them start walking towards a gate, behind which lay the unknown.
As soon as they had disappeared behind the gate, which was noisily shut, the Nazis focused their attention on the men. They put us also in rows of four and we waited for the command to march. This did not come immediately though and we had to stand where we were. In the commotion generated by the disorderly exit from the train , when no one could understand anything amidst the running and shouting. I had been close to my brother, to my nephew and to my cousin Nojech. From that moment onwards we never separated for a single minute and now we were together. The same did not happen to my father, with whom we lost all contact during the bedlam resulting from the human avalanche which had been hurled out of the wagon.
If we had not been able to find him then, we thought it impossible, now, to try to locate him, since we were all grouped and under the strict surveillance of the Germans. With all the men already in formation, there suddenly appeared a giant German officer, with a disdainful look in his eyes and whom I thought to be the leader there. Actually roaring, he started to select us according to our aptitudes. Thus, the farmers were selected first, then the physically stronger, as well as those who seemed to be most able to resist. Next, the carpenters, the mechanics, the tailors, and then other professionals until all of us had been subdivided into diverse groups according to the most useful professions.
As no goldsmiths were called I was very surprised and daringly left the files of those who had not been called and addressed the officer. When I got close enough to him, without waiting for him to say a word, I tried to be very courteous and clever and told him I was a goldsmith and that my profession had not been included on the list they had called. The huge German was perplexed, as if he had paid no attention to my words or did not believe I was actually a goldsmith. As soon as I finished talking I took off my back the small tool bag I always carried and showed him its contents, as well as a monogram, I had engraved on my own money wallet. This small proof of my professional skill was enough to make this brute a little more accessible and believe what I had told him. He finally decided I was to be taken from the files and I took advantage of the opportunity to add that I had three “brothers” who also manufactured jewels and whom I would like to have with me.
He nodded his agreement and my “brothers” joined me. Before he could go on with his work I still found a little courage to tell him that my old father was in that crowd, although I had not been able to find him. The German then said we might be able to find my father next day. Thus ended that short but profitable dialogue.
The reader must surely have noticed how often I have mentioned, from the very first chapter, my tool bag. It is, apparently a detail not worth being mentioned so persistently. Up to now, when I write this chapter, my small bag has not done anything to deserve having been mentioned so many times in the story. It is true that, with the tools I kept in it, I escaped a lot of unpleasant situations and was able to help myself and my family. I have always been able to find some kind of job which would bring me some profit, one way or the other. Besides this, because of it I was able to avoid performing many unpleasant tasks for the Nazis, which would not be useful to me in the least. For all those reasons and because of the way I felt about its immeasurable worth, I always took good care of it and kept it at hand, now more than ever. To anyone less aware of this, the exaggeratedly frequent allusions might even be considered psychotic. However, as the facts are presented the reader will understand the support my little bag came to give me. Thanks to this support I am alive today, and may possibly be alive in the days ahead. Without it, my odyssey would never have been told, and the memory of it will always be kept in my mind.
Next, the giant ordered us to wait for him and left the yard. I was very pleased at the outcome of my boldness and my lies, through which I was able to keep my brother and my relatives with me. While we waited, we could see a group of men disappear behind the same gate the women had gone through a few minutes before. Soon afterwards, a boy came to us and, without a wood, joined our small group. Frightened at the possibility of the presence of the stranger bringing us some kind of problem, I heatedly protested. I told him to go away, as the big boss had said only we were allowed to stay there, to which he retorted he had been given the same command. No alternative was left but to accept him, much to our dislike. The others who had been selected had already been taken away by the guards and so we stayed there alone and afraid of what might happen next. The boy who joined us was a painter who made plaques and signs.
The officer returned at long last. He beckoned us to follow him and started walking to a nearby shack. He violently kicked the door open and told us to go inside. He told us to stay there, not to leave the shack for anything and not to let anyone come in. Soon afterwards he went away. The room was rather large and it was very dark inside, since night was falling. Even so I noticed that in one of the corners someone was moving. I rubbed my eyes and tried to focus them on what I thought must be a man, while my heart started beating out a rhythm. Terribly frightened I shouted – “Who is there?” “I am also a Jew “ – a muffled weak voice immediately answered. We went closer, somewhat calmer now and sat on the floor, beside him. He was a young man. We then began to talk about our misfortunes and we soon learned that he too was a painter of direction signs. We were all extremely tired, hungry and thirsty, however, the heavy nervous tension made us sleepless, and we continued our lively discussions.
He told us he had come in a transport previous to our own. He had come with a large number of Jewish refugees from different Polish small towns, such as Choddle, Jozeow – on the – Vistula and some others. He added that, on arriving, they had the same reception that had been given to us. The Germans had separated first the women and then the men, all of them absolutely frightened at the unbelievable conditions of the trip and by what had happened when they had left the train.
Both groups had disappeared in the same way, behind that gate. Only a group which had been told to clean up the yard had been left behind. Notwithstanding, on the following day, they had also vanished behind the same gate which, according to him, led into a long corridor that ended no one knew where. He told us also that he did not know what had happened to his companions and that he had been told to paint arrows, and panels to identify the station, the camps, the bathrooms etc.
We were still talking when the same German soldier came in and we all became anxious. To our great surprise, he told me to go and get some food and pointed at the kitchen. In spite of the almost total darkness, I saw a bucket and picked it up before I followed the Nazi. When we got there I was open-mouthed. I was face to face with a mountain of cheese , salami, and varied cans, which filled the room next to the kitchen in total disorder. I felt as if I could hurl myself upon it.
The SS told me I could pick up anything I wanted to eat. I did not move, for I thought he was joking. He insisted, but my mistrust did not let me pick up any of those delicacies, although I eagerly wanted them. The officer again insisted. Very humbly and timorously, I finally grabbed a piece of salami and with my head bowed went back to the kitchen to get some coffee. Unfortunately the container I put it in belonged to the painter and must have had some kerosene in it because its precious content was spoiled. Even so each of us drank a little of it, because our hunger was irresistible.
While we talked after we had eaten, the young painter told us he had come with his family but he did not know anything about the fate they had met. Everything indicated that the Germans were using some kind of psychological method, through which they made the thousands of Jews who arrived believe that there was nothing wrong with the place. We were under the impression that every transport that came was always the first one, since everything was neat and tidy with no evidence of the enormous contingents which had come before. Night was passing but we could not sleep. The painter showed visible signs of terror and nervousness, because he shook all the time. Our digressions covered all the main topics of that enigmatic place.
We ceaselessly wondered – What was there behind the arrows which pointed at No1, No 2 and No 3 ? What would it be like behind the plaque which had the word Bath printed on it ? What would there be behind the famous gate? What could have happened to our people? And thus the questions went on repeating themselves, while the answers floated in the air, until the first signs of a new day full of doubts and affliction started to appear. When the thirteenth of May started, I noticed through a small window we had in our room, that something strange was happening.
A group of fifty to sixty men had come into the yard. At first I was elated because all of them were Jews. Among them I immediately recognised a close friend of mine from Opole who had come in the same transport as I. We waved to each other while the other men cleaned the place of what had been left there the day before. His name, unforgettable to me to this day, was Abraham.
When the cleaning up was finished, they vanished from sight, and we again talked about what would soon happen to us. Around the yard, the scenery was tyrannical- fences of barbed wire and sentries loaded up to their ears with arms, in the corners, guards leaned over the parapets of high towers armed with machine guns. This landscape was not at all invigorating, and our disillusionment was great. We were now sure that we had fallen into a perfect trap and we clearly perceived that there would be no way for us to escape, due to the strict watch the Nazis kept and by the equipment they had.
Long hours went by and we did not see or learn anything. No Jew was to be seen for us to at least to be sure he was alive. Around noon, the same officer came again. At the sight of his frightening appearance we immediately stood up. He asked us straight away – “What is it you need to be able to work?”. I informed him we needed tables and chairs. The shy tremulously asked for the material he needed. Next, the officer told us to follow him. He took us to a large shack. There the painter got wooden planks, paint and some other implements he needed to make the numbered plaques, which would identify the diverse quarters existing in the camp. As for us, we got the furniture I had asked for and which was necessary for the work of a goldsmith. I must point out, though that only I was a goldsmith. My brother, nephew, as well as my cousin Nojech, which I had said were my brothers too, knew nothing about the job.
However, I asked for enough material for us all so as to justify what I had told the Nazi officer when we first got there. In the above mentioned shack, there was a large quantity of used clothes and bed sheets, including excellent blankets. We did not let the opportunity slip through our fingers, since we had very few warm clothes, and no blankets. Our first night in the shack had been spent on the floor and we had not been able to go to sleep.
I told the SS that we had no beds and he said he would supply us with some bunks, and he told us to pick out the bed sheets we needed for our personal use. Before he left, he warned us never to go near the barbed wire fences, under any circumstances, since the sentries were under orders to shoot , without any warning, at those who tried to do so. He added that even if we were called by a German to go near the wire fences, for us not to do so, as the invitation would only be a trap. We later learned that the bandits frequently used that dirty trick to kill Jews. It was enough for them to wish to do so and they did it without further hesitation, just for the fun of it.
The officer came again later on. This time however, he had another officer with him. The latter was much shorter and was neatly dressed in a white uniform. I soon recognised him as the officer in a white jacket who had been practicing his marksmanship on the Jews, when we arrived. The first one, whom we already knew, although we did not know his name, introduced him as the Commander –in – Chief of the camp. He went on praising him as the highest authority in that place and as the absolute master of everything, which was done or undone. His power extended in an unquestionable way, over all sectors, and he actually could be considered the master of life and death of all those who were there.
After the flattering description, they sat down and told us to do the same, thus starting a pleasant and even cordial conversation, as if this were the most natural thing for them. We felt much more at ease and we even imagined that we were in a friendly, merry place, such was the courteousness with which they addressed us. The Commandant asked me a lot of questions referring to jewels.
He wanted to know how they were made and how could I, who looked so young, be able to manufacture them. He took some more time on the second question, asking me slyly about how some of the tools were used. Maybe he suspected I did not really possess all the skills I had boasted of, or that I had been lying. Even so, he did not lose his temper and accepted all my arguments even though he tried to delve into all the subtleties of my profession.
When the dialogue was over, they got up and the leader told me to wait for his orders. We then learned his name. He was Franz Stangl. The other one, with whom we had talked many times before, was the cursed SS Scharfuhrer Gustav Wagner, a most important authority, the leader of Camp Number 1.
Franz Stangl was, at that time, extremely vain. He was always perfectly dressed and his snobbery came to the point of being absurd. He regarded himself as being all powerful, and he actually was. His countenance reflected a lot of arrogance, in spite of some kind and tender traits. He doubtlessly looked snobbish. He was always well groomed, his Hauptman’s high ranking police officers uniform was always shiny and well-pressed, and it fitted him beautifully. His build was 1.74m slender height. He usually wore a cap which showed that he still had all of his light-brown air. He looked thirty years old and healthy. He always kept his white gloves swinging on one of his hands and his boots were like mirrors, clean and shiny. He had the air of a superior man, a peculiar characteristic of all Aryans who revered their ancestry. He was always smiling, friendly and happy, although at the cost of the unhappiness of others. He spoke slowly in a soft voice which betrayed his unshakeable calm. The words he pronounced sounded mild and affable, showing how well bred and refined he was. His appearance was that of a University lecturer due to the mixture of attitudes that he deliberately presented.
The other one, Gustav Wagner, was a giant nearly two meters tall. He had a huge body, must have weighed more than a hundred kilos and was as strong as an ox. His main peculiarity lay in the fact that he had extremely long arms, which went down to his knees, in an absurdly disproportionate way. He also had a severe deformity in one of his shoulders, which was much narrower than the other, and this made him walk with a strange gait, always leaning towards the right. Besides his way of swinging his body right and left gave him the appearance of an orang-utan. His face was like a skull made in granite, so rigid was it. His eyes were such a dark green that they could hypnotise anyone who looked fixedly at them. However, they were lustreless like those of a dead fish, with no life or sparkle. Some moments later in comes Franz Stangl again, and he gives me my first job. I was to make a monogram for him. He sat down and explained what he wanted it to be like.
After I had listened to him attentively I argued that the gold I had available would not be enough, given the weight the valuable jewel was to have. The gold I declared I had was that of the jewels we had kept carefully hidden since we had been taken away from Opole. As a matter of fact, with the exception of my tool bag, these were the only valuable objects from which I never parted. We knew how priceless they would be in times of danger and I took good care of them. They represented a very small part of what we had once had, but even so, they could still be extremely useful. As I was terrified at the mysterious disappearance of my parents and my sister Ryrka behind the sinister gate, I thought that was the right time for me to offer the little gold in my power to be used in the monogram, even if the quantity would not be enough.
However, Stangl did not worry about that. He promised he would send me the proper amount of bullion I needed to make the ring to his taste. I took advantage of the pleasantness of our talk to reiterate that my parents were also there and we would like to see them since we missed them very much and we were not used to being deprived of their company. In effect, a constant torture afflicted me as to their whereabouts. I knew that what I had seen on the day we had arrived was not encouraging. However, I still ardently nourished the hope that all of them were alive, working in some other quarter of the camp, which seemed to me destined for concentration or forced labour. Formerly when I had been looking for them all over Poland, and before I had met them again in Wolwonice, I had spent long sad months searching for them, but I was absolutely sure they were still alive.
Now, everything was different. I had been separated from them only twenty-four hours before, but a strange worry tormented me ceaselessly, due to what I had witnessed the day before and their sudden mysterious disappearance. The Commandant heard everything with his head bent, but with his whole attention. Then turning to me with an air of generosity he assured me I had nothing to worry about and that I would soon be able to see them. He assured me that all of them were well but their work was a little bit harder than ours. In spite of that, he added there was no reason for me to be worried or afraid. Furthermore, he declared that all the Jews who had come in our transport had already had their baths, changed their clothes and were working on the farm, and that they were happy and well taken care of.
Stangl paused for a minute and then went on, adding that nothing would be missing to our little group. We would always have enough material for us to work with, plenty of good food, not to mention comfortable beds to sleep in. He finished by promising me, upon his word as a German officer, that my brothers and I would soon meet our parents who were in Camp 3. I then dared to ask him where we were. The answer came right away. He looked at me very firmly and said – “We are in a labour camp and its name is Sobibor. Sobibor was a small hamlet. It could not be called a village. It was only a meaningless hamlet. My companions and I had never heard its name, nor did we remember it, even straining our minds and trying to think of our Geography lessons in our good old days at school.
Its name and location were not on the map of Poland, as I could verify some time later. Perhaps a very minutely detailed railroad map might carry it, since it possessed a train station, even though it was a very small one. The ‘labour ‘ camp with the same ill-fated name of the station and the hamlet, was on the outskirts of the hamlet. Soon afterwards, Stangl left. From that moment on I felt relieved by the comforting and soothing words of the German. I tried to make my companions understand that everything was different in that place from what we had supposed. In truth, those Nazis seemed different from the ones we had known before. We would work in comfort and we would not lack anything. We would make up, as of that moment, a group of six young Jews, trusting and happy. I plunged back into my thoughts which always had a halo of optimism. The mention Stangl had made of my parents filled me with renewed hope, given the sincerity he showed in his explanation. I was fully convinced that I would soon see them and I no longer worried about them, since they were working on the farm and were well taken care of. I firmly believed that all these things were true and the Germans I dealt with were good, understanding men.
I felt relief at the wonderful perspectives which emerged. Nothing seemed to hint at the torments and anguish which had surrounded us in the ghettos, where we had suffered so much under the yoke of the Nazi henchmen. If it were not for a slight doubt which still hovered over us because of what we had witnessed when we got there. We might even have concluded that we were in a colony where vacations would alternate with reasonably humane work, without the continuous siege that hunger had laid on us for such a long time.
In the early afternoon I received a large quantity of rings. I immediately noticed they were used, old - fashioned jewels by their mere look. I did not think of their origin and started to melt them right away,with the help of my equipment. When I had finished melting the bullion I began my delicate work but I had first thought of a way to make the Germans believe in my supposed brothers skills. As they knew nothing about the art of making jewels, I made my brothers help me, while my nephew and cousin sharpened the tools, pretending they were really working.
If they kept idle, they would run serious risks because, at any moment, another German or a Ukrainian could show up, in which case, fatal consequences would be coming not only to them but also to myself. The leaders of the camp would never forgive me for trying to betray their good faith. With that in mind, I took all the necessary precaution, since I had no intention of ruining everything.
It soon got dark, however, I went on working to finish Stangl’s monogram. While I worked, some Officer would occasionally come and watch me. I came to the conclusion that they were led by curiosity to see, with their own eyes, how the work was done. In such moments I gave them undeniable proof of my skill and devotion, and took a long time chiselling any unimportant facet. They were fascinated by that and paid me the most elaborate compliments as the beautiful jewel emerged from the block of gold. Some came to the point of asking me to manufacture something for them and I always said I would.
I immediately promised them I would do their bidding as soon as I possibly could. When we had to stop because we were too tired to go on, we ate something, as night had fallen. We were astonished at the abundance and variety of the food we had been given. Our table was rich as we could never even have dreamed of and we ate to our hearts content, a thing we had not been able to do for such a long time. Then we went to bed.
In my bed, before I fell asleep, I thought that everything led us to believe that the main figures in the camp liked us and they seemed perfectly happy with our performance. This mirage, no matter how well-based it was, allied to the hope of seeing my parents again, acted like a balm on my worried mind and my exhaustion was slowly conquered by an irresistible torpor. Soon after daybreak I resumed my work to finish the monogram and the procession of curious people proceeded in the same rhythm as before. There came the praise and my promises to attend to them all in their wishes. My “brothers” pretended to perfection that they were experts at something, they actually knew nothing about. They would awkwardly take hold of a chisel and spend endless hours doing nothing. Thus another day and another night passed, with no extraordinary event happening.
On the following day, I finished the jewel and sent a message to Stangl telling him his ring was ready. He promptly came to my goldsmith workshop. The man was beside himself with happiness. He was ecstatic and he felt fulfilled. He was not able to hide his surprise, since he had a light smile on his lips, at my having succeeded, at my early age, in making what he had ordered me to, in such a perfect way.
He was so enraptured at the sight of the jewel that he nearly came to the point of complete euphoria, such was his loquacity in praising the ring. He was totally absorbed in his happiness when in came the brutish Gustav Wagner with some other officers. When they saw the monogram they immediately started to praise it as warmly as Stangl had done and they did not mince words in praising it. I was really flattered and my happiness was shared by my helpers.
I was soon asked to make a ring for Wagner too. His followers were more modest and asked me to make them rings, plaques and other valuable trinkets. Some of them, however, wanted monograms, because of their enthusiasm about the one I had manufactured for their leader. I did not know whom to serve first and I inevitably found myself in a dilemma since the giant was more insistent and his appearance filled me with great terror. Incidentally, none of the other officers tried to go before Wagner, either, perhaps due to the danger he represented.
As soon as they left, my companions and I started dreaming about the laurels of our victory. We were sure that our lives would have a pleasant sequence and that with our reputation growing among the elite of the staff of officers in the camp, we would be able to lead a decent life. We hoped we would be able to improve my parents and my sisters living conditions, by bringing them over to us or going to them. We even tried to forget what we had seen some days before.
Perhaps these Nazis were not as cruel as we had thought they were. Maybe the camp was not as harsh as it seemed at first sight. Who knows but that Sobibor would not be as unknown as we had thought this far? We might even, someday stroll along its unknown alleys, on Saturdays. Maybe we were going to live and we might regain our freedom soon.
Perhaps all this would still happen. Perhaps all this would be no more than mere day- dreaming since, as the days went by, the usurpers of our freedom and the owners of our lives progressively lubricated the devilish engine which they had dared to create.
4. Message in Sobibor
I decided, of course, to make the monogram for Gustav Wagner, with the utmost priority. The man was Commander of Camp Number 1, he had been the first to ask, and above all, I feared his disappointment because he looked ferocious. As to the others, I did not know who to serve first. The requests were many and I was still confused. In the afternoon, when I was already starting on the task, a Scharfuhrer came to our workshops. His name was Bolender and brought very good company. It was a huge St. Bernard dog, which answered to the name of Barry. At first I thought it was tame. It did not bark at me, but stood quietly by its master. I was absolutely mistaken, I later learned it was a fierce watchdog.
Bolender was an officer with the SS, he was tall, stout and of elegant bearing. He was characterised by his manifest austerity and the constant use of a goatee which gave him an imposing aspect. He was one of the leaders in Camp Number 3 and one of the most important figures in Sobibor. He approached me, threw a quick glance at the piece I had started to chase and then addressed me. It was soon evident that I was facing a very brutish man because he ordered me in a very rude way to make a gold inlay in the handle of his whip. He also ordered me to fix a coin to the upper end of the handle. He had hardly finished talking when he threw on the table a handful of gold. It seemed to me that the Nazi did not know what he was doing for the quantity of bullion he had brought was excessive. Before he left he ordered me to send my nephew, early next morning, to Camp Number 2 to fetch the coin, because he would be there then, although he worked in Camp Number 3. I put away the material Bolender had brought and went on with my task for the rest of the afternoon and evening to be able to finish Wagner’s monogram, as soon as possible.
As the lights had been turned out, I worked by the light of an oil lamp. During the day another levy of prisoners had come to Sobibor, much larger than ours, as I later learned. However, as I supposed I was in a labour camp, I did not pay any attention to the fact, assuming that the Germans needed a larger number of men for the activities in the camp.
Soon after daybreak my ingenious nephew headed for the place Bolender had told him to go, without any suspicion. In order to get there he had to cross the yard where the rows of men who had come in the latest levy were waiting. By then the women had already left towards the mysterious gate and had disappeared behind it.
He passed by the rows of Jews and went to the same gate through which he would reach the assigned place. He opened it and entered a long corridor which led to Camp Number 2. When he got to the end of the corridor he found himself inside a place which could very easily be taken for a giant corral, surrounded by boards so well juxtaposed that it would be impossible to see from the outside what was going on inside it.
The side of the corral nearest to the end of the corridor had a door which was guarded by a Ukrainian soldier. My nephew went up to him and said he was to meet Bolender, who had ordered him to be there at that hour. The brutal sentry did not pay any attention to him but opened the door and pushed him inside. Next he made the boy undress to the skin without giving him the opportunity of explaining anything, heedless of his protests. Perhaps he acted like that because he thought the boy was part of the levy.
In the meanwhile I had finished Wagner’s monogram and was starting to work on Bolender’s whip. I was engrossed in my work and was already starting to worry about my nephew’s delay when the door was suddenly opened. It was the boy coming back seized by indescribable panic. He was trembling and his face was ashen with terror. He was not able to say a word and he was obviously out of his mind. He sank into deep depression and he did not make even a simple gesture to justify his attitude. He was obviously deranged.
His nervous attack lasted for the rest of the day and during the night the others and I did all we could to make him tell us what had happened and what had shocked him in that way. All was in vain for he would not tell us anything. Only at daybreak were we able to see him relax and come to himself again. He then started his unbelievable report.
He told us that as soon as he had undressed inside what was known as Camp Number 2 ,he had found himself face to face with a tragic scene, never before seen or imagined. He saw a multitude of women, some of them naked and others in the process of undressing. Among the latter, the most reluctant to do so, had their clothes torn off their bodies by the brutal guards, while the others were forced to undress with whiplashes, rifle butts and blows of every sort, not to mention the shots which were fired at them. At the same time, the loud noise made the place even more terrifying. There were shouts, weeping, and laments mixed with begging for the Germans not to continue their nameless cruelty. The Nazis and their Ukrainian sectarians answered with shouts, curses, orders and blows.
He continued his petrifying description and told us he had witnessed right there something which would only be compatible with the times when Barbarian tribes roamed over Europe. Children of all ages were torn out of their mothers arms and held by the legs were twirled and violently thrown with their heads against the walls falling dead to the floor. It was mass infanticide, impossible to conceive of in our modern age.
Amid the savage scene he had witnessed he had been able to see very clearly that one of the chiefs there was Bolender. This man, apparently perfect for the task which he performed with the utmost pleasure, looked more like a jackal than a human being. His activity was feverish and he was resolute not only in emitting orders but also in taking active part in the practice of vandalism.
To finish his report my nephew added that, by mere chance, he had been seen and recognised by the criminal who then called him. Bolender had next, amidst curses and rude words, taken out of his pocket a gold coin for twenty American dollars. He had next handed the coin to the boy and ordered a guard to lead him out of that place. Before he did that, though, he severely warned the boy not to go any place whenever a new levy came and to tell his companions to do the same. He also told him not to mention to anyone, under any circumstances, what he had seen there.
Although this final prohibition had also meant us, my poor nephew had not been able to control himself. He told us everything he had seen with his own eyes and we could hardly believe him. At first I myself thought it was somewhat unbelievable and the scenes I found stronger I attributed to his morbid mood. Little by little, however, I could notice that his emotional balance was gradually returning and the details were unchanged. I finally understood the whole tragedy and all of us then came to accept it without reservations.
We had cherished the hope that we were safe in a labour camp and we now melancholically saw our expectations crumble. Out of our frail belief we tried to get some power which would deceive us and so help us to keep our spirits high and trust in our survival. We had to go on fooling ourselves because our wish to live was superior to all the rest. To do that we extracted from the entrails of pessimism a little optimism. We tried to find an ephemeral comfort in the words Stangl had said a few days earlier when he told us that all newcomers had a bath, changed their clothes and then went to work on farms. Although they beat and maltreated the women to force them to undress and bathe, why did they kill the little children – I wondered in horror. The impact caused by the news was tremendous. The painful impression we had had on the day of our arrival and which had been fading in our minds was born again, this time more terrible than ever. Terror seized us once more because we realised we had been caught, in an enormous devilish trap. The concept we had begun to form about these Germans underwent a radical transformation, and their sheep’s clothing fell off and was replaced by the coat of wolves they actually were.
In short, nothing was left to us but to wait for the future and we went back to work. Soon afterwards, the calm which was slowly coming back was ruffled once more when suddenly the giant Wagner broke into the makeshift goldsmith workshop. He immediately asked about his monogram. I told him it was ready to which he asked what I was doing at the moment. I told him I was finishing the task Bolender had assigned me.
The huge officer’s face changed. He furrowed his brow and his appearance became heavy with hatred and indignation, although he did his best to look calm, maybe because his order was ready. He took the jewel in his hands and without praising it, warned me that, from that moment on, I should never manufacture anything without asking for his permission, no matter who ordered me to. I should never receive a single gram of gold from anyone and I would not make as much as a tie-pin. While I shyly stared at him the corpulent Scharfuhrer went on shouting, I am the Commander of Camp 1, and without my explicit orders nothing can be done here!. Learn that I and nobody else is in command here, you will regret it bitterly, if you do not obey my orders. Completely frightened I put in – and if the others beat me if I do not do as they tell me? The Nazi barked – Tell them to talk to me.
He left the place in a hurry and I was left absolutely aghast at the nerve-racking situation, as I found myself in a dead alley. A few minutes later in comes Bolender to see whether the whip had been made the way he wanted it. As I had already finished it I handed it to the German. He could not hide his admiration at the beautiful engraving and at the large twenty- dollar coin. He was very proud of it and deemed the work magnificent and worthy of his position as an executioner. He did not save any praise which would label my work as being worthy of being shown at an art exhibition and presented me with a bottle of vodka.
I thought the Nazi was ridiculing me and I refused the offer which I thought was permeated with hypocrisy. I told him I had never tasted liquor to which he angrily replied – Drink. I had no choice but to obey the order so I immediately took a swallow since a mere wish of the Nazis was to us an unquestionable command. I grimaced when the strong liquor went down my throat and the scoundrel was smiling sardonically when he left the room ,doubly happy, for his valuable whip and for the cruel act he had just performed.
I was doubtlessly in a very embarrassing, perilous situation. If I manufactured any piece of jewellery without the consent of Gustav Wagner, I would be severely punished or even killed by him. On the other hand, if I refused to manufacture anything for the other innumerable officers, I might be beaten or even murdered. I was afraid of both possibilities and I did not have the slightest idea about how I should act. It would be much better if they did not come to me for anything, but how could I avoid it?
If I did do it I would find myself in a most wretched condition. Whatever the circumstances I would never win since none of the bandits would be the least lenient. This threat obviously went for my companions too. Ours was a cruel quandary and the question insoluble. The only thing we could do was to trust our luck.
And our good luck did not abandon us. Next day, Wagner came in and told me – I have talked to Stangl and decided to have a ring made for each SS Scharfuhrer. He then sat down and explained what he wanted the rings to be like. They must be made in silver, with a gold badge. This badge would be in relief and consist of two letters Y. The YY would be placed in such a way that one of them would be in the normal position, representing life. The other would be engraved right beneath it, in the inverted position meaning death. It would then be the symbol of life and death, which incidentally suited the functions of their future owners.
All of us already knew that the life of the Jews who entered that cursed camp was in the hands of those malefactors and hung from a slender thread that they would cut whenever they so decided. When Wagner finished his explanation he urged me to work diligently and affirmed that the necessary material would come to me very soon, and then he left. That massive order spelled relief to all of us. It released me from the very serious plight I would be thrown in, if I ever had to refuse any requests from the other officers, unless some extra work appeared, which would really complicate things for me. Besides, this also meant we would go on living. For me to learn more about each of the SS officers, I cut a small board into which I hammered as many nails as the number of rings I was to make. As the officers came in I would measure their fingers and hang the string with their names attached to it on each of the nails. The board hung on one of the walls and thanks to it I was able to not only make all the artefacts so as to please their owners, but also learn the names of nearly all the torturers in Sobibor.
They began to come a few at a time, and the number of nails with their names on gradually increased. Among the first gangs to appear I remember perfectly well, to this day, in an indelible way the following felons- Franz Stangl, Gustav Wagner, Bolender and his bosom friend, nicknamed ‘The Red Cake’, who will appear in the following lines, in a sadly spectacular manner. Next to these prominent elements there came the others whose perilous-ness and iniquity were no less remarkable, such as – Karl Frenzel, Steubel, Bauer, Gomerski,Weiss,Poul, Vallester, and Michel. Besides those, I also remember other scoundrels whom I came to know later, as Grinman, Graetschus, Richter, Beckmann, Groth, Getzinger, Bredow and another one who was called “The Baker”.
I received the silver and the gold sent by Wagner and started to make the sinister jewels. Once in a while a latecomer whose measure I had not yet taken yet and whose name I had not copied would show up. The ones who most frequently visited our workshop were Stangl and Wagner. They went there to watch our work. Every time I would ask about the rest of my family and I always got the same answer – I should not worry because very soon we would be sent to the place where my parents were, it was only a matter of time.
However, I never learned which place that was and my worries had grown a hundred times worse since my nephew’s report of what he had witnessed in Camp 2. Atrocious suspicions filled my spirits and my imagination never tired of thinking of the possibility of their having gone through all the horrors I had been told about. The days went by and the work on the rings went on without ceasing. The only ones who never came in to watch us work were the Ukrainian guards.
They were the worst kind of canaille, capable of all kinds of wickedness against the Jews only to please their masters. They were on the same level as the Germans, and they might even be worse were they given any commanding positions. They had actively taken part in the tragedy my nephew had witnessed and they were even worse than the Germans in the art of brutality. Fortunately we had not had any contact with them and we hoped we never did.
The same did not happen though with the German officers, whose constant visits to our workshop made us interrupt our work quite frequently. They did not go there only to fetch the rings. It even seemed that these were not enough for them. They also wanted us to make them other jewels since they had so much gold at their disposal that they did not know what to do with it.
I had a lot of work ahead and I could not serve them even if I had wanted to, since my companions did not how to make anything and I could not take all that load on my shoulders. The only thing I could do was to tell the presumptions Nazis that I could not do anything besides the rings without the consent of Gustav Wagner or Stangl. They became visibly irate at my refusal and went away muttering curses. However, we were led to believe they had no intention of beating us. I even came to think that they must surely have been scolded by the bully and the commander, since everything seemed to indicate that they respected both of them. Some of the most daring ones came to the point of threatening us with beatings, but I did not pay any attention to them. Alarmed though I was I accepted the circumstances because if I gave in to their whims I would be punished by Wagner, and this latter possibility seemed definitely much worse.
One day, when I immersed in my work, I saw something which left me astounded. The monstrous commander of Camp 1 suddenly came in and rudely shouted to the painters who were working on the other side of the room. Their names were Herszel and Moniek. Angrily foaming at the mouth, he immediately asked for the plates he had ordered. The poor young men, trembling in terror before the truculent German, tried hard to articulate an acceptable excuse for the fact of the plates not being ready.
When Wagner had ordered them to make the plates he had said they had to be well made, no mention being then made to a time limit. As a matter of fact, both painters had been working rather slowly although continuously. The job was coming out beautifully and they did not know that the sadistic Scharfuhrer did not value his own words very highly. They were mistaken when they thought, in good faith, that there was no need to finish the plates in a very great hurry. On finding out they were not ready yet , Wagner slapped Herszel’s face with all his might, and the young man fell to the ground, blood oozing from his mouth. With the violent slap he lost two teeth. Because he was not yet satisfied with his fierce deed, while the boy still lay on the floor, the Germans wild instincts changed his face into a violent mask and his blood-thirsty personality showed through. He started then to bludgeon Moniek.
Wagner was a Hercules. His physical strength was such that his hard slap would knock his victim down. The two painters were lying on the floor, nearly unconscious, when they were grabbed by their collars and taken away. Then an unforgettably savage scene started. The bestial German started to hit and kick them pitilessly and careless of where he hit them, in an indiscriminate frenzy, as if he were making up for the hypocrisy he usually showed towards his victims. He only stopped when he noticed that both young men had fainted and their faces were swollen and covered with blood.
We witnessed everything in astonished and mute stupor at Wagner’s fury. We did not dare make a single gesture to help the unfortunate boys until their torturer had left. As soon as he went away, though we ran to them and took them one at time, inside our workshop, we had to carry them bodily because they were still unconscious. As no medical resources were available, we decided to put cold bandages on their faces. They thus came slowly to their senses although their conditions were still deplorable. We spent the rest of the day at this task, doing our best to help them at least regain their ability to speak and see. Finally, late in the night, they were able to move with a lot of effort and to open their eyes, muttering their first words. We could then see they did not have any broken bones and soon they fell asleep, and rested for a few hours.
In spite of all the bruises they had all over their bodies, when daylight came they felt better and they decided to finish the plates as soon as possible. On seeing them act like that we could not be sure whether their unusual ardour was due to the immense power of recovery that adolescents have or to the panic which would seize them at the mere thought of being once more the target of Wagner’s anger and sadism. It even seemed their energies had increased. Such was the eagerness they showed in finishing the unpleasant task.
Life in Sobibor went on in the usual routine – New levies would come daily and the orders were methodically repeated – men to one side, women to the other. The women were always the first to disappear behind the fateful gate, in the direction of Camp 2. Then the men’s turn would come. Some were set apart due to their professions. The others inexorably marched towards the unknown, following their mates in rows of four. Then, the cleaning people would come, clean the vestiges left on the admission yard and go away as unobtrusively as they had come. The machine assembled by the Germans worked to perfection, with no faults, no wear, no pause.
The camp was always seen as clean and empty, but the levies never ceased to arrive. Then I started wondering – where did all those immense crowds go? What giant task demanded so many thousands of workers? What farms were those from which no crops were ever seen?
I even came to the point of musing but I was never able to come up with an answer that could explain such an absurdity. Stangl’s and Wagner’s visits to our workshop became increasingly more frequent and constantly I asked them to let me see my parents. The same contemptuous answer would always be given – that we were much better off where we were, we did not lack anything and in time we would all be together.
Our horror grew day by day after we had seen what Wagner had done to the painters. What else could we expect after that? Our scepticism got stronger in direct proportion to the series of strange and even unconceivable events. While we proceeded with our work more transports came and they were larger each time. From the window of our room we watched long columns of men, women and children head towards Camp 2, never to be heard of again.
We had already been informed of what happened in that cursed place, and our thoughts were monolithic, with new doubts and new questions – How could the Germans have so many clothes to give the Jews after they had had their bath? What would this bath be like? Why did they mistreat them first and even kill them? Why were there only Jews? But our questions became more numerous and yet we could not understand why all of them disappeared leaving no trace behind. We could not understand why so many Jews were concentrated in Sobibor, if the Nazis were the absolute and unquestionable rulers of all Poland. We could not understand why they would not let us see our parents.
There was no satisfactory or even acceptable answer to anything. We tried , through hard work, to forget the turmoil of uncertainty which would drive us crazy. We were eager for survival and with that aim we never refused submissiveness or devotion. Under the circumstances, we did not think of anything else but to please the Germans, the only straw we could hold on to try an almost impossible salvation. It was Friday when Stangl came. Under the hide of cynicism he gave me a piece of salami and with the face of an angel and a tender voice said “Eat”. He remarked that our holiday was getting near and that next day, Saturday, we would rest.
These words were uttered with a touch of derision throwing on me his unrestrained irony. In planning his jibe,the devilish Commandant had remembered that Saturday was the day of rest for all Jews. From that moment onwards I realised that the wickedness of these scoundrels would not spare even the core of our religious feelings. They did not care about anything and they ignored the most elementary rules of respect towards other people’s beliefs.
We had been in Sobibor for only approximately fifteen days when a Ukrainian guard came into our poor workshop. As I was deep in thought I was taken by surprise because up to that moment I had not had any contact with those elements who, incidentally, were isolated from us. The guard was a youth about twenty and he looked uneasy. He did not look like a criminal as most of those servants did. He could even be one but he looked different from the others. He also seemed to be a learned man because he spoke very good German. Actually he was a Volksdeutsche, born in the Ukraine.
The young man seemed a little hesitant and I noticed he wanted to talk to me. Very unobtrusively he came near me and whispered that he had something to give me. He added he was a sentry in Camp 3 and had been sent by a young Jew who said he was a close friend of mine, and whose name was Abraham.
As the reader may remember Abraham was the old friend I had had in Opole and whom I had seen and waved to, some days before, when he was one of the fifty or sixty Jews in charge of cleaning the yard where our shack was. When I saw him they had been removing the vestiges left by the transport in which I had come. After we had gestured to one another from a distance, all the group had left, having finished their work, and I did not hear from him again.
When the Ukrainian told me about his mission I was astonished and did not know whether I should believe what I had just heard. I did not know whether I should accept the message he had brought. All these uncomfortable suppositions clouded my mind and I could not make myself say anything. At last the youth gave me the note and said he wanted some gold in exchange. I was even more perplexed and did not answer. Now I was more afraid than ever. As he insisted, I agreed, because by then I was very curious, but with one reservation. I informed him that I would only give him the gold next day. He agreed to that and told me his name - Klatt. Before he left he added that Abraham had already given him a large quantity of that material. Not only for the military who managed the camp but also for me there was plenty of gold. The surplus and parings, which I kept in the workshop alone, would total some dozen grams.
I would not dare read the content of the message before it got dark, so I put it carefully away. It was only when everything was calm and the darkness enveloped the camp that I decided to open it. I could then see only four words written on a little slip of paper: “Nobody alive….. Say Kaddish”. I was totally stunned and a shiver ran over my whole body. I did not know what to think because the words were very laconic, although their meaning was enormously ample. However, I did not have any details and I could not know whether I should pray the kaddish, for all, or only for my unfortunate parents and my sister. Because I was still very young I did not know the Jewish prayer in honour of the dead and none of us had a bible to guide me. The only thing which came to my mind were the few words Nojech had heard in his childhood and which referred to a passage of the respectful prayer. Those words I still remembered for his sake although I did not know what they meant. And so I prayed HISKADA WE HISKADAL SZMAI RABU.
A horrible depression took hold of us all and we felt at a loss with the fatal news. Would all be dead or only my parents? I tried to brace up my spirits to resist the unexpected impact. I held my sobs back and the tears which threatened to burst and give vent to the feelings which swayed me in that dramatic moment. My brother and my nephew spent the night sobbing and moaning. They were younger and more sensitive and they could not resist the violent trauma. My cousin and the painters kept quiet, maybe pondering over the words in the message as if they wanted to alter the essence of their transparent content. Even against my will I had to be strong so that the Germans would not find me strange the next day and suspect something. Besides, I had to prepare the gold I had promised the bearer of the message, the Ukrainian Klatt. Circumstances forced me to hide my pain and to pretend an ease which was incompatible with my mood. However, a hatred, which I had never felt before, started to bite into me, little by little and from the depths of my wounded heart was born a terrible wish for vengeance and survival which I cannot explain to this day. Thus night came to an end, each one of us nursing his own bitterness.
The following morning the guard came at the set time. He came to receive his pay in gold as a reward for the most hateful news we had ever received in our lives. I wrote a short note for him to take to Abraham. In the message I asked whether I should pray the “Kaddish” only for my parents or for all the Jews. I asked him what fate awaited the immense quantity of people destined to Camp 3 and also that he send me a report of what actually happened in that camp. I finally mentioned my strangeness at the fact that Sobibor being a labour camp needed so many Jews, since the transports continued to come without a stop. I also questioned why we were not permitted to walk in Camps 2 and 3. Klatt picked up his portion of gold and left in a hurry.
While I anxiously waited for the answer to my message I continued to work on the silver rings with the gold symbol of life and death. The visits of Stangl and of the SS officers were as insistent as ever and the transports still came to Sobibor with the same frequency, always bringing larger and larger numbers of unfortunate Jews. I decided then I would ask less questions about my parents and the need I felt to see them, as I already knew what happened – in Camp 3, where they supposedly were. However, I did not want to raise any suspicions so I avoided talking about the subject.
When Klatt came for his gold and for my message to Abraham, he was very nervous and extremely intimidated. As the Ukrainians were strictly forbidden to enter the place where we worked, he had broken three very serious regulations. Besides violating that rule he had brought us some news and had been paid for that. Obviously, he could not keep calm under the risk which could be fatal to him.
When he was already leaving for the camp where he worked, with the gold I had give him and my message to Abraham, I had the impression that he had been seen by the Nazi Poul, who was then coming to our workshop. In fact, less than a minute after Klatt had left, the criminal entered the room with his usual drunken countenance and the classic staggering gait of alcoholics.
My face grew white with terror at the unexpected and symptomatic presence, I even thought I was lost. His first attitude was to thrust his hands into his pockets and drew out an infinity of used rings, not to mention jewels in an identical state. Then he ordered in an overbearing manner “I want you to make me a ring”. Although I had not recovered from the fright I had experienced at his sudden appearance, I replied I could only do that with the consent of Stangl or Wagner because I had not finished the jewels I had been ordered to manufacture for the officers of the camp and thus I was not able to do what he wanted.
The German Poul ignored my argument and shouted rudely: I don’t want to hear anything about that and I should have the ring ready in three days”. I repeated what I had already said and argued that, without the indispensable order I would run a serious risk, and for that reason I would not dare disobey the instructions I had received from Wagner and be punished. I added that up to that day all the officers had understood the orders I had and that he was the first to make such a preposterous demand. Foaming with rage, the brute retorted – “I don’t want to know anything. I am not interested in Wagner or Stangl. I want my ring in three days”. At that he violently slapped me. While I stumbled he hit me again in the mouth and knocked me down. When he saw one of my eyes already swollen and my wounded mouth bleeding his wild anger was placated. Maybe this was caused by the fact that he realised that if he went on beating me or if he killed me he would have no ring made. He went away cursing and banging the door. In spite of the excruciating pain I felt in my wounds I did not shed a single tear. Only hatred filled my whole body. I sat down and started to think, my head held in my shaking hands.
In the afternoon Gustav Wagner came. He noticed the large haematoma on my eye and my wounded mouth and he asked me who had done that to me. As I was afraid of Poul’s retaliation I did not answer. But the man kept insisting and I finally had to tell him the name of my aggressor. As soon as he got the information he wanted, the brute burst out laughing. He laughed in such a strange way that I came to the conclusion that I was facing a lunatic. I could never have expected him to react in that way. His attitude was totally incompatible with the orders he had issued, only a few days ago. I had disobeyed another officer’s orders just to avoid being punished by Wagner and now he was delighted with the beating I had taken.
I had always been afraid of being punished by the others in case I did not do what they told me to. However, Wagner had said that nothing would ever happen to me because he would give me his full protection. Based on this guarantee I had refused to satisfy Poul’s whim and had faced the consequences. Now the Nazi saw me beaten and was overjoyed at my misery and the wretched appearance of my face. I realised he was a sadist and I could hardly be saved because I was in a snake pit. When he stopped laughing I told him I felt unprotected. I poured out all my thoughts and asked him resolutely what I should do? The German answered on leaving – “Make the rings with the emblems and leave the rest to me”. I went back to the rings to finish them as soon as possible. I would work night and day , since they had become a real nightmare to me. As a consequence, the Nazis never stopped coming to our workshop and sometimes asked for something impossible to be done. On the day following the beating, in walked Wagner and Poul smiling as if nothing had happened. I even came to believe that it had been the former, who approved the beating, so impudent was his smile. As I already knew him very well I did not doubt that it had actually been so. In fact everything indicated that he had at least enjoyed what the other bandit had done.
The two Germans watched our work for sometime and whispered some things to one another. Then Wagner turned to me and said: - “ When you finish the rings you may start working on my friend Poul’s order”. As I had not mentioned my parents for some days, I reminded him that I wanted to see them. The Scharfuhrer still smiling and with an air of sarcasm, gave me the usual answer – “Take it easy, you will go there soon”.
He had no idea I already knew, almost for sure, that my parents had been murdered by the devilish device assembled by the Germans. I had to act like that and ask the same question again and again, for them not to guess I was suspicious of my parents death as well as other things which took place in Sobibor. Soon after they had left , the Ukrainian Klatt came in. This time he brought me a long message from my friend Abraham. He left it on the table and said, as he had done before, that he would be back next day to collect his gold.
I took the slip of paper, quite larger than the first one, and hid it, because I was afraid someone might have seen the guard enter. I expected to read it only in the evening, but my curiosity was such that before twilight I decided to learn what was in it. From this day on, the last and smallest hopes I still nourished that all I had been told might not be the stark truth vanished completely. The mask, which disguised the wickedness of the Germans, was finally shattered. I still had some doubts as to fate of the Jews who were sent to Camp 3. However Abraham’s letter erased them all in a clear, undeniable way. As of that day I would not have to conjecture or try to deceive myself.
This was the message :
I asked you to pray the kaddish not only for your parents but for all. I want you to know that from the multitude of Jews which passes through Camp 1 and goes to Camp 2, only a few are still alive. Of all those who have been transported up to now, only a handful was spared for general services, and I miraculously belong to this group”.
“When the thousands of Jews pass through the gate you mentioned, they go down a long corridor and enter Camp 2. There they are stripped of their last belongings, and made to stand there, naked, until they are led into a large shack where they are allegedly going to have a bath. Hundreds of people enter that shack at a time”.
“When the shack is chock full, the door is locked and hermetically sealed. Then a large Diesel motor is set to work, and its exhaust pipe is passed through a hole in the wall, so that the gases of combustion are blown inside, until everyone is asphyxiated”.
“Before this operation, giant ditches are dug. After the mass extermination, we, the survivors of the same transport you came in begin to pick up the bodies and throw them into the ditches. Not seldom, the ground has shaken under the weight of that human mass to be buried. Then the monsters came and shot them to make sure that they were dead”.
“I am telling you all this because, should you ever escape, you will be able to tell the world everything that happened here, because, you must not expect to see me again. Whoever comes to Camp 3 will never leave it. This place is the end for each and every Jew in the power of the Nazis”.
“ I cannot describe all the scenes because you would never believe what happens in this horrible place. All of it is thoroughly inconceivable to the human mind. I wish you could see how the sadists like Bolender, Gomerski, and one called Red Cake acted. While the slaughter was in progress, these monsters were delirious with happiness, as if they were at the opera. They seemed to take delight in looking at so many dead bodies, naked and inert."
The end of the message was tragic. Abraham told how the work of his group was arduous and endless. It seemed impossible to endure much longer the macabre task of getting rid of the larger and larger human levies, which kept coming. In spite of the rations they received no one was able to swallow any kind of food after watching these hideous recurring facts.
To the Germans it did not make any difference whether some member of the group was strong and healthy or not. The routine was always the same. All of them were replaced , from time to time, by only Jews selected among the new levies. Whoever, was replaced was killed the same day along with those previously scheduled to be exterminated. It was like a rotation of death.
To finish the message he added :
"I have written you this message for you to be aware of everything, since I no longer have any kind of fear. My end is coming and I already know what it will be like. It will be the same as the others. I have one foot in the grave where I shall meet our brothers who are gone forever. I am not afraid of anything , in writing to you because it does not make any difference to me whether they catch me or not.
I am in the power of these scoundrels and I do not expect any good from them. You would be in trouble should they ever find out I wrote to you, but even so I decided to try. I have done this to warn you because if you ever have any chance, try to escape.
Unfortunately I am not that lucky, since CAMP 3 OF SOBIBOR IS THE END OF ANY JEW UNDER THE GERMAN YOKE. If you can, escape and avenge us"
Your friend Abraham
“ We must thank God because everything he made is good – we should never rebel against him”.
I turned angrily to Nojech and replied
–“God? Where is your God who lets my parents be eliminated in this way? "How is it possible that He, who is so kind, does nothing for them? Where is He who does not come to our rescue? Why does He accept that Nazi oppression extinguishes thousands of innocent children who could not even babble the word “mother? Would you like me to pray to God and thank Him for the way my loved ones died?" What about the others who have also died? "
"No, Nojech, No.", I replied, "My only wish is to kill. To destroy these bandits and not to pray to your God who helped them".
Little by little I was getting inflamed and I went on reminding him
–“Is it possible that you have forgotten the abuse that we, the Jews, suffered before the war, when we were still little boys? Is it possible that you have also forgotten the abuse that we, the Jews, suffered before the war, when we were still little boys? Is it possible that you have also forgotten the times when we went along the streets to the religious services and were the target of the derision of the Poles who would throw stones at us and spit, among laughter and insults?
Do you not remember the constant fighting there was between the Poles and us, triggered by the stones they threw at the synagogues? s your memory that weak, Nojech?"
You could at least remember how the Poles came to the extreme of lunging at the Chasidim to pluck for their pales long curly whiskers, You should also remember the crowds who shouted to our faces – Rzydzi do Palestina." (Jews go to Palestine).
These were the kind words, Nojech , that the Poles reserved for us. However, they did not know that we had been born in the same country, in the same Poland which together, we had helped to build and develop. There we worked in the fields and the cities, in commerce and in the small industries but, even so, they wanted to expel us from our native country only because we were Jews. “I remember the fights which took place in the streets when I was a boy, and the countless times when I got home full of bruises and scratches and all that to refute the offences they made to your God, Nojech”.
It looks as if you have forgotten what the Germans did when they invaded Poland and started to persecute us. Then, the Judenrat was created, how useful was it to us? What was the worth of the prayers and the good faith of the Jews of the Judenrat? What was their worth, unless it was to widen the rough road of humiliation and suffering, along which we went and to make us take everything with our heads bowed?
No Nojech, a thousand times no! If your thoughts were different , if the philosophy you defend so bravely had undergone a radical change, perhaps we the Jews, would not have been so slighted and we might not have been swept out of Poland. If this were still to happen, at least we would resist and also kill, but we would never serve as pasture for the Nazi beasts. If it had not been for the peacefulness and temporization of the Judenrat, the Jews would not have resigned themselves to that chaos and they would have rebelled in unison. We would have died but we would have killed. What use was there, Nojech, for the great minds we have given the world in all fields and at all times? What was the use of our parent’s efforts to these great men?
They did not take any of this into consideration. We have always been treated the way cowards are treated, because men like you sat on the benches or stood at the pulpits of the synagogues to pray or to preach. You forgot that we had already produced men like Maccabees and the Bar- Kochwa who, although they were religious, made legendary their dauntlessness, and their boldness.
Of one thing you may be sure, Nojech – if by any chance one of us survives, he will tell the whole Earth what happened in Sobibor. All the Jews in the world will no longer shelter under the utopia that with their prayers they will be saved. Then what will be seen is not the humble sheep of today, but many and many Maccabees of tomorrow, who will never harmonise with what we now accep
You yourself should notice how, even in the name of God, the Nazis commit murder. Pay attention,Nojech to what is written on the henchmen’s belts –Got Mit Uns (God is with us). Answer me now – whom is God with? Is He for or against us?
My dear Nojech there will only be peace in the world when there is union among men, when there is only one religion and only one God, when there is no racial prejudice of any kind and when there is love towards our neighbours and understanding between the peoples of the world. The hatred, iniquity and the persecutions which now prevail will have to disappear. Those who find themselves superior and who want to dominate others will have to be banished. It is necessary that humanity understands that we all came to Earth in the same way and that we are all brothers. All with no exception. After I had said that to Nojech he still insisted, maybe to make me relax -We the Jews, are making amendments for our sins, and you are also sinning.
I asked him then – And these children who are being murdered now, have they already sinned too? Answer me, Nojech, who does not sin in this world? What sins were committed against God and should all the Jews pay for these sins?
Nojech kept silent for some moments. Although I was prepared for the worst, that night I only hungered for vengeance. I did no longer feel as a young fifteen year old boy, innocent and naïve, who believed in men. At that moment , I changed into a mature thirty-year old man, and divorced myself completely from my chronological age.
I lost all my feelings and all the love I had had, and became a callous man. I rebelled against everyone and everything and I ceased to believe in human kindness. To me, everyone was hypocritical and perverse. I thought only the strong would be worth anything and that everything was permissible to reach our desired goals. Now, I thoroughly believed that only wickedness could overcome what was inside the hearts of all the bad people. And all of them seemed monstrous.
In spite of that, Nojech still went on hammering –Pray , Pray – we must always pray
Without doubt he was a faithful and obstinate Jew. Although he did not listen to me he would at least be able to assimilate all that he had heard and to understand what had happened in the cursed Camp 3.
On the contrary he went on affirming, that we should respect the will of God. I could not stand him, any longer. A sudden fury erased my love for him, and I shouted
–"Stop do not insist on this. We must only think about what we are going to do tomorrow and not waste any time in invoking your God who will not do anything to save us."
And thus, at the break of dawn my dialogue with Nojech ended. Although my point of view was contrary to his, it finally prevailed, and he stopped talking. There was a vital need for us to think of a way to help us maintain the present state of things and consequently, our lives.
We then decided he should calm my nephew’s revolt, by trying to convince him as best he could not to show he was afraid and not to cry in front of the Germans, so as not to raise their suspicions. As to us, we would go on pretending total ignorance of everything which was happening in Camp 3. Thus we would go on asking about our parents. We would start to use the same weapons as the Nazis – fraud and deceit. If we did not do so, we would show them we were afraid and suspicious about the reality of our situation and our end would come fast. Only prudence could save us. When we thought of salvation, we never did so in long terms. Everything was planned as if we would survive for only days, hours and even minutes, since we were on the brink of ruin. After we had agreed about everything, I made ready to answer the letter from my unfortunate friend Abraham.
Dawn was coming to an end the first light of day was already there. We had spent the night lamenting, arguing, digressing and planning. I sat at the table and started to write some words for an answer:
Dear Friend Abraham,
Your appalling words did not take me by surprise, since I already suspected everything which was happening there. Now that I know the truth, a force was born in me which I cannot explain. A sixth sense has developed in my spirit and it makes me feel that these tormentors will not kill me and that I shall live . If this actually happens , I will do my best to avenge, not all, since it would be impossible, but at least my family and my friends, as many as I possibly can.
I say this as if I were promising you too, on my parent’s ashes. I will take revenge, one way or the other.
Write to me only when it is absolutely necessary and do not run any risk only to answer me, since it would not be wise. Avoid any unnecessary risks and try to the best of your ability, to stay alive, even if it is only for a few more days or hours.
Who knows if luck will not help you and you will be able to escape this hell in which you now are?
It was already daytime when I finished this message. Soon afterwards Klatt came, as promptly as ever, to take it to Abraham. I gave him a lot of gold, which I did not need, and which I did not care about. The Ukrainian hurriedly left for the slaughterhouse in Camp 3.
After he had left I told Nojech that the Jews who survived the German yoke should not stay on in Poland , but try to build their own country in which they could live. While they were spread out all over the world, they would always be trodden upon and never respected, for they were human beings without a country. There would always come someone to say that “the houses are yours, but the streets are ours”.
Our synagogues would continue to be stoned and our activities persecuted and ransacked. We would always be defiled and treated as if we were different from the others. But we are not, definitely not, different. Billions of people, of all nationalities and all political and religious creeds, think so too. We made our land revive, our Nation. It was forged by men, who thought they should work and fight in the land of their ancestors. In their land, not on somebody else’s land.
6. Sobibor Becomes A Giant
No sooner had Klatt, the guard, left our workshop carrying with him his pay in gold and my answer to Abraham than the Nazi Poul came in again. Drunk as usual, he had the air of a lunatic, so disorderly was the manner he entered the room and addressed me. He immediately demanded that I make the ring he had told me to manufacture a few days before.
As Wagner had told me, in front of him, that I could make it only after I had finished delivering the large order of the silver rings with gold emblems for all the officers in the camp. I tried to remind him of that and regretted I could not serve him yet. I added that I did not have any free time, because I was only devoted to that task and besides, I could be punished for disobeying the orders of my master.
But the SS man did not pay any attention to my words. He ordered me to do as I was told very promptly and worse still, that he would come back for the ring the next day, without fail. As I realised I ran the risk of being beaten again I finally said I would try very hard to do what he asked me. Then he threw a small package on the table and tottered away.
I opened the package and I saw it contained lots of used rings and human teeth with gold fillings, as well as teeth all made of gold. As to the jewels I already knew where they came from and I had gotten used to receiving them. However, I was shocked at the sight of a new material which,up to that day, had never come to my hands. From the teeth still hung pieces of bloody gums which made me come to the conclusion that they had been violently pulled out only a few minutes before. And only one hour had passed since another unusually large group had arrived in Sobibor.
What was even more strange was the fact of Poul having bought more gold. A few days before, when he had ordered the ring, he had bought me a good amount of gold and had given me a beating. Most certainly he was always drunk, he had reached the point of alcoholism and had forgotten what he had done. As my gold reserves were a little low due to the payments I had made to Klatt, I decided to keep quiet about it.
The next visitor I had was Wagner in his daily routine. He was in the habit of checking every day, all the quarters in Camp 1, whose commander he was. He did it as if he were taking a stroll, so informal was he. He immediately asked me about the rings and I answered I would have been working on them if it had not been for Poul’s interference.
I told him in detail the absurd demand of the other officer and said I had promised him to make the ring, although I would hardly be able to. I affirmed I was terribly afraid of Poul and that if I did not agree to what he wanted, I would certainly be beaten, since I had already felt in my own body how brutal he could be. I finished by adding that I would spend the night working on that order, so as not to interrupt the manufacturing of the other rings.
After having listened to me carelessly Wagner went away if he had not attached any importance to what had happened. At night I decided to work hard and finish the cursed ring once and for all. I picked up the material Poul had given me and started to melt it. The teeth which had pieces of gum attached to them were among the jewels I was melting and the terrible smell which they produced I will never be able to forget. The gold and the flesh simultaneously submitted to the effects of heat gave off an odour, which was nauseating to say the least, and the whole atmosphere in the room was impregnated with it.
It was revolting that I had to do this, and I hated myself for having used teeth which had come from the mouths of Jews, people who had my own blood, to manufacture jewels for the fierce Nazi hyenas. I would never do such a degrading thing again. In the afternoon of the following day, the German came to ask for his ring , drunk as usual. As I had already finished it I handed it to him without a word. I was then given a prize for the finished job - half a bottle of vodka.
When I was starting to refuse it , my eyes crossed Poul’s and I abandoned my intention. The German’s eyes looked like two lanterns and a gleam of wickedness and contempt showed that his offer was not to be refused. I took it then because I knew I would be forced to drink all of it, whether I wanted to or not. And this was exactly what I had to do, in front of him, while he laughed madly at the grimaces I made out of aversion for the strong beverage.
A few minutes later I was totally drunk and that made me have a peaceful night and forget the repentance, which was gnawing me since the gruesome operation of the night before. However, I was to have a great surprise the next day. Very early in the morning two sinister well-known figures appeared at the door of the workshop. They were Wagner and Poul, both of them smiling and with an air of derision.
They did not even come in - Poul promptly shouted “Come outside”. I did as I was told and he ordered me to take off my pants right away and start counting. -"You are going to get ten whiplashes across your buttocks", he told me. I submitted again for it would be useless to disobey him. I was hit the first time and I felt a violent cutting shock. I was not strong enough to bear the pain and shouted “Mother”. And then I started counting – “One Mother, two…… When Poul’s whip hit me for the last time I called my dear mother for the tenth time. But she was not there to help me, she was already resting in heaven with Daddy and Ryrka.
Only those who have ever been whipped by an infuriated SS can calculate the pain this kind of punishment brings. A throbbing pain radiated from the purplish welts left on me by the well –managed whip of the bandit, and the signs of the blows crossed each other in every direction and stayed on my body for many days. Once the punishment was finished, the two Nazis went away as they had come, without ever telling me the reason for all that.
To this day I cannot understand why Wagner could let the moment go and not give vent to his sadism. It was from him I could expect punishment. Yet it never came. On the other hand, the German should be happy on account of the jewel I had made for him, the same man who had been so delighted the day before as to even give me half a bottle of vodka, had mercilessly whipped me. I was getting increasingly sure of the high degree of mental alienation of those devils who could enjoy torturing us in any possible way without rhyme or reason.
My desire to revolt grew whenever I watched the brutality of their acts. My heart could no longer shelter any other feeling than a passionate thirst for revenge, since there was no place in it for any feelings of conformity or mercy. However, I had to resign myself because I was totally restrained in my freedom to act. Wherever I looked I could only see guards and wire fences. I could not think of vengeance or escape from that mousetrap yet. For the time being I could have only one aim, the most important of all – to stay alive. As the rings for all the officers in the camp were finished, their owners came to fetch them. However, they were never satisfied with only what I had been authorised by Wagner to make.
They all wanted me to make them some other jewels, of the most varied kinds, and for that they had available immense quantities of gold which came from the constant levies of Jews who arrived in the transports.
The Jews came from all over Europe, from the places under the rule of the Reich. While the Polish Jews who were bought to Sobibor came on freight trains under the worst possible conditions, those who came from other countries were transported in luxurious cars.
They came from France, the Netherlands, from Germany, from Central Europe and from the Balkans. In short, from all places where the fearful Swastika waved. These innocent Jews did not suspect anything, when they were put on board the trains in their native countries, they did so with every valuable thing they possessed and with everything that could be useful to them. They brought lots of luggage and they were usually very well dressed. The Germans used luxury trains so as not to raise their suspicions and they deceived these poor people by telling them they were going to work on farms in Poland.
When they arrived in Sobibor they did not even have time to think since they were exterminated on the same day, after having been properly looted of everything they had. With this, the fountain of objects of the most widely varied types flowed in ever-increasing volume, into the hands of the Nazis, and vast quantities of gold arrived in Sobibor.
One day Wagner came and ordered –“Tomorrow all of you are not to leave the workshop for any reason. You will have to stay locked inside. This is an order”. We soon learned that these measures were being taken because on the next day a committee would arrive from Germany. We were worried and curious. As we were not free to move and we were not entitled to anything, we decided to peep through the cracks in the door and windows of the workshop.
Indeed very early next morning, a group of high –ranking officers came and we did not know any of them. From our makeshift we saw very clearly Stangl, Wagner and some others talking with the members of the committee. By the gestures of the former, we noticed that they were trying to flatter the newcomers. Stangl was particularly solicitous and excessively cheery, presenting an unseen euphoria, which did not match his customary arrogance.
Amidst the whole group of strangers we could notice one element who was very outstanding, since he was a target of all the attention and the smiles of the leaders of the camp. He was a tall, middle –aged man who wore glasses thinly rimmed in black.
We kept watching and then we saw that after the inspection they made of the buildings on the camp, the VIP’s on the committee started to gesture more frequently and to point at different places, as if they were suggesting or consenting to something. We then came to the sad conclusion that they were a band of Nazi scoundrels very highly specialised in the elimination of Jews.
Our forecast was doubtlessly correct. Worse than Stangl and his gang, they represented the summit from which emanated all the plans and orders which would make it possible to eliminate us more efficiently.
Soon afterwards, we learned that they were responsible for the enlargement and the improvements introduced in the Sobibor camp. Their visit was connected with this re-building. The tall bespectacled man was the all-powerful Heinrich Himmler, the head of the cursed Gestapo and of the SS troops, accompanied by his brilliant entourage.
Maybe the arrival of Himmler and his gang gave me the opportunity of telling this story to the world. It was on that day that maybe the possibility of our living a little longer was born, as the reader will soon learn.
Some days afterwards, a great change in the panorama of Sobibor was introduced. New structures started to be raised and the exterminating engine was given some improvement, which would generate a substantial increase in production. In Germany, the Nazi party did not seem satisfied with the indices of genocide and its leaders conceived of new methods which would raise these indices to much more impressive levels.
With the continuous arrival of new batches of Jews, the killings acquired new vigour. Thousands of Jews were incessantly killed and their number would still grow considerably. Colossal amounts of the Jews’ personal belongings were daily gathered. It was jewels, clothes,shoes,canned food,blankets – in short , a long series of items of the most diverse kinds. The Nazis had appropriated all that.
Out of this the need rose to put this precious booty to a more rational use. Then, the Germans started to seriously worry about that,because, after all , they were surplus which would be extremely useful to a country at war.
Soon after Himmler’s inspection, they set to work and the camp came to acquire a new appearance. Shacks, sheds and some other buildings were raised in a hurry, and soon Sobibor would be seething with activity.
As we did not believe that all this enlargement was being made to make us more comfortable, we thought of something which seemed more logical , that is they were going to improve the slaughtering methods in the death camp, so that a larger number of Jews could be swallowed by it.
We had been in Sobibor for a little more than a month when a new batch came from the city of Wlodawa. As usual the batches were immediately separated according to their sex, inside our camp, and then they disappeared in the direction of Camp 2.
Hours later, we had a great surprise Gustav Wagner came into the workshop with three women, and derisively said to us –
“Look things are now going to be better for you”. Next he led them through the compartments of the large shack where we lived and showed them a small room for them to clean and lodge in. This done he went back to his quarters.
In the afternoon, the others and I tried to contact our three new companions and talk to them. We approached them and soon found out they were very distressed and terribly afraid, perhaps because of what they had been through a few hours before. The impression left by the usual savage events at their arrival must have caused in their minds a state of anxiety and fear. Thus, obviously, they could not be either calm or talkative.
After we had mutually introduced ourselves I started to give them a mild explanation of what we had in Sobibor, because they showed visible interest in the subject and, as it was only natural, they were worried about their own fate.
I tried not to describe what really happened since the shock would perhaps be too strong. I omitted the fact that they had come to a place where Jews were killed at an enormous rate. I preferred to let them think that they had come to a labour camp, with the only exception that the orders given to us were rather rude.
I noticed that the explanations I had supplied brought them some comfort. I could not evaluate the exact degree of their suffering and their real need yet. I did not know whether they had suffered as much as I had or even more, perhaps.
I was not able to make sure whether I had convinced them with my few comforting words. The truth is that our presence eased their suffering and we became friends in the calamity which enveloped us all.
As sooner or later they would learn the truth I tried with some perspicacity, to prepare them so they would not abandon themselves to despair when they faced the reality of Sobibor. I instilled into their minds all that we could expect from the Nazis and that, whatever their attitude, they should always be prepared for the worst.
Their names were Edda, Esther and Bajle. Edda was a young woman, about twenty- five. She was intelligent and pleasant. She commanded respect very easily, anywhere, with her strong personality. Her sober appearance and her level of education identified her as a secondary school teacher. She later escaped from Sobibor and now lives in Israel.
The second one Esther, was the youngest and the most out-going of the group. Although she was very communicative, she was a little hot-headed and even violent. Quite often she had difficulty in controlling her own impulses, and gave vent to her temper which was even more excited, due to the circumstances, she found herself in.
The last one of them was Bajle, had nothing in particular to call anyone’s attention. She was quite common in appearance, serene, kind and affable. She was twenty- four years old and her face did not reflect any malice. On it only pain and melancholy had left their marks, as it happened to most of us Jews, in that gloomy period.
Next day due to the confidence which had developed among us, and as I thought I did not have the right to hide the truth from them, I told them the whole truth about what happened in Sobibor and about the risk they ran.
I did this because I believed that was the right thing to do. They would come to know everything, someday and I did not want them to blame me later on with omitting anything. The first reaction prompted by my report was terrible. All of them were desperate and, after the first few minutes, they were wrapped in a mantle of profound sadness. They became silent and lowered their heads, as if they tried to foresee what was going to happen to them.
They had been deceived by the promises of the Germans when they had left on what might be their last trip. They had then supposed they were being taken to a mere labour camp and now they saw at close quarters the stark and naked truth, implacable, inhuman.
However, little by little, they regained their calm and inevitable conformity took care of the rest. And thus another day went by. With the passing of time my friendship with Bajle grew closer. The understanding of each other, with the repeated descriptions of our hardships, generated in her some sympathy for me. My frank way of telling them about our reality as well as the sincerity I used with her, made her trust in me grow day after day.
Our confidences were now more encompassing and they also became more intimate and open. She told me she had come with her husband and her little daughter and that now, after what she had heard, she no longer nourished any hope of their still being alive. She seemed to be resigned to everything that had happened and she no longer had any illusions about the future. Her feelings had already been totally undermined by the constant misfortune that had lately fallen on her family. She then let herself be possessed by an irrepressible apathy and nothing ever bothered her now that she no longer had anyone she loved.
Other days went by and new batches came, again and again. From one of them two shoemakers and two saddlers were selected. The former were called Szol and Icek. They had been chosen with the aim of manufacturing the shining boots of the Nazi tyrants. Icek has survived and he now lives peacefully in the right place – Israel. The latter two , the saddlers were selected mainly to make the whips which would be used on us.
From the following transports five tailors were chosen, four of which were brothers and the other one was called Jankel, all of them from Warsaw. The eldest of the brothers was called Mundek. Their tasks was to make the uniforms and other clothing for the Germans. With them was also a hatter who, from now on, would make hats and caps for the Germans.
All these newcomers would be used in their own professions to work for the Nazis of the camp. For this reason they were put in our shack where they lived in rooms which had been vacant up to them.
With that addition the group of Jews in the service of the tyrants grew and among us, a close friendship developed, given the understanding we all had of what happened in Camp 3. We then tried to live in the happiest possible way, since we were aware that being sad and silent would not help us in any way. We played our games and made our jokes. In my group we had almost ran out of topics, so we hardly had anything to talk about. With the coming of the others we became more cheerful and thus the first smiles started to bloom on the lips of the Jews of Sobibor.
At night, I was starting to think of something which had never seriously bothered me before – women. It is true that I had known Zelde. In those days in the Wolwonice ghetto, while I was living on that potato farm managed by the unforgettable German sergeant. But then the natural instinct of a man towards a woman had only been served.
Now that I was between my fifteen and sixteen years of age it was only natural that the constant presence of females in my dull life would stimulate my desire. I liked Bajle very much and she was always in my mind.
Although I was too young and too little experienced for her I felt she liked me and I felt the same for her. However, I was not bold enough to tell her about my feelings and ask for her favours. Besides I was afraid of her refusal, since she was still wrapped in the memory of the recent tragic events.
Bajle, as well as her companions, had been selected from a levy, which had been brought with the aim of cooking for the growing number of tenants in our shack. They lived there too, in the room adjoining the kitchen.
I used to visit them quite frequently and then we would talk about the most varied subjects which, however, related to our sad fate. As I had never found her alone I could not open my heart to her and I would finally go back to my workshop with no change in our monotonous routine.
One day I went to the kitchen and found her alone. She greeted me very warmly and said that Edda and Esther were having their bath. I thought the opportunity was favourable and I kissed her face and told her my wish. She smiled then and told me I was too young for her. She added that perhaps I should try Esther who was some years younger.
I blushed and did not know what to say. I got hold of myself however, rather quickly, and told her that I did not love Esther but her. I then noticed she was starting to yield. Before she could counterattack though, I added that I had never tasted an apple and that I would not like to try a very green one.
At that moment the barrier, which still separated us, was broken. Very naively and using such frankness which might have put an end to my intentions. I had just touched one of the weakest points in a woman – pride in herself. Bajle was twice proud, not only for being the one I had selected among the three but also, and mainly, because she had been preferred to a younger woman.
From that moment on she was theoretically possessed. Only the actual performance of the act was missing. We made a date to be held in the workshop when the others were not there. I took all the necessary steps and away went my chastity.
Next day a large quantity of material came to Sobibor. As it usually happened, whenever some novelty broke the routine of the camp, we were all curious and started watching. It was not long before we found the solution to the enigma. It was a giant pre-fabricated shack. It was literally dismantled and its pieces reminded us of a children’s jigsaw puzzle. All we had to do was join the pieces, and presto….
At the same time, the Nazis selected about one hundred men from that day’s batch. They would be used in assembling the new building.
Some of them were carpenters and joiners who were real experts in their fields. Most of them, however, knew little or nothing about it. No matter how well they knew their business, the shack was taking shape although some of the men had soon been withdrawn from this job. As a matter of fact, whoever was not good enough for work was immediately sent to Camp 3 and found death.
When the shack was ready its huge bulk was impressive, it was dozens of meters long and it had only one door, the windows were pre-installed and did not open. Inside, many partitions were put up.
In one of them, the back one, a kitchen was installed. Another was set apart to be the women’s quarters. A third one was reserved for the kapos and this way all the different rooms were given their use. The kapos were nothing but the Jewish commanders of the various camps. Selected by the Germans to direct their own brothers, they were as unhappy as we were. Each of them were responsible for his work-team.
We soon came to learn that other huge sheds were also being assembled in Camp 2. They would also be used as storehouses for the booty taken from the Germans who arrived by the thousands every day. The quantity and variety of the objects thus obtained by the Germans was such they decided to allot a shed to each type – clothing, blankets, footwear, cans of food, glasses etc.
As soon as the sheds were assembled the Nazis selected from the next batches the strongest men to do the job. Then they started to select the women. All of them were used for work inside the giant shacks since , with the enlargement of the quarters in Sobibor they needed more workers.
There was no doubt the deadly machinery would start to function in a more ostensible way after the visit of Himmler and his train. On account of this Sobibor gained a new appearance and a new life.
After they had finished building the the huge shack in Camp 1, they started to build another which would be divided into two sections. One of them was set apart for a machine shop, which I was later appointed to manage. For the other sector, that of the carpenters, only the best were chosen, the real experts in carpentry and cabinet making. Their task was to manufacture furniture for the Nazis.
From the next levies four shoemakers and four tailors were also chosen. For them a new workshop was set up, so they would not mix with those already working for the Germans. From now on two workshops for tailors and shoemakers, would be functioning – one to cater to the Germans and the other for the Ukrainian guards.
Some days later they also selected two cooks, they were brothers and came from Lodz. As they were not enough, two others came. One of the latter, the father, was appointed the chef. His name was Herszel and, having escaped from Sobibor, he now lives in the United States of America. The other one his son, also escaped but came to die later on. With the coming of these servants our group became quite large and now there were ten of us sleeping in our old room.
Next a bakery was set up and a baker, who soon joined our group, was chosen. His name was Mendel. They had thus gradually taken from the transports more than five hundred Jews. For the time being, their death had been postponed. They all catered to the Germans needs, besides performing those tasks which referred to the continuous slaughtering, not only in our camp but also in others.
To facilitate the administration and control of this multitude of people, the Germans divided us into large blocks. In Block Number 1 they included the tailors, the shoemakers and carpenters. Their leader was a tailor by the name of Mundek. Block Number 2 gathered those who enjoyed some privilege in the camp – myself and my group, the washer-women, the cooks, the masons, the cleaning people and the bakers.
I was appointed the manager of this block. Mundek and I held the position of Blockeldester (Block Leader). Our job would be to answer for the presentation and the counting of the elements in our care.
In the other blocks, from the third to the sixth, were placed those who were responsible for the separation and elimination of the remains of the people exterminated in Camp 3. To head each of these blocks some Jews were chosen as Kapos.
Besides these, there was a Commander –General , also Jewish , to whom all were subordinate, including the Kapos. Their jurisdiction however, extended only over Camps 1 and 2. This Commander was called Moses.
Unbelievable as it may seem, neither the Kapos , nor Moses were able to do anything for us. They were eventually eliminated in the same way that the other poor devils sent to the Death Camp.
Moses was a young man a little over twenty. He was merry and playful, he was always smiling and seemed to be unaware of the dreadful tragedy we lived. Unfortunately he had very unpleasant duties. The Nazi tyrants made him obey all their orders, including those of punishing his own companions. If he did not do so he would receive, along with the Kapos, the punishment destined to transgressors.
The routine in Sobibor was changed before our very eyes and all of us felt it.
We started to live under a truly military regimen. Early, in the morning, at seven o’clock , we had to be in formation to receive instructions about the day’s tasks. Before that , however, the Jews were counted, by the leaders of the blocks, in Wagner’s presence.
If there were any unjustified absences, the leader of that particular block would be punished with twenty- five whiplashes. The tally was repeated twice in the day – when we came back from work at lunchtime, and in the evening, at curfew.
Whenever, a man was frequently absent he would soon be sent to Camp 3 to be killed. Sometimes, to avoid this, we, the Block Leaders, did not inform on the absence of those who were sick, thus trying to save them.
In these cases, whenever, we were caught, we were severely punished.
One day, the Jewish Commander, Moses, had to punish one his subordinates. The act was performed in public and in Wagner’s presence. The transgressor was a boy who would receive ten whiplashes and, as it was the custom, he would have to count them, one by one.
When the whip hit him for the first time , the young man shouted, as fast as possible, One, two, three ….. up to ten. With that he thought the punishment would be over. All of us burst out laughing and so did Wagner who ordered the second lash to be struck. The boy did the same fast counting up to ten, but he actually got the ten whiplashes.
It was the beginning of July, in the middle of summer. After all the modifications which had been introduced in the camp, not only in its physical appearance, but also in its personnel, another unexpected thing was in store for us.
They started to militarise us as to discipline and also in making us march to work. We marched to and from work, as if we were a military unit. Military drilling was performed at the end of long and hard-working days, and all of us had to participate. We were already tired, hungry and thirsty,in need of rest, food and water. Even so, we were not allowed to do anything before we aligned for the exercise. All this was not as easy as it may look at first sight. We should never forget that there were old, weak and sick people amongst us, not to mention the general exhaustion that enveloped us all.
Besides, hardly any one was familiar with the austere military system or was strong enough to stand the arduous marching we had to do by the Germans orders. They started by teaching us how to form rows and columns, then to practice a series of exercises. As we progressed we lost the right to make mistakes, since every fault was punished with the most varied and tiresome postures, like lying down and getting up in quick succession, crawling on the ground or walking with a goose step. Besides all this they made us sing German hymns, in loud voices, while we marched. Any wrong step would certainly bring about punishment.
The truth is that, at the end of a few days, the ragged levy of Reich slaves became an elite troop, so high was the level of instruction they reached. We marched all over the camp singing the hated hymns in perfect rhythm. It seemed as if there were a Jewish army in Sobibor.
Meanwhile, my work at the shop went on without pause. I had not finished the cursed forty rings yet. Wagner visited us, as usual, sometimes with over officers. Between Bajle and I everything was running beautifully. Our love trysts were frequently repeated whenever possible. As she was very affectionate, she washed my clothes and brought me my food, trying to show her interest in me.
One day Wagner came in and told me, without any preamble, that as neither my nephew, Jankus, nor my cousin Nojech knew anything about jewels, he was going to take them away from the workshop. And he immediately did so. I felt then completely at a loss because I could see their last hour had come. I did not expect anything but their being led into Camp 3. I imagined then they were irretrievably lost, and I nearly went into despair.
I stayed like this for the rest of the day. Sometimes I thought, against all hope, that they might still be alive and working in Camp 2. Finally, in the afternoon, they came back and told me what had happened to them.
They said that when they had left with Wagner, he had taken them into the most secluded place in the camp. There,he had baptised Nojech as platzmeister. As to Jankus, he made him his personal valet. His duties would be to run his bath, to shine his shoes and boots and ran some errands for him. He was also baptised with the name of Benjamin. Next, Nojech explained his duties as platzmeister. He said that, immediately after his baptism. Wagner had taken him to an unknown place and had instructed him about what he was to do from then on.
He would be in charge of gathering all the pots, pans, buckets, wheelbarrows, in short, each and every utensil with metal bottoms, which was taken from the Jews on arrival.
After separating these objects, he should put them in rows according to type and count them, checking every item, so as to make sure that none had a false bottom. To do so, he would use a small hammer, with which he would hit the bottom of the various containers.
If any of them had a false bottom, the characteristic sound of the hammer blow would reveal the fraud. After everything had been checked, he was to prepare the whole load for shipment. The job was rated as highly important because this artifice was commonly used to hide jewels and gold objects so as to smuggle them into Germany, since all these things were destined to help the Nazi war effort and were sent over to that country.
Nojech was very pleased with his new duties. He would work even harder than before but the task was reasonable and it meant that he was going to live longer. After I heard the news I was elated since nothing serious had happened to them.
Some days later a fearful creature came again into my workshop. His hateful presence put me immediately on the alert, expecting some other disaster. Tall and fat he appeared to be forty years old and his face looked like a huge tomato, so red it was. He was bow-legged and walked as heavily as a pachyderm. Besides he was also known as an inveterate drunkard.
He was the insane “Red Cake” in his natural state, that is to say drunk. With his characteristic arrogance, he ordered me to make him another ring in three days time. He took from his pocket a bundle containing jewels and gold teeth and threw it on the table.
Once more, I tried to evade the charge by reminding him of Wagner’s prohibition. I also asked him to bring me the necessary authorisation without which I could not serve him, as I was terribly busy. But “Red Cake” was not willing to argue. He said he was not in the habit of explaining anything to Wagner or to anyone else and that three days later he would come back for the ring. He warned me he wanted me to make it as bulky as possible, because he would be leaving on vacation in a few days and wanted to take it with him. He gave me a bottle of vodka he had under his arm and left.
As he had left I put the bottle away as I would not be forced to drink it in his presence. I thought the situation over very carefully and decided not to make the ring since no matter what I did I would be punished.
When the three days had elapsed “Red Cake” came early in the morning, to get his ring. He asked me if I had made it and I said I had not. Then he said All right. He left very calmly, followed by his famous dog Barry. Once in the yard he started to blow his whistle and to shout like a madman – Come out all of you, you tramps, you lazy Jewish curs.
Immediately a torrent of men, including ourselves started to run out of their places of work. When he saw us all in the yard the German blew his whistle again to make us align. Then he started the punishment, making all of us crouch, raise, run, stop and crawl. We did all this at the blow of a whistle, in endless succession, abruptly alternating the painful movements of the swaying Jews, already exhausted by the violence of the inhuman exercise.
However, the sadism of the drunken Nazi had not reached its climax yet. At a given moment, he blew his whistle to make us all lie down and drawing his gun started to shoot us. With the bullets whistling past my head my only thought was – “This time I’m done for”. After he had fired his last shot he walked in our direction and stopped beside me. He kicked me violently and shouted “Run”.
I got up quickly and started to run as fast as I could. I had only gone a few meters when I got a violent blow from behind and then I felt terrible pain. Barry had attacked and bitten me. I still have the scar that his sharp teeth left where they tore off my flesh. It seemed as if “Red Cake” wanted to put an end to me with his dog that had been trained to do that.
All of a sudden a saving order was heard, given at the right moment. It was if it had fallen from heaven. Wagner had come, no one knew where from and ordered my torturer to call his dog off me. Maybe his attention had been drawn by the shots he had heard and thus prevented my death.
He did that on purpose as he could not admit of any interference by the other officers in the internal discipline of Camp 1, of which he was the commander. He reserved for himself alone the right to abuse us and the scene put up by his bloody companion had not pleased him.
The truth is that, with his providential interference, he had saved my life. Soon afterwards he hugged “Red Cake” and whispered something in his ear. Then he told us to get back to our work and left arm in arm with his comrade, as if nothing had happened. The whole group of Jews, about forty men, had borne the consequences of the furious hate that Nazi officer felt for me. They had nothing to do with the reasons, which had triggered these events, and I was remorseful for being the only one to blame for their suffering.
After this sadly strange episode I never heard of “Red Cake” again. He completely vanished from Sobibor.
Copyright SJ H.E.A.R.T 2006 - 2007