May 1942 - October 1943
Translated by Selwyn Rose
The journey in the goods train continued, all of us standing, crushed together, hungry and thirsty, wrapped in a choking stench, on the point of fainting. I don't know how long we travelled like that; apparently many hours. I felt that the tortuous journey would go on for ever and ever. The shouting subsided; the children stopped crying; silence prevailed. People got used to the conditions or were tired. Somewhere or other, the train slowed down and its journey came to an end, seemingly in the middle of nowhere, in a place of total silence. We tried to hear what was going on outside and to our ears came the sound of cattle lowing, chickens cackling, dogs barking and especially the chirping of birds. It wasn't difficult to guess that we were in a rural area.
The man who had been on the lookout at the window said that he could see only fields and woods. The fresh smell of greenery and pine forests permeated the wagon.
Our steam engine shunted backwards and forwards, each time freeing a few wagons until at last our wagon, too, was shunted through a gate, into a closed camp. The door of the wagon opened noisily and repeated shouts of Raus! Raus! Schnell! Schnell! greeted us. A dog, as big as a calf, restrained by an SS officer, snarled at us and threatened to attack. We all tried to get away from the wagon as quickly as possible and move forwards. My uncle, aunt Miraleh and I all walked together. Germans in green uniforms and Ukrainians in black ones, with whips in their hands, hurried us on. We arrived at a small gate.
On the other side of the gate stood a German and a Ukrainian who were rapidly separating all the people passing through the gate - women and children went one way, continuing to walk straight ahead; men to the right. I went to the right with my uncle, with the men - and it all happened so quickly that we didn't have any time to think or react or exchange a word with one another. No one really understood what had happened - why had we been separated? For what purpose?
I tried to follow after Miraleh and my aunt with my gaze but within seconds they disappeared from view. We, the men, were ordered to sit on the ground, under a long, open-sided awning. From where I sat I was able to see the long line of women and children continuing to walk on until they disappeared from the compound. It was early evening and the covered area where we sat was filling with men. We sat crammed together, silent, dumb, not understanding what was happening; not knowing to where the women and children had disappeared. Perhaps they were in another part of the compound. We tried to listen but could hear nothing. The Ukrainians who were guarding us with bayoneted rifles wouldn't allow us to get up or move from our place. When someone needed to relieve himself he had to get permission and wait a long time.
Evening fell. We were tired, hungry and thirsty. My uncle sat and wondered, as still and as silent as a statue. We exchanged not a word.
The Ukrainian guards walked back and forth unceasingly. Men who wanted to know what was happening and to where the women and children had been taken, and went to ask the guards were answered with shouts and blows and returned hurriedly to their places. Occasionally, a German came, had a look at us and went away again. One German took a couple of men with him and after about an hour they returned, bringing with them a couple of buckets of water. A frantic commotion arose as everyone tried to get at the water - and again silence reigned. We sat on the sand, under the awning, awaiting the unknown. There was no crying of children, no wailing of women. Silence. As if there were no one there at all. There was only the sound of a motor working somewhere, ceaselessly, accompanied by the croaking of frogs, the monotonous sound somehow threatening.
The Ukrainians found a crazy man among the crowd and began to amuse themselves with him torturing him mercilessly until the unfortunate man began to cry and shriek like a stuck pig. They laughed out loud and he went on crying for hours on end in a strange voice which cut through the silence like a sharp knife. All night long, I kept falling asleep and waking up, hearing all the time the noise of the motor, seeing in front of my eyes the women and children disappearing from sight at the edge of the compound, and among them my aunt and Miraleh.
In the morning a group of Germans arrived, among them one Oberscharf?hrer Wagner. They selected from among our number qualified tradesmen - carpenters, welders, electricians, tailors, shoemakers and others. I, too, wanted to join them but I had no trade. The chosen walked out to the front and formed a line. Then Wagner walked among us choosing young men and telling them to join the tradesmen. Something inside me forced me forwards. By some instinct, I jumped from my place and placed myself among those who had been chosen. The tradesmen were taken to various workshops in the camp and the rest divided into groups. Four young men and myself were taken by a German, Oberscharf?hrer Frenschel, who ordered us to dig a trench.
The shovel that I picked up was very heavy. I could hardly lift it and when I brought it down it refused to penetrate the ground. Suddenly I felt a tremendous blow on the head. The German had lashed at me with his whip with all his strength, shouting:
I'll teach you to work!
For a moment, I thought that my head had been split open and I lost all awareness of myself, but my body reacted and filled with some kind of superhuman strength and I began to dig furiously. After me, Frenschel attacked others, whipping them and shouting, especially the oldest among us. One man fell to the ground and Frenschel kicked him, ordering him to get up and continued hitting him.
At noon, the Germans gathered together all the work-parties in the compound. We looked at each other. In a few short hours we had all changed. We had all been whipped and injured, most of us were without coats, some of us bare-headed, all of us beaten silly. We were ordered into a queue and received a portion of soup. Everyone had a story to tell about the cruelty of the Germans and Ukrainians and pointed to his injuries, caused by the blows he had received. But the main question that everyone asked was what was happening in this place? What was the fate of the women and children who had disappeared yesterday? What had happened to the men who had disappeared today?
There were some among us who told us that they had worked in the compound picking up clothes - outer-garments as well as under-clothes, women's, children's and men's. One told us, crying, that he had recognized the clothes of his wife and children. It would seem that they were made to undress out in the open and then taken somewhere while naked. A great fear settled on us. Was it possible that they were killing everyone here? But no one had heard shooting or explosions. No! such a thing couldn't be; it was unimaginable. And there were those who said that a German had told them that those who had disappeared had been taken to a shower bath, been given fresh clothes and sent by train to the Ukraine, to work. In answer to the question: When will we see our families? the German answered with a laugh - You've got nothing to worry about. Very soon you'll all be together again.
The story seemed imaginary and not very reasonable. Fresh clothes? Trains leaving the forest? And we had heard or seen nothing of them? It just didn't ring true. But for all that, people clung to the story as a ray of hope like a drowning man clutches at a straw, in the hope that for all that our families might still be alive.
When we stood up for Appell in the afternoon I felt that my whole body was aching and I wasn't able to stand on my feet. Only fear lent me strength to return to work. This time a Ukrainian was guarding us, and he hurried us along ruthlessly, occasionally with lashes from his whip, sometimes me - sometimes the others. More than once I felt that I was going to collapse. At the end of the work we again had Appell. In front of us stood a group of Germans and at the side a group of Ukrainians.
Frenschel taught us some drill - attention; at ease; right turn; left turn; hats on; hats off, and so on. I wasn't all that good at it and Frenschel shouted at me angrily, while the other Germans laughed. He started with punishment drill, making us run round the parade ground, ordering us to fall down, get up, crawl, to leapfrog from bended knees. A few of the Ukrainian guards ran alongside us whipping all those who didn't perform the exercises well enough. Eventually Frenschel returned us to the parade ground where Wagner was waiting for us:
You have been chosen to work here. Those of you who work well will be O.K. Those who don't - will die!
Afterwards, Frenschel ordered us to sing. No one opened his mouth.
Nobody knew what to do, what to sing, how to sing. Then Frenschel ordered us to run and again punished us with exercises, returned us to our places and ordered us to sing. At that point, a Jew strode forward, turned to face us and said:
And he began to sing a Polish shepherds' song. Only a few knew the song but it was simple and repeated itself. In the beginning only a few joined in, but Frenschel barked: Everybody sing, and everyone joined in singing, at first only half-heartedly, then with some kind of enthusiasm louder and louder. Frenschel was not satisfied. Sing! he shouted again and again. Again the Jew who had led us before went to the front and began to sing, this time a song from the prayer-book which we all knew: 'Purify our hearts that we may faithfully do Thy work......' We sang our hearts out until the German relaxed and released us.
We were led to a barn for the night. Broken in mind and body we went in and were left alone. People sorted themselves out and arranged a place for themselves to lie down, in groups along the walls, next to family or people they knew. I didn't know a soul. I was alone and didn't know what to do with myself. I felt like a stranger. My whole body was aching. People were sitting and eating the bread and coffee they had received, and a few of them had even brought out a few morsels of food from belongings left behind. I sat on the ground, I hadn't eaten nor had I had anything to drink. I wanted to die. I felt that I couldn't live in this place, that I hadn't been formed from the same material as my companions, who knew how to cope with the situation they were in. I felt I was choking. Tears flowed from my eyes.
Then a man sitting near me turned to me and said:
Son, if you keep on like that you won't last out. Eat the bread and coffee they gave you.
I did as he told me. Later he told me to lean against him and go to sleep, and this I also did.
At Appell the following morning a large group of Germans and Ukrainians appeared, put us through some drill exercises for a few minutes, and counted us. One was missing, so they counted us again and again with increasing tension, until it was discovered that one of us had decided to remain in the barn and hadn't come out for roll-call - perhaps he'd died during the night or committed suicide. At lunch-time some of the workers told us that man had been found alive and in front of all of them had been brought out of the barn, beaten, and then led to the forest from where a shot was heard. It seems that, one way or another, the man had decided to put an end to his life.
We were divided into groups and led to work. I went with a large group to Compound Two. We were led by Scharf?hrer Paul Grot and a few Ukrainians. When we started to walk Paul Grot ordered us to sing. Somebody began to sing a Polish soldiers' song: 'Oh, what a beautiful war', and we all joined in the singing. Afterwards we sang another soldiers' song: 'It's great in the infantry', and the German seemed satisfied. He laughed and we got the impression that he was a good guy.
We got to Compound Two which was about a hundred metres from the barn where we had slept. We found ourselves in an area, next to a large compound in which stood a big country-style building. At the other end was a large field and at a distance of about four hundred metres spread a forest which stretched up to the barbed-wire fences. Beyond the fence ran the railway line from Poland, over the River Bug, to the Ukraine and to Russia.
We were led to an awning which had just recently been built. It was about four metres high and in its shelter was a trench two metres deep, six metres wide and about fifty metres long. Alongside the structure rose a big rectangular pile of suitcases parcels and other articles. These were the belongings of the earlier 'Transports' of Jews who had been brought here during the previous month.
Our task was to carry them all under the awning and arrange them in an orderly fashion, from the ground to the roof. The sun and rain had already destroyed a large part of them, and many of them had rotted. The parcels and suitcases were all stuck together and as we separated them they fell apart and disintegrated; these we had to repack. We learned from the documents in the parcels and suitcases where the owners had been brought from - they had been residents of small towns and villages in the area of Lublin and Jews from Czechoslovakia and Austria. The articles indicated the extreme poverty of the Polish Jews. In their parcels, tied together with string or pieces of rag, and in their cheap, old suitcases, were found a few old patched clothes, resoled shoes and a few prayer books for daily and festival use. In the suitcases of the Czechoslovakian Jews were articles which bore witness to a prosperous and religious community. Among the articles of value which we found were expensive religious artifacts and prayer books. In the suitcases of the Austrian Jews were expensive clothes, perfumes, many pictures and documents, but only a few religious items.
The work was performed at the run. Paul Grot, who in the beginning had seemed so reasonable and kind to all creation, turned, in a moment into a cruel monster, the like of which none of us had known before.
He and a Ukrainian, whose name was Taraas beat us ceaselessly. Paul - everyone called him that - would, from time to time order one or other of us to lie down and he would give him twenty-five or so lashes on the back with his whip, and if he tired, he would give the whip to Taraas.
The cries of the man being whipped were heartrending. The fear from the lashings was so great that instead of working we all sought some way of evading the clutches of Paul and Taraas. We all ran back and forth like mad things. I tried to be inconspicuous but Paul called to me:
Come here - you! The small one! And when our glances met he added with a laugh: Yes, yes, it's you I want.
My heart stopped beating. Next to me lay a suitcase and Paul ordered me to lay on it and count. With the first lash, I felt as if my flesh were being cut to ribbons. I shouted and counted:
One...two...three.. each time the whip hit me.
When the agony reached unbearable limits, I stopped counting and just screamed endlessly. In the end, Paul told me to 'disappear'. With my remaining strength, I ran from him and continued to carry parcels from the pile to the awning. My whole body was one big ache. Every movement was an agony of its own. I just wanted to lie down and die. But the fear of additional beatings forced me to continue and poured into me the strength to hang on.
Under the awning, I saw a man trying to hide himself between the suitcases and parcels. Everyone tried to warn him that he would be caught and shot and tried to convince him to get up and continue working but he refused to listen and told everyone to leave him alone. After a time Paul discovered him and he and Taraas beat him half to death.
Taraas, take him to the 'lazarette', Paul said to him, surprisingly.
Taraas took his rifle from his shoulder and pushing the man before him escorted him in the direction of the forest, where they disappeared from view. After a minute or two we heard a shot and Taraas returned alone.
All the time I gazed at the forest, the edge of which started at the barbed-wire fence to the right of the camp, alongside which was the railway track. A short while before, we saw a passenger train pass by travelling from west to east - the direction in which Taraas had led the man to where the 'lazarette' was said to be. From the other side of the forest - the left side - stretched two rows of barbed wire two metres apart, to a point not far from us where they met the closed compound adjoining ours. I saw two Germans, Oberscharf?hrer Bollender and Oberscharf?hrer Getzinger, together with the big dog Bari, cross the field and enter the forest in the left corner. After a few minutes the air was rent by the most terrible screams, such as I had never heard in my life. Deep down inside, I knew that in that forest opposite us, the most terrible things were happening.
The hopes that the people who had come with us, only to disappear, yet lived, faded. We found ourselves in a hell on earth, and I wondered again and again whether it was all true or just a dream - am I alive or am I dead and in hell?
After work we again had Appell. This time conducted by Paul Grot. He ordered us to do some drill exercises, and accompanied his orders with foul and insulting language, to the amusement of the Germans. Afterwards he turned to us and asked:
Who's sick? Who's tired? Who doesn't want to work any more? Who wants to sleep? Step forward.
He spoke slowly, in a quiet voice, coming close to us and looking each one of us in the eye. Next to one of the men he stopped and said:
You don't want to work any more. You're tired. You want to sleep. Come out here in front.
He spoke softly, as if really concerned about the man's welfare, but the man begged him:
No, I'm not tired. I'm healthy. I want to work!
All in vain. Paul removed the man from the ranks, and then chose three more, all elderly men; the four of them stood in front of us pale-faced. My heart went out to them as I looked at them.
Taraas, take them to the 'lazarette'!
Taraas and a second Ukrainian took the four men and disappeared in the direction of the forest.
Paul, apparently amused, turned to us and said, in a whisper:
Do you know where they've gone? - and waited a minute as if he expecting us to guess the answer and then said, They've gone to the 'lazarette'. You know my 'lazarette', don't you? Whoever goes to my 'lazarette' never comes back, never works again. He sleeps peacefully. Paul kept us standing on Appell until we heard the sound of shots from the forest. Only then did he release us. After Appell we returned to the compound next to the barn and only then did I begin to feel how much my whole body was hurting me. I couldn't sit; I couldn't lie, not on my back and not on my sides. I was forced to lie on my stomach, that wasn't quite so painful. I felt even better standing up but I had no strength in my legs to keep me up. And in my ears I still heard Paul's words:
Who wants to sleep? Who wants to rest? Who doesn't want to work any more? Step forward!
Why didn't I 'step forward'? I wanted so much to sleep and not to get up any more!
Bread and coffee were distributed to us and we all sat down in groups eating, each man totally absorbed in his portion as if it were the most important thing in the world. Two days had passed since we had been brought to this place and already ten of us were missing. If things went on at this rate there would be none left at the end of a fortnight. According to all the signs and common-sense logic, it was clear that all the people who had been brought with us on the train, were no longer alive, but deep within us, we were unable to believe that here, in this place, they were killing all who arrived. Neither could we figure out how the killing was done. A few Jews, who were working in the forest, told us that they had heard people's voices there and so claimed that they were still alive. Thus was born within us the spark of hope that they were indeed perhaps - perhaps still alive.
I remembered Miraleh, and the last moments that I had seen her seemed so remote and far away, and into my head flashed the fleeting thought that perhaps I might still see her and tell her everything that had befallen me. During the last two days I had thought of no one, nor of anything. Everything had been so confused. Now, as if almost by chance, I had recalled Miraleh, and my memory was flooded with thoughts of my mother, my sister, my brother and again I burst into uncontrollable sobbing, and again, the same man who had consoled me yesterday, and who now knew my name, came to me and said.
Bereleh, you're not a little child any more. You've got to get a hold of yourself, or you're not going to get out of this alive.
We were as if plunged into a strange dream world in which so many weird things were happening, things which could not possibly occur in reality; things which were beyond the understanding of man. We were utterly exhausted both physically and mentally and functioned purely by instinct. Apparently we had not yet analyzed the events surrounding us, nor had we defined to ourselves our new reality. Everyone, therefore, immediately fell asleep at every opportunity and from everyone's mouths came only moans and groans. I slept only in fits and starts because of the pain. In the morning, at Appell, Wagner called to the work groups and the overseers to step forward. During the two days that we had been in the camp many of us had been appointed to different tasks and working groups, and Wagner designated tradesmen as: shoemakers, carpenters, builders, tailors, a gardener, a garbage collector, a pig-farmer, a worker in the Germans' kitchen, a worker in the Ukrainians' kitchen and a worker in the Jews' kitchen, a worker in the Germans' canteen, a pharmacist, a jeweller, and someone to oversee the funeral pyre. Later, Frenschel chose some young healthy men for the Bahnhof Kommando (a special group for the railway station).
I was assigned to the group working in Compound Two. This time we were taken by Unterscharf?hrer Stoibel, a tall, thin Austrian. Part of the group continued to carry the parcels and packages from the pile to the awning, while the remainder, myself among them, sorted everything into categories. Stoibel organized about ten selected points and explaining that all the different types of belongings had to be placed in the correct pile - new clothes, old clothes, clothes that were no longer usable and which he called 'lumpen' (rags).
Every article of value was sorted separately - shoes, hats, spectacles, wallets, belts and many other items. Stoibel explained to us that it was very important to search every parcel and article of clothing for valuables, such as gold, silver, coins and stock certificates; all these had to be brought immediately to a suitcase which stood near him. He warned us that if any one of us tried any kind of hanky-panky - we would be killed on the spot. He also told us that many garments had gold and silver coins sewn into them, and if, after the sorting had been completed, valuables were still found in the clothing, it would be considered an act of sabotage and the culprit executed on the spot.
We sorted the belongings of those who had been brought to the camp and had disappeared into the forest and were supposedly dead. Everything came to us. I held in my hands the clothes of men and women, outer garments and undergarments, clean ones and dirty ones, children's clothes and their toys.........I searched in the turnups and folds of all that came into my hands, clean and dirty, and found coins of gold, money in the form of bills, dollars, pounds sterling and others, that had been sewn into the clothes by the city-dwelling Jews. Strangely, in the most expensive suitcases, that were full of the finest clothes, there wasn't very much to be found in the way of coin or bills.
Apparently the Germans placed the greatest of importance on this sorting work, because all day long they would come to the area and check how the work was progressing. Stoibel explained the process to them and they appeared to be satisfied. Among those who came was the camp Commandant, Hauptsturmf?hrer Wirt, riding a horse and wearing a white uniform with a cloak draped over his shoulders.
The following day, our work had a special atmosphere to it which was felt all over the camp: all the Germans were walking around armed with automatic weapons and towards noon the SS men Bollender, Gomerski and Getzinger, all armed with automatic weapons, passed by us on their way to Compound Three. Later, we heard a train whistle and knew that a 'Transport' had arrived.
My heart began to pound madly. After a while we heard the voices of women and children coming from the next compound. We heard Oberscharf?hrer Mischel shout: Quiet! Quiet! And when total silence reigned he said to the women that they were in a transfer camp, and that from here they would be taken to the Ukraine to work, but that now they had to undress and go to the showers and to arrange their belongings in an orderly fashion so that they would be able to find them easily on their return. Money and gold, rings and watches, - he told them, you must leave in the safe. Now you must hurry because we haven't got any time to spare!
Almost complete silence fell on the compound. Only the cry of a child was heard. Suddenly we saw naked women with their children walking along between the two barbed wire fences which formed an avenue down its entire length, until they disappeared into the forest. Then the gates opened and Stoibel shouted to us:
Quickly! Collect everything up!
I spotted two women running and behind them a Ukrainian whipping them on their bare backs.
The compound was scattered with lots of small bundles of clothes, and we collected them all as quickly as we could, afterwards raking over the ground, and in doing so we found winking up at us out of the sand coins of silver and articles of gold, that people had hidden in the ground, hoping to find them when they returned from the showers...
The whole operation took only a few minutes and once again the compound stood empty and clean - as if nothing had happened. Then a second group was led into the compound, and so the process repeated itself for a number of hours, and after the groups of women came the men; everything was carried on quietly and in order, only now and again a hurrying up shout was heard from the Germans, and between the two fences of barbed wire, the naked men could be seen marching on their way to Compound Three and disappearing into the forest.
From within the forest shouts and cries came to our ears. We didn't know who was crying - the people from the 'Transport' or the men who were working there. All the people of the 'Transport', which numbered several thousands, were killed that same day. And afterwards at the Appell after work, Stoibel taught us the Germans soldiers' song 'The Blue Dragoons', the last verse of which goes: 'The Jews are dragged to here/They come from the Red Sea;/We will beat them up,/And the world will be at peace.' Stoibel had changed the last words for us to 'Man lives only once/And no more.'
For over an hour we stood there learning the song, until we could sing it satisfactorily. Then we were marched round the compound singing it, and during the breaks that we had, the song could be heard coming from the direction of Compound Three, being sung by others.
That evening in our hut, men who had been working in the forest, close to the edge of Compound Three, told us that they had heard, and even seen, people digging an enormous trench which spread over a large area - the height of the earth which had been excavated from it reaching several metres. There, apparently, they were burying all the slaughtered victims. The things that we ourselves had seen in Compound Two and now the things being told to us by those coming back from the forest, completed the picture: all doubts concerning the camp to which we had been brought were over - this was the extermination camp - Sobibor.
On the railway line Chelm-Wlodawa, next to a small village called Sobibor, the Germans had commandeered a large, richly forested estate, into which a railway siding had been extended so that the tree trunks felled by the workers could more easily be loaded onto the goods wagons and then transported away. There were also administrative buildings for the management and dwelling places for the lumberjacks, a barn or stable, workshops and a small farm. The Germans surrounded the whole thing with a barbed-wire fence and over the gate hung a large sign which said: 'Sobibor - Transit Camp, SS Sonderkommando.'
And within the gates of Sobibor Farm, the Germans created a factory which was designed for the efficient extermination of human beings.
In the beginning we had no idea of the method of killing, although we had already witnessed the disappearance of thousands of people, who were marched to their death - naked as the day they were born - in the forest, without the sound of a shot or a shout being heard; and the approaches to the camp gave not the slightest clue as to the events taking place within its gates - everything seemed so rural, peaceful and quiet. Opposite the railway lines in Compound One, a group of rustic wooden houses stood, which the Germans used as living quarters, kitchen and a canteen. The area was well-cared for. In the front of the houses were rows of flowers, low wooden fences and paths carpeted with twigs along the length of the houses. The gardener, Ya'acov, and his assistant worked there, tending the gardens and growing vegetables for the Germans' kitchen. Beyond were the workshops. Jews were working there now - tailoring and making shoes for the Germans and their women.
Between Compounds One and Two, the Germans had put a small animal farm where the Jews grew the pigs, fattened the geese and cared for the horses - all for the SS men of the camp. Close to the railway siding, at a distance from the living quarters of the Germans and the Jews, a large barrack block had been put up to accommodate the Ukrainians and close to it a small building - the Ukrainians' kitchen. Facing the barracks was another small building used as a guard-room where sat Oberscharf?hrer Grieschutz, who was in charge of the Ukrainians and beyond that, in the direction of the Germans' homes, was the armoury.
In Compound Two stood a fine, large wooden building with a verandah along its whole length. The front of the building looked out over the area where the newcomers undressed, and inside were the secretariat and the vaults for storing the money, gold and valuables. A Jewish jeweller worked there, sorting all the valuables and packing them for shipment.
In the same building was the medicine store, and here, too, worked a Jew who, as a pharmacist, was responsible for sorting drugs, medicines, perfumes and cosmetics, and packing them for shipment. In charge was Ober-scharf?hrer Hermann Mischel, who was nicknamed 'The Preacher' by us, because he it was who spoke to the victims reassuringly, before they were marched to their death. On the other side of the building were the open-sided awnings containing the clothes and property of those who had been brought here, and then led down the path to the forest, the way to Compound Three.
That evening, the same day that the true purpose of the camp became clear to us, those who now knew that they had lost their family, recited the Kaddish in their memory, and their cries of anguish could be heard from every corner. The 'Transport' of that day had demonstrated to us what had been the fate of our own 'Transport', and what was to be the fate of the next - and the ones after that. At the same time, it became clear us that we too, had been left alive for a short time only. All the signs showed us that others had worked in this place before us, and had been exterminated. It appeared that the Germans changed the workers every so often, at short periods. Today, even, two of our number had been taken to the 'lazarette' for no apparent reason.
Now I realized the uselessness of my having stepped forward to put myself among the work parties. For by now I could already have been in a place 'beyond all suffering'. I was convinced that my own death was very close.
We moved to new living quarters. Our carpenters had converted one of the old open barns, used for storing straw, into a bunkhouse, erecting inside it three tiers of bunks stretching the whole length, and surrounding the whole building with barbed wire with a gate set in it. We were transferred to our new quarters at the end of the day's work. Groups of men chose for themselves the best places. I waited until they had finished and then chose for myself a bunk on the second tier close to the door.
Towards dawn, when one of the men got up to use the bucket standing near the door, he came face-to-face with the body of a man hanging in the centre of the room. The man let out a terrified shout which woke us all up in seconds. We looked at the hanged man. I knew him. He was one of the lone ones, like me. About twenty-something years old. Most of the men said nothing. And there were those who concluded that he had done the best thing because now he wouldn't have to suffer any more. I, too, had the thought that it was the best solution for people in our position and my own thoughts began to wander in that direction.
But I continued to live. I knew that at any moment I could die, I even wished for it. Every day that passed by and left me living, also left me dumbfounded that I was still alive. My physical condition became worse. I got beaten nearly every day. My whole body was a mass of pain. It seemed to me that I was beaten far more than anyone else; others seemed to know how to avoid the blows somehow; when a German's back was turned they did nothing, but the moment he looked in their direction, they would begin to work with all their energy so saving themselves from a beating. It was me, and those like me who didn't know how to 'manage' who got all the blows.
'Transports' of Jews continued to come to us from different areas all over Poland, Germany and Czechoslovakia. The 'Death Machine' functioned without a hitch. Here, in Sobibor, it was as if we were in the bowels of the earth - hordes of human beings were being put to death in this place and no one knew of it; there were none here to witness it who could tell.
The Germans and the Ukrainians continued to torment their victims up to the moment of their death, and afterwards they turned on those of us who had been left alive. Bollender, whom we called 'The Bath Master', would incite his dog, Bari, to attack one of the workers every time he passed to and fro on his way to Compound Three and back. One could go out of ones' mind just to watch the awful spectacle of Bari attacking a man, ripping his clothes and tearing his flesh, with the victim, his terrible shrieks rending the air, taken, as often as not, to the 'lazarette'.
One day, Paul Grot came to us with the dog. He sat facing us and laughed, with the dog stretched out beside him. Now and again he set the dog on someone: Mensch! Fass dem Hund! (Man! catch the dog!), he would command Bari. Paul amused himself with us. Occasionally he would send the dog after someone only to recall him at the very instant that the animal was about to attack; sometimes he would allow the dog just to briefly snap at his victim before recalling him. Then again he would leave the dog alone and allow it to chew its victim at will. The fear in itself of the dog's bite, was enough to drive you out of your mind.
Suddenly I saw Bari running straight for me. A kind of weakness spread through all my limbs. The dog jumped on me with such great force that I fell over. He tried to bite me between the legs. I fought against him wildly, pushing his head to one side or the other, then his teeth fastened on my thighs until I felt them against the bone. I forced his head to one side with all my strength, then he bit me on the backside. I don't know what was greater - the fear or the pain. Again I thought my end had come, but I continued to work, the blood collecting inside my trousers. Afterwards, I changed them for trousers that I took from those I was sorting.
At the end of work, at Appell, Paul again asked:
Well, who wants to sleep? Who's tired? Step forward!
To our surprise, a man took a step forward. On his face was an apologetic smile, as if he were saying, Forgive me that I can't take any more...
Paul praised the man and said he would not be tired any more; he will sleep peacefully. Then he took two others from the rows of people and sent the three of them to the 'lazarette'. Within a minute or two we heard a few shots.
I didn't step forward and Paul didn't call me out.
In the evening, when I was lying on my bunk groaning with pain, I heard a conversation between the two Jews sitting above me. One said:
That youngster below us, isn't going to hang on much longer - perhaps another couple of days.
A pity, said the second, agreeing with his colleague's view, he seems like a nice lad.
When I was a little boy I had eavesdropped on a conversation between my mother and her friend. My mother was talking about her children, and of me, she said:
Bereleh isn't a lovely boy, but he's very delicate.
When we returned home, I stood in front of the mirror for an hour.
I didn't know whether I was ugly or not. I believed my mother. I wasn't angry with her. But it bothered me. Now, when the two Jews had sealed my fate, as it were, and that I was soon going to die, I accepted their opinion without demur, as I had accepted then that I was ...not a pretty child, and I saw myself on the way to death.
My condition really worsened. The wounds from the bites became infected and filled with pus. The awful pains made me limp. I suffered a lot from loneliness as well. Without knowing why, I wasn't able to make friends with the young people who were among us. When I asked something of them I was rejected with such rudeness and curses that I didn't dare to approach them any more. It was beyond me to understand how they could behave like that, while from the older people, I received help and heard encouraging words.
In the evenings I saw many groups lying on their bunks and making meals, opening tinned foods, slicing sausage-meat, even drinking wine or vodka. All these things, they had taken from the parcels we had sorted, and then smuggled into the barracks. Many had found gold coins and dollar bills and hidden them, either in the barracks or outside somewhere. I couldn't understand why they were doing it. Only my imminent death occupied my thoughts.
In the morning I woke up feeling that something was dripping on me. I touched the liquid with my fingers and discovered that it was thick and red. I was sure that it was the jam that was shared out last night had overturned on the bunk above me and I said so to my neighbour by my side. My neighbour jumped from his bunk and shouted: He's dead! The man on the bunk above me was lying in a pool of blood. He had cut the veins and arteries of his wrists. He was a young man who had come from Austria or Poland and was considered among the lonely ones, who had no family among us, and had struck up no acquaintance with anyone. Again I felt jealous of the man who now was beyond all care. The thought of suicide now consumed me. I pondered over it unceasingly and searched for a quick way to do it, without pain. Cutting ones wrists seemed a cruel way, that I couldn't do. In sorting out the items at work I looked for poison but found none; neither did I know exactly what I was looking for. Hanging seemed the best way to commit suicide, but also in that I was no expert. I thought the best thing was just not to wake up in the morning.
In the meantime I continued to live and to suffer. Something else which I had forgotten was brought to my attention by one of the men after the suicide of the man that had cut his wrists was, that according to our religion we are forbidden to commit suicide. The man reminded me that it was a great sin, although I knew that already. I had even heard that it was forbidden to bury a suicide together with others, but only in a special place, next to the fence, something which had made a deep impression on me, except that now I didn't give it a thought, as I no longer thought about eating non-kosher food. All of us, except two or three among us, who ate only bread and nothing else, ate non-kosher food. At the same time, the man's words brought me face-to-face with the seriousness of what I was contemplating, and also reminded me that since the moment I had arrived at Sobibor, I had neither prayed nor had I thought of God. And yet, in the most difficult moments, whenever I was confronted with an impasse in life, I always sought help from God.
And of all places, here in Sobibor, in this hell on earth, that I should have forgotten God as if he had never existed for me. The way the Germans treated us, the way we all ran like a flock of frightened sheep, how we fell, rolling, leaping like frogs to their command; when I hear the screams of my neighbour and my own when we are being beaten, or being bitten by Bari, it seemed to me that we had ceased to be men; we had lost the image of humanity. We were in the realm of the devil.
No! What was happening before our eyes was inhuman, and God had no business in such a place. Since I was born, I had learned that Man must fight Satan, and not allow him to control us. Now I prayed to God and begged Him to forgive me for having neglected Him. I also pleaded with Him to take my soul and that I shouldn't awake in the morning.
Suddenly something rose up within me. Why? Why didn't God do something to stop this slaughter? Why was God punishing the Children of Israel? It couldn't possibly be that everyone of us had sinned such grievous sins that it was imperative to kill all of us. I was taught that God loved the Children of Israel, because He chose them from all the nations on earth. How could it be, that God is sitting up there on high, watching how, in a little village called Sobibor, they are exterminating the Jewish people - all of them - men women and little children - with no exceptions? Perhaps our God is weak, and the god of the Germans stronger and our God is sitting up there crying, unable to do anything?
On the first day that the Germans entered Lodz, our neighbour, the Volksdeutsche, said to my mother:
Our beloved God can no longer bear to see our suffering, and has come to save us.
My mother repeated the story to us, with a bitter smile on her face, but we were taught that the God of Israel was Master of the entire universe, Omnipotent. I recalled the hymn we sang in the synagogue:
There is none like our God, none like our Master, none like our Saviour....
And perhaps God is cruel, without mercy, not as written about in the Holy Books, and it is by His order the Germans are destroying the Jewish people? And perhaps there isn't even a God in the heavens? But it isn't possible that God is bad, it is not possible that He is weak, and it is cannot possibly be God who is destroying the Chosen People.
But it is also not possible that the thing which my father, mother, all my family, and all the people of Israel believed in during thousands of years, was a mistake - and just didn't exist at all!
When I was a small child, I asked my father just once, who it was that created God. My father answered: It's forbidden to ask questions like that: it's even forbidden to think of them. I tried very hard not to think of them. And now, also, I tried to reject for all time the Epicurean thoughts, but they wouldn't leave me, as if the Devil had taken residence inside me.
On Sunday we worked only half a day. The day was supposed to be a day for cleaning the camp and for rest. In the afternoon, everyone busied himself with washing and cleaning; we knew that the Germans would come for an inspection and everyone did as well as he could, as if it were a commandment from Mount Sinai itself. When the group of Germans, with Wagner at its head, entered our bunk-house, there were those who were still hard at it, there were those that lay resting on their bunks, and those sitting outside in the front of the bunkhouse. The manner of their approach and the looks on the faces of the Germans, boded evil. Wagner, who took charge of the inspection, was irritable and shouted crudities. He commanded us to collect all our effects and reassemble in two minutes. Everyone ran like mad and brought their things. I had nothing except two blankets, but the others had lots of bits and pieces and I had no idea from where they had collected them, or for what purpose. The people were afraid to take everything they had out of the bunkhouse onto the parade ground so they left a lot of things behind, or dropped them on the ground, including silver and gold coins. The Germans moved among us checking all the articles, occasionally catching someone in the act of throwing something away, beating him on the spot or standing him to one side. When we were all standing outside with our belongings, one or two of the Germans entered the block and searched it thoroughly. At the same time, another group of Germans moved from one to the other of each of us and searched us from head to toe. People who had forbidden items on them were put to one side. There were two red-headed brothers, rather crude in their behaviour, who were somewhat close to the Germans and everyone was afraid of them; They were found to be a walking treasure house of contraband food and a hoard of silver and gold coins. They were beaten terribly on the spot, falling at the feet of the Germans and begging for mercy to no avail; they were taken aside and immediately put to death.
Wagner ordered a bench-seat to be brought and had it set up in the compound. Each one who had been found in possession of forbidden items received twenty-five lashes on his naked buttocks, spread-eagled on the bench. Two held his arms from each side, one his head and one his legs, so that he couldn't move. In the beginning the Germans did the whipping laying the lash on with all their strength. The victim couldn't move, only his buttocks jumped to each blow. All of them screamed in agony until their screams turned to moans. The Germans perspired and when they were tired they made two Jews, whom they had already used on different occasion to help them, do the whipping. The name of one of them was Pozyczki, a young man of twenty-something from Warsaw, whose father, a shoe maker, and his two younger brothers were in the same work group together with him; the German put the whip in Pozyczki's hand and he set about his work with all his strength, just like the German. The second man, who was known to us as Beno, seemed a bit embarrassed. He wasn't whipping hard enough. Frenschel stopped him and said:
I'll teach you how to whip!
He ordered him to lay on the bench and whipped him with all his might, asking him with each stroke, Well, now do you know how to whip?
Beno's blows improved and became stronger, but not as strong as Pozyczki's.
The punishment continued for over an hour, accompanied by shouting and crying. Afterwards Stoibel took charge of us, led us to and open area and ordered us to sing. We already knew a couple of songs but they didn't sound right, somehow lacking in harmony. Stoibel got angry and started shouting. He ran us round the compound and gave us punishment exercises: Run! Fall! Get up! Crawl! Leap-frog. And again made us march round singing, and again we ran, and again we sang.....
And so it continued for over an hour.
A short distance from us, a platoon of Ukrainians was marching, singing a song in perfect harmony. A little further away, on the other side of the barbed wire fence, boys from the village were leading the cows home from pasture, their voices sounding bell-like.
Ten days passed by in Sobibor and I was still alive. Every evening, I asked myself how it was that I had not yet died, and how much time was still left to me to live. I knew it had to happen at any moment. Many of those who had come together with me to this place were already dead. What could be the explanation that I, the weak and beaten one, begging to die, continue to live while others, stronger than I, fighting for their lives, fell day after day like flies? We had all been condemned to death, this one today and that one tomorrow.
The Jews who worked in Sobibor were divided into three groups: one group included those who were classed as professional artisans, like tailors and shoe makers, who worked to supply the personal needs of the Germans. Their conditions were the best in the camp, doing their work as if they were only uninvolved spectators, watching the bestiality going on around them from the side-lines; they had chances of living relatively longer - until a specific order came to kill them. With the second group were numbered those who had been chosen by the Germans for special duties in the camp, like in the kitchen, or cleaners for the Germans, or working in the store rooms, cowshed or tending the geese.
These went every day to their work but they were not caught up in the processes of extermination, and as long as they did their work satisfactorily, they, too, could live relatively long; their disadvantage was that they could be replaced easily. The third group, to which I belonged, was formed of simple workers, of whom there was an ample supply in the death camp; it was possible to exchange us at any moment with others chosen from the next 'Transport' that arrived at the camp, and indeed, ninety percent of the Jewish workers who were killed in the first ten days of our stay in the camp, were from this group. And not only that; they were subjected to abuse by the Germans for the gratification of their cruel instincts. The Germans tended to change the workers every fortnight and to exterminate the old group, but since the arrival of our group, they had come to the conclusion that for the sake of efficiency it was better to keep the men alive for a longer period. This applied, obviously, to the tradesmen and professionals, not to the simple workers like my own group, who were always in a state of perpetual change - every day they killed us, each day they brought new workers to us. We were suspended somewhere between life and death.
And again a 'Transport' arrived, this time before dawn. The sound of the locomotive's whistle, as it shunted the wagons into the camp, awoke us from our sleep. In a minute or two the whole hut was awake. All of us went pale. In spite of knowing that we were living in hell, in spite of knowing what was going on in this place, our flesh crept with the awareness of the tragedy that loomed over us with the arrival of each new 'Transport', that this time it could be us that went together with them, to death.
Suddenly Frenschel came into the hut, called the Bahnhof Kommando and led them to work before morning Appell. I heard the voices of people getting down off the wagons and all of a sudden the thought came to me: maybe my mother, my sister and my little brother, Yankeleh are on this 'Transport'? Perhaps my brother Mottel? How was it, that I had never thought of the possibility until now? Although it seemed so unreasonable that my family should be on this particular 'Transport', yet nevertheless, the thought wouldn't leave me. I washed dressed and drank my coffee, and went out to Appell.
On the way to work in Compound Two, with the group, my one thought was that perhaps at this very moment, my family was being led to death. On more than one occasion, it had happened that people had found their family's belongings among the piles left behind on the ground. The opposite had also happened - one of the shoemakers had asked Wagner to take his wife off one of the 'Transports', and miraculously Wagner was persuaded to go and look for her and put her in one of the working groups. I imagined to myself how happy my mother would be to see me alive, how Yankeleh would run towards me...but I immediately recalled that the only chance I would have of seeing them would be when they were striding between the two fences. How could I get near them? Should I join them on their way to death in the forest? But the Germans wouldn't let me near them; they would simply take me to the 'lazarette', causing my loved ones even more anguish.
But why should I suddenly suppose that they were on a 'Transport'? Maybe I had gone out of my mind? I can hear the women in the compound, I can hear Oberscharf?hrer Mischel shouting and afterwards I can see naked women walking between the barbed wire fences and by turning my head, I can follow them. with my eyes Then, suddenly, the gates to the undressing compound are opened and we run inside to collect all the belongings.
One day, a group of Jews was taken out of a 'Transport' which had arrived, to replace those who had been killed in the previous few days.
Among the new workers was a young man named Moisheh. On his first evening with us, he sat and cried. He told us that he came from a religious home and did not eat non-kosher food and begged that we should give him something to eat. From our 'Transport' there was a chap nicknamed 'Zigeuner' (gypsy). The story going round was that he was an orphan, and that once a circus had come to his town and the little orphan had run around their camp and that when they left they had taken him with them; his absence was noticed only after a few days and searches for him produced no results. The child lived with the gypsies until he grew up and by his own account his life among them was very good, and he even learned a lot from them; for all that he later returned to his home town. 'Zigeuner' was very talented and knew how to do everything; he was good-hearted, helped everyone, liked everyone and was liked by them - even the Germans. Wagner wanted to make him a 'Kapo' but 'Zigeuner' refused absolutely. At one of the Appells, Wagner called him out to the front ordering him to give twenty-five lashes to one of the Jews. 'Zigeuner' refused saying he couldn't do it but Wagner insisted and handed him the whip.
'Zigeuner' gave a few weak lashes, ridiculously weak ones and Wagner went white with anger, ordering him to lie down and then whipping him with all his strength.
'Zigeuner' didn't let out a sound. Wagner continued whipping him and 'Zigeuner' continued to remain silent. At one point I thought that he was dead. How can one possibly remain silent under such punishment?
(Later on when I was beaten,I told myself every time - This time I won't cry; I'll stay silent, like 'Zigeuner' - but I was never able to hang on for more than seven or eight blows). But when Wagner ordered 'Zigeuner' to stand up, he did so immediately. Wagner ordered him to whip the same man, and again 'Zigeuner' whipped the man only lightly. I was sure that Wagner was going to just shoot him on the spot, but that didn't happen. Wagner only told him to return to his place and asked:
Who knows how to whip harder than 'Zigeuner'?
And then, out stepped Moisheh - the guy who had cried and didn't want to eat non-kosher food - stretched out his hand for the whip and started whipping his victim as no one had ever whipped before. There, on the spot Wagner granted him the title of 'Kapo'. Within a few days he had already been promoted to head 'Kapo' and Frenschel nicknamed him 'Governor-General', instructing the tailors to make him a special uniform: trousers with red stripes down the seams, a coat with shiny buttons and red epaulettes, a round, stiff hat with a red band round it and three stars in front....
'Governor-General' Moisheh very quickly became the all-powerful omnipotent, cruel ruler of the camp. The Germans supported him and introduced a law: everyone approaching him was obliged to remove his cap before addressing him and to refer to him as 'Herr Governor-General!' It was obligatory to remove the cap when simply passing by him as well.
Offenders of the rule were liable to twenty-five lashes.
There were no limits to the Germans' abuses of us. We had not a moment's rest from them. There were a few courageous hearts among us who committed suicide. We were all jealous of them. A few went completely mad. One, about thirty-years-old, suddenly approached one of the walls at midday and started smashing his head against it, in front of our eyes. Some of us rushed towards him to help him and stop him, but he exerted tremendous strength and, letting no one near him, continued to smash his head against the wall. Covered in blood, he was taken to the 'lazarette'. Someone started shouting in the middle of the night and tried to force his way out. Others had to exert all their strength to restrain him until he fell asleep again. Another was attacked by fits of uncontrollable laughter, and continued to laugh during Appell. Oberscharf?hrer Mischel approached him, landed a blow on his face with his whip and ordered him to stop. The man continued.
You're an idiot! Mischel said to him, and asked him: What are you?
The man said to the German: You're an idiot, and continued to laugh.
The German continued to hit him and again asked: Was bist du? (What are you?), and the Jew answered: Idiot bist du! (You're an idiot).
The German continued to beat the man until quite suddenly the laughter changed to crying, and he fell to the ground unconscious.
An elderly man, short and thin, worked with us sorting the effects. I've forgotten his name. He would examine and pack all the clothes which had been classed as 'rags'. One day he was crowned 'Lumpen König' (King of the Rags), by Scharf?hrer Paul Grot who from that moment on never left him in peace for one instant but would play all sorts of 'games' with him. When there was a visit by German officers in the camp, Paul would present him as the 'Lumpen König', and order him to sing and dance, which he did. Paul gave him all sorts of inedible things to eat and drink, like soap and different sorts of creams, or a pan full of oil; or order him to drink a selection of liquids, like medicines and perfumes, and the 'Lumpen König' would beg him: Shoot me, I don't want to live! But he would eat and drink everything that Paul gave him. Sometimes he would turn chalk-white and collapse as one dead. Then Paul would send someone for a bucket of water to throw over him; after a while the man would revive and carry on working. One day, Paul commanded him to shave only the right side of his face every day - one cheek, half the moustache, one eyebrow, and half the head, and allow the other half to grow. Paul also changed his name and began to call him 'Der Schrecklicher Ivan' - Ivan the Terrible.
His appearance became more grotesque every day.
The Germans later found themselves another victim - a very tall thin Jew, who had been nicknamed as the 'Grabowitzer', because he came from the village of that name. This man was ordered to shave only the left side of his face, and on Appell the two of them were called to the front of the line-up where only the progress of their growth was checked by the Germans. The father and three sons Pozyczki were also called to the front. Stoibel would present all of them in an amused fashion and the German guests would laugh loudly.
Somehow, I don't know how or why, an end came to my loneliness.
From day-to-day I found myself making friends with more and more people. I was surprised and amazed by the number of people who began to call me by name and ask after my welfare. One day, after work Old Man Pozyczki, the shoemaker, met me and told me to come to his work-shop. There, I found also his son the Kapo. The old man brought me a bowl of soup and a slice of bread. I stood transfixed with surprise, but the old man said:
Eat, eat, Bereleh. You need it, and the son said: When you're given something - eat it!
In the short time we had been in Sobibor, a division had been formed between the 'veterans' and the newcomers. We, who had arrived over two weeks ago, were considered veterans - we knew each other and all that we had experienced together had made of us one identifiable group, cohesive and separate in the eyes of 'outsiders'. Even 'Governor-General Moisheh' and the Kapos Pozyczki and son related differently towards us than they did to the newcomers who had arrived recently.
In the bunk next to mine a new arrival, named Munik, from the last 'Transport', two years older than I, had 'taken up residence'. We became friends immediately. We spent all our spare moments together. Munik told me that he had come to Sobibor with his family - parents, his four brothers and a sister. When Wagner had selected him for work, he hadn't wanted to be separated from his family but his father had insisted that he go. Munik cried the whole night, repeatedly saying:
I can't live, when all my family are dead.
He almost didn't eat, and I tried to encourage him to hang on. I knew that if he continued like that he wouldn't last. We talked a lot.
It's not worth living here for one moment, said Munik. The solution is simply to kill ourselves.
I knew that really he was right. I myself had come to a similar conclusion some time ago. But for all that, I tried to draw him away from those thoughts.
Until then, I had not 'acquired' a thing from the items passing through my hands in the sorting work; I didn't need anything. Now, when I found something good to eat, I would hide it in spite of the danger of being killed, and smuggle it into our hut for Munik. But he didn't want to eat, and only occasionally did so to please me.
One day, we both returned from work in a bad state. Munik had been bitten by Bari. While he was sitting in the toilet with a few other workers, Bollender came from Compound Three into Compound Two, and from a distance set Bari onto us while we were in the toilet. Everyone got away, holding their trousers up with their hands, but Bari caught Munik by the buttocks and thighs. His condition was not good. That same day, I had brought a pile of papers to burn at the incinerator pit. I exchanged a few words with the man in charge, Meir. I didn't see anyone in the vicinity but when I came out Frenschel was standing in front of me. He started whipping me about the face and head. The thongs were worn and a nail tore into my cheek (the thongs were made of strips of hard leather joined by rivets, wide at the handle end and thin at the free end and covered in a soft, fine leather; from much use the covering leather had become worn and torn leaving the rivets exposed). When I returned from work, I saw all the others staring at me worriedly. Everyone wanted to help me and to call our first-aid chap, who came and dressed my wounds and Munik's. We both lay on our bunks and cried. I was very worried. My injuries weren't as bad as I had originally thought, when the blood was flowing freely, and after being dressed, the pain lessened somewhat, but anxiety struck me at the thought that I may lose Munik. I had a feeling in the pit of my stomach that things weren't going to work out.
We hardly spoke the whole evening. I didn't know what to say; it seemed to me that all I could say would be empty and meaningless and could only anger Munik, who lay groaning all night long. I was worried that he would do something to himself during the night so I decided to stay awake and watch over him. I kept falling asleep and waking up every so often, though every time I woke up I checked to make sure that he was all right and still breathing next to me.
In the morning, at reveille, Munik refused to get up. I tried to scare him by telling him that 'Governor-General Moisheh' was already in the barrack block and whipping those who hadn't yet got up. Munik got to his feet but his attitude was strange, like one completely uncaring of his surroundings.
I had already learned that those who become passive usually die quickly. I felt that I was losing Munik. I prayed for him to be sent to work with me - perhaps I would succeed in saving him. But Munik was sent to work in the forest.
When I returned from work, before anyone had said a word, I knew that Munik was no more. I read it in the eyes of everyone. They all knew that we were like two brothers. The men who had been working with him came and told me that he had been taken to the 'lazarette'. Everyone was of the opinion that he had deliberately caused it to happen; he wanted it so. According to the account, he refused to work and right at the beginning of the day received twenty-five lashes from Kapo Beno.
Beno, who also came to talk to me, said:
I had no real choice. I got an order from Getzinger. I tried to whip him as lightly as I could. I told him that if he didn't work they would kill him but it made no impression on him; he just didn't care. He killed himself.
He's already better off, said someone trying to console me on the loss of my friend. He doesn't need to suffer any more. If only we were all in the same position.
The shock of Munik's death didn't really hit me in the first minutes. I accepted it as a foregone conclusion, and in any case, death had become a commonplace and no longer caused such great anxiety; it was a daily occurrence. But when I entered the bunkhouse and saw my friend's empty bunk, I felt the full weight of my loss, the pointlessness of my own life, and decided that I would put an end to my suffering that very night. I was completely overcome. My heart pounded. All of my hesitations disappeared; I felt no fear. On the contrary - I felt relieved and satisfied with myself. Every time doubts began to gnaw at my mind I thrust them away from me. My brain emptied itself of all awareness of my surroundings. I even forgot my friend Munik. All my thoughts were focused on my forthcoming suicide.
I examined the possibilities. I had no means to hand, no poison to swallow, no razor-blade to slash my veins, no rope to hang myself. I was helpless. I could go and look for something in one of the workshops but I was afraid of being seen. It was sure that if someone saw me they would guess what I was planning. So I lay on my bunk doing nothing until I decided to use the belt from my trousers.
I waited for everyone to fall asleep. I called up from my memory all the members of my family whom I had once had, one by one, and took my leave of them. I quietly and carefully withdrew the belt from my trousers. Luckily there was no one sleeping near me. Because my bunk was low down I had to climb to the upper bunk and tie the belt to the beam of the ceiling. I threaded the belt through its buckle, making a loop, and passed it over my head. I felt the cold leather on the skin of my neck. Half sitting, half lying, I stayed in that position, unmoving, for more than an hour, as if paralysed. I couldn't take that last step.
Suddenly I was seized by the thought that I shouldn't kill myself, that perhaps - after all - I may remain alive. I had already been within a hairsbreadth of death and each time a near miracle had saved me. I survived. What is this strength that enables me to hang on? After all, I was a weak, lonely child, who by pure chance now finds himself among the workers, where death reaps his daily harvest from among those far fitter than I, who presumably would know better than I how to survive.
Was it really only by coincidence that I have survived in this place?
Thousands have been exterminated here, before my eyes, and new structures are going up day by day to enlarge this awful place. The Germans, so it seemed, were clearly determined in Sobibor, to destroy the entire Jewish people and perhaps others as well. What on earth was the point in continuing to live in this place any longer?
The barrack block was silent. From time to time a groan was heard from a sleeper or the voices of the Ukrainian guards patrolling outside the windows. They broke the thread of my thoughts. I pulled at the belt round my throat and felt it tighten; I felt the 'taste' of being strangled but still I didn't move. I had neither the strength nor the courage to climb up to the top bunk and finish the job. Fatigue overcame me and I fell asleep.............
In the morning I woke up to the call of reveille. When I recalled the previous night I was ashamed of myself.
Why was I not able to do it? Why didn't I have the courage to carry through what I had clearly decided I wanted to do? I must kill myself and put an end to all this. If I didn't do it last night, then I must do it tonight. Today, I must get hold of some rope from somewhere - my belt will probably be too short. At the sorting area there is no shortage of rope.
Again Appell, and all the sorters were sent to work with the Wald Kommando - the forest workers. SS. men, Gomerski and Getzinger together with a few Ukrainians led us to the place. We crossed the open place between Compound Two and the forest. To the left was Compound Three. We entered the forest from the right side, close to the camp fence and railway lines, passing close to the 'lazarette' - a small wooden building, with a tiled roof. From the roof rose a cross - apparently this was the church of the local graveyard. Close by rose a mound of earth next to a hole. It was in this hole that our comrades had been killed. A shudder ran through me. Perhaps it had been decided to kill us? But we marched on into the forest. After we had covered about a hundred metres we saw to the left of us a barbed wire fence and behind it a mound of pale, sandy soil about twenty metres high. A mound like that is a rare sight in the forest where the earth is much darker and we were suspicious of it. We were ordered to carry logs, which had been felled by the Wald Kommando, on our shoulders to the main camp, where they were to be used for electricity poles and various building purposes in the expansion programme of the camp. The work was crushing.
The Germans and Ukrainians whipped us ceaselessly. I found it especially difficult because I was so short my shoulders didn't reach high enough to support the log and I had to walk on tip-toe - not only to help the others with the load, but also so that the Germans wouldn't notice that I wasn't doing any work. Because of my height, it often happened that the full weight of the log fell on my shoulders almost brought me to the point of collapse.
On the return trip to the forest we had to run. While running, my eyes turned to the pale mound rising to my left and suddenly I heard men's voices from behind it, shouting in German, then the barking of a dog followed by terrible shouts and cries which echoed through the forest. The barking, shouts and cries were stilled, but then started up again, and so it went on, in cycles, until it seemed that it would never stop. Even though I had become used to crying and shouting - my own and others' - I couldn't stand the terrible sounds coming from the forest.
I felt as if I were going mad and inside myself, I was crying together with the unfortunates hidden from my view. Now the riddle of the missing people from all the 'Transports', who were led into the forest, was solved. The mounds of sand was the sub-soil of the vast pits which the Jews had been ordered to dig in which were buried, layer upon layer, the thousands who had been killed in the gas chambers. On each layer chlorine powder had been thrown. The goings-on behind the hills drove all thoughts of work from my mind, and Oberscharf?hrer Getzinger letting out all his rage on me, immediately began to whip me about the face and body. I fell to the ground under the blows and he continued to beat and kick me. I was quite sure that I was never going to get up again, yet when he screamed at me Get up! I found myself doing so immediately. He had a pistol in his hand and it was aimed at me. I continued to work as quickly as I could.
All that day my thoughts lay on what was going on behind the hills of sand. In my imagination I could see hundreds of thousands of bodies in the pits, in my ears the echo of their cries. It was like hearing the dead crying.
After evening Appell, I lay on my bunk and fell asleep immediately. I dreamed that my mother came to visit me, together with little brother, Yankeleh. My mother looked beautiful, as she did on festivals, before the war. She wore a lovely, close-fitting dress and her hair, gathered at the back, emphasized her high forehead. Her sad face expressed her love for me. Little Yankeleh, dressed in a fur-lined, winter coat, red cheeked and sad faced as well, stood unmoving like a doll beside her. I was astonished by their visit. Only a few metres separated us - something prevented us from getting any closer. I wanted to say something to them, but no words came to my mouth. My mother looked at me for a long moment and then said that they had to go. I wanted to go with them but my mother, who seemed to know what I wanted to say, said that I have to stay where I am.
It's good for you here, she said, and it was beyond my understanding to know why I was forbidden to go with them. I began to stride after them but they moved away from me and disappeared from view.
The next day I forgot all the aches and pains from my beating and could think only of the dream. I was happy that I had seen my mother and Yankeleh so clearly and so near. Again and again I relived every detail of the dream and tried to explain it. In the end I came to the conclusion that my mother and Yankeleh were no longer alive - my mother had come to tell me not to follow them, in other words not to kill myself - I had to stay alive; I had to survive.
The dream made me forget the idea of suicide.
A train arrived and the locomotive pushed some of the wagons into the camp, but there seemed to be no purpose behind it: there were no armed Germans, no Ukrainian guards and no call to the Bahnhof Kommando to report for duty. We strained our ears to hear something but there was no sound from the direction of the platform. It seemed clear that the train hadn't brought any people.
The following morning there was a hurried Appell. This time we were not divided up into working groups as usual. Everyone, apart from one or two special workers, was put into one of two groups - the larger one was taken to the platform, while the remainder, I among them, were led to Compound Two. The wagons which had arrived were all empty, except for one, which was loaded with drums of chlorine powder. The first group worked at unloading all the drums from the wagons, while the second reloaded the empty wagons with all the sorted property that had accumulated under the awnings and in the store rooms. The work was performed on the run. We had to run from Compound Two to the wagons, a distance of about three hundred metres. Along the whole distance stood Germans and Ukrainians hurrying us along with shouts and blows. Wagon after wagon was filled with clothes, shoes and all the other effects, which the Jews had brought with them to Sobibor. Everything had been sorted and repacked into parcels and suitcases, toilet soap separated from laundry soap, men's socks from women's stockings, children's dolls from other toys. Even the rags had been packed into large parcels. Gold, silver and other valuables were packed in special suitcases and crates, locked and loaded onto a separate wagon.
In spite of the fact that we worked on the run, we had to continue all day long without a break of even a minute, until the evening. At one point, while running with a parcel of rags bigger than myself, I found myself face to face with Wagner, who was standing in the way. Our eyes met. He looked at me and said with a grin full of mockery and derision:
Run, run, Children of Israel, you'll get to Palestine!
More than once I had been beaten by Wagner and yet his words, piercing my heart like a dagger, hurt far more.
For some time we had already been discussing how to get someone out of Sobibor camp, in order to warn other Jews and tell the world what was going on here. We knew that the people coming here on the 'Transports', hadn't the faintest idea where they had been brought - or why. Now, we had a chance to actually do it and one of us was actually prepared to attempt it. The man asked us to hide him in a wagon under the packages so that he couldn't be seen, promising us that if he succeeded in escaping safely, he would go from place to place, telling everyone what was happening in Sobibor. We hid him in one of the wagons beneath a mountain of parcels. The wagons were closed and sealed, and shunted outside the camp, where they stood all night long. In the morning, before the locomotive was attached, a detachment of German soldiers examined the wagons. The soldiers found an open window in one of the wagons, and because of this the whole Bahnhof Kommando was publicly whipped, on the parade ground, as a punishment.
Nevertheless, the Germans failed to discover that one of our number was missing - and we knew that our comrade had succeeded in getting away.
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