SOBIBOR PART 2
THE REMOVAL OF THE EVIDENCE
Toward the end of 1942, the SS began both in Belzec and Sobibor in a large-scale campaign to destroy the traces of the crime. In Sobibor, by this time some 100,000 people had been buried in pits. The decay process was causing the earth to heave and a horrible stench spread, this not only polluted the air above the camp, but the whole environment. Vermin spread, and there was a risk of contaminating the groundwater. All the dead had now to be exhumed and burned. So a heavy shovel excavator was taken to Sobibor, which was to dig a new pit. Over the pit, the prisoners constructed out of used railway sleepers that were placed on a cement base, a huge grate, on which 1,000 corpses should be burned daily. The prisoners of the "Forest Command" had to find large quantities of wood to burn corpses some in advanced stages of decay and stack them onto the pyre. The victims of the newly arriving transports at that time were no longer buried in pits, but taken immediately from the gas chamber to the pyre for the cremation. Flames and smoke of these massive fires struck several meters high and were visible from far away. [Few particulars about the body-burning procedure at Sobibor are known because no inmate from the Sobibor extermination sector "Camp III" survived. Witnesses mentioned the pyres being doused with gasoline or another flammable liquid, and huge fires flaring up so high that they could be seen far and wide; Ukrainian guards in their watchtowers found it hard to breathe when the wind blew in their direction from the burning grids. The smell of burned flesh prevailed throughout the camp and its vicinity. The bones that survived cremation were crushed with hammers.sic]
From some transports a number of young and vigorous men and women were selected for physical work. In most cases, the SS men asked specifically for skilled craftsmen among the newcomers. Every day some of them were shot, beaten or taken to the gas chamber, but they were replaced by newcomers. After some time, less of the laboring prisoners(Arbeitssklaven) were murdered in order not to compromise the effectiveness of the work-flow. Nevertheless, these prisoners knew that their deaths had only been suspended and that each of them had always expected that that day would come.
In all three extermination camps of "Aktion Reinhardt" the prisoners were working in the same way, under the supervision of their capos, involved in the murder cases of their captors as well as in ensuring that the property of the victims was retrieved, collected and handed over to the SS.. In addition, they all had to do physical work with the increasingly expanding service business and requirements according to the needs and personal tastes of the SS. Yet they lived in the shadow of death, same as all the others and in anticipation of their own end. They lived in fear of the violence of the guards and from their own overseer, from sickness, which meant death, before the terrible asphyxiation in the gas chambers of Camp III. As a foremen and supervisors who were used in all the National Socialistic Concentration Camps, prisoners were appointed as "capos" by the SS, who were granted special privileges, but as easily removed if they did not come up to standards.
40-50 prisoners were working as the "Train Station Commando ". They were forced to open the incoming trains and pass the command of the SS to the newcomers immediately to jump out of the wagons. Then they had to remove the dead and transported them to the pits, finally, the trains were to be cleaned so thoroughly that no visible traces remained. A group of about 40 prisoners formed the "Transport Command", which was used in the camp II at the undressing of the victims. These prisoners helped the children to undress and then brought the clothes to the collection point. There the clothing was searched, sorted and stored. The prisoners of the "Transport Command" were also forced to carry people who were too weak to walk for their execution.
The "rags commando" (Lumpenkommando)was between 80 and 120 prisoners, the largest labor team. Divided into several groups, the prisoners had to sort clothes and other belongings of the victims, browse for valuables and other personal belongings and remove any reference to the identity of the former owner, such as badges or the sewn-on Star of David. Sorted and bundled, the clothes were loaded into railway wagons and sent to the German Reich. "Also, I sorted clothes," said Regina Zielinski: "One day I was busy with a big pile of women's clothing, suddenly I spotted a brown plaid jacket and I said to the other girls that this is the jacket of my mother, but they looked at me doubtfully, and said that there were still so many jackets like this, but I was sure. Mother's jacket was tailored to measure, because we had one Taylor(Schneider) in pre-war times in Lublin, who used his Label (Etikett) with his name and I recognized the jacket. I said, "I'll prove to you that this is the jacket of my mother. My mother sewed her wedding ring into the small pocket". When the German guards just was not looking -. You had to be very careful - I cut out the bag in a fold of the lining, I found the wedding ring, it was the coat of my mother". (17).
Reference(17) Peter Monteath, Frauen im Holocaust,Gerlingen 2001,page 313.
About 20 people made up the commando called the "Gold Jews", which consisted of jewelers, watchmakers and former bank employees. Their task was to collect valuables such as jewelry, watches, gold, bank notes and securities, which had been taken from the victims, collect and had them sorted. People, luggage and clothing had to be closely examined, and although all the valuables had to be eventually delivered to the German Reich, a thriving and extremely dangerous smuggling system developed by the "Gold Jews". The SS guards who enriched themselves shamelessly on the possession of the victims, ordered the "Gold Jews", to withhold gold or valuables and pass it on to them. And the Ukrainian guards enriched themselves by all means necessary and exchanged gold and jewelry for women and alcohol in the area. Sometimes the prisoners were able to bribe Ukrainian guards with valuables in exchange for food or medications.
The "barber commando" worked at Sobibor in a shack that was located inside the "tube"(Schlauch), which was divided and forked at this point. Only women who were on their way to their deaths were forced into this barrack, where their hair was cut off. As the 15-year-old Thomas Blatt ordered by an SS man into the Hairdresser's barracks, he did not know what to do, "quickly and easily cut into thick strands, said a friend, you need not cut close to head." one of the women struggled and did not want to come forward. As the overseer used with a whip on her, she attacked him with fists and scathed him with her fingernails, but the bullets of the Germans were faster and killed her instantly. Then most of them were resigned to their fate without resisting. A young girl was crying over the loss of her beautiful hair and asked that it not be cut too much of it in sections. Only a few minutes, and they would die without the least we could do about it. "(18) The hair of the victims was collected and processed into industrial felt and yarn forwarded to the German Reich.
Reference(18) Blatt,Nur die Schatten bleiben,page137
In the nearby forests the "Forest Kommando" worked under close supervision, the firewood and other wood that was needed in the camp, trees had to be felled. In addition, some of the prisoners were there for the cleaning and maintenance of the camp, the planting of fruit and vegetables, the maintenance of horses and livestock and supply, for both the SS and Ukrainian guards and the other prisoners as well. As "Court Jews"(Hofjuden) as the prisoners were called, were used for cleaning and maintenance of the SS barracks or as tailors, shoemakers, mechanics, carpenters or jewelers exclusively for the personal needs of the SS. The goldsmith Stanislaw Szmajzner came on May 12, 1942 from Opole(Oppeln) to Sobibor. "Although I knew nothing but the horrors of the camp, I felt that my life was hanging on a thread, I stepped out of line and offered my services."I am a jeweler and you might need me". Wagner looked at me and was not convinced. My survival instinct made me open my briefcase, with an appropriate a golden monogram on it."Look, I said, "this is my job." Wagner checked my briefcase and took me away from the crowd. I took my brother and my cousin with me. They were later killed." (19)
Reference (19) From Opole to Sobibor.Testimony Stanislaw Szmajzner in: Novitch, Sobibor, page 46
[Wagner was in charge of selecting which prisoners from the newly arrived transports would be used as slave laborers in and outside the camp, and which would be sent to their deaths in the gas chambers. When Wagner was on vacation or attending to duties elsewhere, Karl Frenzel assumed his role within the camp.
More than any other officer at Sobibor, Wagner was responsible for the daily interactions with prisoners. Wagner supervised the routine and daily life at Sobibor, and he was one of the most brutal SS officers.(he was in fact a Master Sergeant, not a commissioned officer.sic) Survivors of the camp described him as a cold-blooded sadist. Wagner was known to beat and thrash camp inmates on a regular basis, and to kill Jews without reason or restraint. After World War II, Gustav Wagner was sentenced to death in absentia by the Nuremberg Trials, but escaped with Franz Stangl to Brazil. It is speculated that the Vatican helped Wagner to flee to Syria and then to Brazil. Wagner was admitted as a permanent resident on April 12, 1950. Wagner was issued a Brazilian passport on December 4, 1950. He lived in Brazil under the pseudonym Günther Mendel until he was exposed by Simon Wiesenthal and arrested on May 30, 1978. Extradition requests from Israel, Austria and Poland were rejected by Brazil's Attorney General. On June 22, 1979, the Brazilian Supreme Court also rejected a West German extradition request.
Wagner, in a 1979 BBC interview, showed no remorse for his activities in running the camp, remarking:
“I had no feelings.... It just became another job. In the evening we never discussed our work, but just drank and played cards.”
In October 1980, Wagner was found with a knife in his chest in São Paulo. According to his attorney, Wagner committed suicide. His date of death was determined to be October 3, 1980. Other sources claim that his suicide is suspicious, pictures of his body available makes you wonder.sic]
|Gustav Wagner death photo after committing alleged suicide|
The entire camp operation was determined by the frequency and volume of incoming Transports, as Thomas Blatt describes it: "As a little time had passed and I gradually became familiar with the system, and realized there were two distinct camp operations for prisoners. It was divided into different groups of fixed working positions, those that were sorting clothing, shoes, and valuables, the second work-flow was going on at the moment when a transport had arrived with Jews. Then out of the crowd workmen were formed into Sondergruppen) to separate the new arrivals into groups, this included the train station commando(Bahnhofkommando), which received the Jews at the Ramp (Bahnsteig). this group was responsible for the transit shed where the hand luggage was kept, the people that took the clothes to the sorting table and those who raked the path of the narrow "Ascension Street"(Himmelfahrtsstraße) when the Jews had gone through, and the hairdressers who had the hair cut off the women. After the newcomers were slaughtered, everything returned to "normality" and we prisoners devoted again ourselves to our previous assignments". (21)
Reference(21)Blatt,Nur die Schatten bleiben,page140
It took considerable time, until the prisoners who were in the areas of the camp I and II before they realized what really went on in camp III, and that their family members and all other people who had been in their transport, were killed immediately after their arrival . Stanislaw Szmajzner, who had been admitted on 18 May 1942 and immediately had begun to work for the commander Stangl and his deputy Wagner creating jewelery, asked the two about the whereabouts of his parents, "Wagner replied kindly:"They are doing well and I'm sure that you will soon be with them "on 18 May, I received a message from a friend who was also deported. "Say the funeral prayer for your parents, they are dead, along with everyone else. "from that day on, I pondered on revenge". Herschel Zuckerman, who had reported on his arrival as a cook, recalled: "The gas chambers were disguised so well that I thought for ten weeks, that my fellow prisoners, who had come with me, were in a labor camp. In our kitchen we cooked soup for camp III and Ukrainian guards would pick up the pots. Once I hid a note in Yiddish in a dumpling... "know brother let me know what you are doing", the response was attached to the bottom of the pot, "You should not have to asked. The people are gassed and we have to bury them. "(23)
Reference (23) From Kurow to Sobibor.Testimony of Herschel Zuckerman, in ibid, page 107
|Karl Frenzel, in charge of the Bahnhofskommando and the Judenarbeitslager in Lager I. On the right is Erich Bauer, who called himself the "Gasmeister" of Sobibor. Note: Bauer is in Wehrmacht Uniform, not SS|
In early 1942, Bauer was transferred to Odilo Globocnik, the SS and Police Leader of Lublin in Poland. Bauer was given an SS uniform and promoted to the rank of Oberscharfuhrer (Staff Sergeant). In April 1942, he was dispatched to the Sobibor death camp where he remained until the camp's liquidation in December 1943.
At Sobibor, Erich Bauer was in charge of the camp's gas chambers. At the time the Jews called him the Badmeister ("Bath Master"),while after the war he became known as the Gasmeister ("Gas Master"). He was described as a short, stocky man, a known drinker who regularly overindulged. He kept a private bar in his room. While other SS guards were neatly dressed, Bauer was different: he was always filthy and unkempt, with a stench of alcohol and chlorine emanating from him. In his room, he had a picture on the wall of himself and a picture of all of his family with the Führer.
Apart from beatings, whipping and randomly shooting prisoners, Bauer enjoyed setting Sobibor's attack dogs on Jewish prisoners. Among these dogs was a huge mixed breed similar to a St. Bernard by the name of Barry. Barry was trained to attack prisoners on a variety of different commands. Bauer's favorite command was Mensch, fass den Hund!, translated to "Man, grab that dog!". The pun here was the reversal of the words 'man' and 'dog', the former referring to Barry and the latter to the dog's victim. Upon the command, Barry would attack the chosen Jewish prisoner.
On October 14, 1943, the day of the Sobibor uprising, Bauer unexpectedly drove out to Chelm for supplies. The uprising was almost postponed since Bauer was at the top of the 'death list' of SS guards to be assassinated prior to the escape that was created by the leader of the revolt, Alexander Pechersky. The revolt had to start early because Bauer had returned earlier from Chelm than expected. He discovered that SS-Oberscharführer Rudolf Beckmann was dead and started shooting at the two Jewish prisoners unloading his truck. The sound of the gunfire prompted Pechersky to begin the revolt early.
At the end of the war, Bauer was arrested in Austria by the Americans and confined to a POW camp until 1946. Shortly afterwards he returned to Berlin where he found employment as a laborer cleaning up debris from the war.
Erich Bauer was arrested in 1949 when two former Jewish prisoners from Sobibor, Samuel Lerer and Esther Raab, recognized him during a chance encounter at a Kreuzberg fair ground. When Ester Raab confronted Erich Bauer at the fair, he reportedly said "how is it that you are still alive?" He was shortly arrested and his trial started the following year.
During the course of his trial, Bauer maintained that at Sobibor he only worked as a truck driver, collecting the necessary supplies for the camp's inmates and the German and Ukrainian guards. He admitted being aware of the mass murders at Sobibor, but claimed to have never taken any part in them, nor engaged in any acts of cruelty. His primary witnesses, former Sobibor guards SS-Oberscharführer Hubert Gomerski and Untersturmführer Johann Klier testified on his behalf.
The court, however, convicted Erich Bauer based on the testimony of four Jewish witnesses who managed to escape from Sobibor. They identified Bauer as the former Sobibor Gasmeister, who not only operated the gas chambers in the camp but also engaged in mass executions by shooting as well as in a variety of particularly vicious and random acts of cruelty against camp inmates and victims on their way to the gas chambers.
On May 8, 1950 the court, Schwurgericht Berlin-Moabit, sentenced Erich Bauer to death for crimes against humanity. Since capital punishment was abolished in West Germany, Bauer's sentence was automatically commuted to life imprisonment. He served 21 years in Alt-Moabit Prison in Berlin. During his imprisonment, he admitted to his participation in mass murder at Sobibor and even occasionally testified against his former SS colleagues.
He died in Berlin Tegel prison on February 4, 1980.sic]
The situation of the prisoners who had been selected to work in the death zone in Camp III, was even more desperate and hopeless than the prisoners in the camps of I and II, you were completely isolated from the rest of the camp and endured physical and emotional pain usually only over a short time. The prisoners from the other camp areas were constantly in danger of being sent to camp III. "This part of Sobibor was our nightmare", wrote Thomas Blatt as the following reminder: "It was a sunny July day. The locomotive that pulled the narrow gauge dump trolleys(Schmalspur-Kippwagen), had given up the ghost. Zydmund Tuchman, who had been promoted kapo was ordered with three other prisoners to push some wagons loaded with tinned food(Konservendosen) to the gate of camp III, the gas chamber area. Prisoners from other areas were strictly prohibited to throw so much as a glance at camp III. Under Zygmunds supervision the group managed up to the gate, but instead to obey the command and then immediately turn around, they were too slow and the gate to camp III went open before their eyes, not anyone of the group was allowed to return. I did not see my friend Zygmund again".
Even in Camp III, there were different work details: One group had to remove the dead from the gas chambers and stack them up. Another group had the gas chambers cleaned of blood and excrement before the next victims were rushed in. They also cleaned up the "tube"(Schlauch) and then spread fresh sand over it and raked it evenly. Several hundred men formed the "corpse commando"(Leichenkommando). They were forced to transport the dead to the pits and throw them in. First, however, the commando of "Dentists" had tooth fillings made of gold and platinum as well as artificial teeth removed. In addition, these "Dentists" were forced to search the bodies of the dead for hidden valuables. Working in the pits, was a commando whose job it was to stack up the dead and cover each layer with sand. From Sommer1942 working prisoners from Camp III, had to carry out the exhumation and cremation of the bodies, before they themselves were shot or driven into the gas chamber. To eliminate all contact between Camp III and the remaining camp areas, they had their own kitchen and laundry, another group of prisoners had to do maintenance and repair work.
The lives of the working prisoners in the extermination camps was by an analogy organized to all military National Socialist concentration camps. Everywhere possible the daily running started by the awakening, and subsequent morning roll call, twelve hours a dizzying work until the evening roll call. Throughout the diet was inadequate, the Hygiene conditions miserable and medical care under primitive conditions carried out by fellow prisoners inmost cases. In all the concentration camps, the prisoners lived in uncertainty about their imminent fate and in constant fear of disease, violence from their captors and their own overseers, the arbitrary "punishments" of beatings or extra work imposed. In all camps, there were also among the prisoners, cruelty and betrayal, as well as selfless help and mutual moral support.
continued under Part 3