John Demjanjuk, now 90-years-old, is currently on trial in Germany, charged with being an accessory to the murder of 27,900 Dutch Jews at the Sobibor death camp in 1943. Demjanjuk was previously tried and convicted over 20 years ago in an Israeli court after he was identified by eye witnesses as a Ukrainian guard nicknamed “Ivan the Terrible” at Treblinka. He spent 7 years in prison in Israel before he won the case on appeal.
John Demjanjuk as a young man and in a courtroom today
A verdict in the current case is expected in late March this year, but if 90-year-old Demjanjuk is still alive, he could be brought in on a stretcher to another courtroom in Spain for a third trial.
In January 2011, a Spanish judge indicted Demjanjuk on charges of being an accessory to genocide and Crimes against Humanity, based on the accusation that he was a guard at the Flossenbürg concentration camp in Germany. The Spanish are expected to have Demjanjuk extradited to Spain when the German trial ends.
“Crimes against Humanity” is a new crime that was made up specifically for the Germans in the Nuremberg International Military Tribunal after World War II ended. Genocide is also a concept that did not exist before the Holocaust. As far as I know, no one claims that there was a gas chamber at the Flossenbürg camp in Germany. On the other hand, it is officially accepted that Sobibor was a “death camp,” built by the Nazis in March 1942, for the sole purpose of killing European Jews in gas chambers.
The exact number of Jews who were murdered at Sobibor is unknown; allegedly, the bodies were first buried, then dug up and burned on pyres. All the train records are missing so the number of Jews who were transported to Sobibor is unknown. Estimates range from 170,000 to 250,000 deaths in the short time that Sobibor operated as a death camp. The US Holocaust Memorial Museum estimates that 250,000 Jews were murdered at Sobibor during a period of only 18 months.
Sobibor was one of the three Aktion Reinhard camps; the other two were Belzec and Treblinka. Demjanjuk was first charged with being Ivan the Terrible, a guard at Treblinka. Shouldn’t his third trial be for being a guard at Belzec, not Flossenbürg?
The three Aktion Reinhard camps were all in remote locations, but “each site was on a railroad line linking it with hundreds of towns and villages whose Jewish communities were now trapped and starving” in the spring of 1942, according to Martin Gilbert’s book entitled The Holocaust. Sobibor was linked by rail with many large Jewish communities, including Lublin, Wlodawa and Chelm.
Gilbert also wrote a book called Atlas of the Holocaust which is mainly a book of maps pertaining to the Holocaust. On page 108 of this book, there is a large map that shows that Sobibor was in the “General Government” which was the name given to German-occupied Poland. Sobibor was right on the border between the General Government and the Ukraine.
On January 20, 1942, a conference was held in Wannsee, a suburb of Berlin, where plans were made for the “Final Solution to the Jewish Question.” According to the figures given by the Nazis at the Wannsee Conference, there were approximately 5 million Jews in the Soviet Union in January 1942, including 2,994,684 in the Ukraine and 446,484 in Belorussia. There were another 2,284,000 Jews in the area of German-occupied Poland known as the General Government. At the Conference, the Nazis claimed that they were planning to resettle some of the Jews who were living in the General Government into the Ukraine, an area of the Soviet Union which they then controlled.
The three camps, called the Aktion Reinhard Camps, were planned at the Wannsee conference. All three of the Aktion Reinhard camps were located on the western side of the Bug river. On the eastern side of the Bug river was the Ukraine, according to the maps drawn by Martin Gilbert.
Railroad bridge over the Bug river near Treblinka
The photo above shows a one-way bridge over the Bug river that is designed for trains, cars and pedestrians. When I visited Treblinka in 1998, my private tour guide took me over this bridge.
There must be another way to get to the Treblinka Memorial Site because this bridge would collapse if a tour bus tried to cross it. I’m not sure if the trains to the camp went over this bridge; the bridge is a reconstruction, according to Martin Gilbert.
So why is this bridge so important? Being a train buff, I knew that the train tracks in the Soviet Union are a different gauge than the tracks in Poland. Trains did not cross the Bug river during World War II because the trains would not have been able to run on the tracks across the river. There is a bend in the river near Treblinka, which required a bridge over the river in order to get to the Treblinka camp, although the camp is located on the western side of the border between the former General Government and the Ukraine. There were no railroad bridges for trains to cross the Bug river into the Ukraine during World War II, so all train transports to the East had to stop at the Bug river.
After the joint conquest of Poland by the Germans and the Russians in September 1939, the river Bug (pronounced Boog) became the border between the German-occupied General Government of Poland and the Russian zone of occupation. When Germany invaded the Soviet Union in June 1941, the Germans quickly conquered the territory that was being occupied by the Russians.
Hardly more than a creek, the Bug is shallow enough in some places so that one can wade across it, and according to historian Martin Gilbert, some refugees, from both sides, did wade across. The movie Europa, Europa has a scene in which Jewish refugees are shown walking toward the Russian sector, trying to escape the Nazis in September 1939 by crossing the Bug river on rafts. The river is shallow enough that trucks could drive across it, and in winter, people could walk across on the ice.
If the Nazis were really planning to “evacuate the Jews to the East” as was claimed in the minutes of the Wannsee Conference, it would make sense to establish three transit camps near the Bug river, which was on the border between two areas that had different size railroad tracks. If the Nazis were planning to kill the Jews, the gas chambers did not need to be right on the border between German-occupied Poland and Russian-occupied territory.
Martin Gilbert wrote that Jews were brought from the Theresienstadt ghetto, located in what is now the Czech Republic, and from the Netherlands, to be gassed at Sobibor. Wait a minute! The Netherlands? Why would Dutch Jews be transported all the way to Sobibor in what is now Poland to be gassed? Why not gas the Dutch Jews in the Westerbork camp in the Netherlands and use these valuable trains for transporting goods and soldiers during World War II? Or why not gas them in Germany at the Sachsenhausen camp which was not far away?
According to Dutch historian Johannes Houwink ten Cate, the transportation list of the Jews sent on 19 trains to Sobibor from the transit camp at Westerbork in the Netherlands contains the names and place of birth of 34,000 Dutch Jews, but the names of the Jews sent from other countries to Sobibor are unknown.
This Dutch Historian claims that 33,000 Dutch Jews were killed in the gas chambers at Sobibor and 1,000 were chosen as workers at Sobibor, or to be sent to a nearby labor camp. There were 19 Dutch Jews who survived. So the Germans left 1,000 potential witnesses alive so that they could testify against them? How stupid was that?
In his book entitled The Holocaust, Martin Gilbert wrote about a survivor of Sobibor, Dov Freiberg, who was a 15-year-old boy on a transport of 2,750 Jews from the town of Torobin in Poland on May 12, 1942. The Jews were assembled in the town square and told that they were going to be “resettled in the Ukraine,” according to Freiberg. They were then taken to the nearest railroad station at Krasnowka, where they were joined by Jews from other nearby towns and villages. When their train arrived at the camp, the story of resettlement seemed to be coming true: a sign at the entrance to the camp said “SS Sonderkommando Umsiedlungslager.” which means “SS special unit resettlement camp” in English.
According to Freiberg, there was a band playing at the entrance. The women and children “went straight to the gas chambers,” but since the gas chamber “didn’t really operate in the night,” the men “stayed there on the spot during the night.” Freiberg was one of 150 Jews from this transport who “were sent to work” in the camp itself, sorting the belongings of the victims. Another case of the Nazis stupidly leaving witnesses behind. Were they trying to get caught?
Martin Gilbert wrote that in the month of May 1942, there was a total of 36,000 Jews, from 19 communities between the Vistula river and the Bug river, who were transported to Sobibor and immediately killed in the gas chamber. This was the largest number of Jews gassed that month in any one camp, surpassing Auschwitz, Belzec and Chelmno. The Treblinka camp was not yet open at that time.
Gilbert also told the story of Yaakov Biskowitz, who was sent, at the age of 15, on a transport of 3,400 Jews to Sobibor from the town of Hrubieszow in Poland on June 1, 1942. According to his testimony at the trial of Adolf Eichmann in Israel, Yaakov and his father were among 12 Jews who were selected to work in the Sobibor camp.
As told by Martin Gilbert in his book entitled The Holocaust, Biskowitz recalled how those who were too sick or too old to walk the length of the path to the gas chamber were taken to the so-called Lazarett (hospital) on a small rail spur used to carry coal. Men who could not run fast enough, and small children, would be thrown into the coal wagons and sent to the hospital where they would be shot by the Ukrainian guards.
According to Yaakov Biskowitz, as reported by Martin Gilbert, there were 8 Jews who were forced to work in Camp 3, burning the bodies of the victims who had been gassed. These 8 Jews also sorted the belongings and burned all damaged clothing, personal documents and photographs.
Biskowitz testified at the Eichmann trial that his father was shot at the Lazarett (hospital) because he came down with typhoid. (The German word for typhoid is “spotted fever,” the same as the word for typhus; it is more likely that Biskowitz had typhus, which was a problem in the camps in Poland.)
During World War II, and for years afterward, the Sobibor death camp was virtually unknown. William Shirer did not even mention it in his monumental 1147-page book entitled The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich. It was not until the release of a 1987 TV movie, Escape from Sobibor, based on a book with the same name, that the public knew of this remote spot where thousands of Jews lost their lives. The movie tells the story of the revolt during which around 300 prisoners escaped; no more than 50 of them survived to the end of the war.
One of the survivors of the escape from Sobibor was Esther Terner Raab, who made her home in New Jersey after the war. In a TV documentary, Esther told about a party that the SS had before her escape. The SS men told Esther that they were celebrating the fact that one million Jews had been killed at Sobibor.
Unlike the other Nazi death camps, the SS barracks were located inside the Sobibor camp. According to Toivi Blatt, the Jewish workers in the camp socialized with each other and sometimes with the SS guards.
Another Sobibor survivor, Moshe Bahir, testified in 1965, at the trial of several of the Sobibor perpetrators in Hagen, Germany, that he was a witness to a celebration by the Germans in February 1943 after one million Jews had been killed at Sobibor. However, Raul Hilberg wrote in his book entitled The Destruction of the European Jews that the number of Jews killed at Sobibor was estimated to be 200,000.
So the SS guards at Sobibor had a party to celebrate killing one million Jews and they invited at least two of the Jewish workers at the camp? This was the height of stupidity! And why did they exaggerate the number of Jews that had been killed? This doesn’t make any sense at all.
Deportations to the Sobibor death camp began in mid April 1942 with transports from the nearby town of Zamosc in Poland, according to Holocaust historian Martin Gilbert. He wrote that Jews from the Lublin ghetto were sent to Sobibor to be gassed, although there were several gas chambers at the Majdanek death camp just outside the city of Lublin.
During the first phase of the extermination of the Jews at Sobibor, which lasted until July 1942, around 100,000 Jews were gassed, according to Martin Gilbert. Their bodies were buried in mass graves, then later dug up and burned on pyres. During the next phase, the bodies were burned immediately, according to Toivi Blatt, one of the survivors of Sobibor. At the age of 15, Blatt had been selected to work in sorting the clothing taken from the Jews, which was then sent to Majdanek to be disinfected.
The survivors of Sobibor do not agree on the number or size of the gas chambers. The victims were allegedly killed with carbon monoxide from the exhaust of engines taken from captured Soviet tanks, which had been stored at Sobibor. There is also disagreement among the survivors on whether these were diesel engines or gasoline engines.
The Sobibor camp was initially divided into three camps (Lager 1, Lager II and Lager III) but a fourth camp was added later to store munitions captured from the Soviet Army. Lager I was where the Jewish workers in the camp lived. A moat on one side of this camp prevented their escape. Lager II was where the victims undressed; Jewish workers sorted the clothing in this camp.
From Lager II, an SS man escorted the victims through a path lined with tree branches to the gas chambers in Lager III. Only the Ukrainian SS guards and the German SS officers were allowed in Lager III, so the survivors could not have known what happened in Lager III.
The Sobibor camp was 400 meters wide by 600 meters long; the entire area was enclosed by a barbed wire fence that was three meters high. On three sides of the camp was a mine field. The watch towers were manned by Ukrainian SS guards who had been conscripted from captured soldiers in the Soviet Army to assist the 30 German SS men who were the administrators of the camp. In 1965, a German court put 11 of the German SS guards on trial; 6 of them were sentenced to prison, and one committed suicide during the trial; the others were acquitted.
The victims arrived on trains which stopped at the ramp across from the Sobibor train station, or in trucks from nearby Polish villages. Most of the Jews were transported in cattle cars, but the 34,000 Dutch Jews who were sent to Sobibor arrived in passenger trains, according to Toivi Blatt. The luggage of the Dutch Jews was transported in separate cars and the victims were given tags which they were told would be used to reclaim their bags. All of the belongings of the Jews were confiscated upon arrival. According to Toivi Blatt, all documents, photos and personal items were removed from the confiscated baggage and anything that could not be recycled to send to Germany was burned in open fires that lit up the night sky.
The Jews were then forced to walk along the path, called the “Himmelfahrtstrasse” (Street to heaven), which led to the spot where the hair was cut from the heads of the women, and then on to the gas chambers disguised as showers. Demjanjuk is accused of being one of the Ukrainian guards who herded the Jews into the gas chambers disguised as showers.
Demjanjuk’s trial is being conducted in Germany where judges takes judicial notice that Jews were killed in gas chambers by the Nazis, so no proof is required. If his attorney were to ask for proof that there were gas chambers at Sobibor, he would promptly be arrested for being a Holocaust denier. He would have no defense because the Holocaust is considered to be “manifestly obvious” by the German courts and does not have to be proved.