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3. Sobibor

It was late afternoon when we noticed that the noise made by the train wheels on the rails had slowly lessened its speed. Next, we heard the squeak of metal caused by the brakes and the train stopped. We soon noticed they were manoeuvring the engine and suddenly the wagons started to be pushed instead of pulled . A few seconds later we stopped again. We were all silent, since we were worried at the continuous comings and goings of the engine. We felt that it was finally separated from the rest of the convoy and was going fast away from the place we thought should be a railroad yard. Some more minutes went by while we waited for the results of all that fluster.
 
We were all filled with intense anxiety and only whispers were heard, broken at times by the cry of a child, immediately silenced by its mother. All of a sudden, the door was opened. All the other wagons were opened at the same time and we saw dozens of SS soldiers, whom we already knew very well, waiting for us along the whole long convoy. Scattered among them were approximately as many soldiers and this fact surprised us since they were a novelty for us. They wore special uniforms of which the most remarkable element was a black cap with a skull emblem right in front. They carried wooden truncheons; whips and guns were in their hands. Their uniform was different from that of the Germans and it was forest - green in colour.
 
They had been recruited in Ukraine among those of German descent and many of them also spoke German. Some Ukrainian Russians also succeeded in joining the army, by claiming they had Aryan blood.  This way, they joined up in order to escape the Nazi yoke. They had been assigned to relatively independent units and they had their own hierarchy. In spite of that the Commander in Chief was a German SS officer. Their object was to perform auxiliary tasks for the Germans, such as guards and sentries in Concentration Camps in the countries occupied by the Reich.
 
We thought our misfortunes had ended on arriving to our destination and we eagerly wished for some fresh air and for freedom, as little as it might be. We felt the compelling need to rest our tired muscles and bones after the pitiless journey. We had gone without water, food, light and pure air for hours, together with excrement and corpses. For all these reasons, our eyes were fixed upon the door which, once opened, showed us the deadly view of a gang of criminals with their sombre threatening look. Thus, all our anxiety had been in vain. We immediately heard violent shouts and curses, followed by an incisive command – "Outside quickly."
 
This was the reception the bandits gave us making the hopes of the most optimistic turn to pessimism which was already latent. The Ukrainians and their German masters, using the whips in an indiscriminate way, instigated the immense human cargo to make us leave the crowded wagons, hurriedly and violently. We had hardly had time to breathe and we were forced to hurl ourselves disorderly out, like an excited herd.
We stepped on each other and pressed against one another, walking over the bodies, which hampered our way and slipping on the foul slippery paste which covered the whole floor of the freight car. On their part, the soldiers never stopped shouting and whipping us, so as to deliberately increase the tumult, while we were unable to attempt even a single rebellious gesture against all that. Our reasoning abilities were dulled by the din they made and we could not even get any orientation as to where we were at that moment, since we could not find any point of reference.
At the exact moment when the crowd left the wagon and even before we had all come out, I had the opportunity of seeing, with my own eyes, a man in an elegant uniform.
 
He wore grey trousers, which characterised the German Army, a perfect white jacket and a cap handsomely placed on his head. He was using his pistol to shoot at the Jews who were coming out of the train, and he was accompanied in that by,  an extraordinarily tall officer. Not to mention some others who were practising their marksmanship on defenceless targets. Due to this solid attitude, dozens of ours lay there, at the very moment of arrival, by the side of the wagons, on which they had come. The aim of this monstrous scene was to impose, right away, terror and obedience on the Jews, thus discouraging them of any rebellious act.
 
As soon as the wagons were emptied, we were impelled towards a long corridor flanked by two fences made of barbed wire. There were guards all around us, urging us to walk as fast as possible, in spite of the state we were in. At the end of that passage there was an arrogant Nazi officer accompanied by two Ukrainian soldiers holding their truncheons. This corridor was the stage of an unforgettable scene for the sophisticated cruelty, which was practiced there.
 
The three criminals stood at the end of the corridor, positioned as to form a triangle, with the higher- ranking officer, a little behind the two guards who stood on either side of him. Both of them had a menacing posture, with their fearful truncheons and their vicious faces. Meanwhile, the mass of Jews was coming by fits and starts and, when they came within reach of the morons they were violently separated – the men to the right and the women to the left, with the beast-like sectarians fiercely wielding their cudgels and hitting everyone pitilessly.
 
The picture we saw was very painful, with whole families being separated: mothers were separated from their children and husbands in tears: young people were driven away from their parents and siblings: babies were deprived of their mothers love. 
As we were being separated according to our sex, we were thrown into a larger yard, located at the end of the corridor. This area could not hold us all and we had to be pushed and pressed to one another until it became totally saturated with people, because about two thousand of us had come in our transport.     
  
The cursed SS were waiting for us at the entrance to the yard, which looked like a football field. They did not intend to waste any time, since they immediately aligned the women into four rows and made them start walking towards a gate, behind which lay the unknown.
As soon as they had disappeared behind the gate, which was noisily shut, the Nazis focused their attention on the men. They put us also in rows of four and we waited for the command to march. This did not come immediately though and we had to stand where we were. In the commotion generated by the disorderly exit from the train , when no one could understand anything amidst the running and shouting. I had been close to my brother, to my nephew and to my cousin Nojech. From that moment onwards we never separated for a single minute and now we were together. The same did not happen to my father, with whom we lost all contact during the bedlam resulting from the human avalanche which had been hurled out of the wagon.
 
If we had not been able to find him then, we thought it impossible, now, to try to locate him, since we were all grouped and under the strict surveillance of the Germans. With all the men already in formation, there suddenly appeared a giant German officer, with a disdainful look in his eyes and whom I thought to be the leader there. Actually roaring, he started to select us according to our aptitudes. Thus, the farmers were selected first, then the physically stronger, as well as those who seemed to be most able to resist. Next, the carpenters, the mechanics, the tailors, and then other professionals until all of us had been subdivided into diverse groups according to the most useful professions.
 
As no goldsmiths were called I was very surprised and daringly left the files of those who had not been called and addressed the officer. When I got close enough to him, without waiting for him to say a word, I tried to be very courteous and clever and told him I was a goldsmith and that my profession had not been included on the list they had called. The huge German was perplexed, as if he had paid no attention to my words or did not believe I was actually a goldsmith. As soon as I finished talking I took off my back the small tool bag I always carried and showed him its contents, as well as a monogram, I had engraved on my own money wallet. This small proof of my professional skill was enough to make this brute a little more accessible and believe what I had told him. He finally decided I was to be taken from the files and I took advantage of the opportunity to add that I had three “brothers” who also manufactured jewels and whom I would like to have with me.
 
He nodded his agreement and my “brothers” joined me. Before he could go on with his work I still found a little courage to tell him that my old father was in that crowd, although I had not been able to find him. The German then said we might be able to find my father next day. Thus ended that short but profitable dialogue.       
  
The reader must surely have noticed how often I have mentioned, from the very first chapter, my tool bag. It is, apparently a detail not worth being mentioned so persistently. Up to now, when I write this chapter, my small bag has not done anything to deserve having been mentioned so many times in the story. It is true that, with the tools I kept in it, I escaped a lot of unpleasant situations and was able to help myself and my family. I have always been able to find some kind of job which would bring me some profit, one way or the other. Besides this, because of it I was able to avoid performing many unpleasant tasks for the Nazis, which would not be useful to me in the least. For all those reasons and because of the way I felt about its immeasurable worth, I always took good care of it and kept it at hand, now more than ever. To anyone less aware of this, the exaggeratedly frequent allusions might even be considered psychotic. However, as the facts are presented the reader will understand the support my little bag came to give me. Thanks to this support I am alive today, and may possibly be alive in the days ahead. Without it, my odyssey would never have been told, and the memory of it will always be kept in my mind.
 
Next, the giant ordered us to wait for him and left the yard. I was very pleased at the outcome of my boldness and my lies, through which I was able to keep my brother and my relatives with me. While we waited, we could see a group of men disappear behind the same gate  the women had gone through a few minutes before. Soon afterwards, a boy came to us and, without a wood, joined our small group. Frightened at the possibility of the presence of the stranger bringing us some kind of problem, I heatedly protested. I told him to go away, as the big boss had said only we were allowed to stay there, to which he retorted he had been given the same command. No alternative was left but to accept him, much to our dislike. The others who had been selected had already been taken away by the guards and so we stayed there alone and afraid of what might happen next. The boy who joined us was a painter who made plaques and signs.
 
The officer returned at long last. He beckoned us to follow him and started walking to a nearby shack. He violently kicked the door open and told us to go inside. He told us to stay there, not to  leave the shack for anything and not to let anyone come in. Soon afterwards he went away. The room was rather large and it was very dark inside, since night was falling. Even so I noticed that in one of the corners someone was moving. I rubbed my eyes and tried to focus them on what I thought must be a man, while my heart started beating out a rhythm. Terribly frightened I shouted – “Who is there?”  “I am also a Jew “ – a muffled weak voice immediately answered. We went closer, somewhat calmer now and sat on the floor, beside him. He was a young man. We then began to talk about our misfortunes and we soon learned that he too was a painter of direction signs. We were all extremely tired, hungry and thirsty, however, the heavy nervous tension made us sleepless, and we continued our lively discussions.
 
He told us he had come in a transport previous to our own. He had come with a large number of Jewish refugees from different Polish small towns, such as Choddle, Jozeow – on the – Vistula and some others. He added that, on arriving, they had the same reception that had been given to us. The Germans had separated first the women and then the men, all of them absolutely frightened at the unbelievable conditions of the trip and by what had happened when they had left the train.
 
Both groups had disappeared in the same way, behind that gate. Only a group which had been told to clean up the yard had been left behind. Notwithstanding, on the following day, they had also vanished behind the same gate which, according to him, led into a long corridor that ended no one knew where. He told us also that he did not know what had happened to his companions and that he had been told to paint arrows, and panels to identify the station, the camps, the bathrooms etc.
 
We were still talking when the same German soldier came in and we all became anxious. To our great surprise, he told me to go and get some food and pointed at the kitchen. In spite of the almost total darkness, I saw a bucket and picked it up before I followed the Nazi. When we got there I was open-mouthed. I was face to face with a mountain of cheese , salami, and varied cans, which filled the room next to the kitchen in total disorder. I felt as if I could hurl myself upon it.
 
The SS told me I could pick up anything I wanted to eat. I did not move, for I thought he was joking. He insisted, but my mistrust did not let me pick up any of those delicacies, although I eagerly wanted them. The officer again insisted. Very humbly and timorously, I finally grabbed a piece of salami and with my head bowed went back to the kitchen to get some coffee. Unfortunately the container I put it in belonged to the painter and must have had some kerosene in it because its precious content was spoiled. Even so each of us drank a little of it, because our hunger was irresistible.
 
While we talked after we had eaten, the young painter told us he had come with his family but he did not know anything about the fate they had met. Everything indicated that the Germans were using some kind of psychological method, through which they made the thousands of Jews who arrived believe that there was nothing wrong with the place. We were under the impression that every transport that came was always the first one, since everything was neat and tidy with no evidence of the enormous contingents which had come before. Night was passing but we could not sleep. The painter showed visible signs of terror and nervousness, because he shook all the time. Our digressions covered all the main topics of that enigmatic place.
 
We ceaselessly wondered – What was there behind the arrows which pointed at No1, No 2 and No 3 ?  What would it be like behind the plaque which had the word Bath printed on it ? What would there be behind the famous gate? What could have happened to our people? And thus the questions went on repeating themselves, while the answers floated in the air, until the first signs of a new day full of doubts and affliction started to appear. When the thirteenth of May started, I noticed through a small window we had in our room, that something strange was happening.
 
A group of fifty to sixty men had come into the yard. At first I was elated because all of them were Jews. Among them I immediately recognised a close friend of mine from Opole who had come in the same transport as I. We waved to each other while the other men cleaned the place of what had been left there the day before. His name, unforgettable to me to this day, was Abraham.
 
When the cleaning up was finished, they vanished from sight, and we again talked about what would soon happen to us. Around the yard, the scenery was tyrannical- fences of barbed wire and sentries loaded up to their ears with arms, in the corners, guards leaned over the parapets of high towers armed with machine guns. This landscape was not at all invigorating, and our disillusionment was great. We were now sure that we had fallen into a perfect trap and we clearly perceived that there would be no way for us to escape, due to the strict watch the Nazis kept and by the equipment they had.
 
Long hours went by and we did not see or learn anything. No Jew was to be seen for us to at least to be sure he was alive. Around noon, the same officer came again. At the sight of his frightening appearance we immediately stood up. He asked us straight away – “What is it you need to be able to work?”. I informed him we needed tables and chairs. The shy tremulously asked for the material he needed. Next, the officer told us to follow him. He took us to a large shack. There the painter got wooden planks, paint and some other implements he needed to make the numbered plaques, which would identify the diverse quarters existing in the camp. As for us, we got the furniture I had asked for and which was necessary for the work of a goldsmith. I must point out, though that only I was a goldsmith. My brother, nephew, as well as my cousin Nojech, which I had said were my brothers too, knew nothing about the job.
 
However, I asked for enough material for us all so as to justify what I had told the Nazi officer when we first got there. In the above mentioned shack, there was a large quantity of used clothes and bed sheets, including excellent blankets. We did not let the opportunity slip through our fingers, since we had very few warm clothes, and no blankets. Our first night in the shack had been spent on the floor and we had not been able to go to sleep.
 
I told the SS that we had no beds and he said he would supply us with some bunks, and he told us to pick out the bed sheets we needed for our personal use. Before he left, he warned us never to go near the barbed wire fences, under any circumstances, since the sentries were under orders to shoot , without any warning, at those who tried to do so. He added that even if we were called by a German to go near the wire fences, for us not to do so, as the invitation would only be a trap. We later learned that the bandits frequently used that dirty trick to kill Jews. It was enough for them to wish to do so and they did it without further hesitation, just for the fun of it.
 
The officer came again later on. This time however, he had another officer with him. The latter was much shorter and was neatly dressed in a white uniform. I soon recognised him as the officer in a white jacket who had been practicing his marksmanship on the Jews, when we arrived. The first one, whom we already knew, although we did not know his name, introduced him as the Commander –in – Chief of the camp. He went on praising him as the highest authority in that place and as the absolute master of everything, which was done or undone. His power extended in an unquestionable way, over all sectors, and he actually could be considered the master of life and death of all those who were there.
 
After the flattering description, they sat down and told us to do the same, thus starting a pleasant and even cordial conversation, as if this were the most natural thing for them. We felt much more at ease and we even imagined that we were in a friendly, merry place, such was the courteousness with which they addressed us. The Commandant asked me a lot of questions referring to jewels.
 
He wanted to know how they were made and how could I, who looked so young, be able to manufacture them. He took some more time on the second question, asking me slyly about how some of the tools were used. Maybe he suspected I did not really possess all the skills I had boasted of, or that I had been lying. Even so, he did not lose his temper and accepted all my arguments even though he tried to delve into all the subtleties of my profession.
 
When the dialogue was over, they got up and the leader told me to wait for his orders. We then learned his name. He was Franz Stangl. The other one, with whom we had talked many times before, was the cursed SS Scharfuhrer Gustav Wagner, a most important authority, the leader of Camp Number 1.
 
Franz Stangl was, at that time, extremely vain. He was always perfectly dressed and his snobbery came to the point of being absurd. He regarded himself as being all powerful, and he actually was. His countenance reflected a lot of arrogance, in spite of some kind and tender traits. He doubtlessly looked snobbish. He was always well groomed, his Hauptman’s high ranking police officers uniform was always shiny and well-pressed, and it fitted him beautifully. His build was 1.74m slender height. He usually wore a cap which showed that he still had all of his light-brown air. He looked thirty years old and healthy. He always kept his white gloves swinging on one of his hands and his boots were like mirrors, clean and shiny. He had the air of a superior man, a peculiar characteristic of all Aryans who revered their ancestry. He was always smiling, friendly and happy, although at the cost of the unhappiness of others. He spoke slowly in a soft voice which betrayed his unshakeable calm. The words he pronounced sounded mild and affable, showing how well bred and refined he was. His appearance was that of a University lecturer due to the mixture of attitudes that he deliberately presented.
 
The other one, Gustav Wagner, was a giant nearly two meters tall. He had a huge body, must have weighed more than a hundred kilos and was as strong as an ox. His main peculiarity lay in the fact that he had extremely long arms, which went down to his knees, in an absurdly disproportionate way. He also had a severe deformity in one of his shoulders, which was much narrower than the other, and this made him walk with a strange gait, always leaning towards the right. Besides his way of swinging his body right and left gave him the appearance of an orang-utan. His face was like a skull made in granite, so rigid was it. His eyes were such a dark green that they could hypnotise anyone who looked fixedly at them. However, they were lustreless like those of a dead fish, with no life or sparkle. Some moments later in comes Franz Stangl again, and he gives me my first job. I was to make a monogram for him. He sat down and explained what he wanted it to be like.
 
After I had listened to him attentively I argued that the gold I had available would not be enough, given the weight the valuable jewel was to have. The gold I declared I had was that of the jewels we had kept carefully hidden since we had been taken away from Opole. As a matter of fact, with the exception of my tool bag, these were the only valuable objects from which I never parted. We knew how priceless they would be in times of danger and I took good care of them. They represented a very small part of what we had once had, but even so, they could still be extremely useful. As I was terrified at the mysterious disappearance of my parents and my sister Ryrka behind the sinister gate, I thought that was the right time for me to offer the little gold in my power to be used in the monogram, even if the quantity would not be enough.
 
However, Stangl did not worry about that. He promised he would send me the proper amount of bullion I needed to make the ring to his taste. I took advantage of the pleasantness of our talk to reiterate that my parents were also there and we would like to see them since we missed them very much and we were not used to being deprived of their company. In effect, a constant torture afflicted me as to their whereabouts. I knew that what I had seen on the day we had arrived was not encouraging. However, I still ardently nourished the hope that all of them were alive, working in some other quarter of the camp, which seemed to me destined for concentration or forced labour. Formerly when I had been looking for them all over Poland, and before I had met them again in Wolwonice, I had spent long sad months searching for them, but I was absolutely sure they were still alive.
 
Now, everything was different. I had been separated from them only twenty-four hours before, but a strange worry tormented me ceaselessly, due to what I had witnessed the day before and their sudden mysterious disappearance. The Commandant heard everything with his head bent, but with his whole attention. Then turning to me with an air of generosity he assured me I had nothing to worry about and that I would soon be able to see them. He assured me that all of them were well but their work was a little bit harder than ours. In spite of that, he added there was no reason for me to be worried or afraid. Furthermore, he declared that all the Jews who had come in our transport had already had their baths, changed their clothes and were working on the farm, and that they were happy and well taken care of.
 
Stangl paused for a minute and then went on, adding that nothing would be missing to our little group. We would always have enough material for us to work with, plenty of good food, not to mention comfortable beds to sleep in. He finished by promising me, upon his word as a German officer, that my brothers and I would soon meet our parents who were in Camp 3. I then dared to ask him where we were. The answer came right away. He looked at me very firmly and said – “We are in a labour camp and its name is Sobibor. Sobibor was a small hamlet. It could not be called a village. It was only a meaningless hamlet. My companions and I had never heard its name, nor did we remember it, even straining our minds and trying to think of our Geography lessons in our good old days at school.
 
Its name and location were not on the map of Poland, as I could verify some time later. Perhaps a very minutely detailed railroad map might carry it, since it possessed a train station, even though it was a very small one. The ‘labour ‘ camp with the same ill-fated name of the station and the hamlet, was on the outskirts of the hamlet.  Soon afterwards, Stangl left. From that moment on I felt relieved by the comforting and soothing words of the German. I tried to make my companions understand that everything was different in that place from what we had supposed. In truth, those Nazis seemed different from the ones we had known before. We would work in comfort and we would not lack anything. We would make up, as of that moment, a group of six young Jews, trusting and happy. I plunged back into my thoughts which always had a halo of optimism. The mention Stangl had made of my parents filled me with renewed hope, given the sincerity he showed in his explanation. I was fully convinced that I would soon see them and I no longer worried about them, since they were working  on the farm and were well taken care of. I firmly believed that all these things were true and the Germans I dealt with were good, understanding men.
 
I felt relief at the wonderful perspectives which emerged. Nothing seemed to hint at the torments and anguish which had surrounded us in the ghettos, where we had suffered so much under the yoke of the Nazi henchmen. If it were not for a slight doubt which still hovered over us because of what we had witnessed when we got there. We might even have concluded that we were in a colony where vacations would alternate with reasonably humane work, without the continuous siege that hunger had laid on us for such a long time.
 
In the early afternoon I received a large quantity of rings. I immediately noticed they were used, old - fashioned jewels by their mere look. I did not think of their origin and started to melt them right away,with the help of my equipment. When I had finished melting the bullion I began my delicate work but I had first thought of a way to make the Germans believe in my supposed brothers skills. As they knew nothing about the art of making jewels, I made my brothers help me, while my nephew and cousin sharpened the tools, pretending they were really working. 
 
If they kept idle, they would run serious risks because, at any moment, another German or a Ukrainian could show up, in which case, fatal consequences would be coming not only to them but also to myself. The leaders of the camp would never forgive me for trying to betray their good faith. With that in mind, I took all the necessary precaution, since I had no intention of ruining everything.
 
It soon got dark, however, I went on working to finish Stangl’s monogram. While I worked, some Officer would occasionally come and watch me. I came to the conclusion that they were led by curiosity to see, with their own eyes, how the work was done. In such moments I gave them undeniable proof of my skill and devotion, and took a long time chiselling any unimportant facet. They were fascinated by that and paid me the most elaborate compliments as the beautiful jewel emerged from the block of gold. Some came to the point of asking me to manufacture something for them and I always said I would.
 
I immediately promised them I would do their bidding as soon as I possibly could. When we had to stop because we were too tired to go on, we ate something, as night had fallen. We were astonished at the abundance and variety of the food we had been given. Our table was rich as we could never even have dreamed of and we ate to our hearts content, a thing we had not been able to do for such a long time. Then we went to bed.
In my bed, before I fell asleep, I thought that everything led us to believe that the main figures in the camp liked us and they seemed perfectly happy with our performance. This mirage, no matter how well-based it was, allied to the hope of seeing my parents again, acted like a balm on my worried mind and my exhaustion was slowly conquered by an irresistible torpor. Soon after daybreak I resumed my work to finish the monogram and the procession of curious people proceeded in the same rhythm as before. There came the praise and my promises to attend to them all in their wishes. My “brothers” pretended to perfection that they were experts at something, they actually knew nothing about. They would awkwardly take hold of a chisel and spend endless hours doing nothing. Thus another day and another night passed, with no extraordinary event happening.
 
On the following day, I finished the jewel and sent a message to Stangl telling him his ring was ready. He promptly came to my goldsmith workshop. The man was beside himself with happiness. He was ecstatic and he felt fulfilled. He was not able to hide his surprise, since he had a light smile on his lips, at my having succeeded, at my early age, in making what he had ordered me to, in such a perfect way.
He was so enraptured at the sight of the jewel that he nearly came to the point of complete euphoria, such was his loquacity in praising the ring. He was totally absorbed in his happiness when in came the brutish Gustav Wagner with some other officers. When they saw the monogram they immediately started to praise it as warmly as Stangl had done and they did not mince words in praising it. I was really flattered and my happiness was shared by my helpers.
 
I was soon asked to make a ring for Wagner too. His followers were more modest and asked me to make them rings, plaques and other valuable trinkets. Some of them, however, wanted monograms, because of their enthusiasm about the one I had manufactured for their leader. I did not know whom to serve first and I inevitably found myself in a dilemma since the giant was more insistent and his appearance filled me with great terror. Incidentally, none of the other officers tried to go before Wagner, either, perhaps due to the danger he represented.
As soon as they left, my companions and I started dreaming about the laurels of our victory. We were sure that our lives would have a pleasant sequence and that with our reputation growing among the elite of the staff of officers in the camp, we would be able to lead a decent life. We hoped we would be able to improve my parents and my sisters living conditions, by bringing them over to us or going to them. We even tried to forget what we had seen some days before.
 
Perhaps these Nazis were not as cruel as we had thought they were. Maybe the camp was not as harsh as it seemed at first sight. Who knows but that Sobibor would not be as unknown as we had thought this far? We might even, someday stroll along its unknown alleys, on Saturdays. Maybe we were going to live and we might regain our freedom soon.
Perhaps all this would still happen. Perhaps all this would be no more than mere day- dreaming since, as the days went by, the usurpers of our freedom and the owners of our lives progressively lubricated the devilish engine which they had dared to create.