There was a pause in the 'Transports'.
Within the camp, there was a period of building and expansion. The two barbed-wire fences which led from the undressing area to the gas-chambers were now hidden by shrubs which had been planted along the length of the fences, so that the people walking along there naked, couldn't see what was going on around them, and they themselves couldn't be seen by others. Along the railway line, a platform was built, and at the same time a spur line for wagons was laid through Compound Two into Compound Three. Close to our barracks, in a barn which at one time had been used for the storage of farm produce, a new barrack-block for workers was built. In front of the gas-chamber - of which only the roof could be seen because the rest of it was hidden by the trees of the forest - three buildings were erected. As far as we could judge, the Germans were significantly increasing the destructive capacity of the camp. The extension of the electricity and illumination network also indicated that the 'murder-machine' was going to be operated day and night, twenty-four hours a day.
In the meantime, in the absence of 'Transports', we sensed that our value to the Germans had increased. They had stopped shooting us for no reason, each day. There was much 'work' and they needed us. One Sunday, in the afternoon, Wagner came into our barracks in a good mood, registered all our personal details, with much courtesy and patience - name, age, place of birth, and so on - making barbed comments and asking sarcastic questions such as: When were you born? Where were you born? Why were you born? When he asked me my name and I told him Berel, he refused to accept it and after thinking for a moment and searching for an alternative, said:
I'm registering you as 'Boris', O.K?
Of course, I agreed.
When Wagner went away, we immediately got together and began to discuss the reason for the detailed registration. There was a feeling that somehow the process had granted us some kind of status, and there were those who saw in it a cessation of the extermination process. It was a fact that for over a fortnight, no 'Transport' had arrived at Sobibor......and who knows, perhaps the Germans are going to send us to work in Germany?
It was a passing illusion. The truth was quite the opposite. The work of expansion of the camp was evidence of the fact that the programme of extermination was broadly based. There was also no chance that the Germans would allow us to remain alive. We knew, that apart from the SS, no person entering Sobibor, ever left the place alive.
A convoy of carts loaded with bricks arrived at the camp. We were ordered to haul them into the compound, unload them and take them outside again to where the Polish owners were waiting for them. The Germans were standing guard over us all the time, in case we tried to talk with the Poles. Sometimes, when the Germans brought people dressed in civilian clothes into the camp, we knew that if they were blindfolded they had a chance to get out; if not they were taken to the 'lazarette' and shot. The Germans allowed no one who saw the goings on in the camp, to leave alive.
During the interim period, when there were no 'Transports', there was a slight change in the atmosphere in the camp. For that period our lives were not completely abandoned to the usual murderous cruelty; the Germans and Ukrainians were no longer allowed to kill us indiscriminately - they could do so only by reason of sickness or injury (there were no sick people at Sobibor; when it became known to the Germans that someone was ill, they killed him the same day). Moreover every execution now required the express authorization of Wagner or Frenschel, or other senior commander. The fact that we had stopped witnessing the sight of thousands of people led to their deaths every day, also helped us to feel a little bit more alive. That same period too, our togetherness as a group became more firmly established. In the evenings we would sit together, getting to know each other better and learning to support one another. Even the 'Kapos', at the end of the day's work became more human and inclined to help. 'Governor-General' Moisheh would occasinally burst into tears and beg our forgiveness for the things he did, promising that from then on he wouldn't touch a single one of us, even if the Germans ordered him to do so. (The following day he would start beating us indiscriminately again). I felt a real sense of belonging to the men among whom I dwelt, as if we were one family.
Even though we weren't actually being indiscriminately killed during the building work, the Germans didn't stop abusing us, each time reaching new limits. When a convoy of building material occasionally arrived, we would be called to unload them - even after a long hard day of our normal work. For unloading the bricks, the whole camp formed two long lines - from the wagons to the point where they needed to be used and the bricks passed from hand to hand. In the beginning it was a slow process and even so there were those who managed to miss their grip and drop a brick while transferring it. When that happened, Frenschel and Wagner shouted and screamed, beating the culprit unmercifully; Frenschel warned us, that whoever dropped a brick would get twenty lashes. After a while the routine of the work caught on and we began to work more efficiently. Then Wagner suddenly jumped up on to the wagon and began to urge the men to work faster, shouting:
The bricks flew from hand to hand with increasing speed until the row of men worked like a machine - all the hands caught the bricks and passed them on in unison, all the heads moved from side to side as one; back and forth; back and forth, without pause. How long could one maintain such a high state of concentration, with injured hands trying to hold onto the rough bricks and in growing pain? The Germans stood and looked at the Jews, working like a machine, but Wagner was dissatisfied with the increased tempo of the work - he, himself began to hand the bricks on and the tempo became even greater, so much so, that the brain could no longer cope with the rhythm; the hands and eyes continued to function in coordination for another few seconds and then we lost control completely - the bricks began to fly in all directions, the hands couldn't catch them and they fell on all parts of the body. There was complete confusion. In a matter of seconds, all along the line from the wagons, up to the point where they were being stacked, bricks were lying all over the ground. The Germans fell upon us in a rage. Not one of us escaped a beating. There were those who received twenty-five lashes and those who were bitten by the dog.
On another day, wagons loaded with cement and prefabricated parts of huts arrived. We unloaded the cement - each one was about fifty-kilograms - and ran with them about thirty-metres. My weak body strained itself to the utmost to run the distance with the bag of cement on my back, when Gomerski appeared and decided that fifty-kilograms was too light a load for me and ordered two bags of cement loaded onto my back. The tremendous weight bore down on me intolerably. My whole body was shaking; my muscles were stretched to their limits. I felt that if I tried to take one step my whole body would just explode and I'd collapse under the bags. But somehow, with hidden strength, which came to me from I don't know where, I staggered forward with the load on my back, Gomerski walking alongside, waiting for me to collapse.
After the cement, came the prefabricated parts. Frenschel was in charge of that operation. The sections were very heavy and he it was who decided how many men were necessary to carry each one. Because of my low stature, I sometimes failed to reach high enough to support my share of the load, and I had to stretch up on tip-toe in order to do so. The roof, which was the heaviest part, was carried by six people. Once, when the roof was already resting on our shoulders, Frenschel stood two of the men to one side, so that only four of us were carrying it. He then climbed on top of the roof himself and thus we carried him to the site.
The building of the platform was under the charge of Stoibel and Getzinger. The work was very hard: the transfer of sand and hard-core, in buckets and wheel-barrows was exhausting and heavy. But for the Germans this wasn't enough. Stoibel took the 'Grabowitzer', the one who had been made to shave only half his face each day - and forced him to act like a dog, all day long. Walking on all fours, barking and snapping at people's legs. It was an awful sight to see: the tall thin man, running around all day on all fours, while Stoibel stood by, shouting at him: Dog! Catch him!
The Germans' cruelty knew no bounds. One day, after sorting out the victims' belongings and removing the last parcels and packages, an umbrella was found stuck in the cross-beams of the roof. Paul Grot, who was in charge of us, ordered one of the men to climb up and get it down. The roof was about six metres high. The man climbed up one of the side supports, reached the cross-beam and began to move along towards the middle, hanging by his hands, to where the umbrella was hanging. He moved slowly and got half-way there, where his strength gave out, or possibly his hands slipped and he wasn't quick enough to recover his grip - and he fell. It wasn't bad enough that he had been injured by his fall; he was further punished with twenty-five lashes from Paul and some bites from Bari. The whole thing amused Paul immensely and he first sent for Oberscharf?hrer Mischel and then some other Germans, and told them that there were 'parachutists' among the Jews.
Now everyone was commanded, one after the other, to climb the column, cross the beam hand-over-hand, and climb down the pole on the other side. The younger ones managed to climb up, across and down without much difficulty. I managed quite quickly and safely, and Paul ordered me to do it again. But many slipped and lost their grip, falling down to the ground, getting injured and bitten by Bari.
Paul entered into a period of ecstatic cruelty. The open-sided barn was teeming with mice and he ordered us to catch them - everyone was forced to catch two. He took five men and ordered them to tie their trousers round their ankles and stand to attention in a straight line. When everyone had caught his mice and was holding them, we had to put them in the trousers of the five men who were standing to attention.
The men were unable to stand still with tens of mice running around inside their trousers. They wavered, jumped around and even cried.
Their faces betrayed their suffering in no uncertain terms. But Paul screamed at them:
Stand to attention! Don't move!
He beat them terribly, allowing the dog to savage them as well.
That same day, we did hardly any work. It was impossible to work in the conditions created by Grot that day. Afterwards, Paul called the 'rag-man' - the one he had nicknamed 'Ivan the Terrible', and instructed 'The Preacher' - Oberscharf?hrer Mischel, who was in charge of the medicine store, to bring a number of bottles from the store. When he returned, they forced their victim to drink from one of the bottles. He drank with a grimace on his face. Then, they ordered him to drink the liquid in the second bottle. He took one sip and started to shout to Paul in Yiddish: Shoot me! Shoot me! I won't drink! I can't!
Paul whipped the man and shouted at him:
Drink - or I'll beat you to death!
The man drank the contents of the whole bottle, stood to attention for a minute or two. His face turned yellow then he suddenly staggered and fell in a heap on the ground.
Paul shouted at him and beat him. The man didn't move or react. The German ordered someone to bring a bucket of water which was poured all over him but he continued to lie there like a stone without moving. We were all sure that 'Ivan the Terrible' was dead.
The time came to return to our barracks at the end of work. Paul told us to lay 'Ivan the Terrible' on a board and to four of us to carry him on our shoulders, funeral-style, at a slow march. All of us had to sing a funeral song. All the way back we sang Chopin's Funeral March.
'Ivan the Terrible' was sunk in a deep, coma-like sleep. All our efforts to awaken him were in vain. At evening Appell, 'Governor-General' Moisheh reported to the German officer in charge on the absence of one of us. The German angrily asked why the man hadn't appeared for Appell and Moisheh answered that the man was drunk. The German went crazy:
What? a Jew drunk? And Moisheh explained that he had been made to drink by Oberscharf?hrer Paul.
Oberscharf?hrer Schiet was a man who loved order. He couldn't come to terms with the fact that a man was absent from parade because Paul had forced him to drink and ordered him brought to the parade ground, whatever his condition. He was brought and laid on the ground in front of Schiet. He examined him from all angles and tried to wake him up. and when he was unsuccessful in this ordered him taken back to the barracks. This time we were sure that the man was dead, but an hour later, he woke up. We gave him some water to drink and the following day he was quite normal.
A few days later Oberscharf?hrer Mischel sent me with a parcel to Paul's room. On the threshold Bari lay sprawled out. I was filled with fear and didn't know what to do. Paul could see that I was scared and called out to me:
Don't be afraid, he won't touch you. Come. Come in.
When I handed him the parcel he thanked me, and as I turned to go, he told me to wait. He went to the table, cut two slices of bread, spread them with butter and laying two slices of sausage-meat on them handed them to me, saying:
Eat, it's good!
I was completely flabbergasted.
The Germans' method apparently, was to give us no rest; to work us and abuse us without pause, in order to exhaust us so completely that we would have neither physical nor mental energy to spare to think about where we were, what we were doing, or what awaited us. In our own spare time, after work, they made us march around, learn songs or gave us punishment exercises. On Sunday afternoons they would come to our compound and make us dance to the music of a band they had formed out of our own people. Not for one moment did they leave us in peace - they took every moment of our lives away from us -.and in the end, our lives as well......
And for all that we were not exhausted to the point of stupidity or beyond the ability to think. Thus was born in us, and we began to discuss, the idea of escape. The fact that the man whom we had hidden in the wagon had succeeded in escaping from the camp proved that the thing was, at least, possible - even though we didn't know of the ultimate result of his attempt. The longing for escape spread throughout the camp like an infectious plague - each with his own thoughts on how to accomplish his aim, everyone whispering of his secrets to a selected few of his friends - except that it was a long way between the thought, and the deed. In truth, no one had the slightest idea, in practical terms, how to organize a successful escape.
One of us, whose name was Haim, had been nicknamed by the Germans 'Der Zimmermann' because he was an excellent builder with wood. He was about forty years old and had belonged to the communist underground, spending quite a few years in Polish prisons. He began to speak in confidence to some friends about organizing a mass escape. At the same time the Germans began laying a mine-field round the perimeter of the camp - in addition to the barbed-wire fences, the moat and the watch-towers - and everyone knew that with the completion of the work, escape would be much more difficult. One evening, when I went to the toilet, I saw there 'Der Zimmermann' with his young assistant - the two were always together, both during work and in their spare time - and to my surprise he came up to me and said:
Bereleh, we're going to escape from the camp tonight. I'm sorry, I tried to organize a general escape, but realised that it wouldn't work. There's no one to speak with here. In a few days, when they've finished laying the mine-field, escape will be virtually impossible. So I've decided to go now, together with my partner. We're relying on you not to tell anyone you've seen us.
I listened to all this, nodding my head in agreement. When I went outside I was so stunned that I could hardly think straight. Only very slowly did the information sink in. I began to ask myself what they had been doing in the lavatories and why had they confided this dangerous secret to me, when all of a sudden I had a thought: what a fool I was! The toilets were close to the fence so the two of them had clearly planned their escape from there! Why hadn't I asked them if I could join them?
The man had told me about the escape presenting me with the opportunity to ask him that very question, and perhaps now he was afraid that I would let their secret out.
My heart began to thump. I returned to the toilets but there was no one there. Neither did I find them in the bunk-house. I couldn't imagine that they had already escaped and waited for them by the entrance. After waiting for an hour I came to the conclusion that I was never going to see them again.
I went to bed but couldn't fall asleep. I was so tense; my ears straining for the slightest sound - shouts, or shooting, but I heard nothing. Had they succeeded in escaping? Had they been shot breaking out or had they been captured alive?
Time passed and all around silence. Apparently they had got away!
And I, fool that I am, hadn't understood the man's immediate intentions and hadn't asked to join them. They would almost certainly have taken me with them! I had missed a rare chance to escape from the camp - perhaps one which would never return.
In the morning, many Germans came to the parade ground for Appell, all of them armed with sub-machine guns. The atmosphere was tense. Nobody new what was happening and became afraid - perhaps they were going to kill us all? Wagner took command of the roll-call parade. 'Governor-General' Moisheh counted us several times and replied to Wagner that two men were missing. The Germans counted us again, then discussed the situation among themselves for a minute or two. Eventually, Wagner turned to face us saying:
Last night two criminals tried to escape from the camp but we caught them and shot them on the spot. As a punishment, we are now going to execute every fifth man among you. If it happens again - we'll kill you all!
Wagner and Frenschel moved along the rows choosing the victims. In the dead silence you could hear again and again the words: You, out! You, out! - and the men stepped out without a sound, as if they had simply been chosen for some task or other. One of them couldn't grasp that he had been selected and asked in some surprise: What me? and the German said, Yes, you! And the man stepped out to join the rest.
Wagner and Frenschel had arrived at my row. Within seconds I would know my fate.....The Germans moved along the line, getting closer. They ordered somebody out...now they're next to me...looking at me......and passing by with a slow step. Fate has decreed that I should stay alive - for the time being.
Those selected to die were stood in a row facing us. Not one of the victims uttered a word. Not one of them cried. Only their faces were as white as chalk, a few of them even had a bitter, painful smile. Men, who until moments ago were together with us, part of us and our lives, like us, upon whom fate had forced this encounter with hell, are now going to die. Of course, we knew that we were all going to die, but we hoped that our death would be together -together we lived, and so we would die together. Now the Germans and Ukrainians marched the group to the 'lazarette' and within a few minutes we heard the sound of shooting.
For some time now death had ceased to be something terrible for us, a thing to be afraid of; death was for us such a day-to-day commonplace that it had even become a target for jokes. But the execution of a group of us had a profound effect on us. We argued together whether the escape had been a good thing, or not One school of thought said that the escape shouldn't have been tried because it caused others to be executed as a reprisal. Others said that in any case we were all marked for death; one way or another, people were dying, or being killed here every single day and therefore everyone was entitled to try to escape. We didn't believe Wagner that the escapees had been caught because if they had the Germans would have brought their bodies to display to us. We were convinced that they had managed to escape.
One day something happened while I was working near to the camp fence. Suddenly I heard the voices of a boy and girl. Looking round I spotted the two children, aged about seven or eight, pasturing a herd of cows in the field between the camp fence and the forest. They were talking to each other and singing. My heart contracted within me. The children had reminded me of the existence of the outside world, a world about which I had almost completely forgotten. How could there have been such a total separation from the outside that everything belonging to yesterday's world seemed nothing more than an unreal dream? How had I forgotten the past to the extent of ceasing to think about my family, about my home and my lovely childhood? Everything had been pushed aside within me as if it had never been. Now, suddenly, two children playing freely outside the camp, reminded me, through their happy singing, of the summer of 1939 at our holiday chalet, the children from the farms in the neighbourhood, and with them, the memories came flooding back of my family, who paraded now in front of my eyes. And I relived my long, long journey from that same happy summer until today.
For the Germans there was no time to wait for all the expansion work to be completed in the camp. The 'Transports' started again, and we, who hadn't seen any 'Transports' for a while were again attacked by depression and shock. The 'Transports' were mainly from eastern Poland. From some of the places Jews had already been sent to us; apparently they were now bringing the remainder. The behaviour of these victims was different. It seems they knew what faced them - or at least they feared the worst. There were among them those who tried to save themselves at the last moment - they offered sums of money to the Germans if only they would let them go, or they tried to hide within the camp.
Some of the wagons were broken and the 'Transports' were accompanied by many Ukrainian guards. It transpired that some of the passengers had broken the wagons and jumped out during the journey. The Germans in the camp were placed on full alert, all of them walking around armed with sub-machine guns. Every single sign of insubordination was dealt with on the spot. The anguished cries and shouts of the people in the undressing area reached up to the heavens; people refused to get undressed; 'The Preacher', Oberscharf?hrer Mischel, tried to convince them that they were not being led to their death. Once we heard him shout:
Quiet! I know how much you want to die, but you won't succeed. You've got to work! And in that crafty, inverted way he tried to convince the women to undress quietly - and the women, suspended between despair and the faint spark of hope, undressed quietly.
Once, when the gates opened and we, the sorters, went in to collect the clothes, we saw a young woman hiding in a pile of clothes. Mischel, who was there, quickly went up to her and beat her up, then ran her to the opening of the barbed-wire fence to join the others.
Sometimes we would find children and babies hidden in the piles of clothes...........
The people in these new 'Transports' no longer asked Is the water hot? They asked how long it took, and Did it hurt?. People prayed before dying, they shouted: Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, The Lord is One. There were those who shouted, Tell the world what the Germans are doing! Avenge us!
Our own value, the service people, again went down to zero; again we became the victims of any one of our captors who wished to destroy us: our places were easily taken by newcomers.
Every day food was taken to Compound Three. Bollender or Gomerski would take a few men, and each of them would carry two buckets of food. A few metres away from the Compound entrance, they would put the buckets down and return at the run to where they had come from - they were forbidden even to look in the direction of Compound Three. At the same time, a few men would come out of Compound Three, take the buckets and disappear within the forest.
Sometimes, when Bollender felt like it, he would take the bucket carriers with him into Compound Three. Those whom he took we never saw again. Time and time again, when I was commanded to be a bucket carrier to Compound Three, I was more terrified of being taken inside Compound Three, than I was of death itself.
One day Gomerski came to the sorting area and selected a couple of people to go to Compound Three. One of them, whose brother was also among us, refused to go, begging and crying that he be allowed to remain. Gomerski boiled. He was proud of a new whip which he had made especially to his design; more than one person had remarked that no one would stand more than twenty lashes from the new whip, which really was big and thick. Gomerski ordered the man to lie down and started to whip him with all his strength until he turned red and perspired with the effort. The poor victim lay without moving, as if dead. He was taken to the 'lazarette' and Gomerski seemed satisfied - his whip had stood the test.
A 'Transport' arrived from an area which included Turobin. The Germans chose a few people from it to add to the work force and one of them knew my brother Mottel and my family, well. He told me that Mottel and a few more men had escaped to the forest, where they had joined the partisans. He also told me that I was thought by my family to be dead and that the necessary prayers and mourning period for the dead had been observed. According to his report, all my aunt Sarah's family was on the 'Transport'. Other people in our 'group' discovered that they had family on the 'Transport' from the villages, which included the members of the Judenrat and all the rich people. I tried to find out something of what was happening in Warsaw, but no one from the new 'Transports' knew anything of events there.
One of the 'Transports' came from the town of Chrubieszov and apart from about a hundred men that the Germans selected and were left to sleep all night on the platform, they were all gassed the same day. We had no idea why - they didn't join us as did others who were who were selected for work and the wagons which had brought them were left all night within the camp. The following morning, before going out to work, Frenschel told us that we had to load up the wagons with the personal possessions that had been stored in the warehouses and that the men who had been kept from the previous day's 'Transport' would help us. You'll have an easy day today, he said, most of the work will be done by the others, and so as you don't get mixed up with them, you'd better all wear hats that you can take from the storerooms - the others can stay bareheaded.
When we got to Compound Two everyone chose a hat for himself from the piles of thousands and put it on. In spite of ourselves we couldn't help laughing at our appearance. The whole way from the warehouse to the platform was lined with Germans and Ukrainians. We were told to walk to one side while and not to get mixed up with the others. Not only that - we were told, for a change, not to run but to walk slowly, while the men from the 'Transport' were rushed off their feet and beaten mercilessly. All the Germans and the Ukrainians gathered together on the platform and the place became a playground for their cruel amusement throughout the whole day. The men were beaten endlessly, the dog Bari had a field-day biting freely left and right. The men were forced to eat earth and other things and drink God-knows-what liquids. Two of them were hanged on electricity pylons.
The cries of the men mingling with the laughter of the Germans...........
That day the Germans clearly demonstrated their better treatment of us, but for me it was one of the blackest days I had experienced in my whole stay in Sobibor. The Jews of the 'Transport', among them elderly and bearded men and youths - almost children - in their ordinary traditional garb, reminded me of my father and my brother, of all my family and of all my past life. This time, I saw, as an onlooker from the side-lines, how the people were tortured, how they were brought to the very limits of suffering; how they struggled desperately to survive while the whole time I knew their murder was bare hours away. The thought nearly drove me out of my mind. I had long since stopped crying but that day tears choked my throat all day long - and it was a long day.......
On the way from the warehouses to the platform I was stopped by Scharf?hrer Stoibel, who tended to be somewhat affectionate towards me and for some reason had nicknamed me 'Franz'. (There were Germans
who took some kind of fancy to this youngster or another and behaved more tolerantly towards him; if a German beat up some other German's 'boy', he could expect to have his own lad beaten up). Stoibel examined me with a critical air and said:
'Franz, that hat doesn't suit you. Come with me!' He took me to the storerooms and rummaged around in the thousands of hats and caps lying there, trying on one after the other until he found one he liked - a new light brown one which he tried on my head several ways until he was satisfied with my appearance.
'Now you look better,' he said, 'that's the hat you're going to wear.'
This self-same Stoibel found me one day sitting down sorting out belongings and putting a mug on my head told me to keep still and not to be afraid. Then taking a rifle from one of our Ukrainian guards, he distanced himself somewhat from me, aimed at the mug and fired. The mug shattered and fell. Turning to the guard, he offered the rifle and invited him to have a try, but the guard refused saying he was sure to hit me in the head.
Towards evening we completed filling the wagons with the personal effects of those who had been murdered. We returned to our block. From the direction of the 'lazarette' came the sound of shooting, long bursts of machine-gun fire followed by single shots and after that - silence all over the camp. The faces of the Jews from that 'Transport' were etched unforgettably into my memory.
From the information which we managed to glean from outside sources a despairing picture appeared before our eyes. Again and again we heard the expression 'Judenrein' - 'clear of Jews'. The Germans had systematically destroyed whole populations of Jews area after area and defined the cleared areas as 'Judenrein'. The Jews who arrived to join us from later 'Transports' told of Jews who fled from place to place but to no avail; they were chased and captured not only by the Germans but also by the Poles and Ukrainians. We heard of Jews who had managed to escape the ghettos, evading the Germans, jumping from railway wagons during the journey, wandering in the forests and hiding in all sorts of places - some of them were killed by man-hunting Poles, some by the Germans after having been informed on by local Polish citizens or Ukrainians, and some of them, having no option, returned to the places where there were still Jews, from where they were taken on 'Transports' to Sobibor, knowing full well that they were being taken to their death.
But there was also other information - about Jews living in the forests, where they were counted among units of the partisans, fighting the Germans, and these stories kindled within us the desire to rebel, to try to escape to the forests, not to wait passively until we were killed. With the passage of time, it had became clear to us that we were, in fact, a cohesive group, that we could rely on each other, that we had the capability of doing something together.
The driving need for action gave rise to illusions that grew and expanded within me; in my imagination, I could already see us escaping from the camp to the forest, to join with the partisans, where I saw myself being welcomed by Mottel my brother, now himself among them, for some time passed. Again and again I found myself submerged in these and other sweet illusions of a like nature, which obviously were entirely without substance or possibility.
There was no one among us who was leader enough, with the capability of planning such a revolt or mass escape from the camp; it was very likely that no one among us even knew how to go about killing a man - even if he were a German. Most of us were relatively young, a few of us mature tradesmen. The camp, in time, had become a veritable fortress, surrounded by three barbed-wire fences. Between the first and the second armed Ukrainian guards were on patrol while between the second and the third was a water-filled ditch. Beyond the third fence stood the watch towers whose guards were armed with mounted machine guns. The surrounding fields were sown with mines. In that situation, there was not much possibility of us escaping in the same way as had our two friends. In order to escape we had to plan and initiate a revolt.
The overwhelming desire to escape, the constant thoughts and whisperings that surrounded the subject, brought forth an idea. One of the younger men, who worked in the store-shed in Compound Two, suggested the following plan: one evening, after evening roll-call, when it was dark, he himself would steal back into Compound Two - not an impossible feat, since within the camp itself, the vigilance of the guards was not so strict; he would have prepared during the day two cans of petrol, and with these he would set fire to the buildings at midnight. At that moment in the ensuing confusion and panic of the Germans to control and extinguish the fire, we would be free to storm the gates and fences and try to escape.
The plan was not detailed in all its particulars, neither was a solution presented for the various problems which were likely to occur during its execution: what would be the reaction of the Germans? What are the chances of us staying alive? The one thing that was quite clear to us - that same night the fate of all of us would be sealed - the lucky ones would escape, the remainder would be killed - but not in the gas-chambers - and the camp would go up in flames.
The idea excited us. We agreed to it wholeheartedly without asking too many questions. The personal example of the man himself, who was prepared to endanger himself in spite of the poor chances of succeeding in remaining alive, encouraged us.
Things happened quickly. The man prepared the two cans of petrol. After evening Appell everything was ready. I took a bag of gold coins from where I had buried it in the earth in preparation for just such an emergency. The tension we all felt reached its peak. The 'Kapos', at their head 'Governor-General' Moisheh, sat together as equal partners, and the man was preparing himself to leave the barrack to sneak back into Compound Two. Suddenly, the door burst open and in came two men who threatened that if we didn't cancel the plan, they would inform on us to the Germans. We tried to convince them that in any case we were as if dead, that we had no chance to remain alive, but they insisted that the escape plan was madness, and if we have a little longer to live what do you want to kill us for today?
All attempts to convince them failed. The operation was cancelled. The only thing gained from the attempted initiative was experience for the next try.
During the hot days of summer an epidemic spread through the camp. We fell ill, one after the other with fevers and high temperatures, extreme weakness and complete loss of appetite to the point that we ate nothing. They said it was Typhus. The Germans didn't tolerate illness and whosoever became sick was executed the same day. The affected people made desperate attempts to hide their condition and survived only for as long as they succeeded in this and could hold on.
The healthy ones did what they could to help them conceal the situation, usually in vain; as they became weaker, they inevitably reached the point where they just couldn't manage and that was the end. Every day I saw colleagues or friends, the sentence of death etched in their pale or fever-flushed faces. There were those who surrendered quickly to their fate, refusing to get up in the morning for work. We, the healthy ones, made every effort to force them to get up, pleading with them and shouting at them, because we knew with certainty that if they didn't report for work, Wagner or Frenschel would come very quickly and have them taken to the 'lazarette'. And there were those who refused to give up, who hid their condition well beyond normal capabilities, and with a smile and their last reserves of their strength came to roll-call, only in order to stay alive.
Came the day I got up feeling strange and weak for no apparent reason - giddiness and a splitting headache. The thought that I may have been hit by the illness struck fear into me. At home, I was always a weak child, regularly catching whatever was going. Yet strangely, I had not become sick once the whole winter and spring since escaping from the Warsaw ghetto. And now I had faltered. No! - I said to myself, it may be something simple; everything is going to clear up without anyone knowing about it. I told no one and struggled to hide the fact of my illness but by evening my condition had worsened. All night long I felt feverish and kept shaking and shivering. By morning I felt as limp as a rag, as if drunk. With difficulty I stood up. Last evening I had been unable to eat my ration of bread, and so it was in the morning - obviously all was not well. Nevertheless I refused to give in. In spite of how I felt, I was sure that I'd get over it. I reported for roll-call imagining that everyone could tell from my face what had happened. I felt that Wagner who was in charge, was staring at me and within seconds would remove me from my place in the parade and have me sent to the 'lazarette'. No. Nobody took any notice of me and nobody saw that I was ill.
I went out to work - for a few days now I had been working with a group preparing logs of wood for the kitchen, laying them up for the winter. I sawed logs using a two-handled saw together with another man, chopped logs with an axe and sometimes arranged the sawn logs in piles. Now, ill and weak, I was selected to chop logs with an axe and in spite of my efforts found it difficult to stay on my feet. The axe seemed heavier than normal and refused to obey my commands. The Ukrainian guard hurried me up from time to time and because of this the group slowly became aware of my condition. One of them changed places with me so that I could have the easiest of the tasks - arranging the logs in piles - but that, too, became too difficult until eventually, I just couldn't go on any more.
Suddenly the futility of my battle became clear to me - suddenly it didn't matter to me any more what happened. I only wanted one thing, to lie down. I knew that lying down, or even just sitting doing nothing could end in only one thing - death - and that didn't matter either.
When I got to the place where the logs were being arranged, with a load in my arms, I sat next to the pile. It was so good just to sit and lean back against it. As if from within a fog I heard one of my friends say to me:
Get up, get up, they'll kill you! Get up and keep working slowly. It'll soon be the lunch break and you can rest a bit.....
But I continued to sit as if it wasn't even me involved in the conversation. The Ukrainian moved towards me shouting: Get up and work! He stood there looking at me, nudged me with the butt of his rifle, saying in German: Sick! and pointing to the trigger of his rifle at the same time adding in Ukrainian: Soon you go the 'lazarette'.' And again, it didn't matter to me a bit. Apparently the Ukrainian waited for one of the Germans to come and give him permission to take me to the 'lazarette'. When lunch time came and no German appeared, my comrades got me to my feet and supported me all the way back to the barracks.
The story of Bereleh's sickness spread through the camp like wildfire. People came to cheer me up and offer each other advice on how best to help me. Afterwards they all went to 'Governor-General' Moisheh, told him about my condition and asked his help. Moisheh reacted without hesitation:
Bereleh we must help! and coming to me he said, From now on, you don't go out to work. You stay here doing the cleaning in the barracks. Here, you can rest and lie down during the day. Two boys will do the work in your place. Only be careful that the Germans don't catch you.
He called three 'Putzere' - cleaners - and instructed one of them to go to work in my place and to the other two said:
You two will look after Bereleh. Work in his place as cleaners and let him rest. If you see Germans coming - warn him.
Moisheh was also known in the camp as 'Moisheh the Crazy.' One could never know what his reaction was likely to be. His moods changed like lightning - sometimes he acted with extreme cruelty and beat people mercilessly, the next he would come to them, begging their forgiveness and crying like a little child; he would curse God and then stand and pray. One day, sitting with us, someone asked him:
Moisheh, tell us, why are you so cruel to us? You don't think the Germans are going to let you live, do you? You'll go with us, just the same, to the gas-chambers.
What do you think, he answered his questioner, that I'm a fool? Of course I know that I'll die like you; that my end will be the same as yours - but with one difference. I'll beat you up to the last minute - up to the entrance of the gas-chamber, and then I'll go in - last! Although Moisheh really liked me, endangering himself to help me was a very rare act for him. Without a shadow of a doubt, that same day Moisheh the 'Kapo' saved me from certain death by changing my place of work and letting me work lightly, being able to rest, in the barracks. Even so, it was only one of the many things that saved me during that same illness.
During the worst days of my illness, when I was struggling to keep alive, it became clear to me that many people on the camp cared about me. Lots of people came to try and help me, came to visit me when they returned from work, asked me how I felt, showed their pleasure that I was still alive. They knew that I couldn't eat a thing and tried to bring me all sorts of little things that they thought I might be able to swallow. Every evening they made me hot tea, they even managed to cook some soup in secret and once someone brought me a lemon he had found among the belongings of a 'Transport'. But I think the biggest help that I received were the words of encouragement that people kept giving me. They just wouldn't let me give up. I very quickly felt like a little child with all the members of his family around him, worrying and helping him. More than once I felt that I was at the centre of a battle between us and the Germans - if I stay alive it will be a victory for the prisoners - if not, then the Germans will have won.
Most of the day I lay down resting while the two other boys did the cleaning. Every time the boys saw Germans coming in our direction, or heard their voices, they would warn me and somehow I would get to my feet and try to look as if I was working. Occasionally one or other of the men would stay behind sick and not attend Appell. At the end of roll-call, the Germans would come and take him to the 'lazarette'. One day two men stayed behind ill - one of them, an older man, was a master-builder and he had received permission from Wagner to remain behind for a couple of days - and a second younger man who was staying behind for the first time and Moisheh the 'Kapo' had reported on his sickness. That same day I felt really bad, and as soon as roll-call finished I went to lie down. As if in a dream, I heard the voices of Wagner and Frenschel, but only when I saw their jackboots planted on the floor in front of my bunk did I fully realize my position. I shrank inside and awaited the outcome quietly.
The two Germans asked the two boys where the sick ones were, and later heard them tell them to get up and go out. Then they strode the full length of the barracks asking the two boys just before they left: Are there any more ill?
No..... answered one of the two.
If there are any more here - I'll shoot you, said Wagner, as he left, and he and Frenschel went out, and with them the two sick men who were taken to the 'lazarette'.
My condition worsened from day to day. I became very weak and delirious with the fever. They told me I kept saying strange things, that at night I tried to get out of the hut, that my behaviour was sometimes very strange and unreasonable. Once, I didn't go out for Appell and my absence was discovered. The 'Kapo' who came to check, found me, took me outside and stood me in front of Stoibel. They told me afterwards that I stood in front of Stoibel and laughed and everyone was sure that was the end of me. To everyone's surprise, Stoibel laughed as well and sent me back to my row.
Another time, I was boiling some water on the fire in order to make myself a cup of tea, when in walked Wagner and saw the cup of water on the stove. But he went out again, apparently because he was in a hurry. After about an hour, he came back in and asked:
Who was cooking here during working hours?
I knew that there could be only one outcome and that there was no point in evading the issue: I stood in front of him and said that I had done it. His face went red with anger.
Get your trousers down and lie on the bench! he shouted.
I lay down on the bench. I have no idea how many lashes I got - the boys said not less than fifty. My entire buttocks became one large, open wound. Everything around was soaked in blood. The boys were certain that Wagner was killing me, but when they threw water on me I stood up. My whole body was one enormous pain. For the first time in long days of illness, I felt alive and I said to the two boys: I think I feel a little better.... The two of them thought that I had gone crazy and started laughing.
The story of Wagner and me spread through the camp and after work everyone came to look at the 'miracle' of me being alive after Wagner's beating. Everyone praised me for having 'stuck it out', and for days kept telling the joke about how ...Wagner's whipping healed Bereleh's illness. And from that same day, I really began to get better - my temperature went down, I developed a tremendous appetite, everyone brought me food and my recovery was really quick. But it took a long while for the wounds on my backside to heal to the point when I could lie on my back.
After some time, Moisheh took me out of the barracks and put me back in the normal work team.
The camp was in the final stages of expansion. I was working on the last stretch of narrow railway line being laid for the wagons, which ran from the platform, through Compound Two to Compound Three. The work was managed by Oberscharf?hrer Getzinger, who was very cruel - he hit people with a hammer.
One day a new German arrived. He wore a black uniform, not green, like the other Germans we knew. He was an officer with the rank of Untersturmf?hrer (second lieutenant), Schwartz by name. We had become used to the cruelty of 'our' Germans, to a certain extent and had stopped shaking with fear every time one of them appeared. The new German was an unknown, and frightened us. My job was to carry sleepers from place to place, as needed. The new German saw me loading myself up with as many sleepers as I could possibly stagger under - and run with them. He stopped me and said:
Are you crazy? Why are you taking so many in one go?
I just couldn't believe my ears. I was suspicious of what might be some kind of cynical trap, and did nothing.
Throw some of them down, he insisted.
I let one drop, and then he came up to me and removed a few more from my shoulders.
You don't have to run, we have plenty of time, he said.
I walked slowly, the load light on my shoulders, all the time expecting the blows to start raining down on me. I just couldn't believe that a German was acting like that. But the blows didn't come. In fact, he even ordered me to take a rest in the middle of work and offered me a cigarette.
At the end of work, I told everyone about the new, strange German. Very quickly Untersturmf?hrer Schwartz became a living legend - an abnormal German who doesn't beat people, doesn't shout at them, and treats us as human beings. His being in the camp was something of a riddle. After a few weeks, Schwartz walked in to our barracks one evening and told us he was leaving the camp next day. The man had come to say farewell to us - he explained that when he had come to Sobibor, he had no idea where he was being sent and added that he was not able to live in a place like that. He shook us all by the hand and expressed the hope that we'd all get through safely.
A 'Transport' arrived from Majdanek camp, which was very unusual. That same day a fault developed in the Sobibor gas-chambers, and the people stayed a day and a night in the camp. They were all nothing but skeletons of people, dressed in faded striped uniforms, with numbers printed on them. I had seen people in the Warsaw ghetto, walking skeletons like these, on the point of death, yet they still retained some faint remnant of humanity - perhaps it was their clothes which lent them some semblance of normality. The people from Majdanek, dressed in their striped rags looked like walking ghosts. There wasn't even the faintest spark of life in them. They all looked so exactly alike that it was impossible to distinguish them as individuals. The Germans and their 'Kapos' beat them ceaselessly, and they hadn't the strength to shout, they could only moan and wail.
In the evening, when I went with the others to distribute a bit of food and drink to them, it was almost completely impossible to do so - these walking skeletons, who had been lying around quietly with their last strength slipping away from them, suddenly rose up as one man, with the very last vestiges of their energy, and literally trampled on one another in their efforts to get hold of a bit of food. After the distribution silence again reigned to the extent that no one would have known that thousands of people were lying there.
The following morning the Germans got the people up with shouts and blows, and those who still had a bit of strength in them managed to drag the weaker ones, with their last reserves of energy, to the gas chambers. There were among them those whose strength gave out on the way and they fell, got up and continued; others just continued lying there. After a while Frenschel came and picked about twenty men, myself among them, and told us that because the 'Transport' had been dirty and infected with fleas, we would have to strip, work completely naked and carry the bodies which had remained strewn around, to the trolleys, which were about two hundred metres away, to clean the area and burn the clothes and other effects of the dead.
Frenschel was in a good mood. He larked around, saying:
You've got nothing to worry about - nothing's going to happen to you.
We got undressed and Frenschel marched us, naked as the day we were born, to the place where the prisoners had slept. After a day of just hanging around, hundreds of bodies were left, dead and dying. The day was very hot. We had to work on the run. The Germans rushed us off our feet with shouts and blows. The feeling of carrying a dead body on your own naked one is impossible to describe. I tried very hard to carry them elegantly and but without success, - we had to drag them by their legs, over the ground.
While dragging a corpse in this fashion, I stood for a moment to rest, about half-way between the two points, after making sure that no Germans were around to see me. At that moment, the man I had been dragging in the secure knowledge that he was dead, sat up and, sitting on the ground, looked me in the eye with his own large, wide ones, and asked whether there was still a long distance to go. The words were spoken at the expense of tremendous effort, but they were clear, and having said them he sank again to the ground. I was so astonished, I just didn't know what to do. I was dragging a corpse - and behold! The corpse sat up and began speaking to me - and having finished speaking, sank back again as if dead. I couldn't go on dragging him. After a moment or two I recovered a bit, lifted the man, putting his arm round my neck and, holding him round the hips, walked with him, his head lolling against me. Suddenly I felt blows raining down on my head and back. I let him fall - Frenschel was screaming at me and whipping my naked body all over. The man tried to get up and at that, Frenschel drew his pistol and shot him dead on the spot. I got hold of the man's two legs and dragged him along to the trolleys.
How long had I been in Sobibor? Two months? Three? Perhaps four? I could no longer estimate the time. There was nothing to relate to.
Time had no meaning either; no past and no future. The one and only thing of importance, crystallized in the question - When will death come to me? - tomorrow, or in a month's time? It was unbelievable! I was so sure that I wouldn't survive more than a few days - and here I was - still alive.
During all this time a startling and conspicuous change had taken place in me. I was no longer the same, weak Bereleh, lacking in self-confidence; the Bereleh who didn't know how to adjust to strange conditions, who reaped a greater harvest of blows from the Germans than did the others; the Bereleh who wished only for death as the sole solution to his plight. It became clear to me that, in fact, I had coped better than many who were stronger, and craftier by far than I; I had become stronger than ever before, I had developed a tremendous capacity for suffering, and most important of all - I had acquired many friends. All these had infused me with self-confidence and created a strong will to survive. I knew, quite clearly, that I had the ability to survive under the most appalling and trying conditions. Even though common sense told me that we would all eventually go to the gas chambers, I retained that small but strong spark of hope, which never left me for a moment, that somehow we would manage to escape from here.
Occasionally, senior German officers would come to visit Sobibor, sometimes people dressed in civilian clothes. They would arrive by airplanes, which landed in the field between Compounds Two and Three and, according to the preparations made for their visits, it was clear that they were quite important people. The guests always went to Compound Three and only occasionally visited the whole camp. On one of these visits - all of them senior officers - a whole day was spent in the camp and they visited everywhere. Some of them wore brown uniforms and were accompanied by two civilians. I saw them when they visited Compound Two, where I was working sorting out the belongings. They were there for over an hour, examining everything, going from store to store with great interest. At lunch-time they returned to where the food was distributed to watch, even asking a few of us if the food was good - and that day the food really was better than usual - better than it had ever been, even though on 'visiting days' there was always some kind of improvement in the food, in any case.
Towards evening, when the visitors had left the camp, I saw the Ukrainians doing punishment-drill for over an hour. The following morning, at Appell, Wagner called me out of line together with another youngster named Tsudik, and told us that from now on we were 'putzere' for the Ukrainians. Afterwards I learned, that when the visiting officers had inspected the Ukrainians' barracks they had found them very dirty - hence the punishment-drill for the Ukrainians. We were chosen to be their cleaners.
Oberscharf?hrer Grieschutz, the officer in charge of the Ukrainians, was waiting for us in the front of their quarters. He made a short speech, telling us that the barrack-block was dirty and our job was to clean it - he would be back at noon to inspect our work. He also instructed us that we were not to make their beds nor to clean their boots, that this was their job. Tsudik and I, both of us confused, stayed where we stood, not knowing how, or where to begin, but the Ukrainians, freed from the chore of cleaning their own quarters, welcomed us gladly and brought us all the necessary brooms and mops for the job. We swept the rooms and washed the floors, and suddenly heard Grieschutz: Putzerer, to me! calling us from the end of the block. We ran up to him. He took us into one of the rooms and showed us that the floor under the bed hadn't been washed and the window-sill and frames were dusty. He ordered me to bring his whip from the guard-room. All the way there I was trying to think of a way of avoiding what was awaiting me, but when I returned Tsudik was already lying on the table, face down, and Grieschutz started whipping him immediately. In the meantime I ran to bring a bucket of water, crawled under the bed and washed the floor. Tsudik was shouting and crying - and I continued to lie under the bed. When Grieschutz finished whipping my friend, he left the room quickly. Only then did I crawl out from under the bed, satisfied that this time I had been spared.
After a few days we learned to clean the room so that the Germans were satisfied - in the beginning Grieschutz and Wagner would come frequently to inspect the results of our work but in time they stopped doing so almost entirely. Apart from the actual cleaning of the rooms, we also had to make sure that there was always hot water available in the boiler for the wash-room, and that too had to be kept clean. Even though we had been forbidden to do the personal work of the Ukrainians, we did, in fact, make the beds and clean the boots - it was virtually impossible to refuse to do so. There is no doubt that we were working in one of the best places in the camp - we were working without Germans being there the whole time. The work wasn't all that hard, and once we got used to it we even had some spare time. The Ukrainians, who were pleased with the 'room-service' gave us food and cigarettes. But the most important thing of all was the isolation from the 'death-machine'; in spite of the block in which I worked being between the platform and Compound Two, and I could see everything going on in the camp, I was not directly involved in what was happening. I was a bystander.
Early one evening, the sound of a train whistle was heard, signifying the arrival of a 'Transport'. The wagons stopped alongside the platform, as usual, except that this time an unusual event occurred - up to now 'Transports' had never arrived in the evenings, and when a 'Transport' did arrive at night, the wagons were left standing outside the camp all night, and brought in only in the morning. What was more, until now all the 'Transports' had been comprised of cattle wagons; this one was an ordinary passenger train. It was strange to see lights in the carriage windows. The people climbed down quietly. They were dressed like ordinary travellers - the men with nice coats, hats, and ties; the women and children were also well dressed. For a moment in time it was possible to imagine that these people were on a visit.
Frenschel arrived and took command of the Bahnhof Kommando. The platform area was illuminated, as was the track to Compound Two. There were no shouts like Get out of the train, - everything was managed in silence and with courtesy. After the people were off the train, the Bahnhof Kommando distributed bread, jam and hot coffee. The exhausted travellers thanked them gratefully. Then the Germans distributed some postcards to them, to send to their friends and relatives - presumably they wrote about their safe arrival and how well they had been greeted.
While we were still wondering where this elegant 'Transport' had come from and with our hearts aching inside us with the knowledge of their fate, Frenschel and Stoibel came to us and held a quick parade but without all the preliminaries of 'numbering off' and so on. Frenschel ordered all the barbers to step out and, without waiting to see who they were, approached one of the others and said:
You're a barber!
No, I'm not a barber, he replied.
At that, Frenschel shouted at the man and said:
I said you're a barber! What are you?
This time the man answered: I'm a barber!
In this way Frenschel continued to choose people, and, as fate would have it, among them me.
Everything happened quickly. Frenschel took us - there were about twenty of us, all young - and led us to the undressing area in Compound Two. The field was illuminated and empty. For a moment I thought that Frenschel would order us to undress and that we would be led from that place naked, like all the others before us, but he led us through a gate to where a sign said 'safety-deposit'. We marched between the two barbed-wire fences which led to the gas-chambers. Tremors ran through my body as I walked along towards Compound Three.
It was quiet all round. Only the constant hum of the generator and the chirping of the crickets broke the silence. We had no idea where we were going, or why. At last we came to the three huts which had recently been built. The first two were empty but illuminated. We were taken into the third, which was connected to the gas-chamber by a short corridor. In the hut stood two rows of benches, one on either side.
Frenschel spread us out and stood us behind the benches. From the door leading to the gas-chamber building came Gomerski carrying a bundle of scissors. Frenschel gave a pair to each of us and said:
In a few minutes the women will be coming in naked and you're going to cut their hair. There's not much time and you've got to work quickly. It takes only a matter of seconds. Got it?
We stood dumbfounded behind the benches, the scissors in our hands. From the next hut came the sounds of women's voices. In the first hut they took off their shoes and in the second the rest of their clothes. Now they began to come into where we were waiting, naked as the day they were born. When they saw us, they became embarrassed, covering themselves as best they could with their hands, surprise in their eyes.
Frenschel ordered them to sit explaining to them that he was sorry, but for the sake of hygiene it was necessary to cut their hair.
We began to cut. Apparently we were too hesitant or not quick enough, because Gomerski stopped us and told us angrily to watch him - he took a pair of scissors from someone, went to one of the women, took all of her hair in two hands, then transferred it all to one hand and in two or three snips had cut the lot, saying to us:
That's how I want you to do it.
Gomerski and Frenschel began to hurry us up: Faster! Faster!
The scissors flew and cut the hair of old people and young people alike and as they cut so the appearance of the victims changed at one stroke.
Like on a conveyor belt, women came in from one door and went out the other, shaven, one after the other, into the corridor. The tension in the room was terrible; I could hear myself breathing.
Frenschel tried to relieve it by coarse jokes:
Don't be so sad, he said to one of the women, It will grow again quite quickly - and even more beautifully! And the woman smiled at him weakly..............
The Germans had no patience, perhaps they wanted to finish and go to bed. Their rudeness increased and they began to whip us, and the naked women. The scissors continued to cut and the hut filled up with piles of hair. From the corridor we could hear the sounds of shouting women, going into the gas-chamber.........
And suddenly it was all over. Quiet. Utter silence. The last of the women had left the room. We collected the hair into sacks, and in the two other rooms our friends collected the shoes and clothes.
The frightened faces of the women, their surprised, embarrassed eyes, never left me. That same night I started again to pray for death.
The group Frenschel chose to cut the hair became 'permanent'. My job as a cleaner for the Ukrainians, was the only thing which saved me from becoming one of them. I was never chosen again to cut hair.
The extermination machine worked at relentless full speed. 'Transports' arrived from Holland, France, Germany, Czechoslovakia and from Poland itself. The destruction went on without a hitch or breakdown. Each 'Transport' received its own special treatment - there were 'Transports' where the victims were received pleasantly and courteously, with bread, jam and coffee, and from the undressing compound could be heard the sound of clapping on occasion, at the end of a speech by Mischel - all in order to expedite the killing process, efficiently and without hitches.
Thousands of people disappeared from off the face of the earth, as if they had never been, within a few short hours and with surprising quietness. Sometimes the Germans and Ukrainians would welcome their victims armed with machine guns, the trains themselves accompanied by a heavy guard, the wagons broken, and from the moment of arrival, the Germans would shout and bully their victims, beating them and shooting into the crowd.
The Germans did everything they could to frighten the people, to silence them and prevent resistance. Mostly, they succeeded. People ran to meet their death in order to get it over with as soon as possible. By that time, the Jews of Poland already knew that they were destined to die. There were those who resisted, however, who fell upon the Germans with their bare hands, who tried to escape into the camp, but the bullets found them; There were those who tried to hide here and there, and the Germans just found them and shot them. It didn't take long for them to put everyone into the gas-chambers.
Ever since I had been put to work as a putzer for the Ukrainians something changed inside me. Previously I had been fully aware of, and noticed each individual 'Transport' as if I myself was one of those who had been brought to die - which I was, and had been - except that in a way my suffering was even greater in that I was being made to wait even longer for the end. In my new place of work, although it was in the middle of hell, a few metres from the railway platform - from the Ukrainians' barracks I could watch the wagons enter the camp, unload their passengers, hear their voices, and watch them go on their way to Compound Two, I never again felt myself as one of them, as one who was about to die with them.
Of course, I knew deep down inside me that one day I shall die here. But it didn't seem to be connected with the 'Transports' - the feeling was that we, the camp workers, will be killed by a separate and special execution order. For now, I watched the events surrounding the 'Transports' as some kind of spectator. I cried for them, but not for myself, and since I wasn't under the direct charge of a German, I could watch what was going on. There were moments when I just couldn't watch any more, and then I tried to concentrate on work and not think of what was happening outside - not to listen to the sounds of events from beyond the windows. But even so, I was drawn inevitably back to witness the unending tragedy.
One of the 'Transports' which arrived from Holland contained a complete Jewish 'hospital' with all its staff - doctors, nurses, management and patients. The management organized things immediately. Before all the people had finished getting off the train, the hospital had already begun to function. A table was placed on the platform and someone sat there - probably the director of the hospital - and around him stood doctors and nurses in their white coats, looking at lists, distributing medicines, giving injections. The platform turned itself into a field-hospital. Nurses helped the sick to walk to Compound Two and a few were carried there on stretchers. The management staff occasionally turned to the Germans - apparently asking for supplies - and it seemed to me that the Germans were able to fool the people right up to the last minute. In a short while, everyone had been transferred to Compound Two. The area stood empty, without doctors or patients. Only that very special smell, common to hospitals everywhere, seemed to linger in the air for a while.
On another occasion a 'Transport' arrived from an institution where retarded people were hospitalized. For the Germans it presented an opportunity for some amusement - and they didn't fail to exploit it.
From the moment that the unfortunate people got off the train, the Germans and Ukrainians began to provoke and hit them. The reaction of these people was pitiable. They ran around like mad things, shrieking inhumanly - while the Germans laughed out loud at their distress.
On one of the 'Transports', I saw a woman of about sixty years of age standing and crying while a man, presumably her husband, stood next to her saying something angrily to Wagner. Apparently it was said in a way that Wagner didn't like and he started hitting him with his whip, calling him a Damned Jew! He then lost his temper completely, drew his pistol and shot the man, who fell to the ground. The wife threw herself on the body of her husband in anguish. Wagner, in spite of his relatively low rank - Oberscharf?hrer' (approximately staff-sergeant), wielded much control in the camp. He appeared everywhere, at any moment, and we could never be sure when we would suddenly discover him standing next to us. His face was always severe, and when he did smile it was always a bitter one. In the evenings, after we had been locked in our barracks, Wagner would come stealing around eavesdropping on our conversations. He learned Hebrew while in the camp, in readiness for the conquest of Palestine by Field Marshal Rommel. His cruelty knew no bounds. When we saw that he was angry in the morning, we knew that he would find something bad to do during the day, and that he wouldn't rest until he had killed someone. The fear he inspired was so great that from time to time we would change his nickname. In the beginning we called him 'Welwale' and whenever he passed by we reported to each other: 'Welwale' is going. After a short while he would come to us with his cynical smile on his face and say: 'Welwale' is going. We then changed his name to 'Leviticus'. 'Leviticus' is coming, 'Leviticus' is coming, we would whisper to each other. And again, he would discover the change and come to us with a victorious look on his face, and say: 'Leviticus' is coming!
Hundreds of people were selected for work from the 'Transports' which arrived from Holland, France and Germany, and were housed in the new blocks. A large group of women was also chosen, all of them young, and they were housed in a block to one side known as the women's block. At Appell, people were assigned to various work parties known as 'Blocks'. Each 'Block' group numbered about eighty people.
The Germans spent hours training the newcomers in Appell procedures and teaching German songs. On Sundays, in the afternoon, it was possible to see the groups under the command of a German, Ukrainian or a 'Kapo' being marched hither and thither, between Compound One and Compound Two. Shouts and commands were heard endlessly: Left! Left! Caps off! Quick march! One group sang 'The Blue Dragoon', another group was made to run, and the people stumbled and fell, got up, crawled, jumped - the commands followed one another in rapid succession: Lie down! Up! March! March! Down! Up! March! March! Jump!
Then groups changed places - this group marched and sang while the other one did punishment drill and afterwards all of them marched together, singing, running, throwing themselves to the ground, and then crawling along, as one man.
I don't know how I looked when I got to Sobibor, neither did I pay much attention to the appearance of my colleagues. I was far too busy with my own plight. Now, I examined the people of the 'Transports' with a more discerning eye. Those who arrived only a day previously, who were well-dressed, according to the latest fashions, cultured in their behaviour, changed overnight, in the twinkling of an eye, as it were, to something entirely different, in appearance and behaviour, because of the fight for mere existence. Here, at Sobibor, all the wrappings of manners and culture, the fruits of education and the influence of society, were stripped off. Even the rules of religious observance fell by the wayside, although there were among those who arrived at the camp who continued to pray daily, and even managed to follow the dietary regulations. Here in Sobibor, everyone was stripped to the very kernel of his personality. Here were created new truths, new standards, new values made, not by the hands of legislators, not by the hands of scholars, nor even by those of various religious factions. We, who stood perpetually on the threshold of the gas-chambers, judged each his neighbour, only by his deeds and actions. Everything was exposed and open. It was impossible to hide anything. Most of the people acted within the framework which we had created instinctively. There were those who demonstrated a clear nobility of spirit and self-sacrifice. There were those, also, who lost all semblance of the divine gift - in whom there remained no token of humanity. Those who came from western Europe found it especially hard - they, who came from an orderly, easy life, more-or-less, had not learned the patience, through suffering, of the Polish Jew. It provoked our pity to see them struggle to cope with the degrading beatings and abuse to which they were subjected day by day. Many were they who were sent to the 'lazarette' and a new wave of suicides broke out among us - all of them the newcomers.
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