Out of all the dramatic stories told by the Holocaust survivors, who are currently out on the lecture circuit and/or publishing their memoirs, which one takes the prize for the most unbelievable? The first story that comes to mind is the one told by Irene Zisblatt, about how she was saved because the gas chamber was too full on the day that she was scheduled to be gassed. She was rescued by a young Jewish Sonderkommando who tossed her over a 10-foot high fence into an open railroad car, so that she could be transported out of Auschwitz. That one tops the story of Anna Levin-Ware who was pulled out of the Auschwitz gas chamber because she was “Hungarian by marriage.”
My personal favorite Holocaust story is the one told by Esther Terner Raab, who was a survivor of Sobibor, one of the three Operation Reinhard camps. In a TV documentary, which I saw many years ago, Esther told about a party in the Sobibor camp that the SS men had before the famous “escape from Sobibor.” At the party, Esther was told by the SS men that they were celebrating the fact that one million Jews had been killed at Sobibor. Unlike the other Nazi death camps, the SS barracks at Sobibor were located inside the camp. According to another Sobibor survivor, Toivi Blatt, the Jewish workers in the camp sometimes socialized with the SS guards.
Esther’s story was corroborated by another Sobibor survivor, Moshe Bahir, who testified in 1965 at the trial of several of the Sobibor perpetrators in Hagen, Germany. Moshe Bahir testified, under oath in a court of law, that he was a witness to a celebration by the Germans in February 1943 after one million Jews had been killed at Sobibor. So it wasn’t just young attractive girls who were invited to the SS celebration of one million Jewish deaths; there were also young men like Moshe Bahir who were invited. The SS men were so happy that they had killed one million Jews, they wanted to share their jubilation with two of the Jews who were still alive and waiting for their turn to be killed.
The photo above shows the spot in Camp III at Sobibor where a brick building with gas chambers once stood. A large block of stone, erected in 1965, represents the gas chambers in two buildings at Sobibor, which were torn down long ago.
The Nazis claimed that the Aktion Reinhard camps were set up as transit camps for the “evacuation of the Jews to the East,” a euphemism for the genocide of the Jews. Unlike the concentration camps, such as Auschwitz and Majdanek, the three Aktion Reinhard camps did not have ovens to cremate the bodies. The Jews were not registered upon arrival and no death records were kept at the Aktion Reinhard camps.
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.
Survivors of Sobibor do not agree on the number or size of the gas chambers in the camp. The victims were killed with carbon monoxide from the exhaust of engines taken from captured Soviet tanks, which were stored in Camp IV. There is also disagreement on whether these were diesel engines or gasoline engines.
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. Jews were also brought from the Theresienstadt ghetto, located in what is now the Czech Republic, and from the Netherlands, to be gassed at Sobibor.
The Sobibor camp was on the eastern edge of German-occupied Poland, five kilometers west of the Bug river. The Bug river was as far as trains from western Europe could go without changing the wheels to fit the train tracks in the Soviet Union, which were a different gauge. On the other side of the Bug river from Sobibor was the Ukraine, which had belonged to the Soviet Union until it was taken by the Germans shortly after their invasion of the Soviet Union on June 22, 1941. The unsuspecting victims who arrived at Sobibor were told that they would be sent to work camps in the Ukraine after they had taken a shower, but instead, the Jews were immediately killed in gas chambers disguised as shower rooms.
Deportations to the Sobibor killing center began in mid April 1942 with transports from the town of Zamosc in Poland, according to Holocaust historian Martin Gilbert. The Jews from the Lublin ghetto were also sent to Sobibor to be gassed, although there were several gas chambers at Majdanek 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 to death. 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 few survivors of Sobibor. At the age of 15, Blatt had been selected to work in sorting the clothing in the camp.
The Sobibor killing center 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. The barracks for the German SS administrators of the camp were located in the Vorlager.
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.
The Sobibor death camp was 400 meters wide and 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, intended to keep anyone from approaching the camp. 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 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.
At the entrance to the camp, the victims were instructed to deposit their hand baggage and purses before proceeding 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. 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.