There were many artists among the newcomers.
A well-known artist arrived from Germany, and the Germans exploited his talents - they gave him a studio and there he painted their portraits, and those of their families. The elderly artist, grave-faced and serious, worked day and night to please his masters.
The Germans picked out a few musicians and put together a small orchestra, which used to play on Sundays. On more than one occasion, we were obliged to dance to its strains. Sometimes, when a 'Transport' arrived, the orchestra was called to play for them - much to their surprise. A cabaret artiste also arrived at the camp - from Holland or France - who sang in many languages. Sometimes, all the Germans would gather together, the orchestra would play and the cabaret artiste sing. Her voice was pure and deep and the songs she sang were melancholy, and although I couldn't understand a single word, they brought a lump to my throat. It was the first time that I had ever experienced a performance by a singer of that calibre and style and I was completely captivated by her. Apparently I wasn't the only one since there was prolonged applause at the end of each song from both us and the Germans. After a short period, she was taken to the 'lazarette' and we never heard her sing again. The story was, that one of the Germans had been getting too close to her and they couldn't allow it - so they killed her.
A similar event occurred involving the sadistic Paul Grot. He took for himself a beautiful young girl as a cleaner for his personal quarters and very soon fell in love with her. We didn't understand what had happened to him - all at once he changed completely. He stopped beating us and setting Bari on us. He even gave cigarettes to people and chatted with them occasionally. In our barracks could be heard questions like: What's happened to Paul? There were those who thought it was evidence of an improving general situation. After a time we realized that the change had been sparked by his love for the Dutch Jewess - she influenced him. The Germans' reaction wasn't long in coming. One day, when Paul went in to town, Wagner came and took her to the 'lazarette'. After a few minutes we heard the usual shots being fired. When Paul returned he went to her block - perhaps even taking a small gift - and found in her place a group of SS, among them Wagner.
Paul, he asked mockingly, where's your lady-love?
From that moment on, Paul became even more sadistic than he had been previously - to the extent that he interfered with the efficient running of the camp's work and for days on end he would be drunk. They had no option but to transfer him from the camp. We later heard that he was in Treblinka.
Two new SS men arrived at the camp. Untersturmf?hrer Neumann, who was the camp Commandant's deputy, and Untersturmf?hrer Weiss, a tall thin German, impeccably turned out from top to toe. His function was unclear to us - we never saw him involved with the 'Transports' and he never had any contact with us; he would wander around the camp talking with the other Germans, who all treated him with respect.
One Sunday, towards evening, we had a roll-call. All the Germans were present on the parade-ground. It was clear that something was about to happen. After we had done a few exercises, Untersturmf?hrer Weiss stood on the podium and said:
Pay attention, I want to teach you a song!
It was most strange for a senior SS officer to say that he was going to teach us a song, but he read us the words:
'O, bring us back our Moses,The music to these words was serious and sounded like a prayer. We sang the song - each section of it - accompanied by different movements of the body, such as raising our arms, bending down, kneeling and bowing, and so on. Each couplet was practiced a few times over the next hours, until it was word- and action-perfect. After that serious song, Untersturmf?hrer Weiss taught us a livelier one with a fast tempo:
To Thy faithful children;
That he may again divide the sea
And it will stand as a wall -
Firm as an eternal rock.
And through the narrow passage,
All the Jews will pass.
Close, then, Thou, the gateway.
And all the Nation shall have peace.
Jerusalem, Hallelujah, Amen.'
'I am a Jew, you can see by my nose,This song we learned much more quickly. Weiss wasn't so precise about all the fine details - apparently he didn't consider it as important a composition as the first. According to rumour, Untersturmf?hrer Weiss himself had written the words and music to both pieces.
Its hook leads me along from the van.
In war as cautious as a rabbit;
In times of crises demanding conditions.
I come from the Land of Israel
I scorn the honest man.
Two are one;
And pork I do not eat.
I'm a Jew and a Jew I want to be.'
The work as a putzer for the Ukrainians had changed my 'life-style' completely, not only because we found ourselves with spare time as we became more skilled and efficient at our work, but principally because we found ourselves no longer under the immediate and constant control of the Germans. In fact, we weren't really under anyone's control. Oberscharf?hrer Grieschutz came every week for an inspection to make sure that everything was clean and was satisfied with our work. Wagner would come sometimes and examine every corner, but never found a stain to complain about. The Ukrainians treated us well, even the cruellest of them, like Taraas and Rok-tsuk (a nick-name meaning 'Faster' which got stuck to him because he always shouted at us 'Faster'!). Rok-tsuk and Taraas would fulfill most of the execution orders. Rok-tsuk loved to stab people with his bayonet and even I once felt the point of his bayonet. Once I saw him bayonet to death a baby which had been left behind in the undressing yard.......
The occasional, spontaneous, humanitarian treatment which we received at the hands of the Ukrainians, surprised me. One day Rok-tsuk called me into his room and, cutting off a slice of sausage with his dagger, handed it to me. I just couldn't understand. I thought that in a second or two he would stab me in the stomach with his dagger, but he only spread a quick smile on his face as if to say: You see! I can be good as well!
The Ukrainians got used to us as they would to their pet dogs. For as long as we did what they asked they treated us well and occasionally threw us a bone. We got used to them as well. The work we had to do was fairly easy, so much so that it was difficult to compare our situation with what was happening just a few steps away. Both of us, Tsudik and I, felt ourselves as if we were on some isolated island, surrounded by a sea full of sharks.
I didn't need much food to satisfy me, so I could give my daily ration of bread and soup to the good friend I had found during my illness, who had treated me like a brother. When I was ill, the people in the camp had treated me really well, but one of them especially, a quiet, religious youngster, a few years older than I, called Avraham, was particularly dedicated to looking after me. Avraham sat next to me and nursed me all through my illness. He saw that had enough to drink, wiped the perspiration off me and made sure I never felt abandoned or alone. More than once I asked myself how I could repay him and now the possibility had presented itself. Apart from the daily portion of food that I could give him I brought him cigarettes. And not only him; I brought things for my other friends. I would save cigarette ends from the whole area - sometimes I would find almost whole cigarettes, I begged cigarettes from the Ukrainians and morsels of food, and nearly every day after work I returned to the camp loaded with things. If I had been caught, there is little doubt that I would have been killed for it, but life had little importance in our eyes and Tsudik and I smuggled things into camp every day - tens of inmates waited our coming in order to benefit from a cigarette, or at least a cigarette end.
Our appetites grew with time. We began to make business with the Ukrainians - we brought them gold and dollars from the camp and they brought us items of food and cigarettes from the village, which we smuggled into the camp. Sometimes I would return to the camp with my trousers full of cigarettes and slices of meat. On the way, when I ran into Wagner or Frenschel, I would be convinced that they could see what I was hiding and that that was the end of me, but every time it happened, I passed them by uneventfully and I would breathe freely again, promising myself that this was the last time and that I must stop doing it but the following day I was at it again.
One Sunday afternoon I saw some buckets of cooked meat of some kind or other, near the Ukrainians' kitchen. I asked the Ukrainian cook what it was standing there for and he said he was throwing it to the pigs.
I asked his permission to take two of the buckets and he agreed. Once the buckets were in my possession, I began to doubt the wisdom of what I had done and wonder about the danger of walking openly into the camp carrying two buckets of food and I didn't know what to do. This time it wasn't just a slice of sausage, cheese or bread that I could distribute as I wished. How - and to whom would I give two full buckets of meat? Hunger ruled in the camp and every time that I brought food into the camp eyes would follow me in the hope that the owners would receive something to eat.
I was trapped in a complicated situation. I marched with my two buckets, which I could barely carry, and passing by everyone whom I met went straight to 'Governor-General' Moisheh and gave them to him. I knew that not only would deserving people benefit from the food, but I had no real option and I had found a way to get rid of the buckets. I had no premonition of what was going to happen to me.
At evening Appell, Frenschel suddenly called to all the Putzere to step forward. We all stood in a row in front of him and he shouted at us:
Which of you brought the buckets of food from the Ukrainians' kitchen?
I did, I answered, feeling that I had pronounced my own death sentence.
Come here, roared Frenschel.
I went and stood in front of him. He slashed at me a couple of times on the head and face and then ordered me to turn and face all the others. Then he turned to them and shouted again:
I ask you - who's the boss here? Me, or this little c----face here? Who provides the food here? Me, or this little c----face?. And each time he asked he struck me on the head. Then he started to roar with laughter saying, first in the middle of his laughter and then in with great seriousness:
Look at him! And turning to me, If you ever do it again, I'll shoot you! Then giving me a few more slashes with his whip, he sent me back to my place.
Nobody could understand it. How was it possible that after so dreadful a 'crime' Frenschel had allowed me to live? Many said it was a miracle from God, others that Frenschel was drunk and didn't react as he would normally have done under the circumstances.
That was the second time I had been on the brink of death with Frenschel. When I was still working in the sorting sheds, he had come in once, and called for ten men. Since I was standing close to him I had stood in line but he sent me back and took someone else. Later, we saw the ten being marched off in the direction of the 'lazarette'. We heard the sound of shooting only much later, towards evening and only then did we really understand why Frenschel had taken the men: when the trench in the 'lazarette' was full with corpses, they would take a party of prisoners to cover them up and dig a new one, shooting the diggers afterwards in the new trench.
Later, I learned that the men of the Bahnhof Kommando were angry that they hadn't received any of the food that I had brought and their 'Kapo' had complained to Frenschel. In the evening a few of them came to me and apologised, assuring me that they had nothing to do with the informers.
Not one of us believed that we would have survived so long in the camp, although those of us who had survived were few from among the 'veterans' - those who were professional tradesmen or had special tasks within the camp framework like the putzere, or the kitchen helpers, warehousemen, herdsmen, geese-fatteners, and so on. Hundreds of other workers were killed day after day during the months that I had passed in the camp, and their places taken by others. All of us knew that our fate was sealed, that soon we too would die, that it was only a mere question of time. The Germans told us that when the work was completed in the camp, we would be sent to Germany to work in factories there, but we didn't believe a single word of it.
'Zigeuner' wrote a song and sang it for us when we were all together:
'How joyful is our life here -
They give us food to eat;
How pleasant here in the forest so green,
The place where they're killing the Jews.'
On one of the 'Transports' from Holland, we were surprised to find a German soldier, dressed in civilian clothes. He was one of those chosen for a work-detail. He was surprised to find himself in a camp of a type of which he had no idea. He showed us his personal documents, which clearly established him as a German soldier, and told us that he had been on leave and was visiting his Jewish girl-friend. When they came to round up the whole family to deport them to the east, he decided to join them. He grew angry when the authorities didn't permit him to go with his girl friend but sent him here. He demanded a meeting with an officer so that he could clarify the situation. In reply to this demand Wagner came to him and the soldier showed him his documents and began to explain the unfortunate mistake. Wagner took him to the 'lazarette' and there he shot him.
Parallel with the knowledge that we were destined to die any day, was an overwhelming and burning desire to live which grew stronger and stronger in my heart - as it did in the hearts of my companions; a blind faith, totally without reason or basis, that we would find some way of escaping from the camp. We were prepared to do absolutely anything and everything, be the danger of failure what it may, to escape - except that we had absolutely no idea how to go about it. There wasn't even among us a man capable of planning such a venture and carrying it through to fruition. Nevertheless, the topic occupied all our thoughts and conversations. We dreamed about it. We waited and believed that the day would come and something would happen which would make the dream a reality.
One day there was a 'killing-day' in the camp - the Germans were running around, parties of Ukrainians hurried to arm themselves and left the camp with the Germans - it was clear that something big had happened. After a while, I saw some men crawling back into the camp, accompanied by Germans and Ukrainians. At first I didn't know who they were, and in the meantime the work-groups were being quickly returned to the camp from all over. Within a few minutes all the putzere and others inside the camp who worked for the Germans were also collected and brought to our compound. Here and there prisoners began to tell one another bits of the story about two men from the Wald Kommando who had killed a German or Ukrainian, and part of the Wald Kommando who had grasped the opportunity in the confusion to try to escape, and of the rest who had been returned to the camp. Some of the details were still unknown to us and we didn't know how much truth there was in all the rumour we had heard. In any case, the behaviour of the Germans foreboded ill.
Every German we saw was armed with an automatic weapon and hand-grenades hung suspended from his belt. We agreed between ourselves that if it appeared that the Germans intended to liquidate us, we would resist and fall upon them - better to get killed like that rather than walk passively to the gas-chamber. Somebody said, If they lead us to Compound Three, we'll jump them on the way.....
A large group of Germans and Ukrainians arrived at our compound and carried out an Appell, this time with great precision and under a lot of tension. We were counted several times, and then ordered to walk. We left our compound and turned towards Compound Two, accompanied on both sides by our guards, all of them with rifles cocked and aimed at us. We passed Compound Two and found ourselves walking in the direction of Compound Three, not along the barbed-wire path, but through the open fields, alongside the narrow-gauge railway. The tension among us, which had been growing from minute to minute, reached its maximum. In front of us we saw the white roof of the gas-chamber building. We were on our way there! No, no it couldn't be that we would all walk, three abreast, straight into the gas-chambers! There was a feeling that any second something was going to happen; that all hell would break loose - that out of our combined throats would come a terrible shout and we would simply fall upon our tormentors and tear them to shreds with our bare hands, and that their machine-guns would mow us down and turn the place into a river of blood.
Our legs continued to carry us forward despite the thoughts thundering through our heads: Left! Left! Left, right, left! Our heads spun. Suddenly came the order, Halt! Frenschel took charge and arranged us into groups. We faced Compound Three. All the Germans, among them the camp Kommandant Hauptsturmf?hrer Reichsleitner and his second in command, Untersturmf?hrer Neumann Next to them stood the Ukrainian platoon. Everything was organized as if for some ceremony or other.
A group of Jews approached the area where we were waiting, heavily guarded. They were formed up in a row about thirty yards in front of us. These were the people who were left from the Wald-Kommando, most of them were Jews from Holland. Their faces showed utter fatigue and a certain resignation to their fate. Wagner made a short speech:
Today, he said, a terrible crime was committed by Jewish criminals. They murdered a Ukrainian soldier and tried to escape but they didn't succeed. All of them were either killed or captured. These men standing in front of you are to be executed by a firing-squad as their punishment. I warn you - if one of you tries to escape you will all be punished. You will be killed!
The firing-squad placed itself between us and between those who had been sentenced to death. Frenschel gave the command to load. The soldiers aimed their rifles at the men. Fire! - and they all sank to the ground as one. Only one of them tried to rise, as if he was not injured. Frenschel hurried over to him and fired a string of bullets at him from close range.
Total silence hung over us for a minute or two that seemed like an hour. The sounds of the shooting still echoed in our ears. The bodies lay spread on the ground before us without movement, as if they had never in all eternity borne life within them.
Wagner called to 'Governor-General' Moisheh and transferred the command to him. He gave the order, Silence! Right turn! Quick march! Left, left! - and led us back to our compound.
The details of the whole event we learned only the following day from one of the Ukrainians who had been there. The Wald Kommando work-group, which numbered about thirty men, went out that day as usual, to work in the forest - a walk of about five kilometres from the camp, led by a German and three Ukrainians. Just before the lunch-break two of the men, guarded by a Ukrainian, were sent to a well, about a kilometre away, to fetch some water in a bucket. When they got there they fell on the guard, killed him with knives that they had prepared and hid his body in the well to slow up the searchers.
Back at the camp they waited for the three men to return and when it became obvious that something was amiss, the German sent another Ukrainian to go and find out what had happened. This one came rushing back with the information that he had found the dead body of his colleague in the well. The German in command immediately hurried to return everyone to the camp. A few Jews grasped what had happened, and perhaps even knew of the plan and on the way back, in the depths of the forest, suddenly broke and ran in all directions. The German and the two Ukrainians couldn't hope to control the situation. A few of the men were shot and a few managed to escape. A second group of prisoners didn't even try - these were Jews from Holland, new workers in the camp. They hadn't understood the significance of what had happened; they had no place to run to, didn't know the local area and couldn't speak the language. These were the Jews who had been brought back and shot to death in front of our eyes.
For a few days we argued back and forth on the question of if the two men had been right to try to escape. There were strong differences of opinion: during the time we had been together in Sobibor a bond of cooperation had been forged between us and a strong sense of mutual responsibility developed. On that basis we felt that whatever the outcome, come what may, our fate should be the same for all of us.
At the same time I think that deep down inside, we justified the two for escaping - whoever thinks he can get away with it - let him try to save himself! In any case, we were all marked for death. The killing of the Ukrainian and the escape of the two men from the Wald Kommando reignited within us the desire to revolt and to try to escape. We had just seen that here, where they were killing Jews, it was possible to kill Ukrainians and Germans too; one could succeed in escaping.
The women's block stood in the corner of our compound, close to the shoe-maker's workshop. The block was out of bounds to the men and visiting their quarters was strictly prohibited. Nevertheless liaisons were formed between the men and the women, and men managed to find their way in and out of the block. The relationships were somewhat superficial, fleeting - the fruit of youthful determination to taste love before the end. In every-day life a boy tries to win the heart of his girl by buying expensive gifts. The same thing happened in the camp except that here the most expensive gift was food, so the boys most likely to win the affection of the girls were the ones who could manage to bring them portions of food.
One of the girls tried to 'come-on' to me and I couldn't quite understand what was happening or why she was demonstrating so much affection and friendship towards me. Only after some time did Tsudik tell me that he had a girl-friend and that he brought her a morsel of food of some kind or another every day that he had managed to acquire from the Ukrainians. He had told his girl-friend's friend that it would be worth her while to get to know me, because then she too would get some extra food. I knew nothing about courtship, neither did it seem to me to be the place to start chasing girls; in fact, as far as I was concerned, there seemed to be something rather ugly and distasteful about the whole thing.
Nevertheless, there were among us some real relationships that developed into raging love affairs. Love is one of the things that always finds a way, no matter what the circumstances or conditions. One of us, a young man from France nicknamed, naturally, 'Der Franzose' even in the camp always managed to appear elegant, and conspicuous as a extrovert. He very quickly became friends with a singer. They were seen and recognized as a couple in love. One day, at evening Appell, Wagner called to the 'Franzose' to come to the front and between the two of them an exchange of angry words took place. At the end of the Appell, Wagner ordered the man to go with him and it was clear to all of us that he was being taken to be killed. Suddenly a commotion broke out in the ranks and the singer came running to the front, straight to Wagner and said to him.
If you take him then take me too; I want us to be together!
Wagner took the two of them to the 'lazarette'. There they died, together, in their love for each other.
Once, two lovers were caught together. Frenschel had a good time at their expense at roll-call and said:
They were doing a forbidden thing. They should have got married first.
He then ordered them stripped from the waist down, laid on a bench and two Kapos gave them twenty-five lashes each. Their screams mingled together as one.
Tsudik and I continued to smuggle food into the camp. We had an unspoken agreement - each one of us was working independently without involving the other, so that if one was caught the other wouldn't be in danger. In spite of the fact that we were working together and got on well with each other, a deep friendship didn't develop between us. We had little in common and when we got home after work there was almost no contact between us. Tsudik had a brother in the camp, to whom of course he was much closer, and that was, perhaps, one of the reasons why we didn't get close to each other.
Tsudik changed a lot after getting to know his girl-friend - he was full of happiness, and you could see that all his thoughts were concentrated on her. He expanded his dealings with the Ukrainians and smuggled large quantities of food into the camp. His father came to me and asked me to convince Tsudik not to bring so much; he was afraid that his son would eventually get caught. I did as his father asked and spoke earnestly to Tsudik but to no avail. One day Wagner called to all the putzere to come to the front. He walked along the line in front of us, stopped in front of Tsudik and asked:
Are you Tsudik?
When Tsudik answered that he was, Wagner told all the rest of us to return to our places.
Tsudik's father knew well what was going to happen and broke ranks to stand in front of Wagner and plead with him to forgive his son this once. Wagner refused and the father asked to accompany his son. Sure enough, at the end of the roll-call Wagner took both of them and shot them. It was clear to all of us that this event had been the result of someone informing, but we had no idea whom. It was said that one of the girls was jealous of the amount of food that her friend was getting and had told on her, but the matter was never proved.
The following day, when Wagner called, Putzere to the front! I walked to the front and waited for someone to join me in place of Tsudik but I stood alone and Wagner said to me.
You're not going to get anyone else. You'll have to manage on your own. You've had it easy.
One day a large crane with two toothed grabs was brought to the camp. It stood for some time while Getzinger did some work on it. Then it was moved to Compound Three. Some time later the air was filled with the terrible stench of rotten flesh being burnt and thick black smoke spread upwards from Compound Three and covered the sky. I was reminded of the burial of my father in the cemetery of Pruszkow.
It later transpired that an order had been received in the Kommandatur, to dig up the thousands of corpses that had been buried in the massive common graves, burn them and grind the bones up for fertilizer, so as not to leave any evidence of what had occurred. From that day on, for weeks and months, the fires never ceased to burn nor the smoke to rise, day and night. On days when the weather was fine the smoke rose vertically straight up to the sky and it was if I could see within the smoke the shadows of the men women and children rising up to heaven in an endless chain. There were days when the winds brought with them the terrible smoke and the smell in wave after wave, and the souls of the departed passed through your body, touching you, sometimes weakly, and at others strongly, before continuing on their way onwards and upwards to the heavens. And there were days when everything seemed to be at a standstill - unmoving, and the smoke, instead of rising upwards, wafted and writhed, hither and thither, settling over the whole camp until there was no place to escape; the dry smell of it penetrating into every corner of the barrack-rooms, every crevice, filling the eyes, the nose, mouth - every part of the body until you felt you were wrapped in the smoke of the people who had been burnt on the pyres; that within that cloud of smoke you were at one with the dead; that you were one of, and with them for, in any case, in a short while you will indeed, be joining them.*
The cremation of the bodies gave us food for thought: why had the Germans suddenly decided to disinter the victims of the gas-chambers and burn them? There was no doubt that the intention was to erase all trace of the mass-murders, but it was also possible that the Germans were preparing to stop operating the camp and close it down, and because of this, were erasing their tracks. If so, then our own fate was closing in on us and we would have to plan an escape as quickly as possible. In the evenings, in corners and on our bunks, we discussed again and again the subject of an escape. Even 'Governor-General' Moisheh was a willing partner to the discussions.
*At Sobibor there were no closed crematoria: the corpses were cremated on pyres constructed of alternate layers of bodies and logs of wood.
One evening, after everyone had returned from work, a platoon of armed Germans entered the camp led by Wagner. An elderly Jew, an ex-resident of Berlin and nicknamed by us 'Der Berliner', went to meet them. He was treated
by the Germans as if he were one of them, and now he walked with them to the barrack-room of the 'Kapos'. Frenschel and Stoibel went inside and brought out 'Governor-General' Moisheh and another 'Kapo'. The faces of both of them were chalk-white. Moisheh was without his hat and without his gold-buttoned coat. 'Der Berliner' pointed to several other people - all of whom were close associates of Moisheh - and all of them, eight all together, were taken immediately to the 'lazarette' and there they were shot to death.
Again a feeling of complete despair returned to settle upon us.
Not, as it happens, because Moisheh the crazy Kapo failed to live up to his boast of being the last one into the gas chamber, as he imagined, nor because of the others who had been killed - the killings were so much a part of our daily life that we had come to accept them, - nor even because, in a way, we were jealous of the dead because their suffering at least was over for good, while we, - what had we to expect? No, the terrible despair that gnawed away at us was because time and time again we discovered anew that in our midst was an informer; that the Germans had found someone to pass on to them information about everything that happened in our little world.
In truth, there were stories that Der Berliner was a very odd sort of person - crazy even. He used to say that although he had been born a Jew, he was a German and had no sense of belonging to the Jews. He was sure that he would return to Berlin and live there in comfort and honour. Now in payment for his cooperation, the Germans 'crowned' him 'Governor-General', made him a uniform and special cap, while he, dedicated to the Germans like a faithful dog, treated us all with extreme, merciless cruelty. Der Berliner spread fear throughout the whole camp. He knew absolutely no shame. When he noticed a group of men congregating together he would boldly approach and listen-in, even asking what we were talking about although it was after work in our own barrack block. He did it even in the night - walking between the bunks to make sure that everyone was in place and asleep. He embittered our lives even at times when the Germans had already left us to ourselves for a while.
Der Berliner was so sure of his authority that he even allowed himself to countermand the orders of Frenschel. One day, Frenschel had given instructions that the Bahnhof Kommando should receive an extra portion of food, while Der Berliner, when he heard of it, said that the men weren't entitled to it and ordered the cook not to supply the extra food. The men of the Bahnhof Kommando complained to Frenschel who became enraged and told the men to deal with the matter as they saw fit. The rumour that Der Berliner was likely to be 'lynched' spread quickly throughout the whole camp. The barrack-room filled with people and the men of the Bahnhof Kommando grouped themselves round the door of the Kapos' room. When Der Berliner came out of his room they began to insult him. He looked surprised, then, apparently sensing that he was in a trap, suddenly became enraged, shouted: Be damned! and then lifting his whip began to strike about him trying to hit his attackers.
One of the men wrenched the whip out of his hand and they all began to lay about him, eventually stripping him naked. They laid him on a bench and all of them began punching him or kicking him, beating him with his own whip or broom-handles, until gradually, his cries and shouts faded and weakened and finally stopped. Der Berliner was dead.
Life in the camp was isolated and dissociated from the outside world, not only physically but spiritually. The past seemed so far away sometimes, that it was as if it had never existed. I never gave it any thought. I had long since stopped to miss my home, my birthdays, or any other thing that was connected with my previous life. The memory of my beloved family would come to mind only in flashes of seconds. All was severed, it was as if it had never been. And now came terrible days when all at once waves of memories and home-sickness flooded me incessantly; I had no peace from them for a moment. It was as if I had found something that had been lost for a long time. I found myself thinking about my family and churning over in my mind without ceasing the same question: Were any of them still alive? It was certain that they thought I, at any rate, was dead. A picture of my home at New Year and the Day of Atonement appeared before me in startling clarity and awoke within me religious thoughts and considerations. My friend, Avraham said that the fact that we were still alive was in itself a miracle from heaven, a concept I rejected. I didn't believe in the existence of God managing the affairs of this world. Nevertheless, I decided to fast on the Day of Atonement, for if not I would be offending the memory of my family. On New Year's Day, there were a few people who prayed before going to work and when they came back; they even blew the Shofar, singing loudly so that the sound of it shouldn't be heard by the Germans. On the Day of Atonement nearly every one fasted and prayed every spare moment they had.
One day a few hundred Jewish women were brought to the camp from the labour camp at Trawniki. The Germans housed them in the three blocks in front of the gas-chambers and some of our men brought them food and water each day. The women did nothing and we couldn't figure out what the Germans were doing with them. During that same period, a special cleaning-up operation took place in the camp - every corner was cleaned thoroughly until it shone, and was then inspected. Every time a different German came to inspect the Ukrainians' barrack and I had to work very hard to satisfy all their different peccadilloes. Then one day, all the prisoners were returned from work and locked into their barracks. Later on, Oberscharf?hrer Grieschutz called me and ordered me to sweep up outside, in an area where I wasn't normally expected to work. At the same time a train whistle was heard and a locomotive with three carriages attached to it steamed into the camp. Grieschutz told me to get into the barrack-room and stay there, and after a few minutes I saw a large group of German officers striding towards Compound Two.
In the middle of them I recognized the short Himmler. The group stopped and there in the middle of the field Himmler relieved himself while the others waited. He made some comment or other and they all laughed and carried on walking towards Compound Three. After at least an hour, the retinue returned. The guests, who visited nowhere else in the camp, climbed aboard their train and left.
After Himmler's visit no one brought food any more for the women in the barrack. They were no longer alive. The women had been brought to Sobibor and kept for a fortnight just to be used as guinea-pigs to show Himmler the method of extermination.
In spite of our complete isolation, small snippets of information seeped through to us, from different sources, about what was going on, which were for us like flashes of lightning in the darkness. We heard, for example, that the German advance had been halted at the outskirts of Moscow and Stalingrad, and that the Germans were suffering heavy losses; that trains, loaded with German injured, were travelling ceaselessly westwards from the Russian front, to Germany; that also on the Western front, the Germans had been stopped at the Channel and were unable to cross; that in Africa, the British had beaten General Rommel.
The days of German victories on all fronts had come...and gone, it appeared! Not only that; we learned that the Allies were bombing German cities night and day and Germany was being turned into a pile of stones and rubble - an SS man from the camp, returned from Germany after his entire family had been killed in a bombing attack. Much attention was paid to the fact that he poured his heart out to the Jewish prisoners.
He sat with his work-group, offering them cigarettes and telling them about his terrible tragedy, crying like a little boy. He had changed completely since his return - and very quickly he was removed from the camp and transferred.
We also heard about wandering bands of Partisans in the forests who were blowing up trains and their German passengers, and shooting at German cars. Indeed, we now noticed that the cars leaving the camp to bring supplies travelled with an escort of soldiers carrying machine-guns. When two Ukrainians, SS men, went on leave and failed to return, it was believed that they had either joined the Partisans, or had been kidnapped by them - either way, the Germans and the Ukrainians lost their sense of security.
One night, we were woken up and forced to undergo a roll-call in the middle of the night. We weren't even allowed to dress but had to stand there in the freezing cold, shivering. A large force of armed Germans and Ukrainians surrounded us and counted us dozens of times. We had no idea what was happening, but from the east, from the edge of the forest next to the 'lazarette', came the echo of machine-gun and rifle fire. The Germans placed a heavy machine-gun on wheels to one side of the parade ground and aimed it in our direction. It was clear to us that at any moment the order to fire could come and within minutes we would all be dead. Under cover of the dark we passed the message to each other to get ready to jump the Germans, but in the meantime we just stood and shivered from the cold. Thus it continued for a couple of hours until the shooting at the forest's edge stopped and we were allowed to return to our barracks.
Afterwards, we were told that a band of Partisans had attacked the camp. We didn't know how much truth there was in the story but it was sufficient to instil into our hearts a new hope: that Partisans would conquer the camp and we would be liberated.
The other news we had also strengthened us in our resolve to do something to save ourselves: at that same time, people coming in on the 'Transports' told us that there were no longer any Jewish towns and villages; that large areas had been declared Judenrein; that there was no place for Jews to go or run to - that local residents, Ukrainians and Poles alike, were expelling the Jews from every place and turning them over to the Germans.
The 'Transports' now arriving at Sobibor, unlike their predecessors, were heavily guarded by soldiers standing on the roofs of the wagons. The wagons themselves were half empty and many were damaged. Inside, dead and injured were lying and others were begging to die. The obvious conclusion was that there just wasn't anywhere to go. It was clear to us that even if we managed to escape, it would be idle to hope that we would remain alive.
Nevertheless the urge to rebel didn't lessen. Although no one who dreamed of escaping entertained for one moment that he would succeed in staying alive - the idea was beyond reason - we were held in the grip of a fierce desire to put an end to our captivity in the camp. In the face of the present uselessness of our lives, the end of which was clear, we determined not to wait until the Germans decided to liquidate us. And perhaps, just perhaps - the thought flashed through one's mind now and again - one of we dreamers might just be lucky enough to stay alive!
Next to our block a strange new building was put up - at one end, closest to us a room was built and attached to it a long, rectangular building with a sloping floor. It was a bowling-alley, intended for the enjoyment of the Germans, to while away the long winter evenings. It occurred to me that there was a good reason for them to erect their bowling-alley in the middle of our camp, next to our block, and not in their own living area. It was quite likely that in this way they could be quite close to us while enjoying themselves during the long hours of a winter evening, and still be on hand to foil a revolt or attempt at an escape.
A large group of Germans came for the opening night. For some reason Grieschutz hunted me down and ordered me to go with him to the new bowling-alley. The Germans had brought with them large amounts of food and beer, and immediately on entering the hall began drinking. Grieschutz explained to me that my job was to stand at the end of the alley, where there was a level area marked with circles and that I was to stand the fallen pins on the circles and return the balls to the players. I spent the whole evening there in the company of the Germans, who spent the evening talking, laughing, playing and drinking lots of beer. From time to time one or the other of them would give me something to eat and a beer to drink. The drink was bitter and after the first bottle my head began spinning. When the Germans left I had to clean the place up. At last I returned to my block with my pockets full of cigarette ends and cigar butts. Within a minute the air in our block was thick with cigarette smoke.
The existence of a group of Germans close to us every evening, all of them engrossed in their game, awakened within us thoughts along very definite lines. I was not the only one who had to work in the bowling alley in the evenings; there were a few other young people who had to work there and some of the other men began to ask questions like what went on there; how many Germans were usually there together; where did they leave their weapons while they were playing, and so on.
At first glance it seemed like an easy task to plan some kind of attack against the Germans: a group of SS officers, busy with their game, a few of them drunk; their weapons standing somewhere at the side; in a sudden rush into the room it should be possible to kill them before they had the chance to get hold of their guns, and afterwards, with the help of the automatic weapons now in our hands, we would be able to storm the gates of the camp and escape under cover of the darkness. Except that things weren't quite so simple. Obstacles arose from all sides. Apparently the Germans had also considered the special circumstances of the situation, and had placed a Ukrainian sentry on guard duty next to the door. Before bursting into the room, the sentry would have to be silently disposed of. It became clear that at least one German had thought of everything, leaving no room for surprises for during the games, Wagner would come out of the room and walk around between the blocks, looking and listening - and who better than he to smell out the merest whiff of a plan underway?
Furthermore, and perhaps most important of all, to mount an attack and gain control, breaking into the bowling-alley and afterwards escaping, required a leader capable of organizing people exercising authority and instilling discipline, and we had no one like that. Moreover we didn't even have people who knew how to use weapons and to kill when necessary. We, the younger ones, were prepared to do all these things, if only someone would come to tell us what to do and how to do it. In the meantime only the ideas floated around in our heads; the ability to realize them was beyond us.
One day, after morning Appell, when we were supposed to go to work, we were returned to our block and locked in and a guard placed outside.
Some time later we heard bursts of gun-fire, every few minutes, coming from the direction of Compound Three. No 'Transport' came that day and we understood that they were killing all the workers in Compound Three.
The following day we were told that the men in Compound Three had been planning an escape - they had even dug a tunnel and reached beyond the camp boundaries. The Germans had discovered the tunnel by chance only - and had killed them all.
Our powerlessness spurred us on to seek other ways of escape.
The successful escape of the two Ukrainians, made it reasonable to suppose that there were others among them who would be interested in running away, and we began to look for them. With the natural passage of time relationships had been woven between some of the Jews and Ukrainians, based on a give-and-take system - the Jews gave the Ukrainians gold and silver, of which they had plenty, and the Ukrainians brought food in exchange. Good relations had been built up between the Ukrainian cooks and their Jewish helpers also.
During that period there was among us a Dutchman whom we called 'Der Kapitän' because his friends told us he had once really been the captain of a large ship. This man, about forty years-old, had a powerful muscular body. He was head and shoulders above everyone around him and, perhaps because of that, from the day of his arrival began to find himself the victim of incessant beatings from Wagner and had wounds, as a result, all over his body. 'Der Kapitän' however, had an enormous capacity for punishment and gave no sign of giving in easily. Already in his first days in the camp, after he realised what was going on, and he had gained the trust of those around him, he began to look around him for ways of escape. As the 'leader' of the Dutch group within the work force, he quickly built relationships with the veterans among us, examining, asking and learning from them all about the camp and its surroundings and it was apparent that he was a man who knew what he was doing and how he would do it.
When he was told about the Ukrainians who had escaped and a few others who were apparently planning to do so, he began trying to make contact with them through our own men who were working in the kitchen.
One day a lot of Germans were present at Appell - a sign that something was about to happen - and sure enough Wagner ordered 'Der Kapitän' out to the front and stated that he knew that the man was the leader of an escape organization in the camp and demanded from him, on the spot, the names of his colleagues. The 'Captain' replied that he was alone with his plans to escape from the camp and had no idea of others intent on the same course.
Wagner boiled in anger. 'Der Kapitän' was beaten all over his body and Wagner repeated his question. Again the 'Captain' had no reply, for him, so they laid him down on a bench, stripped him naked and two Germans took turns beating him. He refused to give in. It was pure torture in itself just to stand there and watch but at the same time we felt a strong sense of pride at his incredible resistance and stubbornness in the face of the punishment. For more than an hour the 'power-struggle' between the 'Captain' and Wagner and his cohorts went on, while we waited tensely to see who would win - it was clear to many of us that the fate of many of our own people depended on the result of the contest. Quite a few of us were involved in the collection of knowledge for escape purposes and who knew who was the next to be called out to the front and get shot in the near future?
When Wagner realized that he wasn't going to get the information he wanted, and that he was beating 'Der Kapitän' uselessly, he made one last attempt to break him:
If you don't tell me the names of your fellow-conspirators, I'll chop off the heads of everyone in your block - and yours, the last!
(There were about seventy people in the block, all of them Dutch Jews, some of had come on the same 'Transport' as the Captain and were his friends). 'Der Kapitän' still didn't surrender. Wagner ordered Block Six out to the front, and we watched while the Captain and all the men in his block were marched away towards their death, accompanied by a squad of armed Germans. We later learned that Wagner had kept his word and that, in Compound Three, each and every one of them had been beheaded*. Even though we were used to death, and lived with it at our side all day and every day, a terrible despair fell upon us with the death of the Captain and his friends. We lost all hope in our ability to get away from the camp and we were struck by the awareness that the Germans had been able to discover our intentions and plans while they were in such an early stage, and by their murderous reaction. Arising out of the general despair came, that same evening, the thought of a mass suicide by obtaining a large quantity of poison from the medicine store, mixing it into our coffee-urn and drinking it. If so, one of us commented, why not try and poison all the Germans and Ukrainians instead? The idea itself was exciting and logical, but it remained only an idea.
The attempts at mass escapes failed but the fact was, that all the escapes by individuals and small groups were crowned with success. So I began to think of a way of escaping by myself, or with one other person but after some consideration, I came to the conclusion that there was no point in escaping alone - even if I succeeded in getting out of the camp, I wouldn't be able to cope alone for very long. I didn't know the area or anyone in it; my typical Jewish appearance would immediately give me away, and tell where I had come from. No, I needed to find a partner, a partner who knew his way around the area, and then - maybe with the help of the gold that I had collected and hidden - I may find someone willing to hide us.
I spoke with my friend Avraham, but he wasn't interested in just the two of us escaping and had come to terms with his fate and was willing for it to be the same as everyone else. I remained adamant, however, and continued to plan. I hoarded a pile of gold coins, packed them into bags and hid them in different parts of the camp, in such a way that I could retrieve at the very least one of them easily, at any moment that I needed them. I studied carefully the patrol schedule of the Ukrainian guards and from careful observation, I noticed that before they actually went on guard Grieschutz or Rok-tsuk distributed a few rounds of ammunition to each of them and retrieved it at the end of their watch. I studied the whole length of the boundary fence and carefully examined the movement round the main gate, coming to the conclusion that a whole stretch of the fence - by the Ukrainians' barrack, for the length of the railway track - wasn't mined: I had often seen people strolling about or patrolling there quite freely. It was an area at a distance from the compound of our living area and probably for this reason the Germans had thought it unnecessary to mine it.
I watched the Ukrainians when they loaded and unloaded their rifles and came to the conclusion, to my surprise, that when not in use the rifles stood about freely in the barrack-room; on more than one occasion I had been in their block and had been attacked by the urge to take a rifle in my hands. I knew that if I was seen doing such a thing, that would be the end of me, but the urge was strong, nevertheless. One day, I approached the rack and, at first, I was satisfied just to touch the cool barrel of one of the rifles, but then, with a pounding heart, I slowly took the rifle in my hands and tried to cock it, as I had seen the Ukrainians do - pulling the bolt backwards then returning it to its place quickly, I put the rifle back where I took it from. I'm sure that the Ukrainians thought the rifle very light, but for me it weighed a ton.
*After the war, an SS man named Novacks was caught, and in a search carried out at his home photographs were discovered showing the act of decapitation being carried out in Compound Three.
Still, I was quite pleased with myself and began to imagine that I had already learned how to use it and understood all there was to know about it. In any case, from that day onwards I looked for every opportunity to 'train' with the rifle and to study carefully from a distance how the Ukrainians handled their rifles. I quite convinced myself that I could use one if and when the time came.
Time went by. The failures of the past were partially forgotten by most of us - and again new ideas of a revolt began to pop up everywhere, ideas which could not fail to evoke within our minds the thought that, at the very least, we could go on living but they acquired some measure of reinforcement from the war front. The rumours which managed to penetrate through to us reported that the Germans were suffering defeats in Russia and we, who had never dared to express the hope of survival in our conversations - it had seemed too imaginative - now began to dream of a German collapse.
In my musings about an escape, I wove a plan for the revolt which gradually crystallized and took on a more and more detailed shape as time went by. My excitement grew day by day, but from experience of the past, I knew that I had to be very careful, that I had to keep it a secret. According to the plan, the revolt had to take place on a Sunday afternoon, at a time when the camp was at rest, the Germans taking it easy with some of them, together with some of the Ukrainians, on leave.
Part of my work on a Sunday afternoon was to stoke the hot-water boiler and the 'Kapo' would send two youngsters from our group to carry some buckets of hot water to our compound and two others on the return trip. My plan was to dress the two people in the black uniforms of the Ukrainian guards and give them rifles and bullets that I could 'obtain' without much difficulty. When these two returned to the camp they would be unnoticed and would be able to kill the guard at the gate to the camp. This would allow an extra two people to get out of the camp and come to the Ukrainians' barrack for weapons, ammunition and uniforms. At that point they would all four burst into the guard-house and, catching the duty-guard totally unawares kill him too. In this way we would gain control of the camp's arsenal close by. Once we have a platoon of armed 'Ukrainian' guards at our disposal, and command of the immediate vicinity and its accesses, we would burst through the gate and into the Germans' living area. My plan was based essentially on the element of surprise - the Ukrainians would not shoot immediately at 'Ukrainians' and for a few important moments, would be indecisive about what to do. Exploiting our advantage of surprise we would kill some of the Germans, and until they managed to get themselves organized, many of us would manage to escape.
I was convinced that my plan was a good one but I was scared to tell anyone about it - afraid that they would make fun of me, for who was I to plan a revolt? At first I only told my friend Avraham, hoping for some kind of a reaction - he wouldn't make fun of me. He quite liked the plan, even getting excited about it and its details. Nevertheless he cautioned me that if I wasn't careful I would end up like the other planners of mass revolts who had gone before me. After my talk with Avraham, I went to Leibel Feldhendler, a man who was known and accepted by everyone and, as I already knew, had been involved in previous attempts at escapes, and presented my plan.
Leibel listened seriously to my plan without interruption and when I had finished said:
Very nice, Bereleh. An excellent plan; I wouldn't have believed that you had planned all that. Really, a very good plan.... He was lost in thought for some moments and then added: Now I want to tell you something very sad. There isn't anyone who will put that plan into action - or any other plan, for that matter. In spite of the fact that all of us want to escape, in spite of the fact that no one would even mind getting killed in attempting a rebellion instead of walking docilely into the gas-chambers, or to be shot in the 'lazarette', we have no one who has the knowledge to carry such a plan through. More than that, we haven't got anyone with the leadership abilities and authority necessary to organize an operation like that and get us all to do it properly. For all that, he added, I'm sure that the day will come and we'll succeed in having our revenge on the Germans and escaping from here, then perhaps we can use your plan.
Leibel also warned me not to tell anyone about my plan and I had no option except to stop thinking about escapes.
One day, I was taking empty bottles to the rubbish-dump, and arranging them alongside the wall, when a bottle suddenly splintered on the wall above my head and showered me with bits of glass. It was a bottle that Wagner had thrown at me, but missed. He came towards me, kicked me with all his strength and screamed: You're not doing anything! He got hold of a rake and hit me about the head with it until I was covered in blood. The handle broke from the force of his blows and he continued kicking me. When he finished and went away, I ran to the wash-room in the Ukrainians' barrack. For some time now, since I had been working there, they had stopped beating me. Wagner, as usual, had done his work well, reminding me where I was. His face had shown the terrible hate he held towards me; the merest step lay between me and destruction. The moment passed, but again I felt pains all over my body and I couldn't sit or even lie down.
During those same days something pleasant happened: one morning we heard a sudden explosion. At first no one knew what had happened because on several occasions mines had exploded in the vicinity when dogs or other animals had strayed onto the mine-field. In cases like that the Germans would rush to the spot just to make sure. This time their excitement was much greater: apparently, Oberscharf?hrer Getzinger, the sapper who had laid the mines in the first place, had stepped on one and blown himself up. The joy in the camp was great - one of the murderers had been killed! Not only that - on the day of the funeral, we only worked a half-day.
During the winter only a few 'Transports' came in, but the number increased with the spring. The whole of central Poland was, apparently, Judenrein; most of the 'Transports' were now coming from Eastern Poland and the Ukraine - places that the Germans had captured from Russia. The Jews there already knew where they were being taken, and the 'Transports' arrived under heavy guard. A few of the wagons were broken and inside were dead and wounded - and people resisted from the moment that they were removed from the wagons. Before our eyes unfolded the most terrible scenes. The eternal, ultimate confession of the Jew: 'Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One!' was heard from all over - also the shout Tell the world what is happening here! Revenge our blood. But they also shouted to us that the fall of Germany was coming closer.
One morning, instead of being led off to work after Appell, we were returned to our barracks and forbidden to go outside. From where we were we could hear a locomotive shunting wagons into the camp and then a few second's burst of gun-fire. Then silence. About half an hour later, again a burst of gun-fire and again silence - and so it went on, on and off, for half the day. Now and again we heard shouts and a few single shots. We listened carefully and tried to figure out what was going on, but without much success. Towards noon, Frenschel came and called to the Bahnhof Kommando to go to work. A short while later we, too, were taken to work. Outside, I saw the Bahnhof Kommando cleaning the wagons. We never discovered who the people were who were shot to death systematically in groups, but as hard as the Germans tried to hide from us the actual identity of their victims, they, the victims, managed to leave behind some clue as to who they were and where they came from and scratched messages on the walls of their wagons. This time the Bahnhof Kommando found written on the walls the words: 'Belzec - Extermination Camp' - Belzec was among the first, maybe the first of the extermination camps where gas-chambers were used to kill people. While I was still in Turobin a Jew had arrived in the town with a lot of horrifying information about the extermination of Jews at Belzec, but no one wanted to believe him..............
In one of the wagons our men found a letter written literally in the last moments of the writer's life:
'We are the last survivors of Belzec. Belzec is an extermination camp where hundreds of thousands of Jews have been put to death in gas-chambers and the bodies burnt. We have destroyed the camp and now there is no sign left there as to what went on in that place.
The Germans have told us that we are being transferred to Germany to work. We knew all along that it was a lie but we still got on to the wagons. We don't know where we are. I can hear the sound of shooting outside and I know they're shooting my comrades. In a moment it will be our turn.....Don't let them shoot you. Avenge us.
The Bahnhof Kommando men told us that the conditions in the wagons were not so terrible, relatively speaking: there were stools, tables and even a bottle of vodka in some of the wagons.
We saw that day the sort of scenario by which the Germans could do away with us. We knew without a shadow of doubt that the Germans will kill us but we couldn't imagine how they were able to anticipate every possible variation of resistance or reaction from their victims. Time after time rumours went running around that the Germans were getting ready to kill us, and the atmosphere would change instantly - people became much closer to each other, were more willing to help one another and the desire to do something together, before it was too late, became stronger and stronger.
But a sense of helplessness ruled over us and perhaps was even stronger because of our desperate plight. When we saw death coming closer we seemed to become paralysed even though when we spoke together we tended to say: We won't go to our deaths quietly....... like 'good little boys'. We'll attack them with our finger-nails, if we have to, and kill them. We'll die - but it won't be easy for them: they'll die as well.
Now, under the influence of the fate of the 'Transport' from Belzec, and without any outward sign, the feeling that the end was near became stronger, that our days were numbered. Although, the Belzec people had apparently also thought like us - that they too, wouldn't go quietly to their deaths - and if so how did the Germans manage to fool them so completely? Will they really be able to confuse us in the same way?
Was it reasonable for them to think that we had no idea who the Belzec people were or what had happened to them? It wouldn't happen to us. We must manage to avenge them before our own deaths.
The enlargement of the camp took on a renewed spurt and again we began to receive building materials by rail, except that this time, not like last year, when the object was to increase the capability of the camp to exterminate its victims, arsenals were built for storing arms and ammunition, most of them below ground level. At this stage in the building plan Compound Four was created, known to the Germans as 'Nord-Lager' - North-Camp - just to the north-east of the present camp, on an open area between the railway platform and stretching beyond into the woods close to the 'lazarette'. High-ranking German officers landed in light aircraft and rushed hither-and-yon all over the building site with maps and building plans in their hands, while our own SS officers were dragged around with them. The creation of an ammunition dump within an extermination camp didn't seem reasonable somehow - was it really possible that a camp, being run secretly by the SS would have a 'foreign' element placed inside it? Was it possible that the Germans were actually getting ready to liquidate the extermination camp - and of course us with it - and turn it into an ammunition camp?
The work progressed rapidly. Before the first bunkers were ready the first trains started to arrive with ammunition and it had to be stored in the open alongside the unfinished bunkers. According to rumour the Germans had suffered a resounding defeat at Stalingrad; the German Army was in retreat and apparently this was the reason for the creation of the ammunition dump.
We knew that with the elimination of the camp, we too would be liquidated, as had the Belzec people, but in the meantime 'Transports' of Jews were still arriving from all the European countries. From every 'Transport' a few hundred young men were chosen for work and the number of workers in the work-force in North Camp grew.
One of the 'Transports' was different from all the others. It came from Minsk, the capital of Byelorussia, and most of its passengers were Jewish prisoners-of-war who had been fighting in the ranks of the Red Army. The Germans sorted out the Jewish civilians from the soldiers and sent them to the gas-chambers. They chose about a hundred of the soldiers, all of them young and fit.
I had found it difficult to communicate with the Jews of the various countries whom I met during my stay on Sobibor, both because of the language problem and also because of differences in cultural background and behavioural habits. It took me a long time to get to know them and get close to them. With the men from Minsk it was so different. Even though most of them spoke only Russian, which we didn't know, and my own Yiddish was of a different dialect to theirs - when they knew it at all - we got to know them very quickly. Already on their first evening at Sobibor, we all sat together chatting. We discovered that they had no idea where they had been brought. When we told them what was going on in Sobibor, they were surprised and unbelieving. They told that they had heard of the 'einsatzgruppen' -the special ,first units which had killed thousands of Jews by simple 'firing-squad' but didn't know anything about the Germans killing Jews in gas-chambers and cremating the bodies. They told us about the collapse of the German army and when they said that its defeat was coming closer we began to feel a little more optimistic.
I liked being with them. Every day I brought them cigarette-butts and left-overs from food and their gratitude was boundless. They quickly became adjusted to the conditions in the camp. Their tolerance was amazing. They were able to work like mistreated slaves all day long, get beaten up into the bargain - and nevertheless sit down together and sing every evening.
When I came to Sobibor, shocked from the 'Transport' and all the circumstances preceding and accompanying it, by the rigorous work and conditions in the death camp, I was attracted by the singing of the Ukrainian guards.
I loved the melodies and the way in which they were sung, often while on the march, and with several voices in harmony - and always with a competent soloist. I liked their singing so much that I would look forward to it and would try to get closer to them. In fact, more than once I felt a little ashamed of myself because of the pleasure I got from the singing that came out of the mouths of murderers. Later on, when I was sent to work for them, I came to know another sort of song that they tended to sing in the showers, or especially during the winter, when they would be sitting down cleaning their rifles. These were love-songs - gentle, tender and beautiful and I would wonder again how songs like these could come out of their mouths.
In the beginning I couldn't understand a word. With time I learned the language and realized that the words were beautiful too. And now, on the first evening of the Russian soldiers' captivity on Sobibor, after they had been told what sort of a place they'd been brought to and while a deep feeling of depression spread through them, one of them stood up in the middle of the room and began to sing a Russian song - a song about a soldier at the front, in the trenches, suspended all the time between life and death, longing for his love. I didn't understand the content at the time but the sad, beautiful melody and the way it was put over expressed very clearly our whole tragic existence. He sang and we were electrified - suddenly I found myself crying, something that hadn't happened to me for a long time. I looked around. Others too were wiping tears from their eyes.
The Russians would return from work exhausted and beaten. Nearly every day one of their comrades was shot by the Germans. Yet, in the evening they sang songs, sad songs, songs of longing, songs of heroism and hope. I stayed close to them absorbing every melody. Ever since I was very small I had loved singing. Now I fell in love with these Russian songs and quickly learned them by heart, even though I couldn't understand a word. I liked these men from Russia who, in my eyes, seemed heroes able to tolerate anything; and they liked me, treating me like a small brother - calling me 'Boris'.
A short while after they arrived a feeling arose that something was going to happen - people began whispering among themselves, checking with each other, each afraid that a secret was being kept from him.
The atmosphere became tense. The Russians said that we had to escape as soon as possible - that we mustn't lose a day - and sought the help of veteran prisoners who knew everything about the camp and its surrounding area and especially the language. Small groups among us planned escapes and there was a real danger that individuals who tried to escape would endanger a mass escape and get all of us killed as a reprisal.
Among the prisoners was a charismatic officer named Sasha (Alexander) Pechersky - a man slightly older than his companions, who had some influence over them. Sasha understood the situation well and with his qualities of leadership convinced the smaller groups not to try alone.
He took it upon himself to organize a rebellion on a large scale, large enough to include everyone in Sobibor. Sasha searched out among us those with personality and influence over the others and with their help learned every detail of the camp, got to know the Germans well, and knew who among us to trust and of whom to be cautious. From his own experience he knew the dangers of letting people know of plans and in the beginning planned the revolt and mass-escape with the greatest of secrecy, together with Leibel and two or three others only. Of course, the more the planners began to go in to detail the circle of participants in the secret grew.
There was no alternative other than to seek help and advice on all sorts of things from different people but they were chosen with the greatest of care and sworn to secrecy.
One evening Leibel Feldhendler came to me, took me to one side and introduced me to one of the Russians who as it happened I already knew.
We know each other, he said, that's Bereleh the putzer.
Tell him about your plan, Leibel said to me and I rushed through it breathlessly. The man asked me a few questions, smiled and said Very good!
I felt something like a school-boy who had just passed an examination successfully. Then Leibel said to me, Remember, we're relying on you. Not a word to a living soul!
From that moment, I lived with the secret in my heart and I had the feeling that there were many like me walking around, each with his own secret part of the plan, except that no one knew of the other's participation. I know that I was pervaded by the feeling that I would be at the centre of the rebellion and it was very exciting. I couldn't visualize all the minute details but a thousand times I saw in my imagination how the men would come to me carrying buckets of water, or whatever as some kind of camouflage, and I would give them the Ukrainians' rifles and uniforms. I expected to be called a second time for further discussions but nothing happened and after a couple of days Leibel advised me to let it drop but Don't worry, it'll be O.K. - and with these words I understood that something was cooking in the background. I got the same feeling from others that I spoke to as well. In the meantime the plans for the rebellion took shape and crystallized to include the escape of the whole population of the camp. The combination of military officer with leadership qualities, a company of trained soldiers and a group of veteran, experienced prisoners who knew the camp well and, as tradesmen in various crafts and maintenance workers in practically everything, had almost free access to all parts of the camp, augured well for the success of the plan.
Things rolled forward and Sasha convinced the people who wanted to try it alone that it would be better to rely on him - the revolt would come very soon and the chances of success would be greater than if they did it alone.
Meetings of the 'Operation Committee' took place each evening in one of the various workshops or the kitchen, and because of this it was necessary to let the 'Kapo' Pozyczki into the secret, so he could help and not hinder. The peeling of potatoes in the evenings was work that everyone wanted to do because it was always possible to get a little extra food and it was Pozyczki who selected the prisoners for the work.
So now he chose only the men who needed to meet in safety - they could sit and peel potatoes without anyone being suspicious of them. One day Sasha Pechersky and another of the Russians whom I knew asked me, casually, if, on the day of the revolt and escape, I would be able to smuggle some of the Ukrainians' rifles from their own barracks into our compound. I was caught by surprise by the question and didn't know quite what to answer.
Look, he said, You and a few other youngsters working for the Ukrainians, have almost free and unrestricted access all over the camp and you are the only ones who can get us a few rifles; we can't trust everyone in any case....
I'll do whatever you tell me, But how can I do it? I asked.
You'll find a way, he said, You've still got plenty of time to think of something; we'll talk about it again. Then added: We knew that you'd agree. Remember, we need some ammunition as well. Thanks Bereleh.
I planned to smuggle the rifles from one place to the other in sections of old flue-pipes that were lying around in various rubbish-dumps - I was sure that two or three could be safely hidden in each one.
Again I was flooded with feelings of excitement and again I waited impatiently for further orders and for the arrival of the 'Great Day'. When I met 'The Little Preacher' - the 'baby' of the camp, younger and smaller than I, handsome, sharply intelligent and with a quick tongue, whom the Germans related to as if to a toy for amusement - he stopped me and fixing me with a crafty eye, smiled and asked: Will it be O.K?
Yes, of course. I replied, and the two of us continued on our individual ways. In the exchange of four words we had exchanged our respective secrets and it was clear to me that 'The Little Preacher' who was also putzer in the Germans' barracks, had also agreed to smuggle rifles from them. I felt even better.
The revolt which was going to take place, occasionally took on different shapes in my imagination and often I assumed it would be a bit of a bloody affair in which we would kill the Germans and the Germans would kill us - and that would be the end. At no time did I visualize myself as escaping from the camp after the revolt - that I would be a free man.
I didn't believe that I would remain alive. In our condition that seemed too fanciful, but the success of the revolt, of itself, would satisfy me sufficiently. That was all I hoped for - the sum total of my ambitions.
One day, after I had finished cleaning the inside of the barracks and had begun to clean the surrounding area, Wagner suddenly appeared and began to beat and kick me with increasing rage. He ordered me to lie face down and instructed a nearby Ukrainian to stand on my head. In that position, with my head ground into the earth from the weight of the Ukrainian, Wagner beat me with a thick pole. It was terrible. I felt as if I were choking, that my body would simply explode with the pain. When he ordered me to get up and the Ukrainian released my head, I felt like one who had been resurrected and instead of bursting out crying, I suddenly broke into irrelevant laughter which spontaneously expressed my refusal to surrender. Wagner shouted in rage: What! Are you still laughing! Lie down again! Schnell!
I lay down, prepared to get another dose, but Wagner told me to get up. His rage had passed, apparently, and he satisfied himself by shouting at me: You - you pile of shit! Enough! I haven't done anything! It's about time you did a bit of work! From tomorrow you're not a putzer, got it?
Yes, I answered. Wagner took himself off. I was finished, crushed and broken. My whole body was one large pain. My legs almost refused to obey me. I thought that Wagner may have broken a few bones but in the evening our Czech paramedic examined me and said that I seemed to be in one piece. But I, who had more or less got used to existing just that little bit better and not to get beaten, was completely done-for. I also had the feeling that Wagner had got me 'in his sights' - the man wouldn't rest until he had liquidated me - and I was distraught at the loss of my job as a putzer. It meant I'd have to return to work in Compound Two where I would be automatically included in the constant 'cycling' of the workers involved with the 'Transports', and perhaps to be involved with cutting the hair of the women. Even more disappointing was the fact that I had been removed from the very place of work where I was supposed to steal the rifles for the revolt. I felt myself guilty for what had happened and out of shame couldn't look the Russians in the face.
Everyone in the camp felt sorry for me and tried to console me. The following day, at Appell, when the putzere were called to fall out, I stayed where I was. In my place another youngster was chosen and I was sent to work in the 'Nord Lager' with a group of Russians and Dutch prisoners. I worked at digging and it seemed to me that I had lost some of the physical fitness that I had previously managed to acquire; Frenschel, who was in charge, complained on my first day, that my work wasn't good enough and had no value. He told me to bend over. My body was still hurting from Wagner's beating and I tried to get out of an additional one.
When Frenschel started hitting me I tried to awaken a little sympathy in him and cried: Mister Scharf?hrer, I've got abscesses on my back-side.
Frenschel laughed. With every slash of his whip he shouted:
What have you got? Abscesses you've got! What have you got? Abscesses you've got!
He continued until my whole rear was flowing with blood. I was in a bad state. The beatings that I had received one day after the other had almost destroyed me completely. But now, unlike the period when I first came to the camp, I didn't pray to die; with all my strength I struggled to hang on. I wanted to see the revolt break out in the camp and prayed that it would happen soon.
Came the Autumn days of October 1943, dark cloudy days, rainy and stormy; days when the smoke of Compound Three spread in heavy low clouds and increased the heavy feeling of depression.
The tension in the camp grew. Everything was wrapped in mystery.
Rumour followed rumour - Tomorrow? The day after? When will the revolt break out? What will happen, exactly? Few people could answer those questions but many knew or sensed that something was getting ready to happen. On the surface everything was as normal and to my great wonder and puzzlement few among us let on that he was aware of what was going on. What would happen to them? Will they also escape? In any case, those that did know were preparing themselves and getting warm clothing together, while I went and checked the different hiding places where I had buried my hoard of gold coins; all was in place.
Early in October the 'Operation Committee' had finalized its plans down to the last detail and fixed the day of the revolt as for the fourteenth of the month. Several SS officers would be away on leave at that time, especially Wagner - apparently because of the pause in 'Transports' - and for all of us it was important that there should be as few of the SS in the camp as possible. The day before the break-out all the active roles were distributed to the various people. In the warehouses tens of small axes had been made and sharpened and knives as well, which were to be our main weapons - and it was essential to get them distributed to the places where they needed to be. It was also necessary for the men who were to do the initial fighting to be in the right place at the right time, to make sure that the communications system of messengers that had been set up functioned efficiently and quickly between stations and that they reported regularly to the 'Command Post'.
After I had been working a few days in the sorting sheds, one of the Russians who knew me, sought me out one evening and said: The revolt breaks out tomorrow. You're working in Compound Two and we've got people there; they'll give you messages and you'll run to us and report anything important that happens. He reminded me to keep my mouth shut and went away. Until that moment I was doubtful if we'd ever get to the day of the revolt. Past experience didn't give much hope that we'd succeed in bringing it off, even though this time the basic organization had been infinitely better and the feeling that spread through the camp was that we could rely on the organizers. There were still many reasons and factors that could bring the whole thing down. At the same time it was a fact that we were less than a day away from zero-hour - and everything was going according to plan. It was hard to realize that it was real and not a dream - that tomorrow the revolt will take place; that tomorrow everything will finish. I didn't know exactly the 'what' and 'how' of the revolt, and no one knew, of course, how it would all finish. I only knew that tomorrow a dream I had been cherishing for months would come true, a dream that had instilled in me strength to hang on. Many were the people who had called to us from between the two rows of barbed wire, on their way to the gas-chambers, to avenge them. Tomorrow we would do just that.
We would avenge them and ourselves on the Germans. We would kill as many of them as we could. Tomorrow we would put an end to our suffering at Sobibor. Tomorrow it would end..........
That night I forgot I was at war with God and angry at him; that I had severed my connection with him; that I had no desire to commune with him. I prayed to Him that there should be no failure; that the revolt should break out and succeed.
The morning of October the fourteenth dawned. Reveille was as normal. The weather was cloudy like its predecessors, foggy dim and cold. Morning coffee was as usual but everything seemed somehow accentuated and drawn out longer. I already knew the revolt will start at four o'clock in the afternoon, a quarter-of-an-hour before all the work-groups returned to the camp.
Appell was under the command of Frenschel. Together with him stood other Germans and Ukrainians. They all appeared to me in a different light - all of them targets for killing. The 'Kapos' of each block counted those present, reported the counts to 'Governor-General' - the elderly Jew from Germany - and he reported to Frenschel. The roll-call was completed as usual, the groups left the parade ground to go to work one by one, each group singing a song in a different language.
In Compound Two, at the sorting area, our group was made up of about twenty men. In charge was Scharf?hrer Beckmann, a short, thin rat-faced German. He wore a huge pistol in his belt and shouted incessantly Schneller! Schneller! (Faster! Faster!). Time after time he would take a slash at one or other of us with his whip. Time went slowly; I counted every minute. The close secrecy which held us up to the last moment only served to increase the tension ten-fold. I knew it and so did my colleagues but we couldn't exchange a single word on the topic. I knew that until the final second something could happen to bring it all to naught.
At midday, when we all returned to the camp, a sort of festive air prevailed. The faces of people radiated satisfaction - everything was arranged, ready, fixed and in place. Everyone was prepared and ready but held as if in suspense, yet an easing in the tension occurred, perhaps because people began to believe in the success of the operation. The sense of secrecy also began to waver. The veterans and the p.o.w's. exchanged a few words, asked a question here and there, wished each other success and good luck.
In the afternoon the tension returned and slowly increased.
It was very difficult to work. Another two hours; another hour-and-a-half; an hour. People began to behave strangely - moving around here and there, so obviously not concentrating on their work that Scharf?hrer Beckmann began to get angry. He picked on one of the men and gave him twenty-five strokes and everyone started working again; Beckmann relaxed slightly and the man who had been punished swore: I'll kill him today!
I saw two of the Russians disappear inside the warehouse close to where we were working. I knew that had gone to kill Beckmann. The hands of the clock moved forward. Zero hour was approaching nearer and nearer.
Instead of counting hours we were now counting minutes to the beginning of the revolt. All around total silence.....
Exactly four o'clock. Haim, who worked inside the warehouse, approached Beckmann and asked him to come inside with him - he had something nice to show him. We followed them with our eyes. The two entered the building and we immediately heard the sound of a blow, a shout which was instantly silenced and the sound of another blow. Silence returned.
Within a minute the two men came out, one of them covered with blood and with a pistol in his hand. We've killed the bastard, one of them said, we split his head open!
The two men asked us to continue working as if nothing had happened and one of them said to me: Bereleh, run and tell Sasha that we've killed the German in Compound Two, that everything's O.K. and then come back here.
The road from Compound Two to our own compound, about two-hundred yards, was empty. I covered the ground as quickly as I could and delivered the message. While there I heard that the camp Deputy-Commandant Untersturmf?hrer Neumann, Oberscharf?hrer Grieschutz, who was in charge of the Ukrainians, and a few more Germans had been killed - at exactly four o'clock Germans all over the camp, in charge of the groups had been killed. The killings had been accomplished in silence, with axes and knives and all the people had carried on working as if nothing had happened. The camp Deputy-Commandant, Untersturmf?hrer Neumann, had been invited to the tailors' workroom to try on a suit which was being made for him.
He got there at exactly four o'clock, riding his white horse, entered the workroom, unfastened his belt and laid it on the table, took off his coat and sat down. One of the men, hiding behind a curtain, came out behind him and swung an axe at his head. At the last second Neumann moved slightly and the blow only succeeded in slicing off his ear and part of his head. The German managed only to exclaim: The horse will give you away.... but the second blow split his head in two. The body was hidden and a messenger-boy was sent to another German telling him that the Commandant wanted him in the tailors' workshop.
The German came at the run and the instant he crossed the threshold he too was killed. Within ten minutes, most of the SS. officers in the camp had been killed - including the camp Deputy-Commandant. At the same time telephone lines had been cut and the electricity supply sabotaged by our own electricians...and still silence was maintained and everything went on as if nothing was happening.
I ran back to Compound Two. On the way I met 'The Little Preacher' carrying a length of stove-pipe bigger than himself. We exchanged a hurried smile and I continued running. When I arrived I told everyone that Neumann and many other Germans had already been killed. Elation filled every heart. It was impossible to continue working. Everyone waited impatiently for what was coming. All of a sudden the German, who usually accompanied us back to the camp appeared in the opening of the shed. We tried to pretend to keep on working but he sensed something had happened and turned quickly to go through the doors into the undressing area and disappeared. It was clear to us that he was on his way to the secretariat, from where Oberscharführer Mischel addressed the newcomers before they undressed. Five of our men ran after him and found him trying to telephone unsuccessfully. He tried to draw his pistol but the men fell upon him and after a brief struggle killed him and left him lying there in a pool of blood.
It was time to return to the main camp. We lined up in threes, one of us in front to lead, and when we began to march, he told us to sing.
We all began to sing a German marching song, like we did every day. On the way we saw a truck-load of soldiers on their way to the Kommandatur and we knew that as soon as they got there they would discover the body of the German. We quickened our step and by the time we reached the camp we were at the run. On the parade ground, where all the groups had returned from work, confusion reigned. Nobody knew what to do and milled around the leaders of the revolt. The leaders were armed with pistols, a few rifles and grenades and one 'Schmeisser' machine-gun - all of which had been obtained in the last minutes. There were no adequate words with which to describe our excitement, the heightened mood which enfolded us. If machine-guns had opened up on us now and mowed us down where we stood, I think we would all have died happy.
Everything happened quickly. I ran round behind our barracks, dug into the earth, hauled out my bag of gold coins and quickly ran back to join my comrades. One of the men climbed up one of the towers and blew the normal roll-call signal on a bugle - the intention being for everyone to come to the parade ground and join in the escape. 'Governor-General' who knew nothing about what was going on, heard the bugle-call, ran out of his room and shouted 'Eintreten!' (All here!). A few men got hold of him shut him up, hustled him back to his room and started beating him up. Suddenly the Volksdeutsche, Rok-tzuk, who was Grieschutz's deputy as well, appeared immediately in front of me. He was riding a bicycle. He stopped in front of us, his face as white as a sheet turned to us and asked: What's going on here? We all jumped on him together, pulled him off his bicycle and started to beat him with our hands, feet, knives - whatever came to hand - this man was one of the most sadistic men in the camp, and loved to bayonet the naked men women and children as they were entering into the gas-chambers. He used to stab us as well and I was stabbed by him a few times. He was left groaning to himself on the ground.
Suddenly a shout was heard: Hooray! Forwards!! - and everyone started to shout: Hooray! And as one we all began to run through the gate, towards the armoury in the direction of the main gate. That same moment the sound of shooting was heard - the first shots since the beginning of the revolt - and everyone, who until now had maintained perfect discipline and followed the orders of their leaders, didn't know what to do or how to react. In the confusion, what had been the united rush of one solid group of people broke up and began to disperse. Some continued to run in the direction of the armoury, and others, myself among them, made for the main gate, while others simply dispersed in all directions. I saw two Ukrainians run and take cover underneath their own barrack block. The firing began to increase. Explosions were heard. Here and there people fell down and called for help. Our men took over the armoury. Someone gave me a rifle and a carton of ammunition and I loaded the rifle, cocked it, put the stock against my shoulder and fired, just like I had seen the Ukrainians do it. The noise and the recoil surprised me. I ran with everyone to the gate. Someone shouted:
Disperse! and people began to run back. I stood still for a moment and looked around me. I saw masses of people milling round the gate, many of them falling. Frenschel recovered, took a machine-gun post and began to fire without pause into the crowd pushing around the gate. When I saw a lot of people running in the direction of the barbed-wire fence, I joined in with them. When I got nearer I saw that the people were climbing it as if it were a ladder. A few of them were motionless - they had been shot by the guards in the towers. As I reached it I saw that the inner one had already collapsed from the pressure of people who had been forced against it or weighed it down. I jumped over the ditch and began climbing quickly upwards. The guard tower to my left, close to the gate, had been silenced. Only from the right hand one was there any shooting and a fusillade of shots from a machine-gun left many hanging on the barbed-wire fence.
Explosions were heard ceaselessly from all round immediately followed by rising spurts of earth. It never occurred to me that I was running through the mine-field and it seemed to me that the others had also not realised the fact, either. The choice was to run or be killed on the spot, and certainly not to fall back into the hands of the Germans, and the leading runners were detonating the mines with their bodies, clearing a way through for those who came after. The distance from the camp fence to the forest in the sector where I was running was about a kilometre and something. I ran with all my strength, catching and overtaking everyone. When I felt I had put a fair distance between myself and the camp I stopped for a moment and looked back. Before my eyes spread a most wondrous sight that I couldn't have imagined in my wildest dreams - the whole width of the field, from the camp gates near the railway line as far as the beginning of Compound One, was filled with hundreds of people running - and the Germans could do nothing to stop them. The machine-gun fire which was directed towards us from the camp was increasing in intensity, but darkness was falling rapidly and from moment to moment people were getting farther and farther away and fewer and fewer were getting hit. Flares illuminated the area close to the camp and tracer-bullets left their brief lines of fire, mostly ineffectively, on into the distance.
So many times we had heard the victims being led to the gas-chambers shouting, in their last moments of life - Tell the world what the Germans are doing! Avenge us! The words penetrated deep within us and turned themselves into the last will and testimony of the dying. Everyone of us dreamed of fulfilling his obligation to carry out those last wishes but not one of us believed that the wish would become reality.
And yet here it was - we had avenged them. The greatest and worst of the murderers were lying dead, killed by those same knife- and axe-wielding Jews whom they sought to kill. Still less did we believe that any of us would leave that damned camp alive - and yet hundreds succeeded in fleeing that horrendous hell and now they are running into the forests, to freedom. And we will tell the world what happened at Sobibor!
*Fifteen SS officers - most of the group that perpetrated the exterminations at Sobibor, and at their head the camp Deputy-Commandant Untersturmführer Neumann, and five Ukrainian murderers - were killed during the uprising. From the total of about six-hundred Jewish prisoners in Compound One at the time, about three hundred managed to flee to freedom. The remainder were killed during the revolt. After the revolt the Germans liquidated the camp and covered all traces of the extermination machine.
Alexander Pechersky, the commander of the revolt, survived and lived until his death in April 1993, in Rostov-on-the-Don. In 1946 he published a dairy, in Yiddish, in Moscow, entitled 'Der Opstand in Sobibor' - 'Revolt in Sobibor'.
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