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Chapter Two


When the train approached the camp we could hear the SS shouting. We smelled a stench of burning human flesh. A big gate opened to allow the train to enter the camp and then it came to a full stop. We heard the grating sound of metal on metal as the doors of the freight-wagons were opened, and then, facing us, we saw a poster: SS SonderKommando Sobibor. We saw the SS standing with whips in their hands. Near them were Ukrainians with whips too, and Jewish kapos. A German bellowed: "Austreten von den Waggonen" (Exit from the wagons) and people started to jump out of the wagons. They were petrified with fear. Many people died of heart attacks, others were shaking, as if palsied, from fear. Many were in a state of hysteria, while others were covered with urine and excrement. No food or water had been given to us throughout the journey.

20 men (Jewish prisoners) of the train-commando (Bahnhofkommando) stood around with carts. Sick people, unconscious people, cripples, the dead--all were piled into those carts which went immediately straight to the gas chambers. Those carts were made of metal. Many small children and infants were thrown into the carts too. (Abraham Margulies, now living in Israel, was in that train-commando). Those carts went on narrow rails. The bodies in those carts were piled up every which way--heads down, heads up, limbs dangling, etc. Many SS men were standing there, "supervising" the "process." And they were enjoying the "progress" of the "work." Oberscharf¸hrer (Oberst) Gustav Wagner, a tall, blond good-looking man, supervised the whole scene. If the unloading didn't go as fast as the Germans wanted, they darted among the Jews and started to whip mercilessly. They slashed away viciously. 7 freight-wagons could be unloaded at a time, so 7 were taken in and the gate was locked. The 7 wagons were unloaded and then hauled out, to be replaced by another 7. In my train there were about 40 wagons, with 1,500 unfortunate Jews. 12 of us were selected for work--the rest all were sent up the "Tube" (a narrow, enclosed path) to Lager (Camp) III, where they were killed.

The train commando was only one of many commandos at Sobibor. There was a packing commando (to pack the victims' clothes, shoes, valuables, etc for shipment to Germany), a commando responsible for undressing the poor Jews, a barber commando to shear off their hair, etc. A kapo was at the head of each commando.

Oberst Wagner, the commander-in-chief of the whole operation, was usually bellowing and shouting orders. When he shouted "Austreten von den Waggonen" he could be heard for miles. Even the SS men trembled at the sound of his terrible voice. When all the Jews had left or had been dragged out of the wagons, Wagner started to bark out methodical orders, shouting all the while. He shouted: "Men separate, women separate, children separate!" Many mothers didn't want to leave their children, so Wagner gave an order to SS men and Ukrainians standing near him. They ran over and started to rip the children out of the mothers' hands. The children were crying; some of them felt what was in store for them, and others were simply terrified of the monstrous murderers. Some children remained silent--they knew everything and had resigned themselves. Many mothers fought valiantly to keep their children--they resisted and clutched the children to their chests. But it was all futile.

First Wagner shouted: "Kinder links!" (Children left!) "Frauen links!" (Women left!). That meant that they were destined straight for the death camp and its gas chambers. From us --the men--Wagner made a "selection." He shouted: "All carpenters: raise your hands'" And he also called out for various other craftsmen. The Germans selected 2 carpenters: Shlomo Elster (he's alive in Israel today) and me. Shlomo is a simple, good man; we worked side-by-side in Sobibor. I remember that 2 brothers, named Moiras, were selected too. Everybody else had to remain standing, completely still.

The kapos stood waiting. Wagner barked out an order, and the kapos led groups away. The kapos told us--12 men- to line up and remain standing to the side. Each kapo knew where to lead his group. Some Jews plaintively asked where they were being led to. The kapos told them that they were being taken to the showers, to be disinfected. Those Jews were happy to believe this. It was true--they were filthy because they had been dragged out of their bunkers and had not been given any water at all. Many were covered with lice. Sure--they needed showers. They needed disinfecting. It was obvious.

We--the workers in the Sobibor shops--were told about the whole process by the kapos. If the SS had found out they would have killed those kapos immediately and us too. The actual killing process was kept very secret. However, after 2 or 3 days there, the all-pervasive stench was self-explanatory.

You could tell most Jews one thousand times what was really going on there and they wouldn't believe you. People believe what they want to believe, or hope to believe- anything but the truth, if that truth is horrible enough. I myself spoke to some women wearing crucifixes, from Germany. They or their parents had converted to Christianity. I asked them: "Do you know where you are? Do you know what happens here?" I told them and they didn't believe me; they couldn't believe that such a place was possible. They answered me: "What do you mean when you say that they gas and burn people here? Such things in the middle of the 20th century? Are you crazy?" They simply couldn't understand it. Had people believed what was in store for them they would have resisted, but nobody believed. This was in 1942.

After we were ordered to stand to the side, the kapos led the Jews to the gas ovens. First, the women were undressed and all the hair was shaved off them to be packed for shipment to Germany. The barbers (20 men) were technically a part of the train commando. They worked rapidly and effectively. The men were sent directly to the gas chambers after undressing.

I remember a certain transport from Holland--ach, this was horrible! There were too many Jewish children to be "processed" rapidly so they were in a long, steadily shrinking circular line from morning to night. Such beautiful children, gorgeous little blonde girls with pigtails, decently dressed' These poor unfortunates were well-fed, with pretty, round little faces. Their parents must have loved them so, must have lavished such care on them, and now... Many of them carried small suitcases or bags. It was pitiful, so sad! The SS men were watching over them. We weren't supposed to even glance at those Berelach and Yosselech and Estherlech; saying one word to them was out of the question! Some of the kids were crying; they probably understood. The soil was sandy, so some children made circles in the sand and they played with pebbles and branches. After all, they were only children. If an SS man would have caught one of us glancing, even sideways, at those children, showing any interest at all in them, we would instantly have been taken to the gas chamber. But we managed to see what was going on. The Ukrainians and the SS were very nervous and wild that day. They were usually wild, but now they outdid themselves. Some children's eyes were full of fear--they were wide-eyed with fear. It was a day straight out of hell! And every minute less and less of them, less and less. The line got shorter and shorter. And my Berelechs and Yosselechs and Estherlechs became smoke in those accursed skies. After it was all over, the SS men went to get drunk in their casino.

The clothes of the unfortunates who had been undressed were carried to another area for sorting and packing, as were the shoes. The sick couldn't undress fast enough- everything, had to be fast, fast, fast--so the train commando's undressing detail had to rip the clothes off their bodies. Boonyek, a short, fat kapo was a decent man who often confided in us although he risked his life every time he did so. Perhaps he had to tell somebody to lighten his heavy heart. He told us how many of the unfortunates had raw wounds and festering sores; their clothes had become stuck to the congealed blood and scars. When the clothes were ripped off them their pain was enormous--they yelled at the top of their lungs. I worked in the carpentry shop and I heard, many times, the yelling of such unfortunates. Had I shown any interest at all I would have been shot on the spot. Sobibor was supposed to be a "secret"--nobody was supposed to know anything. Anybody who showed any interest in the "process" was immediately shot. But the train commando were ordered to do this, and the tempo was extremely fast. At Sobibor all Jews were not supposed to walk--they had to run.

The whole "processing" took between 1-2 hours. Wagner came over to the 12 of us who had been placed on a side. He told us that we were going to "Arbeitslager" -- the work camp (Lager I). Whoever had anything at all in their pockets should put it on the ground in front of them--money or paper or photos or jewels. Pockets had to be emptied completely. I saw where I was but I thought: maybe I'll be able to survive, somehow. That's the way human nature is--I can't explain it. I decided then and there not to hand over my precious photos (I still have them today) and my wife's rings. Wagner didn't have to search us--we were completely in his hands. Anything hidden would soon be evident. Wagner shouted: "If anybody hides anything, he'll be shot immediately'" But I stood my ground and surrendered nothing. With the photos I still had my past, and with the rings--a future, maybe.

After the ground in front of us became littered with odds and ends which Jews had emptied from their pockets, a few Ukrainians with whips came over to us. There were many Ukrainians at Sobibor--horrible murderers! Extraordinary sadists! They led us away. We couldn't walk--we had to run. The Ukrainians, whipping and beating us, herded us like animals, they yelled "Parshive Zhid" (Filthy Jews) and all kinds of vile curses at us. They took us to an enormous truck loaded with wood from demolished Jewish homes. The nails were still in the boards, and we had to climb into the truck and pull out the boards. You can't pull out boards when many people are standing on the woodpile, but that's what we had to do, and the Ukrainians were beating us all the while. The Germans used such boards to build Sobibor. They didn't bring new lumber; they dismantled Jewish houses and used the boards. These houses had been expertly dismantled by Jewish prisoner carpenters who probably had been killed afterwards.

At lunchtime they drove us into a big camp. There was one barrack there for Jewish women and two for Jewish men. Sobibor prisoners told me that 400 Jewish men and 200 Jewish women were kept there for work. They explained everything to me; one told me that I was in a "vernichtungslager"-- an extermination camp. Although the Ukrainians had told me that on the train, I hadn't believed them. But now that I saw the place with my own eyes I knew. The kapos yelled "Eintreten!" (line up); a kapo stood by the kitchen with a whip in his hand and Jews lined up for food--a watery soup. A piece ...

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