Extracts from the book - “Tragedy of a Jewish Teenager”
… It was late afternoon when we noticed that the noise made by the train wheels on the rails had slowly lessened as the train lost speed. Next, we heard the squeak of metal caused by the brakes as the train stopped.
We soon noticed the engine was being manoeuvred around, and suddenly the wagons started to be pushed instead of being 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. It was finally separated from the rest of the convoy and was rapidly leaving the place we thought was a railroad yard. More minutes went by while we waited for the results of that entire commotion. We were all filled with intense anxiety. The only sounds to be heard were our whispers, broken at times by the cry of a child, who was immediately silenced by its mother. Suddenly, the door was opened.
All the other wagons were opened at the same time and we saw dozens of SS soldiers, a sight we already knew very well, waiting for us along the whole long convoy. Scattered among them were an approximately equal number of soldiers, which was a surprise to us, since we had not seen their kind before. They wore a special uniform, whose most remarkable element was a black cap with a skull emblem right at its front. They carried wooden truncheons; whips and guns were in their hands. Their uniform was different from that of the Germans - it was forest-green in colour.
We thought our misfortunes had ended on arriving at our destination, and we desperately wished for some fresh air and for freedom, as little as that 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, accompanied by excrement and corpses. For all of these reasons, our eyes were fixed upon the door which, once opened, provided the deadly view of a gang of criminals with sombre, threatening faces. Thus, all of our hopes 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 into a pessimism which was already latent. The Ukrainians and their German masters, using the whips in an indiscriminate way, forced the immense human cargo to exit from the crowded wagons, hurriedly and violently. We hardly had time to breathe when we were forced to hurl ourselves out in disorderly fashion, like an excited herd. We stepped on and pressed against one another, walking over the bodies which hampered our way, slipping on the foul slippery paste which covered the whole floor of the freight car.
For 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 in the face of all of this. Our reasoning abilities were dulled by the din they made and we could not even orientate ourselves, since we could not find any point of reference.
At the exact moment when the crowd left the wagon, even before all had come out, I had the opportunity of seeing a man in an elegant uniform. He wore grey trousers, characteristic of the German army, and a perfect white jacket; a handsome cap was 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, as well as some others who were practising their marksmanship on defenceless targets. Due to this barbaric action, dozens of the deportees lay there by the side of the wagons in which they had travelled, killed at the very moment of arrival. The object of this monstrous scene was to immediately impose a sense of terror and create an unquestioning obedience on behalf of the Jews, thus discouraging them from any act of rebellion.
As soon as the wagons were emptied, we were compelled to march 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 Ukrainians, truncheons in hand. This corridor was the stage for an unforgettable scene of sophisticated cruelty. The three criminals stood at the end of the corridor, positioned so 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 these guards had a menacing posture, with their fearful truncheons and vicious faces.
Meanwhile, the mass of Jews was coming by in fits and starts and, when they came within reach of the guards, were violently separated – men to the right, women to the left, with the beast-like overseers fiercely wielding their cudgels and pitilessly hitting everyone. The picture we saw was very painful, with whole families being separated; in tears, mothers were separated from their children and husbands, young people were driven away from their parents and siblings, babies were deprived of their mother’s 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 in any comfort. We had to be pushed and pressed close to one another until the yard became totally congested with people, since about two thousand of us had arrived 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 also put us in rows of four and we waited for the command to march. However, this did not come immediately, 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, my nephew, and my cousin Nojech. From that moment onward we had never separated for a single instant and now we were still together. The same was not true of my father, with whom we lost all contact during the bedlam resulting from the human avalanche which had been hurled out of the wagon.
With all the men already in formation, there suddenly appeared a giant German officer with a disdainful look in his eyes, whom I thought to be the leader there. Actually roaring, he started to select us according to our abilities. 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 them had been subdivided into diverse groups according to the most useful of professions.
I was very surprised that no goldsmiths had been called, and I daringly left the ranks of those who had not been chosen 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 that I was a goldsmith and that my profession had not been included on the list they had read out. 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 from 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 ranks. 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 enough courage to tell him that my old father was in the crowd, although I had not been able to find him. The German then said we might be able to find my father the next day. Thus ended that short, but profitable dialogue.
Working for the Nazis
… The first SS-man, whom we already knew, although we were not aware of his name, introduced the other 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 this 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 about 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 over the second question, asking me slyly about how some of the tools were used. Maybe he suspected I did not really possess all of the skills of which I had boasted, or that I had been lying about everything. 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 rose, 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 Scharführer 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 affectations reached the point of absurdity. He regarded himself as being all powerful, as indeed he actually was. His countenance reflected a great deal of arrogance, in spite of his possessing some kind and tender traits. He undoubtedly looked snobbish. He was always well groomed; his Hauptmann’s high ranking police officer’s uniform was always shiny and well-pressed, and fitted him beautifully. His height was 1.74m and he was of slender build. He usually wore a cap which showed that he still retained all of his light-brown air. He looked thirty years old and healthy. He always swung his white gloves from his hand, and his boots were like mirrors, clean and shiny. He had the air of a superior man, a characteristic peculiar to 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 cultivated.
The other SS-man, Gustav Wagner, was a giant nearly two metres 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 reached 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. His way of swinging his body right and left gave him the appearance of an orang-utan. His face was like a skull made of 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 came Franz Stangl again, and he gave 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 had 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 this was the right time for me to offer the little gold in my possession 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.
… Now, everything was different. I had been separated from my family 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 listened to everything with his head bent, but giving me 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 my family. 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 everything would be provided for 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.”
… In the early afternoon I received a large quantity of rings. I immediately noticed they were used, old-fashioned jewels from their mere appearance. 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.
It soon became dark. However, I went on working to finish Stangl’s monogram. While I worked, some officers 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 an 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 that I would.
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’s workshop. The man was beside himself with happiness. He was ecstatic and he felt fulfilled. He had a light smile on his lips and was not able to hide his surprise at my having succeeded, at my early age and in such a perfect way, in making what he had ordered me to create. 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, nor did they stint in expressing their admiration. I decided, of course, to make a 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 Scharführer came to our workshops. His name was Bolender and he brought with him 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 completely mistaken; I later learned it was a fierce watchdog.
Bolender was an SS officer, tall, stout with an elegant bearing. He was characterised by his evident austerity and 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 a handful of gold on the table. 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, so as 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 transport of prisoners had arrived in Sobibor, much larger than ours, as I later learned. However, as I assumed I was in a labour camp, I did not pay any attention to their arrival, believing that the Germans needed a larger number of men for the activities of the camp.
Without suspecting anything, soon after daybreak my ingenuous nephew headed for the place Bolender had told him to go. In order to get there he had to cross the yard where the rows of men who had arrived in the latest transport were waiting. By then the women had already been sent toward the mysterious gate and had disappeared behind it. My nephew passed by the rows of Jews and went to that same gate via which he would reach the designated 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 of 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. Without giving him the opportunity of explaining anything and heedless of his protests, the guard next made the boy completely undress. Perhaps he acted like that because he thought the boy was part of the new transport.
In the meantime 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 a deep depression and did not make even a simple gesture to explain his attitude. He was obviously deranged.
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 from their bodies by the brutal guards. Others were forced to undress with whiplashes, blows from rifle butts and clubs. Shots were also aimed at them. At the same time, the loud noise made the place even more terrifying. There were shouts, weeping, and laments, mixed with pleas to the Germans not to continue their unspeakable cruelty. The Nazis and their Ukrainian accomplices answered with shouts, curses, orders and blows.
He continued his horrifying description and told us he had witnessed something there which could only be compared to the times when barbarian tribes roamed over Europe. Children of all ages were torn from their mothers’ arms, held by the legs, twirled around, and then violently thrown so that their head struck the wall. The children fell dead to the floor. It was mass infanticide, impossible to conceive in our modern age. Amid the savage scene he 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 shouting out orders, but also in taking an active part in the sadistic practices. To finish his report my nephew added that, by mere chance, he had been seen and recognised by the criminal who then called him over. Amidst curses and rude words, Bolender had taken out of his pocket an American twenty dollar gold coin. He had handed the coin to the boy and ordered a guard to lead him out of that place. Before he did that, though, he emphatically warned the boy not to go any place near a new transport whenever it arrived, 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.
A few minutes later Bolender arrived, to see whether the whip had been made to his specification. 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 was fulsome in his praise, labelling 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. The scoundrel was smiling sardonically when he left the room, doubly happy, both for his valuable whip and for the cruel act he had just performed.
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 Scharführer.” 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 the rings’ future owners very well.
To enable 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 sufficient to please their owners, but also to 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 of the 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 cruelty 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, including 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 and whose name I had not noted would show up. The SS-men who visited our workshop most frequently were Stangl and Wagner. They came 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.
… “Tomorrow none of you are 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 permitted to observe anything, we decided to peep through the cracks in the door and windows of the workshop.
Indeed, very early the next morning, a group of high–ranking officers arrived. We did not know any of them. From our makeshift vantage point we clearly saw 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. He displayed an unusual obsequiousness in place of his customary arrogance. Amidst the entire group of strangers we noticed one person who seemed outstanding, since he was the target of all of 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 had made of the buildings of the camp, the VIPs of 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 undoubtedly correct, for 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, head of the cursed Gestapo and of the SS troops, accompanied by his satraps. Perhaps the arrival of Himmler and his gang gave me the opportunity of telling this story to the world. It was on that day that the possibility of our maybe 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, resulting in a substantial increase in “productivity.” 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. 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 Sobibor would quickly be seething with activity.
As we did not believe that this entire enlargement was being undertaken 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. At the same time, the Nazis selected about one hundred men from that day’s batch of new arrivals. 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 building work. The shack was taking shape, although some of the men had soon been withdrawn from this job. As a matter of fact, no matter how well they knew their own business, whoever was not good enough for this work was immediately sent to camp 3, and found death.
When the shack was ready, its huge bulk was impressive. It was dozens of metres long and had only one door; the windows were pre-installed and did not open. Inside, many partitions were erected. In one of the rooms thus created, 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 in this way all of the different rooms were assigned their use. We soon came to learn that other huge sheds were also being assembled in camp 2. They would be used as storehouses for the booty taken from the victims, 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 the strongest men as labourers from the next batches of deportees. 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, more workers were needed.
After they had finished building the huge shack in camp 1, the Germans 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.
… The routine in Sobibor changed before our very eyes and all of us felt it. We started to live under a truly military regime. 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 lashes. The roll-call was repeated twice each day – when we came back from work at lunchtime, and in the evening, at curfew. Anybody who absented themselves from the roll-call 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 of his subordinates. The act was performed in public and in Wagner’s presence. The transgressor was a boy who was to receive ten lashes and, as was the custom, he would have to count them one by one as the flogging was administered. When the whip hit him for the first time, the young man shouted, as fast as he could, “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 blow to be struck. The boy did the same fast counting up to ten, but he actually still received the ten lashes.
… It was the beginning of July, in the middle of summer. After all the modifications that had been made to the camp, not only in its physical appearance but also in its personnel, another unexpected thing was in store for us. The SS started to militarise us as with regard to discipline and 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.
They began by teaching us how to form rows and columns, and then made us 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 punishments, such as 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 as we marched. Any wrong step would certainly result in punishment. The truth is that at the end of a few days, the ragged band of Reich slaves became an elite troop, so high was the level of discipline we had reached. We marched all over the camp singing the hated hymns in perfect rhythm. It seemed as if there was a Jewish army in Sobibor.
However, the construction work went on at a faster pace. Our captors started to build new sheds in camp 1 for the carpenters, mechanics and blacksmiths. On the other hand, they tore down the shed which had first been erected for that purpose and in which I worked. The jewels were still manufactured in the old shed we all lived in. That shed was nearly in the middle of the camp. The Nazis thought the place should be demolished to make the yard wider, in order to hold the hundreds of Jewish workmen who entered it everyday to be counted. While a human anthill of workers took care of the building work, we had the opportunity of watching the passage through our camp of a giant machine which we had never seen before. It was a mechanical digger called `Bagger’ and it was accompanied by a quantity of rails. All these things went straight to camp 3, where they would be put to use.
In the meantime new sheds were starting to be built in camp 2, which were to contain the goods belonging to the unfortunate Jews who had been exterminated. As the Germans found the buildings they already had insufficient for that purpose, they not only enlarged those buildings but also erected new warehouses. They built a stable too, for the thoroughbred horses the Nazis rode. The man in charge of the stables was named Samuel. He has survived and lives at present in the United States. In the same area, a powerful stationary diesel motor was assembled which would provide the whole of the camp with electric light. On Wagner’s orders, I was made responsible for the installation of all of the electrical wiring connecting the dynamo to various sectors of the enormous camp. As it was not a highly specialised job, I could perform it fairly well.
In the yard reserved for the Germans, a casino was built for the officers. When completed they would eat and drink there, as well as entertain themselves. Initially they had been lodged in provisional quarters, which were somewhat cramped. All the carpenters were mobilised in the construction of the casino. They worked day and night, making chairs and tables, other pieces of furniture, and decorating everything in the manner desired by the Nazis. Two boys were also selected to serve as waiters .They would serve food and drink to the Germans and they would have to keep the casino clean. Their names were Josiek and Moshe Szklarek. The latter still lives in Israel. A magnificent barbershop was also opened with the best there was at the time. They appointed one barber to serve only Stangl and his gang. His name was Josef. Since this barbershop was reserved for the Germans they built another for the Ukrainians. A barber and his apprentice son were recruited and both started to work for the Ukrainians.
… Some of us lived in camp 1, but we were practically free to go anywhere and we often went to camp 2 and to the officer’s yard. The only place we did not go was camp 3, but we knew everything that happened there.
One day I received another message from Abraham. He was still in camp 3 and this was to be his last message, although I saw him once more. The bearer of the message was Klatt, the Ukrainian. As usual, he demanded his pay in gold. In his message, Abraham informed me of important changes that had been made in the camp. The manner by which the Jews were exterminated - asphyxiation by the combustion gases of a diesel motor - had been abolished.
The Germans had also modified the slaughterhouse – bathroom. They had closed the hole in the wall through which the exhaust-pipe of the motor had entered. The motor had been removed. Instead, they had installed a moveable skylight in the ceiling of the deadly shed. As they did not think one “bathroom” was enough, the Nazis had erected another, which already conformed to the specifications mentioned. Everything led us to believe that they were preparing to launch an unprecedented slaughter, and had therefore improved the lethal capabilities of camp 3.
Abraham went on to explain that, to direct the massacre, a chief of operations had already been appointed: the cruel Bauer. His main activity was to check, through the skylight, the exact moment when the shed was filled to capacity. At that moment, he issued an order and the door was hermetically sealed. Next, he opened the skylight, threw a can of gas onto the compact mass of condemned people, and closed the skylight again. The gas was the deadly Zyklon-B, created in German laboratories with the sole aim of answering a demand from the murderers – to find a product which would kill more quickly.
After he had thrown the lethal charge down into the “bathroom”. Bauer waited at his watch-post until he was sure that all the occupants had been killed. Then, his macabre task was finished.
Proceeding with his report, Abraham then mentioned the mechanical digger and the rails we had seen some days before, when they were on their way to camp 3. He affirmed that the huge machine was in full use. It exhumed the corpses that had so far been buried in the camp, and which came to dozens of thousands. Using the rails they had raised a huge structure which was used to cremate the bodies. By employing very large fans, they kindled the fire of the wood burnt at that human furnace. Before cremation, the corpses were piled between layers of wood and then fire was put to the whole thing.
It stood to reason that the Germans not only thought of making the killing process more dynamic, but also of erasing their traces of their crime. It was not convenient for them that mankind should come to know about the millions of Jews who had been buried not only in Sobibor, but also in other extermination camps. They thus decided to eliminate the traces by reducing them to ashes.
Abraham went on to state that immense and frightening fires were always lighting the whole of the camp where he lived, as the Germans were in a hurry to cremate all the dead people who had been buried there during these last few months as quickly as they could. This fact did not surprise us, since we were already accustomed to seeing the reflection of the flames which rose very high from our camp, lighting the dark sky over Sobibor. On those occasions when the wind blew from the direction of camp 3 we could smell the nauseating odour of human flesh being burnt. The smell was so strong that we were constantly sick to our stomachs. Quite often we threw up the little we had eaten at the mere thought that the corpses of human beings in an advanced stage of putrefaction were being incinerated.
… A bunch of Jews was immediately called to begin the work. All the necessary material was rapidly unloaded at various locations in the camp. A small narrow gauge railroad was to be built for internal use, which would run via several sections of the camp, continuing the railroad by which the trains came to Sobibor. The work developed a priority that seemed to indicate that the Germans found it extremely important for the better functioning of their genocidal activities. This was all part of the scheme drawn up by Himmler, and Trottel carried it out to perfection. The ties were being set and the rails fixed night and day, metre after metre. Then the means of transportation arrived. When everything was ready, we Jews nicknamed the wagons which ran on the railroad “Loras”, since they were exactly like the small trains we had in our parks for children. The small wagons were rectangular and many corpses could be loaded in them.
The small railroad started at the ramp of Sobibor and went up to camp 3. Its chief object would be to transport the goods the Jews had brought with them, as well as the dead and dying people found in the transports. Everything would be placed on the “Loras”. These would depart from a platform next to the old ramp and would go through the sector where the officer’s yard was located. From there, they would continue to camp 2. There they would leave their precious cargo of deportees’ possessions to be selected and deposited in the proper shed. In that place. as soon as the convoy stopped, a group of people dressed in rags would be in charge of unloading the little wagons, which were filled to the brim, as quickly as possible. Next the wagons would move onto camp 3, where the rails stopped at the cremation furnaces and the cargo of corpses and dying people from the transports would be unloaded. The dying and sick would then immediately be sent to the “death shack”, together with all of the other Jews who had left the train and who would have to walk there, crossing camps 1 and 2.Then all would be exterminated. At the beginning of the camp’s existence, the Israelites who had just arrived were sent to camp 2 carrying their own luggage. Now the method had been changed. The “Loras” would take care of everything, and the carnage could be completed without wasting any time. For that reason, Himmler had visited Sobibor twice.
To perfect the art of exterminating people rapidly and efficiently, the Germans decided to build another branch of that unusual railroad. This one started in front of the “bathrooms” and ended at the entrance to the furnace in camp 3.
In this way the work of manually carrying the dead to the incinerator was dispensed with, and the time thus saved would increase the deadly capacity of Sobibor fivefold. Before the construction of this branch line, hours and hours were spent in taking the corpses to the furnace located at a little distance from the yard. Only after they had emptied the “bathrooms” could a new batch be locked inside them to die.
All of the new constructions had been completed extremely quickly, since there was no shortage of Jews to do the German’s work. The foreman of the railroad building team was a cursed SS-Unterscharführer. His name was Vallaster, and his method of management consisted of systematically instilling terror in his workers. He was short, of unpleasant appearance, even ugly. Violent and perverse, he sent many Jews to their death and personally eliminated many dozens of them. He had been carefully chosen so as to guarantee that everything would be ready in the least possible time. He fulfilled his duties like an expert and ruthless hangman.
… Next the Waldkommando (Forest Commando) was created. It was composed of forty men who would be sent to the forests to fell trees and chop wood. This wood would be used to feed the cremation furnace. As the furnace was always on, it needed formidable amounts of fuel. Because of this the forests were being pitilessly devastated.
To start the work, the Nazis chose only French and Dutch Jews. After they had organised the first commando, the men were all sent to the forests in single file, chained to one another. The chain was attached to a handcuff on each man’s left wrist, so that they looked like a slave contingent heading for the galleys. In their right hand they carried an axe. The poor devils were forced to prepare the logs which would reduce their own brothers to ashes. All the wood that was chopped in the forests was then carried on trucks to the terminal station of the “Loras”, since the distance to Sobibor was five to six kilometres. Then the “Loras” did the rest by taking the cargo up to camp 3, where the logs were piled near the furnace. The wickedness of the Germans was so great that the only reason they did not make the poor men carry the wood to Sobibor on their backs, was that it would mean a waste of precious time, which our persecutors could not afford to do.
However, the Jews from France and Holland did not cope with the arduous work in the forest for long. They were not used to that kind of physically demanding labour, and at the least sign of exhaustion, the Germans immediately put them to death in camp 3. The greater the need for wood, the harder the task in the forest, so that even the strongest men were unable to bear it, collapsing from physical exhaustion and sickness. They were always tired, bruised, and constantly whipped by the savage members of the escort, who gave them no respite whatsoever. They came back from the forest more dead than alive. When they were taken sick or became weak, they were summarily excluded from the commando and sent to camp 3.
… The Bahnhof-Kommando (Railway Station Commando) was also created. This working group was in charge of receiving future victims. As soon as the transports arrived, they took away all of the deportees’ luggage and put it on the “Loras”. Next, they led the Jews to the selection in camp 1. They were also responsible for the cleaning of the newly arrived wagons, removing the dead and the sick of that particular transport, placing them on the “Loras”, and shipping them to camp 3. The convoy was thus thoroughly cleansed, so that no trace of the victims was left in it.
To work on these commandos, twenty strong Jewish boys were selected. They were all of similar height, and the Germans provided them with blue uniforms, with caps and jackets striped in white. When they were in formation, they looked as if they were a platoon of well-drilled soldiers.
… On 15 May 1943, something happened that served to prove that not all of those who lived in the cursed camp were submissive lambs. From that day onward, the Germans began to notice that things were no longer going the way they had planned.
In Sobibor there was a group of Jews, mostly Polish, who were wiling to react against oppression and the threat of death. The new group was composed, as I have mentioned before, of twenty-eight Polish Jews, taken out of the last transport which had come from Izbica, and twelve Dutch Jews who were already prisoners in Sobibor. The day they had first been sent to chop wood in the forests, nearly three weeks earlier, they noticed that the Nazis did not take them back to the camp at lunchtime, as was usual. They would leave the camp early in the morning, chained to one another, and head for the woods, taking with them their meagre rations, which consisted of nothing but a piece of bread. The escort was composed of four Nazis carrying machine-guns, and five Ukrainian guards with rifles. When it was time for lunch the Ukrainians would stack their arms and sit beside the Germans to eat and talk. Then the members of the Commando, chained to one another, would gulp down their pieces of bread.
That day, perhaps due to carelessness, or because they did not believe there was any danger of an escape, the guards responsible for watching the Jews did not put them in chains at meal-time. But the Ukrainians did not know that in the group were four young men who were planning to escape, and that they would never find a better occasion. Luck started to smile on the indomitable youths.
One of the guards called two of the prisoners to follow him to a nearby brook. They were going to fetch some water. The young men immediately got up, grabbed the buckets and headed to the place the guard had mentioned. They were two robust Polish Jews – Josef Kopf, and Szlomo Podchlebnik. Both were walking ahead of the Ukrainian, who was some metres behind them. So they moved away from the bivouac, until they came to the banks of the brook.
But it had not only been to fetch the water that the guard had decided to call them. He also intended to do some of his usual trading with the two Jews. To them, the call to go to the place had been like a heavenly blessing, and the exceptional opportunity could not be ignored.
As soon as they had reached the river, the Ukrainian asked them if they had anything to trade. Podchlebnik slyly told him that on that particular day he only had some diamonds and proffered his hand with half- closed fingers, as if he were really holding something. The unsuspecting guard immediately bent to look closer at the supposed precious gems. At that exact moment, the Jew violently stabbed the guard in the stomach. Before he could shout for help, Kopf hurled himself on the man and beheaded him with the knife he carried. Once the Ukrainian was dead, the two Jews took his weapons (a rifle with a fixed bayonet and a revolver) and went back to the bivouac.
This was the best opportunity for the two of them to escape. However, the four friends were committed to one another on their honour, and two of them had stayed in the bivouac. Thus, Podchlebnik and Kopf returned, very carefully picking their way through the trees and bushes around them, until they came to the place where the other members of the Forest Commando remained with their dangerous and well-armed escort. As soon as they saw their friends, they started to gesture to them from afar to try and let them know that they had already gotten rid of the guard who had gone with them to the river, and that they should also try and find a way to escape. In the meantime, although they understood what had happened, the other two companions, Zyndel and Chaim, could not do anything, since it was impossible for them to act at that moment. Thus they decided to wait for their chance. This was not long in coming.
Their escort, now consisting of four SS and four Ukrainians, was resting. The eight criminals had just finished eating and were sitting on the ground, engrossed in lively conversation. Meanwhile their rifles were stacked a little way from them. Not far from the guards, the Jews of the Forest Commando were also resting, well away from the Ukrainian weapons. As to the machine-guns, the Germans kept those by their side. The final blow would have to be struck in such a way as to take all the members of the escort by surprise. One small mistake, as unimportant as it might seem, would endanger the success of their escape and bring about drastic consequences. In such an event, Podchlebnik and Kopf would also risk being killed, even if they were a little distance away from the bivouac.
A few seconds later, one of the Germans got up and left the group, strolling towards the Jews, as if he were taking a leisurely walk. When the officer was far enough away from his colleagues, the other would-be escapers, Zyndel and Chaim, hurled themselves on him as fast as lightning, brandishing their sharp knives. With well-aimed blows the SS-man was felled and fell down on the ground, writhing with pain. This was the sign for flight. With one exception, all of the Polish Jews in the large group promptly rose to their feet and hurriedly left the place, disappearing into the forest. The Germans and Ukrainians were so surprised that they stood there petrified. Before they could recover from the shock and get hold of their weapons, precious seconds had elapsed, enough for the fleeing band to get out of sight and put a great distance between them and their guards. The bandits had just suffered a tremendous blow with the loss of two of their men, and it took some time for them to regain their composure and to start to react to the escape.
The twenty-seven Polish members of the Waldkommando were out of sight of the Germans, who hunted them in despair, sweeping the woods without finding anything. The brave Jews had disappeared without leaving any traces and the Germans seemed to be totally disoriented, shouting orders in the forest that were only answered by their meaningless echoes. As to the twelve Dutch Jews who also belonged to this legendary Forest Commando, they were nothing but poor devils. They had been so frightened that they never even rose from their places. Immediately after the Nazi officer had been killed, they raised their arms and were surrounded by the Ukrainians. Incidentally, this enabled the escapees to gain time and consequently, distance. The guards could not pursue them straight away, because they were too worried about the harmless Dutchmen. The total lack of initiative on the latter’s behalf prevented them from following the brave Poles. They had held everything in their hands, but they had not known how to make use of the panic that reigned over the enemy, and had preferred to submit, thus wasting the last and only chance which came their way. They paid very dearly for their inertia and their unfortunate lack of courage. They were immediately put in chains and taken back to Sobibor, where they arrived in the late afternoon.
Soon, the trills of a whistle were heard, which meant a general roll-call, summoning all the Jews to take up formation. All of us then gathered and waited for what was going to come. The crowd was led to the vicinity of camp 2, and there we were given the order to place ourselves in a long semi–circle.
As soon as we had done so, the twelve Dutch Jews in chains were shown to us, followed by the Ukrainians. The bandits put them one beside the other, about thirty metres in front of us. Then they shot them all before us. With this inhuman act, the Germans expected to discourage any other similar attempt to escape. However, the Dutchmen deserve an honourable mention.
Their fate brought something to our attention. Even if they were innocent and obedient, they were going to be punished for something they had not done. They had not fought their captors. On the contrary, they had submitted without the least resistance. They were brave men – honour to them. They faced the firing squad without a word of protest, without a gesture of defiance. None of them asked for mercy, and they stood upright, serenely waiting for the murderer’s bullets. There was no sign of fear on their faces and they even seemed pleased at being only one step away from eternal freedom. They had not learned to live like the others, but they had known how to die like no one else.
Among the twenty-seven Polish Jews who had participated in the spectacular escape of the Waldkommando, three are old friends of mine and are still alive.
One of them is named Chaim Korenfeld and he lives in the state of Sao Paulo, Brazil. The other two, Zyndel and Podchlebnik, live in the United States of America.
… In the middle of September , a transport came to Sobibor which would change the course of the history of the cursed camp. It had come from Russia and from it were taken fifty men, all of them physically fit for hard labour.
They were Russian Jews serving in the Soviet Army who had fallen into the hands of German troops during a battle. Although they were actually prisoners of war, they had ended up in Sobibor solely because they were Jews. Among these Russian Jews there was an officer in the Russian Army. As soon as we learned about his rank, we started to call him “Politruk”, since he had been a political officer. His name was Sasha Pechersky. He now lives in the Soviet Union.
.. Hours went by … until the lights were turned out and complete darkness enveloped the camp, and then only whispers could be heard. It was in one of these opportunities that Lajbu, the Rabbi’s son, had his first contact with the Russian Jew, Sasha, the “Politruk”. On the following day, Lajbu came to me and murmured the results of his interview with the “Politruk”. He told me Sasha had said that one of the Ukrainian guards had informed him about something which was very serious. The guard told the “Politruk”, in secret, that due to the successive defeats suffered by the German armies on all fronts, they were thinking of closing Sobibor, probably before 15th October.
I was astonished at this report and started to think that perhaps the dramatic news was groundless; I came to the point of imagining that Sasha’s mysterious revelations to Lajbu were part of a stratagem to incite us to rebellion. I found it impossible to believe that a Ukrainian guard would dare to tell a Russian Jew such an important secret.
… 14th October 1943 was dawning. It was a day like any other. We rose at our usual hour and went to the yard so that the general roll-call could be taken. Immediately afterwards we headed for our individual work details. It is true that our hopes of escaping were very small, but we were absolutely certain that we would kill a lot of Germans in the attempt. At midday we stopped for lunch. We used these few moments to get together for the last time and make sure that all of us had his group ready to perform their individual tasks. I then told Moisze and Jankus about my mission, since Nojech already knew all about it. My brother received the news in absolute tranquillity, but Jankus, the youngest and most sensitive of the group, could not hold back his tears and was deeply moved. After the roll-call, which would be the last one for us, we went back to work.
At about 3:30 p.m., elegantly riding his beautiful horse, the acting commander-in-chief, Niemann, came to the tailor’s shop to try on his new uniform, which had been made for him by the tailor, Mundek.. The officer was an enthusiastic horseman, and used to ride through various areas of the camp. He reined his horse in front of the shed, and a Jewish boy immediately ran to hold the animal’s bridle while the imposing SS-man dismounted. Niemann entered the tailor shop and Mundek promptly produced the jacket for him to try on. While he was putting it on, Mundek tried to divert his attention, by turning Niemann’s back to the mirror. The German let the tailor do with him as he pleased, as he did not suspect the trap which had been set for him.
Meanwhile, Oberscharführer Graetschus, with his impudent face and grotesque gait , headed for the shoemaker’s shop to fetch a pair of boots he had ordered. This NCO was the commander–in–chief of the Ukrainian guards, and his activities extended over the whole group. The German entered the shack and was promptly asked to sit on a bench, while Szol, the shoemaker went for the boots. In the same way that things had happened in the tailor’s shop with Niemann, the Nazi had just been lured into a trap without suspecting anything.
While these events were taking place in Camp 1 and we were sending minute reports about them to our colleagues in Camp 2, the latter answered by sending us some heartening news. They had already stabbed to death three terrible German officers : Vallaster, Nowak, and Beckmann. In that place, the plan was being followed to the letter and everything was going well.
In the tailor’s shop, while Mundek tried the uniform on Niemann, in one of the rooms was a well hidden brave Russian youth, who was one of the fifty Jews taken from the transport which had come from the Soviet Union, and in which the “Politruk” had also arrived. The boy held a sharp axe in his hand and was only waiting for the right moment. At the same time that the tailor pretended to be fixing the collar of the jacket , he turned the officer in the ideal position for the blow to be struck. When the moment came, the youth left his refuge, tiptoed towards the German and spilt Niemann’s head with his axe. The acting commandant of Sobibor was out of the fight, the first to die.
Minutes later, at the shoemakers, the Nazi Graetschuss was sitting, calmly waiting for Szol to bring him his boots. He, too, did not know that inside the shed there was someone in hiding, holding an axe. Instead of getting his boots, what the gangster received was a violent blow with that weapon. Graetschuss did not die right away, and desperately tried to shout, but this was prevented by the quick action of Szol and the rest of his group. While the chief shoemaker covered the German’s mouth with his own hands, the others fell on him and finished the killing with axes and knives. The body was immediately hidden in one of the rooms inside the shed and any trace of what had occurred was removed from the front room.
After the second German had been eliminated, we sent a message to camp 2 and in answer they told us what was happening there. In the two camps a total of five officers had already been wiped off the map. Meanwhile, at the tailor’s, as soon as he had killed the commandant, Lerner had taken possession of Niemann’s gun, a magnificent “Walter” pistol, duly loaded. Outside the shop, the boy who had been holding the horse’s bridle and who had been drilled before hand, had left, taking the horse with him to the stables so as not to arouse suspicion. Armed with his pistol, Lerner had also left the shop where he had just played his important role.
Before all these blows had been struck, simultaneous and deadly, I had been told to go to the tailor’s shop immediately the commandant of Sobibor had been eliminated. As soon as I heard about it, I hurried there and saw an impressive scene. The hat-maker, who also worked there, had been taken by a severe nervous fit and was in hysterics. He had grabbed some large scissors he had found in the shop, and using one blade as a dagger, had hurled himself on Niemann’s body. In a rage, he started to stab the dead German with all his power. With each blow that he struck he called out the names of his wife and children, who had been exterminated at Sobibor. Taken by actual lunacy, his clothes literally covered with blood, the hatter would have cut the body of the Untersturmführer to pieces if it had not been for our prompt intervention. We pulled him away forcefully from the ex-commandant’s body and tied him up so as to be able to completely restrain him. Then he was kept in the next room until he was able to recover his balance. As to Niemann’s body, it was hidden under one of the bunks in the shop. We quickly began to cover up the traces left on the stage of such a violent scene. We put some bundles of cloth on the ground to cover any bloodstains, so as to not attract the attention of anyone who might accidentally enter.
As a matter of fact we came to a peremptory decision – after the death of the first bandit, any other Scharführer or Ukrainian who entered the workshops or any other room in camp 1, would be summarily eliminated. The moment the leader of the camp had been killed we had immediately informed all the rebelling groups that there could now no longer be any retreat. Whether we wanted it or not, the uprising was now irreversible. The plan had to go on, whatever the end might be. In the meantime everything was quiet in Sobibor.
It was only thirty minutes until the whistle to end the day’s work would be blown and the moment had finally come for me to play my role. I began right away. To perform my task and distract the guards, I went to my shop and picked up some tools and a thick tin pipe, one of those used in the chimneys of the stoves which heated the lodgings of the Ukrainian guards, which I was responsible for maintaining. Next I went to the Ukrainian’s shack under the pretext I had to fix something there. I climbed onto the roof and started to do something with the chimney, pretending I was fixing it. I stayed there for a few minutes so as to make my intentions very clear. Soon afterwards I climbed down, this time to fix the stove, since I needed a reason to be inside the place should any guard come in and ask me what I was doing. I faced two Jewish boys who worked there and made sure there was no one else inside. Luck still smiled on me. These two boys were responsible for cleaning the quarters and they also ran some other errands for the Ukrainians. They were even younger than my nephew.
Inside the shed, which was rather ample, there was a partition dividing the room so as to reserve a section of the quarters for the higher ranking guards of the abominable organization. I began to study the place, while the two youths stared at me. They were very surprised when I headed for the place where the weapons were kept.
I threw a greedy glance at the machine-guns, right there within my reach. These weapons were only used by the sergeants and the higher ranking elements. I finally controlled my impulse to take these guns, since neither I nor the others knew how to use them, and they would not fit in the metal pipe I carried. Beside everything else, I was unaware of whether the machine-guns were loaded or not, since I knew nothing about that kind of armament. I then turned my eyes to the rifles and soon noticed that they were accompanied by their own cartridge belts and a lot of ammunition. However, I was not in a hurry to take them right away, since I had to wait for the exact moment when people would come back from work. I did not think I was running a serious risk at the time, since the main Nazi leaders who could have sounded the alarm were already out of the fight. We had agreed beforehand that I would only leave with the weapons when the work in the shops had finished and all were heading back to our quarters. I waited for some more minutes and then I heard the characteristic German song that the Jews were forced to sing when they came back from their daily tasks. This was the moment for me to act.
The initial plan had determined that three rifles should be taken away and hidden inside the long thick pipe I had taken with me for that purpose. Thus I would be able to take them back to camp 1 without raising any suspicion. Something unexpected happened though.
None of the rifles would fit inside the pipe, since the head of the bolt did not allow it to be inserted, and I did not know how to remove the bolt. For this reason, as soon as I heard the song, I wrapped the rifles in a blanket and asked the astonished boys to hand the bundle to me through the window, since I intended to collect it from the outside. However, they were terribly frightened and they refused to do what I told them to. The moment was not one for arguments and I had no other choice but to threaten to kill them by unsheathing my knife. With the gleam of the blade in their eyes, the poor creatures, who did not understand anything, decided to obey me. I went out of the shed with my empty pipe in my hand and my pockets full of cartridges. I quickly went around the building and stopped before the window where I received my bundle containing the weapons. I then walked to my destination, hardly able to carry all of my awkward load, since the pipe was still in my hand. Luck was still on my side. I had crossed the officer’s yard and I was already heading for the kitchen in camp 1, yet I had not met a single guard.
When I arrived at my destination there was a group waiting for me, made up of my three relatives and the young Russian Jews who were going to use the weapons. At the same time, the large mass of workers was returning from work, singing and getting nearer and nearer to the kitchen. My mission had been thoroughly successful and we were in possession of three precious rifles and plenty of ammunition. As soon as they saw the weapons, the Russians claimed them, as had been previously decided. However, I changed my mind and told them that as I was the one who had obtained them, I would have to have one. They insisted on having all three weapons, alleging that I did not know how to use a rifle. I was adamant and my point of view finally prevailed. The truth is that I had become so enthusiastic about the weapon that I went back on my former decision. I handed them the rest of the weapons and plenty of ammunition, but I kept some for myself. Once this impasse had been solved, I asked them to teach me how to fire the gun, as I still did not know most of the essential facts about how to handle it. After some brief instruction, I felt able to use it. Still in the kitchen, now alone with my relatives, I told them that we should try to be together in our last moments.
When the multitude of Jews came to the yard, the great majority went into formation for the roll-call. They were those who knew nothing about the rebellion. However, those who were aware only pretended to get in line, since they expected the mutiny to start within the next few minutes. There were still ten minutes to go until the counting started when Kapo Pozycki started to trill his whistle like mad, thus causing some tumult in the camp. He was one of us.
After he had heard the first unexpected whistles, the new Kapo commander, the Dutch Jew who had replaced Berliner, went immediately to Pozycki, shouting that it was not yet time for the call and harshly scolding him for what had been done. But the interference of the Dutch Jew was meaningless. That desperate whistling was the signal we had agreed on to begin the general onrush and start the great uprising. It was the beginning of the end.
When we saw the Chief Kapo rush at him, the brave Pozycki drew his knife in order to receive him properly. I never learned what happened between the two of them because at that moment the different groups of rebels, who had deliberately stayed in the workshops, started to appear from all sides, armed with axes, bludgeons and knives. Meanwhile, all those who had firearms, taken from the Nazis who had been killed, started to shoot in the air, thus making the havoc even worse. An attempt was made to gather the mob, who had run in all directions, into a single group. Then with Nojech, Moisze, and Jankus by my side, I ran very fast to join the giant mass of people. There were about five or six hundred Jews, men and women, shouting and running around like lunatics. Ahead of them all, the Russians were shouting – “For Stalin!” Many were firing shots in the air, to the right and to the left, shouting hurrahs. Others brandished axes, bludgeons and an infinity of instruments which could serve as weapons.
All of those who had not previously been aware of the rebellion joined us, and the turmoil was such that it became impossible to control. There are no words to describe the fantastic reality of that human avalanche, which came close to being unimaginable. The brutish amalgam of maddened people started to then move towards the exit of camp 1. In the meantime, a smaller group, perhaps thinking that they were smarter than the others, left the main body of prisoners and hurled themselves against the fences, where there were also anti-tank ditches and mines. They thought they could cross there. From this unwise group we do not know whether any escaped because, in a few minutes, the burst of explosives started to be heard, thus increasing the general disorder and serving to alert the guards in the towers. The latter had already noticed that something strange was happening, since they heard the first shots and the clamour. However, they had been perplexed and disoriented, and were late in reacting. Only on hearing the explosion of the mines did they start to shoot at the crowd. The entire security system of the camp had been taken by surprise and it seemed as if not even the machine-gun towers were manned at that moment.
Meanwhile, the majority of the crowd ran straight towards the gate which led into the officer’s yard and to the Ukrainian guard’s quarters. The gate was usually open. At that moment, furiously pedalling his cycle, a guard was entering camp 1. He probably did not realise anything was amiss, and he had not noticed the human mass which inexorably ran toward him. When he became aware of what was happening, it was already too late. He died instantly, crushed by the crowd, torn to pieces by the hundreds of feet of that indomitable mass.
The deranged crowd now entered the officer’s yard, right into the sector where most of the German quarters were located. Near one of the buildings there were two of the criminals. By their uniforms we could see they were a Ukrainian officer and a guard. We saw the Nazi gesture as if he were commanding the guard to do something. When they noticed the crowd, they tried to run away, but it was too late. The tightly packed multitude attacked them and they were torn to pieces. While this took place in the sector I was in, on the opposite side of the human flood, other officers and Ukrainians had come to the same end. All of them had been trampled and torn to pieces, crushed under the weight of hundreds of Jews, who turned everything which came their way into dust.
The uncontrollable avalanche now headed straight to the three parallel fences near the main exit of Sobibor. The first two crumpled as if they were made of paper. The third one, which meant freedom, also fell under the impact of the solid mass which pressed against it. By then, all along the broken fences in that sector, the ground was covered with bodies. The vanguard of the multitude had been pushed onward by those who followed, and were torn to shreds by the barbed wire. Even if they had not wanted to throw themselves against the barbed wire fences and intended to stop, they could not have prevented themselves from being constantly pushed forward by the disorderly mob, which thought only of freedom. They were the heroes who blazed the way for the rest of us, and paid very dearly for their position in the vanguard.
Stepping over dozens of corpses, the remainder of the mob continued to move forward. Suddenly the mines started to explode. This area did not have any ditches, but it was heavily mined up to the main gate. Among the boom of the explosions and a sea of fragmented bodies, the maddened mass continued ahead, heedless of anything else. Once more, the dozens of Jews who were running in front opened the way for those who came behind, at the cost of their own lives. Nothing would be able to restrain that mob in its frantic racing.
At that time, I had not yet crossed the fences and I had lost contact with Nojech, Moisze, and Jankus. I tried to stop for a while to avoid being forced into the front lines. I intended to stay at the back, since no reaction was coming from the Germans. Only the nearest towers fired some shots towards the fleeing multitude. It was then that I aimed my rifle at one of the towers and fired four shots, almost at random. I later learned that one of these stray bullets had killed a guard.
I did not try to reload the rifle, since I did not know how to do it correctly and also because I suddenly found myself virtually alone. I started running towards the crowd which was already quite a way ahead of me. Then I crossed the broken fences and stepped over the dozens of bodies, victims of the barbed wire and the mines. Running frantically, I soon caught up with the others. All of us kept sprinting for the woods, moving as we had never done before.
The expected reaction from the Nazis never came. The defection of Germans and Ukrainians had been great and very few still dared to man their posts and try to put an end to the uprising. Many machine-guns nestling in the high towers never even fired a single shot. The oppressors thought they were brave and the masters of the world; however, they were terrified at the momentum of the poorly armed Jewish prisoners. When they realised their leaders had been killed they were afraid of suffering the same fate, and hid behind their own inertia. They understood then that no more were we submissive puppets to be manipulated at their will. We were no longer the same as we had been in Sobibor. The only thing that mattered to us now was our thirst for revenge and freedom.
To get to the thickest part of the woods we had to cross a wide clearing the Germans had created in order to prevent the forest from being too close to the camp. Trees had been felled throughout the entire area. I ran on, thinking of the relatives I had lost sight of amidst the havoc of the hour of flight. I did not have the slightest idea whether they had succeeded in escaping or had died in the camp. From that moment on I began to hear shots coming from all directions. The Nazis were recovering from their initial shock and were hunting for us.
In a crazed rush, we finally entered the thickest part of the forest. We had no certain destination; each person tried to follow the next, as we thought that someone must know where he was going. However, we all shared a common aim – to get as far as possible from Sobibor.