When the train approached the camp
we could hear the SS shouting. We smelled a stench of burning human
flesh. A big gate opened to allow the train to enter the camp and then
it came to a full stop. We heard the grating sound of metal on metal
as the doors of the freight-wagons were opened, and then, facing us,
we saw a poster: SS SonderKommando Sobibor. We saw the SS standing
with whips in their hands. Near them were Ukrainians with whips too,
and Jewish kapos. A German bellowed: "Austreten von den
Waggonen" (Exit from the wagons) and people started to jump
out of the wagons. They were petrified with fear. Many people died of
heart attacks, others were shaking, as if palsied, from fear. Many were
in a state of hysteria, while others were covered with urine and excrement.
No food or water had been given to us throughout the journey.
20 men (Jewish prisoners) of the
train-commando (Bahnhofkommando) stood around with carts. Sick people,
unconscious people, cripples, the dead--all were piled into those carts
which went immediately straight to the gas chambers. Those carts were
made of metal. Many small children and infants were thrown into the
carts too. (Abraham Margulies, now living in Israel, was in that train-commando).
Those carts went on narrow rails. The bodies in those carts were piled
up every which way--heads down, heads up, limbs dangling, etc. Many
SS men were standing there, "supervising" the "process."
And they were enjoying the "progress" of the "work."
Oberscharf¸hrer (Oberst) Gustav Wagner, a tall, blond good-looking
man, supervised the whole scene. If the unloading didn't go as fast
as the Germans wanted, they darted among the Jews and started to whip
mercilessly. They slashed away viciously. 7 freight-wagons could be
unloaded at a time, so 7 were taken in and the gate was locked. The
7 wagons were unloaded and then hauled out, to be replaced by another
7. In my train there were about 40 wagons, with 1,500 unfortunate Jews.
12 of us were selected for work--the rest all were sent up the "Tube"
(a narrow, enclosed path) to Lager (Camp) III, where they were
The train commando was only one
of many commandos at Sobibor. There was a packing commando (to pack
the victims' clothes, shoes, valuables, etc for shipment to Germany),
a commando responsible for undressing the poor Jews, a barber commando
to shear off their hair, etc. A kapo was at the head of each commando.
Oberst Wagner, the commander-in-chief
of the whole operation, was usually bellowing and shouting orders. When
he shouted "Austreten von den Waggonen" he could be
heard for miles. Even the SS men trembled at the sound of his terrible
voice. When all the Jews had left or had been dragged out of the wagons,
Wagner started to bark out methodical orders, shouting all the while.
He shouted: "Men separate, women separate, children separate!"
Many mothers didn't want to leave their children, so Wagner gave an
order to SS men and Ukrainians standing near him. They ran over and
started to rip the children out of the mothers' hands. The children
were crying; some of them felt what was in store for them, and others
were simply terrified of the monstrous murderers. Some children remained
silent--they knew everything and had resigned themselves. Many mothers
fought valiantly to keep their children--they resisted and clutched
the children to their chests. But it was all futile.
First Wagner shouted: "Kinder
links!" (Children left!) "Frauen links!" (Women
left!). That meant that they were destined straight for the death camp
and its gas chambers. From us --the men--Wagner made a "selection."
He shouted: "All carpenters: raise your hands'" And he also
called out for various other craftsmen. The Germans selected 2 carpenters:
Shlomo Elster (he's alive in Israel today) and me. Shlomo is a simple,
good man; we worked side-by-side in Sobibor. I remember that 2 brothers,
named Moiras, were selected too. Everybody else had to remain
standing, completely still.
The kapos stood waiting.
Wagner barked out an order, and the kapos led groups away. The
kapos told us--12 men- to line up and remain standing to the side. Each
kapo knew where to lead his group. Some Jews plaintively asked
where they were being led to. The kapos told them that they were
being taken to the showers, to be disinfected. Those Jews were happy
to believe this. It was true--they were filthy because they had been
dragged out of their bunkers and had not been given any water at all.
Many were covered with lice. Sure--they needed showers. They needed
disinfecting. It was obvious.
We--the workers in the Sobibor
shops--were told about the whole process by the kapos. If the
SS had found out they would have killed those kapos immediately
and us too. The actual killing process was kept very secret. However,
after 2 or 3 days there, the all-pervasive stench was self-explanatory.
You could tell most Jews one thousand
times what was really going on there and they wouldn't believe you.
People believe what they want to believe, or hope to believe- anything
but the truth, if that truth is horrible enough. I myself spoke to some
women wearing crucifixes, from Germany. They or their parents had converted
to Christianity. I asked them: "Do you know where you are? Do you
know what happens here?" I told them and they didn't believe me;
they couldn't believe that such a place was possible. They answered
me: "What do you mean when you say that they gas and burn people
here? Such things in the middle of the 20th century? Are you crazy?"
They simply couldn't understand it. Had people believed what was in
store for them they would have resisted, but nobody believed. This was
After we were ordered to stand
to the side, the kapos led the Jews to the gas ovens. First,
the women were undressed and all the hair was shaved off them to be
packed for shipment to Germany. The barbers (20 men) were technically
a part of the train commando. They worked rapidly and effectively. The
men were sent directly to the gas chambers after undressing.
I remember a certain transport
from Holland--ach, this was horrible! There were too many Jewish children
to be "processed" rapidly so they were in a long, steadily
shrinking circular line from morning to night. Such beautiful children,
gorgeous little blonde girls with pigtails, decently dressed' These
poor unfortunates were well-fed, with pretty, round little faces. Their
parents must have loved them so, must have lavished such care on them,
and now... Many of them carried small suitcases or bags. It was pitiful,
so sad! The SS men were watching over them. We weren't supposed to even
glance at those Berelach and Yosselech and Estherlech; saying one word
to them was out of the question! Some of the kids were crying; they
probably understood. The soil was sandy, so some children made circles
in the sand and they played with pebbles and branches. After all, they
were only children. If an SS man would have caught one of us glancing,
even sideways, at those children, showing any interest at all in them,
we would instantly have been taken to the gas chamber. But we managed
to see what was going on. The Ukrainians and the SS were very nervous
and wild that day. They were usually wild, but now they outdid themselves.
Some children's eyes were full of fear--they were wide-eyed with fear.
It was a day straight out of hell! And every minute less and less of
them, less and less. The line got shorter and shorter. And my Berelechs
and Yosselechs and Estherlechs became smoke in those accursed skies.
After it was all over, the SS men went to get drunk in their casino.
The clothes of the unfortunates
who had been undressed were carried to another area for sorting and
packing, as were the shoes. The sick couldn't undress fast enough- everything,
had to be fast, fast, fast--so the train commando's undressing detail
had to rip the clothes off their bodies. Boonyek, a short, fat kapo
was a decent man who often confided in us although he risked his life
every time he did so. Perhaps he had to tell somebody to lighten his
heavy heart. He told us how many of the unfortunates had raw wounds
and festering sores; their clothes had become stuck to the congealed
blood and scars. When the clothes were ripped off them their pain was
enormous--they yelled at the top of their lungs. I worked in the carpentry
shop and I heard, many times, the yelling of such unfortunates. Had
I shown any interest at all I would have been shot on the spot. Sobibor
was supposed to be a "secret"--nobody was supposed to know
anything. Anybody who showed any interest in the "process"
was immediately shot. But the train commando were ordered to do this,
and the tempo was extremely fast. At Sobibor all Jews were not supposed
to walk--they had to run.
The whole "processing"
took between 1-2 hours. Wagner came over to the 12 of us who had been
placed on a side. He told us that we were going to "Arbeitslager"
-- the work camp (Lager I). Whoever had anything at all in their pockets
should put it on the ground in front of them--money or paper or photos
or jewels. Pockets had to be emptied completely. I saw where I was but
I thought: maybe I'll be able to survive, somehow. That's the way human
nature is--I can't explain it. I decided then and there not to hand
over my precious photos (I still have them today) and my wife's rings.
Wagner didn't have to search us--we were completely in his hands. Anything
hidden would soon be evident. Wagner shouted: "If anybody hides
anything, he'll be shot immediately'" But I stood my ground and
surrendered nothing. With the photos I still had my past, and with the
rings--a future, maybe.
After the ground in front of us
became littered with odds and ends which Jews had emptied from their
pockets, a few Ukrainians with whips came over to us. There were many
Ukrainians at Sobibor--horrible murderers! Extraordinary sadists! They
led us away. We couldn't walk--we had to run. The Ukrainians, whipping
and beating us, herded us like animals, they yelled "Parshive
Zhid" (Filthy Jews) and all kinds of vile curses at us. They
took us to an enormous truck loaded with wood from demolished Jewish
homes. The nails were still in the boards, and we had to climb into
the truck and pull out the boards. You can't pull out boards when many
people are standing on the woodpile, but that's what we had to do, and
the Ukrainians were beating us all the while. The Germans used such
boards to build Sobibor. They didn't bring new lumber; they dismantled
Jewish houses and used the boards. These houses had been expertly dismantled
by Jewish prisoner carpenters who probably had been killed afterwards.
At lunchtime they drove us into
a big camp. There was one barrack there for Jewish women and two for
Jewish men. Sobibor prisoners told me that 400 Jewish men and 200 Jewish
women were kept there for work. They explained everything to me; one
told me that I was in a "vernichtungslager"-- an extermination
camp. Although the Ukrainians had told me that on the train, I hadn't
believed them. But now that I saw the place with my own eyes I knew.
The kapos yelled "Eintreten!" (line up); a kapo
stood by the kitchen with a whip in his hand and Jews lined up for food--a
watery soup. A piece of bread, 10 deko (a deko is short
for dekogram and is a measure of weight), was given in the morning.
I slept in that area, called Lager
I. We slept on bunks of rough wood made out of logs. There were 4 levels
of bunks, and 3-4 Jewish prisoners slept in each bunk. At night people,
some deranged and at the end of their sanity, were biting, scratching,
tearing and clawing at each other. I heard many cry from hunger; others
shrieked and moaned. The door was locked at night so little pots were
brought in as toilets. There was no light at all in the barracks- this
was strictly forbidden--and hundreds of us were packed in there. Many
of us had dysentery and diarrhea; so the pots quickly filled up and
overflowed. By morning there were 40 or 50 or 60 full pots and a mess
all around them. The kapo came in the morning (all kapos had
separate, private cubicle sleeping quarters) and he started to beat
us because of the mess. He was under strict orders to keep the barrack
minimally "clean" -- although such a thing was evidently impossible
under the circumstances. So the kapo kept on beating us till
the pots were taken out and emptied. The stench in our barrack was stifling.
Many times during the night, while making your way to the pots, you
stepped on people or fell on them. All night long people were crawling
to those pots, which were placed in the narrow passage near the door,
between the tall rows of bunks. Some people, getting down from an upper
bunk in the dark, fell and twisted their ankle. The next day they were
taken to the gas chamber. The barrack was either very cold or very hot,
and some days we were locked in there from 4 PM. on. Some people died
from the lack of air. We paid no attention to those who were taken away
in the morning to die. We had become conditioned to see our existence
as the new, "normal" way of life for a Jew. Those who could
not condition themselves to this way of life--well, they left us during
the nights. They committed suicide. They obtained sharp pieces of metal
and slit their wrists. Their blood would drip down slowly on those sleeping
on the bunk immediately beneath them.
After a transport was "processed"
the Ukrainians and SS celebrated. In their Lager they had a casino,
so they drank and sang and gorged themselves ("fressed").
I knew the whole process well because 2 or 3 times we were woken up
in the middle of the night, driven out and ordered to unload transports
of human beings who had been brought in during the middle of the night.
Transports were coming day and night, and Sobibor was an especially
busy hell on Fridays, because transports from Holland usually came on
Fridays. That night ordeal of unloading innocent people to their deaths--I
can never forget it!
Once a transport of ultra-Orthodox
(Hassidic) women was brought to Sobibor. The poor women were shrieking
horribly. When they were ordered to get undressed with their children,
they were yelling "Shma Yisroel" at the tops of their
lungs. You could have heard them kilometers away. All of them, with
their children, were gassed. Not a single one was spared. I remember
a group of Dutch Jewish women who had been brought in a transport. They
kept yelling nervously and, in some cases, semi-hysterically, "It's
impossible! It's impossible! It can't be! It can't be!" They couldn't
believe that such a place could exist in the middle of the 20th century.
I worked with a group of carpenters.
We had much to do because the Germans were always expanding and "improving"
Sobibor. These were make-work projects devised by the Germans so they
shouldn't be sent to the front. The eastern front was a meat-grinder,
devouring people en masse, so the Germans were eager to seize on any
excuse to make themselves look busy.
I remember when Dutch Jews were
tossed into our group. They didn't know anything about lumber, and had
no experience of hard, manual labor. They needed a lot of food, which
they didn't get, and so they suffered horribly. They lasted 3 or 4 days.
A few lasted a week. They couldn't survive longer. The Germans would
spot those who weren't workers and would make life particularly hard
for them. Then they would take them away.
While the Jews worked, Germans
would go around and check every one--how they were working, how each
looked. I worked in an area that was less tightly checked by the SS.
They rarely came in. There were a few Chelm Jews with me; they depended
on me to keep them alive because they weren't really craftsmen at all.
They had been petty merchants. Some became very weak after a time; they
couldn't hold a hammer any more. They couldn't pick up a piece of wood.
They begged me plaintively: "Kalmen, take me to work with you,
or I'll be finished off! Please, Kalmen, take me! Take me!" What
could I do? I didn't have the authority to select those who would work
with me. I couldn't appoint assistants. That was the truth, and that
is what I told those poor unfortunates. What could I tell them -- that
if I helped them I would provoke the Germans and get myself sent to
the gas chambers too? The Germans were constantly looking for excuses
to beat and torture us, to "discipline" us. The next day those
poor unfortunates were gone. Taken away.
I remember when a transport of
rich German Jews was brought to Sobibor. This transport subsequently
became known as "The Rich Jews from Germany Transport." Those
Jews looked really prosperous, they radiated an air of well-being, ease.
A few were selected to join us for labor -- cutting trees, digging ditches,
etc. However, those Jews didn't last long. They needed massive amounts
of food and they had no work-skills at all. The Germans were experts
concerning shirkers and those who were inept so they soon pounced upon
such "amateurs" Within a matter of days the last of those
German Jews disappeared from our work force.
Thousands and thousands of refined
and educated Amsterdam Jews were shipped to Sobibor with First Class
Round-Trip tickets. They were very well dressed. They had been told
to bring their valuables. Food and drink was served to them in sumptuous
dining cars, equipped with the best silverware and linen tablecloths.
How do I know this? Because a few of them were thrown into my shop to
work. They had been transferred three times during their trip to Sobibor:
from their First Class carriages to other less luxurious ones, and finally
to the sealed cattle cars which brought them to Sobibor. On the Sobibor
arrival ramp they still clutched their "Round Trip" tickets
in their hands. I remember one Dutchman, distraught, yelling: "Help!
This is impossible! Look--here is my Round-trip ticket! Help!"
They couldn't believe what was happening to them. I told that distraught
Dutchman to forget about the Round-trip ticket, but he still wouldn't
believe me. As long as a person doesn't see death right before his eyes
he doesn't believe it.
I was sent to do carpentry jobs
in various locations within Sobibor. Sometimes I was lucky enough to
be sent to areas where no SS men were around. I often found sardines,
marmalade, butter, etc where Jews had been unloaded and undressed; they
had brought this food with them for their "resettlement."
Sobibor was built on sandy soil, so I used to bury that food in various
places and dig it up and eat it when I needed it. I usually did such
things during the Germans lunch period. I used to try to get myself
assigned to the sorting area.
Clothes, gold, shoes etc were sorted
there. Somebody was responsible for burning rotten clothes, while others
packed valuables for shipment to Germany. The unfortunate Jews had been
told to bring their goods and valuables--they would need them for their
"resettlement." Once a whole wagon-load of bread came. They
must have transported a bakery to Sobibor. There was a mountain of bread
in the midst of all the starving Jews.
There was a tall Jewish water-carrier
in the train commando (Bahnhofkommando). I heard him say to Oberscharf¸hrer
Karl Franzl: "When is a transport coming? I'm so hungry'"
Franzl answered: "Don't worry--another couple of days and they'll
start rolling in again." I can never forget this short conversation--never!
(Later, when we were escaping, this water-carrier yelled at me: "Kalmen,
Kalmen! Carry me! I've been hit! Carry me!" They were shooting
at us and he must have been hit. I showed him then the same consideration
he had expressed for the poor Jews brought in on the trains to the gas
The train commando came to sleep
in our barracks one night and they kept us awake all night. They were
so happy, they were in such high spirits. They thought that they had
cheated death -- it was only for others. They were in such good spirits
because their stomachs were full. They had had a feast and their pockets
were full too--with cookies, salami, and even whiskey. They had obtained
their "goodies" from the incoming Jews they had unloaded from
a train. Fine foods--rare under wartime conditions--were brought by
"Western" Jews from Holland and Germany. These foods were
usually in excellent condition, quite fresh. Such booty was obtainable
only from "western" transports; the trainloads from Poland
brought Jews who were generally in bad shape.
Some people are animals--they only
think of their full bellies. They can't see beyond their stomachs. That
water-carrier figured that he was working, he was being "productive,"
and his stomach was full--and that was it. He figured he was O.K.--he
had a future. He wouldn't share the fate of all the "others."
Human beings can be very foolish creatures. Many prisoners thought that
others would be gassed and burned, but not them. They were "special."
They could believe this even when death was staring them straight in
the face. And even those who were brought to be killed -- every single
one of them was hoping to survive, and they were looking for any small
sign that they would not be killed. Had they psychologically fully come
to accept the fact that they were destined for the gas chambers there
would have been more resistance. But the manner in which deportations
were carried out and the speed of the final "processing" prevented
them from realizing their true fate, or if they did realize it, it was
too late for real resistance.
In 1942 the Germans brought transport
after transport to Sobibor. Every couple of days transports came from
Holland, Germany, and even France. Jews who had been in labor or holding
camps there had been told that they were being resettled to other labor
or holding camps. These Jews came with their possessions--gold, money,
merchandise, medical equipment, etc. Russian and Polish Jews came with
nothing, but the western Jews came laden with baggage. And those western
Jews looked good too, wearing nice clothes, accessories, etc. Their
children still looked fresh and clean.
On two occasions I could have escaped.
A big forest fire broke out near Sobibor and they took us to put out
the fire. The Germans said that the partisans had started the fire.
The smoke was very thick. I was sent to get some sand. I was half a
kilometer away from the main group of prisoners; the smoke covered everything
and the area was heavily wooded. I wanted to take off and run, but then
I had qualms. Where could I hide? They would start a massive search
for me; they would search like that because they didn't want the "secret"
of Sobibor to get out. How far could I run before I tired? Remember--I
was weak. And, curled up in some hole, could I really fool the dogs
they would bring in? Anyhow, I became frightened and dropped the idea
Once I was taken to work outside
the camp with some other prisoners. Two Ukrainians guarded us. One Ukrainian
remained with 5 of us while the other went with the rest of the Jewish
prisoners to buy "schnapps." (whiskey) Those Jews, from the
train commando had gold which they had taken during the unloading process
on the arrival ramp. I told the 4 Jews with me: "Let's finish him
off and take off! We can overpower him easily." But they refused.
The Ukrainians were not completely
trusted by the SS. They weren't allowed near the sorting stations by
the railroad tracks, where there was, amongst many other things, gold
and gems. Jews of the train commando did have access to that gold and
gems, so they hid a piece of gold here, a gem there (all at the risk
of their own lives) and traded with the Ukrainians. This way they obtained
fine food, drinks, etc.
I once saw 4 of those train commando
Jews sitting and eating bread and butter, cakes, and other food. I was
extremely hungry. I begged them: "Please, fellows, give me a piece
of bread. Or half a piece." They answered: "Go to hell."
They refused me with such gross insults. They swore at me and cursed
me viciously. They were so full of confidence, those pigs. However,
after a time the Germans got wind of which Jews were trading with the
Ukrainians. Those Jews were soon taken away to the gas ovens.
Jews were always escaping and they
were always getting caught. They knew how to escape because Jews had
built the camp and knew every square centimeter of it. Jews had done
the wiring of the electrified fence. Those who tried to escape usually
did so at night. One friend of mine, a "chessler" (one
who builds houses with an axe) escaped at night and was never caught.
I often wonder what became of him.
One spring day in 1943 about 30
men of the Waldkommando (forest commando) were taken out, under
Ukrainian guards, to work. Later that day we saw the Ukrainians herding
a much smaller body of Jews back to the camp. The Jews were bloodied,
in bad shape. They were dragging many corpses with them. We were told
that two of the Jews, Kof and Podchlebnik, had asked for permission
to go to a nearby well and bring back water for their fellow prisoners.
This was around mid-day and the men were thirsty. When they got to the
well, they attacked the Ukrainian guard accompanying them, took his
weapon and ammunition, tossed him into the well, and took off. When
they didn't return with the water, the other Ukrainian guards became
suspicious and herded the remaining Jews together, under heavy guard,
until the matter would be clarified. These Jews understood what had
occurred; they knew that they were finished whatever would happen. When
one or two escaped from a group, the whole group was killed. So these
desperate Jews took off in all directions, the Ukrainian guards firing
at them and pursuing them.
Some of those Jews were said
to have successfully escaped. However, those who were caught alive
were brought back, tied up (hands and feet), sat down and ordered to
look straight ahead while they were savagely clubbed by the Ukrainians.
We were ordered to stand in a semi-circle and to watch the "spectacle";
we were also ordered to laugh loudly during the ordeal of our poor fellow
Jews. These unfortunates, however, had the courage to shout out, while
they were being tortured. One, a religious Jew, yelled: "The end
of the Hitlers is coming!" Another shouted: "Shma Yizroel!"
Then the Ukrainians shot them all; one unfortunate had to be shot 3
times before he died. The Ukrainians were foaming at the mouth as they
clubbed them. Sobibor was full of those Ukrainians, the henchmen of
the SS. For 2 or 3 months after this incident we were tormented and
abused even more than usual.
A group of Dutch-Jewish prisoners
hatched a plan to poison the Germans as a prelude to a mass escape.
They had their people working in the SS kitchen, so they were well placed
for such a plan. Many transports brought, amongst others, pharmacists,
and these pharmacists had been ordered to bring their supplies for "resettlement."
So those Dutch Jews had a good supply of poison which they had carefully
accumulated. I knew at an early point about this plot; we figured that,
having poisoned the Germans and Ukrainians, we would seize their arms
and escape into the woods. We'd be well supplied with ammunition and
food. However, at the last minute, somebody squealed on them. Sobibor
had all kinds of people -- the most noble human beings and the worst
scum, lower than animals. One of the scum must have alerted the Germans.
A few minutes before we were to
line up for food, a kapo came running in, yelling: "Don't
distribute the food!" And then we heard Wagner bellowing the "eintreten"
order. We looked apprehensively at each other, expecting the worst.
All of us were gathered in one place. Wagner ordered the Dutchmen to
step out; he took them by the hand and led them in a column to Lager
4, straight into the gas chamber. In an hour all 70 or 80 of our Dutch
fellow prisoners were dead. We were lucky; the squealer must have reported
that this was a Dutch plot--he obviously hadn't mentioned Polish Jews.
Many more of us would have been killed had the Germans known that we
were in on the plot or, at least, had foreknowledge of it. Wagner spared
only one Dutch Jew--a great artist. He used to make special paintings
for Wagner. The rest of them--gone! Forever.
Shlomo Elster, my friend and fellow-carpenter,
was very angry with me because I knew about this poisoning attempt and,
on the day it was to take place, I took him to work in a certain area
where there were supplies which I figured we would need "on the
outside." When the plan was discovered, Elster glared at me as
if he wanted to kill me with his eyes for involving him in this dangerous
business. After this failed attempt, we really received rough treatment--merciless
beatings, food deprivation, etc. We used to be able to rest after work,
but this was no longer permitted. We were chased all over the place.
For months the tension was very, very thick.
The commanding officer of Sobibor
was Oberscharf¸hrer Gustav Wagner. He was a terrible beast of
a man, a sadistic murderer who was instinctively smart. He was a very
cunning man; he seemed to have a sixth sense. One look at you and he
knew what you were thinking. He was lean, tall and very handsome.
We planned the uprising when Wagner was away on furlough. Sasha (Alexander
Pechersky), the leader of our uprising, said: "While Wagner is
here, we can't accomplish anything!" I'm sure that, had Wagner
been present when we revolted, not a single one of us would have survived.
Our plan would probably have never got off the ground. You could die
of fear just looking at Wagner's murderous face.
Given his thirst for Jewish blood,
I find one incident of my survival hard to explain. Once, Shlomo Elster
and I were ordered to erect a low, one-story Polish-style peasant house
with a straw roof. We were to use wood taken from dismantled Jewish
houses. The wooden boards were supposed to fit tightly together, with
no spaces between them. However, I left some spaces on the upper parts
of the walls; we didn't have a ladder, so we couldn't reach those areas
properly. Elster said, "Kalmen, you've been careless. We're going
to get into trouble." I replied, "To hell with you, Shlomo!
To hell with the SS! If I don't have the proper tools, how can I do
a decent job?"
When Wagner examined the job, he
noticed the spaces between the upper boards. He became very angry. His
eyes blazed wildly. He gave me 20 lashes, and beat me up severely --
before shoving me back into the barracks. I don't know how I survived
those 20 lashes. The next day he stalked into the barracks and shouted
at me: "Tishler, komm!" (Cabinet maker, come with me').
When he spoke like that, with that expression, usually he took the person
by the hand straight to the gas chamber. Every Jew knew that. That was
his habit. As we were walking he said to me, "Oder schaffen
oder die ÷fen." (Work or the gas oven). I was feverish, I couldn't
even talk. I was swollen all over, in a terribly battered condition.
However, when I heard Wagner's voice I suddenly came to my senses. He
took me over to the house we had built and said: "Fix those bad
spots! Now! Properly!" I started to work from sheer terror.
That terror drove the fever out of my body. Seeing death right before
my eyes caused me to work like mad, and I did the job properly. Why
Wagner let me live, why I received a second chance--this I cannot say.
I don't know.
Some prisoners were in continuous
pain from various untreated ailments and diseases. They received no
medicines -- nothing at all for their sickness. So prisoners were always
committing suicide. Some just broke mentally and took the suicide route
When food was given, it was handed
out according to a predetermined order. We would all line up for our
pathetic portion: a bit of erzatz (fake) coffee and 100 grams
of sawdust-like black bread. Suddenly we would hear a loud, bellowing
"Eintreten" (roll call) and we would have to run to
roll call and work. Many of us didn't have time to eat, and if anything
remained in our bowls it would be splashed out by the jostling and scurrying
that followed the "Eintreten" order. Prisoner existence
in Sobibor was conducted at a very rapid pace -- everything was hurry,
hurry, "schnell, schneller," interspersed with terrible
beatings. At 3:30 our work day would end. We would line up in fours
for roll call, then we would be chased by a kapo to our barracks
where we slept. The Germans would come into our camp to count us to
make sure that nobody had escaped. They knew who was no longer capable
of work; they had an eye open for such people, so they would "select"
them -- take them out, and sit them down to the side. They were then
ordered to lower their pants, and they were savagely beaten; they were
forced to count the strokes. And all of us were forced to look and laugh.
This went on day in, day out. They did the same to the Jewish women
too (we were 400 men and 200 women): They took them out and beat them
till they died.
The Jewish women prisoners at Sobibor
worked in the laundry and kitchen. Some tried to postpone their deaths
by using make-up (from incoming transports) to look more alive. Some
were great beauties and were lovers of kapos, who brought them
the finest delicacies to eat. Kapos had their own cubicles, and they
would bring their lovers there. One kapo was so dehumanized and beastly
that he entered the women's barracks to find a girl who had caught his
eye. He found her lying on a bunk with her mother beside her. The kapo
lowered his pants and jumped on the girl. The mother had to watch while
the kapo had his way with her daughter. Had the mother uttered
one word of protest, she would have been finished. When a kapo
brought food to one girl, she would usually share it with others. So
many of the women didn't look too bad. Some of the women, in their desperate
desire to look healthy and please "their" kapo, would
change clothes 3 or 4 times a day. Sobibor had no shortage of clothes,
all taken from the incoming transports. Kapos organized "parties"
in the women's barracks. Some women, however, simply could not shed
their morality, nor could they become close friends with those women
who prostituted themselves to the kapos. These principled women
suffered greatly; some of them looked like walking skeletons.
A kapo could, within certain
limits, issue orders just like the Germans or Ukrainians did, and the
ordinary Jewish prisoners were terrified of the kapos. If a Jew
didn't obey a kapo, that Jew was reported to the Germans who
soon took him away to his death. The kapos had limited but tremendous
powers. Within those limits they were all-powerful, and controlled the
lives and deaths of those unfortunates beneath them. There were some
good kapos, although most had become brutalized.
Every kapo had a group of
prisoners under him. The kapo was told by the Germans what to
package, how to wrap it, etc. The kapos then made sure that the
men under them carried out the orders properly. I was as afraid of my
kapo as he was of the SS. He carried a big whip, was well-dressed,
had his own room and a private life. He wore a special hat, like a chauffeur's
hat, with a small visor. The kapos were, in a sense, the foremen
of the enormous plant. SS men, going on furlough, took diamonds and
gold with them to "enrich" their visits with their loved ones.
They got these diamonds and the gold from the Jewish experts who were
responsible for sorting and packing it for shipment to Germany. Sometimes
these Jewish prisoner-experts threw unusually large diamonds into the
garbage -- they didn't want the Germans to get them. Many times my group
worked on furniture that was to be shipped to Germany. Only the Jews
actually worked. The Germans went around snooping for shirkers and weaklings.
Everywhere we worked the ultimate boss was an SS Oberscharf¸hrer;
the kapos had the right to go to the SS man when they needed
instructions, etc. When the SS man was called he came into the workshop
right away. They were very happy to come--it gave them something to
do and allowed them to look busy. They were bored between transports,
and they didn't want to be sent to the front. The arrival of a transport
galvanized these Germans into action--they came to life and all of their
sadism and savagery welled up. They lusted for those transports. When
no transports came, the Germans ordered the prisoners to plant trees
and flowers, build bathing areas for the SS, etc. There was always work
to be done.
Once a commission of investigators
(high-ranking SS men) came to inspect Sobibor. They were given a guided
tour of our hell. They were shown how spotlessly clean the barracks
and workshops were. Nobody was beaten that day. The high-ranking SS
men wore green dress uniforms and feathers in their hats. The kapos
were all dressed in civilian clothes with blue insignia. In our barrack
it was said that the visiting delegation was led by Himmler or Eichmann.
The delegation didn't spend much time in Sobibor, but while they were
there we were petrified with fear. We were afraid to look at those big
shots. Prisoners had been given certain prepared answers to questions
they would be asked. We were afraid that one of the Germans would approach
us and ask a question, and we would give the wrong answer. We knew that
we would be punished with the gas chamber for a wrong answer. We had
a tremendous inferiority complex; we thought that we, as Jews, belonged
to a level of life below that of animals. And we feared like the most
helpless cattle. The Germans had succeeded in depriving us of our self-image
as human beings, with the dignity that that entails. That was why the
revolt which later came was so important. Whether we would live or die,
we would at least regain our dignity as human beings. Our ringleaders,
Alexander Pechersky and Leon Feldhandler, restored us to the human race.
That alone was a great achievement.
The men's two barracks in Lager
I were separated from the women's barracks only by a kitchen building.
We could approach the women's barracks because the Germans didn't make
a point of hanging around our camp. They came for roll-calls, or for
some special investigation, or to take out a prisoner. But they generally
didn't loiter amongst us. I myself would go into the women's barracks
and beg for food, because some of them were well supplied with food
by "their" kapos. I was always tormented by hunger,
and some of those well-fed women used to have pity on me; I would
get a spoonful of jam here, a slice of bread there. Whatever I got was
precious to me because I could trade it for something else. As a carpenter
I was often moved around the camp, and this gave me the opportunity
Many SS men were present at the
roll calls. They went around with their whips and looked at people's
faces. When an SS man didn't like a prisoner's face, he took him out
of the line-up. Whoever had displeased an SS man, for one reason or
another, or no reason at all, was taken out. The SS men would shout,
"Let your pants down!" The other SS would join "the party,"
and they would beat the prisoner mercilessly. The blood would flow,
and we were strictly ordered to look at the scene attentively and laugh.
If a German saw that a Jew was not looking, the Jew would get beaten
too. The beaten Jews were thrown into the barracks after the beatings.
However, the next day they couldn't go to work -- they were in such
bad shape. They were then taken straight to the gas chamber. These incidents
happened almost every day. Women were not spared this treatment too.
I was confused then, as we all
were, but I soon learned that this one word Sobibor --was synonymous
with a corner of hell. A living hell. Sobibor was situated on a spur
of the Chelm--Wlodawa railway line, not far from Bludowa, a small shtetl.
The whole area was very heavily covered with enormous forests. The camp
was large in size; it covered about 6 square kilometers. It was surrounded
by electrified barbed wire, a strip of explosive mines, and a water-filled
ditch. At places there were 2 and 3 rows of this barbed wire. There
were watchtowers, with little cabins on top, at key points on the perimeter
of the camp. They were manned mostly by Ukrainians with machine-guns.
The barracks were built with lumber from Jewish houses that had been
demolished in that area. A railway track had been extended to the camp.
The camp was divided into sections.
The "vorlager" was the receiving and storage area.
The SS chiefs had their offices there, and the Ukrainians' barracks
were there too. There were storage rooms for Jewish shoes, luggage,
clothing, etc. all of which had been seized from incoming Jews. The
barbers who sheared the hair off Jewish women worked here too. There
were various sorting stations on the grounds too. We, the Jewish prisoners
who had been given a short reprieve, "lived" (if it can be
called that) in camp No. 1, which had various kitchens and workshops--tailors'
and shoemakers' shops, a saddle workshop, a carpenters' barracks (where
I worked), a blacksmiths' shop, a painting shop, etc. It was like a
big factory. We had every possible kind of craftsmen--jewelers, tailors,
shoemakers, etc. Jewish prisoners were in charge of shipping clothing
to Germany, repairing and shipping shoes, etc. The only things that
were unusable were the poor Jews who had worn those shoes and clothes--they
were "disposed of." But everything else was saved for the
Third Reich. Our area, camp No. 1, was fenced-off with barbed wire,
but this wire was not electrified. Camp No. 2 was for the SS beasts.
There was a checkpoint between our camp and the Germans' camp. Their
barracks were very neat, very proper, decorated with flowers. Valuables
were stored here -- silverware, jewels, etc. There was a stable, a pigsty
and a chicken coop in this area too. The fences were not all electrified.
Only the perimeter fences and those around Camp No. 2 were electrified.
The gassing and burning was done
in Camp No. 3. About 200 Jews lived permanently in that slaughterhouse,
but we had no contact with them. We weren't even allowed to look in
the direction of Camp No. 3. That slaughterhouse, Camp No. 3, was supposed
to be very secret. We were supposed to pretend that it didn't exist,
and that we were totally unaware of it. However, only a severely retarded
person could remain ignorant of what went on there. The smoke and the
smell said it all and we occasionally heard a terrified "Shma
Yizroel " echo over to us from there. A friendly kapo
once told me that, after the poor Jews had been gassed in the "showers,"
the floor would open up and the bodies would drop down, to be dragged
away by those prisoner-Jews for burning. The kapo told me that
one of the Jews there had seen his own wife's body in the tangled mass
of corpses. Many Jews resisted and had to be beaten into the gas chamber.
The kapo told me that the healthier Jews took longer to die from
the gas. They suffered more.
Once a group of Jews was working
near the death camp; as part of their job they were moving cement or
mortar in little wagons. A couple of wagons rolled down a slope into
the death camp area. Some of the Jews ran down there to retrieve the
wagons. Those Jews never returned from there. They were swallowed up
by the big "secret". All Jews who worked near the death camp
area were scared stiff.
After our work was over, at 3:30,
we were chased back into our Camp No. 1, where we waited for the SS
man Karl Franzl to come and count us at roll call. He was a fat sadist.
Once I spoke to a fellow-prisoner who had been ordered to help prepare
Franzl's valises before he went on a furlough. The prisoner told me
that Franzl's valises were full of Jewish gold, diamonds, etc. -- enough
so that his children's children would never have to work for a living.
This Franzl was responsible for our roll calls. After we were counted,
we were given a bit to eat and our day was over.
I was once sent to do some carpentry
work in an empty barracks. I was weak and demoralized; I didn't intend
to work more than I had to. Nobody was around, so I figured that I could
take it easy. A Jew with a sallow, yellowish complexion poked his head
into the barracks and saw me loafing. He ran straight over to Wagner
and squealed on me. He wanted to become a kapo, and he figured
that reporting me would show how strict and avid he was. I cannot explain
what happened, but Wagner took this squealer by the arm and led him
straight to the death camp. That was the end of the squealer, but to
this day I can't understand why Wagner behaved that way.
I saw, on one occasion, a group
of new arrivals: Western, refined-looking Jews who had been fed and
told that they were in a work camp. They were sat down at a table and
ordered to write letters or cards to their relatives and friends back
home. They were told to reassure their relatives and friends and tell
them that they were in a work camp where the food was good and the conditions
were reasonable. They wrote these letters and cards, some of them writing
with a flourish, searching for "poetic" expressions, signing
their names with verve and dash. Right after writing those letters they
were taken out for "showers", gassed and burned. This happened
many times, but once I myself saw them seated at long tables and writing
away. Those letters and cards were diabolically designed by the Germans
to make their task of rounding up Jews easier.
Many times big transports of Jews
arrived from Russia. These Jews were unlike their Dutch or German brothers
in that they knew where they were going. They had no illusions, so they
resisted. They would throw themselves on the Germans when they were
unloaded from the trains, and they had resisted before they were caught.
So, after a while, the Germans instituted a "refinement":
the Jews in the Russian transports were moved completely naked to Sobibor.
They undressed them to make their escape more difficult; being naked,
those Jews couldn't conceal weapons in their clothing. Some tried to
bolt from the unloading ramp and fight the SS, but without weapons their
cause was utterly hopeless. The Germans, who used a degree of "relative
gentleness" on the unloading ramp in dealing with Dutch and German
Jews, changed their tactics for the Russian Jews: they beat them continuously
and viciously the moment the train doors were opened. They slashed at
these Jews as they herded them towards the gas chambers. Some of the
Russian Jews were yelling "Shma Yizroel, Shma Yizroel!"
And then their cries became fainter and fainter and fainter.
Every day brought new horrors.
I remember when the Germans even arranged a "wedding" of two
Jewish prisoners. This was a complete wedding celebration, with rabbis,
festivities, music, etc. They picked a Jewish singer dancer from France
as the chief soloist at the festivities. Ach, did she sing! So beautifully,
and with such expression! The Germans had prepared this wedding celebration
for their own grotesque propaganda purpose. They filmed the wedding
completely, and right afterwards all the participants, including the
French soloist, were taken to the gas chamber.
You had to watch who you spoke
to, even amongst the Jewish prisoners, or else you could end up in the
gas chamber. The train kommando prisoners were in better shape
the than rest of us and many of them thought they would live forever.
It was dangerous to talk to some of them--they were terrific squealers.
They went around looking for somebody to squeal on. There was one Oberkapo
from Berlin (we called him "Berliner") who spoke an excellent,
refined German. He was about 40 years old, and did not have the emaciated,
hang-dog look of the rest of us. He thought that he would be spared
because of his excellent German, a sign of his "enracination"
in the great German "culture." When Oberst Franzl went
on a furlough, this kapo thought that his chance had come --
he would show Franzl how devoted he was, how efficient! If he saw a
straw in the wrong place, he beat the nearest Jew mercilessly. He caused
many Jews to be sent to the gas chambers. He was so bad and so sadistic
that, believe it or not, the other kapos got together and jumped
him. They beat him terribly, and all the while he was yelling that he
would change his ways and become "good." His cries, however,
didn't help him; he was beaten to death. It took 2 hours of steady beating
to kill him. And when Franzl returned he didn't even ask for him, or
about him. Franzl never inquired what had happened to his zealous helper.
We prisoners could breathe a little easier now that the Berlin kapo
Once, during winter, in the middle
of the night, we were woken up by an "einteten" (roll
call) order. Although it was very cold at that time, we didn't have
time to grab our miserable shoes. There were many SS men with whips
waiting for us, and they started to beat us continually. They beat us
in shifts--when a group of SS men became tired, they were replaced by
fresh "beaters." This beating went on for the rest of the
night, and we didn't know why we were being beaten like that. Later
on we found out that partisans operating in the area had tried to establish
contact with some of us. The Germans thought that the partisans intended
to break into Sobibor and rally the Jews to their side, so they beat
us to discourage any thought of resistance. After this night time winter
beating many Jews died--they must have caught pneumonia from the cold,
or they must have gone into shock. We were, after all, a bloodied mass
after this beating. Something must have been going on around the camp,
because I heard the sounds of much motorized movement in the area then.
I remember one incident when the
Germans didn't like the fact that a certain enormous tree had some branches
hanging over the electric wires around the camp. A work party of Jewish
prisoners was organized to cut the tree down. One of those prisoners
was Babyulis, a stocky, tough Russian Jew. He was Sasha's (Pechersky's)
friend. He was ordered to climb the tree to the very top and lean in
a certain way so that the tree, when cut, would fall in the desired
direction. Two Jews were put to work cutting through the enormous tree
trunk with a big saw. They cut and cut and the tree fell straight onto
the wires. Babyulis, who survived the fall, was beaten so badly by the
Germans that his whole body was a mass of raw flesh. Then the Nazi beasts
threw him back into the barracks. Although we were particularly short
of food then (no transports had arrived for a while), we all chipped
in with part of our food rations and fed Babyulis till he could recover
and return to work. He was one of Sasha's key men in organizing and
carrying out the uprising, but he didn't survive the revolt. Incidentally,
a number of other Jews were killed when they were ordered to the tops
of trees. When the trees came crashing down, those poor unfortunates
were killed. The Germans regarded this as "entertainment."
Once something happened in the
women's area--perhaps they weren't working properly there, or something
like that. Some of them worked at shipping Jewish shoes, cosmetics and
fabrics to Germany, others repaired clothing, and others worked in the
camp laundry or kitchen. They had various functions. There were piles
and piles of gold at Sobibor -- all this had to be sorted and packed.
It was now the "holy" property of the Third Reich, and some
women worked on these piles. Something must have gone wrong, however,
because the Germans took some young, beautiful girls, undressed them
completely, bound their hands and feet, and beat them mercilessly. We
had to look at the beating, listen to the pathetic shrieking and crying
of the girls, and laugh out loud. Some of those beaten girls were led
to the extermination camp afterwards.
The key event in our lives, and
the reason that I am alive today to write this memoir, is an event that
took place in September of 1943: the arrival at Sobibor of Alexander
Pechersky (Sasha). Sasha, a Soviet-Jewish Prisoner-of-War, had been
shipped to Sobibor from a Minsk work camp. He was an educated man, and
had been an officer in the Red Army. When his transport came
to Sobibor, the Germans asked if any of the prisoners were "schreiners"
or "tischlers" (carpenters or cabinet-makers), and Sasha,
a tall man, said that he was a carpenter. Although he knew nothing about
carpentry, he saved his life by lying at that time. The Germans took
him and some others out of the mass of arriving prisoners, doomed to
death, and threw them into our barracks. Sasha had thrown away his officer
papers and insignia, because had the Germans known that he was a Soviet
officer they would have disposed of him immediately. The Germans killed
educated people and officers first, with the political commissars.
One of us, Leon Feldhandler, the
son of a Rabbi, had been in Sobibor for close to a year. The transports
to Sobibor had virtually stopped, and Feldhandler figured that the
camp and every single eyewitness-prisoner would be wiped off the face
of the earth. He had organized a team, composed largely of shop-chiefs,
and they were plotting to escape from the hell that was Sobibor. Feldhandler
was excited by Sasha's arrival, because he saw that Sasha and his friends
were POWs (Prisoners of War). They had military experience. They knew
all about guns, bullets, etc. They would not be squeamish about hand-to-hand
combat. Feldhandler, however, was no fool. First he had to sound Sasha
out--see how he reacted, etc., and find out what kind of a man this
Sasha got to know us after several
days, so he told us about all his experiences. He had confidence in
us and saw that he could trust us, so he confessed that he was not a
carpenter. He told us that he needed our help--he had to be given jobs
where his ignorance wouldn't show. The Germans generally weren't around
the workshops--they came in only occasionally. So we could cover-up
for a man if we really wanted to. Sasha didn't want the Germans to notice
his ignorance. He said: "Boys, if I survive, we're going to pull
something off here!" Sasha got to know us very well, because he
made it his business to get to know as many prisoners as he could. He
wanted to find out who the squealers were. He set a task for himself:
to study Sobibor as methodically as he could. Action would come later.
We were all very impressed with
this Sasha. He radiated an air of command and control. Since Sasha spoke
no Yiddish, Feldhandler communicated with him via an intermediary, Leitman,
a cabinetmaker who worked in our shop. He was originally from Warsaw,
and had been shipped to our camp from the Minsk work camp, where he
had met Sasha and become his friend. Leitman became Sasha's interpreter,
since Sasha spoke only Russian and a bit of German. Sasha's right-hand
man was another Soviet POW, Boris Tsibulski, a husky, strong former
So Sasha first studied Sobibor
methodically. Remember: what went on in Camp No. 3 was the big "secret."
Nobody was supposed to know of it, or even hear of it. But Sasha soon
learned the truth. Feldhandler made sure of that. He told Sasha all
about the kapo talk and the notes that had been smuggled out of that
Sasha said it would take time till
we'd get to know "our" people--those who could be trusted.
He told us to get to know personally as many Jews as possible, especially
kapos. He told us, in very general terms, what he had in mind. He warned
us: one slip and we'd all be dead. The plan would never get off the
ground. He told us not to discuss anything about it with anybody.
The plan was as follows: The uprising
was to take place in a one hour period around the time of roll-call
(4:30 P.M.). The German SS men would be killed off, one by one, using
trickery and deception. They would be lured into the workshops under
some pretext. They would have to be killed without a sound, and in a
limited time period. If their absence would be noted, that would be
the end of our plan. We would line up at 4:30, as usual, for the roll
call. Things would have to move fast because after we were counted the
Germans lined up in their camp and were counted too, so the absence
of any of them would cause a general alarm to be sounded. The idea was
that our kapos would march us through the gate manned by Ukrainians.
This would be unusual, but the Ukrainians, seeing the kapos "in
control," would be confused long enough to allow our men to pass.
Another group of prisoners, myself amongst them, had "prepared"
the fence near the carpentry and smith workshops -- we had cut the electrified
wire, hidden the pieces, determined the mine-free areas, etc. We would
break out through the fence. The telephone wire to the camp would also
be cut and the pieces hidden. We knew there were no spare parts in the
camp to make quick repairs to the phone line.
All of the time spent in preparing
the uprising was marked by silence; we couldn't breathe a word about
it to anybody. Our leaders, Feldhandler and Sasha, had 5-7 immediate
associates. They were in on the planning and had key tasks assigned
to them. They controlled 30-40 other prisoners who had lesser assignments
to carry out. I had a cousin, Kramer, from Benkeh, an intelligent and
refined person. He was one of the 30-40 who were in on the actual execution
of the uprising. Sasha surrounded himself with refined people, not gross
types. Many of the other prisoners only found out about the uprising
during the hour preceding the actual events, when we had to distribute
the knives that had been so carefully hidden and sharpened. Anything
that could serve as an arm had been prepared; every piece of metal was
precious. The soil was very sandy in Sobibor, so it was relatively easy
to hide weapons. And the Germans weren't really suspicious because they
never imagined that such pathetic, skeleton-like terrorized prisoners
could do anything. Some Germans even walked around Sobibor without carrying
arms. The place was so "secure" and full of their own Ukrainian
murderers that they felt they had absolutely nothing to fear.
It was absolutely necessary to
have certain key kapos in on the plan. They could move masses
of men around, they had the authority to do certain essential things,
and their leadership could provide us with a few vital, extra minutes
by confusing the Ukrainian guards. There was a one-eyed kapo
from Warsaw--Porzyczki, a tall fellow. He was a brutal kapo with murderous
instincts. And yet he played an important role in the uprising. Sasha
had determined that, bad as he was, Porzyczki was not a squealer. He
had never informed on anybody. (The Berliner kapo I spoke of
earlier was an informer. I think the other kapos killed him because
I remember the day of our revolt
clearly--October 14, 1943. We prayed in our barracks because it was
Succot, the Feast of Tabernacles, a holy festival in the Hebrew
calendar. Of course, we did this praying in secret, in the dark as we
had done on Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashana.
When the time came, Jews at various
workplaces had to be given the signal that the kapo was to go
call the German--that meant that the men and weapons were all ready
to finish him off. Knives and axes were mostly used. One German was
choked to death in the shoemakers' workshop because we wanted no loud
gunshots to be heard. As each German was lured into a workshop and killed,
his pistol was taken and given to one of our organizers. However, the
Germans and Ukrainians only carried 5 bullets each.
Sasha wasn't sure of one kapo,
Spitz, so in the hour preceding the uprising he spoke to him and told
him that he had better be with us. He was watched very carefully from
that point on. Two of our people were assigned to watch Spitz carefully.
One false move, one yell, and he would have been suffocated. This kapo
had noticed that something was going on; he saw that prisoners had become
very nervous and were whispering to each other, etc. It was imperative
that he be "supervised", and so he found himself surrounded
Many kapos had richly deserved
reputations as cruel beaters but when the time came they were in on
the uprising with all of us. I remember Bunyem, a short, stocky kapo.
He used to beat people terribly' But when the hour of decision came,
he was with us in carrying out the uprising. There were many like him.
One Jew's permanent work assignment
was to supervise the electric wires around the camp. He had been an
electrician in pre-war days. He was in on the uprising with us, so he
was given a special signal to cut the flow of electric current. Everybody
had his own signal--a spit or a word or a certain hand signal--which
launched him into action. These signals were all kept very, very secret.
That electrician had a complex role to play during the uprising because
he not only cut the wires but he had to scatter the pieces and hide
them well, leaving the remaining wire in an irreparable condition. The
barbed wire was treated the same way. We were surrounded by 3 rows of
electric wires and a rivulet, so you can see what a task that electrician
One German, Sergeant Greischutz,
used to come in to the shoemakers' shop near the end of the working
day to get his shoes shined. He had to bend over in a certain way while
his shoes were being shined, so various Jews were assigned the task
of finishing him off. He was killed with one blow, one Jew had the responsibility
of mopping up the blood, and others were given the job of getting rid
of the body. That was easy, because there were mountains of shoes in
that shop. Ten bodies could have been hidden in those mountains. Of
course, many Germans could not be lured into our work area and they
provided the greatest obstacle to our uprising.
Just after the uprising, I was
in the woods with a 12 man group. One of them was a tailor, and he told
me what had happened in the tailors' shop. Oberst Johny Neimann
was the supervisor of the gas chambers where hundreds of thousands of
Jews were killed. Neimann used to ride around the camp on a horse, and
a Jewish 13 year old boy was responsible for the care of this horse.
He had to feed and groom him, etc. Our tailors used to make "special
order" coats for the SS men. Neimann had ordered a coat so he was
told to come for a try-on, a fitting. He rode up on his horse to the
tailors' shop. There were 12-13 men working there and the kapo said:
"Herr Oberst, the coat will not fit you because your revolver
is sticking out- we can't fit you well with such a bulge." So Niemann
took off his gun belt with the revolver and hung it up. While he was
trying the coat on, they turned him around in a certain direction. Right
away they gagged his mouth, took his revolver, and cracked his skull
with one smashing blow of an axe. His body was dumped in a massive pile
of clothing, in a hollowed-out place specially prepared beforehand.
(After the war the Poles said that the Germans had searched for Niemann
for 2 weeks till they found his corpse.) The Jews were worried about
the horse outside, but the 13 year old boy, its caretaker, went out
and slapped it on its rear and it galloped off to the stables.
So, by 4:30, the wire was down
and many key Germans, those who were used to circulating in our area,
had been wiped out. We had foreseen that 200-300 Jews would be killed
during the breakout, but we were mentally prepared for the high human
cost because we were very, very desperate people. We know that the Germans
had sentenced us all to death sooner or later, and we had survived up
to that point against all odds, so our number would soon be up. Casualties
had no meaning for us because we were all dead men anyhow, and we knew
Our uprising was carried out while
Wagner was away on a furlough. Our commanders had planned it that way,
because Wagner was clearly the smartest of the Germans. He would have
sniffed out the fact that something was in the air. Wagner was almost
a mind reader; he could look at a Jew and know his thoughts. Sasha was
afraid that Wagner would have caught on.
Shloime Elster and I were given
knives for our pockets. They taught me how to cut the wire properly.
At the gate there was a Ukrainian guard-post, and some Jews had the
job of blowing it up. So we were marching back to our barracks area,
the kapos with their whips in the air, and we all sang as we
usually did. We were lined up in rows. Oberst Franzl had to come, as
usual, to count us; he would have been eliminated right there, but he
never came. Of all the survivors, I am the only one to state the following:
I saw Franzl march over to our camp. He stopped at the fence, looked
in, and turned right around and walked away. Franzl had never been one
minute late, and now he just turned away. He obviously had suspected
something. We, who were about 400 in number, were waiting to be joined
by 200 men who were to be marched in from Camp 2.
When we saw the 200 prisoners join
us, somebody yelled "Hoorah NaStalinya" and this cry
was taken up by others. Stalin was our God then; every Jew looked to
Stalin as his savior. First one man, then 20 men, and finally many,
many others shouted "Hoorah NaStalinya." The cry spread
like wildfire. This was the signal, and everybody took off in a mad
dash for freedom. Some headed for the gate, while others, myself included,
made for the fence near the workshops. The plan for an orderly march-out
past the gate manned by the Ukrainians was obviously forgotten. I was
later told by a survivor, now in Israel, that he saw Franzl by the gate,
on one knee, firing at the escaping Jews and mowing them down like grass.
We had left ladders in the weeds
near the fence, and we ran helter-skelter to those ladders. Some of
us dragged the ladders up against the fence, and as we scrambled up
the ladders the fence was weighed down, making it easier for those who
followed. Meanwhile, there was a mad mixture of sounds--shooting, shouting,
cries and groaning. We ran like panicked animals, heading across a field
to the thick forest. I saw some of our people turn, drop to one knee,
and fire directly at the enemy. Others fell like flies from the bullets
which were whizzing through the air around us. A friend of mine was
yelling to me: "Kalmen, save me, please, I've been hit, I've been
hit!" Who could stop and help anybody? We were obsessed with getting
away, reaching that forest escaping from that hell that was Sobibor.
After what seemed like an eternity,
but was really only a few minutes, the trees grew larger and with my
last breaths I ran headlong for them. Where I got the strength to run
like that I'll never know. And then--finally--I was in the trees. Sobibor
was behind me.
I was free.