The Revolt That Scared Himmler

As I was thinking this week of what I wanted to write on, the news came through that the last living survivor of the Sobibor Uprising had passed away at the age of 96. Semion Rosenfeld had died this past Monday in Israel. When we hear stories like Semions, we need to take time and reflect what these men and women gave up, many their own lives, to save themselves and future generations. I have been fortunate enough to sit and listen to four survivors tell their stories, and I urge you, if you have the opportunity, to sit and listen to them in person, it is time well spent.

 

Map of Sobibor. Photo- wikimedia Commons

The Camp: Operation Reinhard

Sobibor was constructed in a sparsely populated area of Poland, near the towns of Chelm and Lublin. These towns had Jewish populations that would need to be “relocated” as the Nazi’s continued on with the Final Solution.

Sobibor was an extermination camp first and foremost. It was designed and built as two camps with each being broken down into three areas: administration, barracks and storage, and extermination, burial and cremation. The design of the camp was highly influenced by what the Nazi’s had learned in building Belzec. They used local Polish workers and Jewish slave labor to construct the camp itself.

Each camp was roughly 1300 ft by 2000 ft in dimension, surrounded by three rows of barbed wire fences with watchtowers. Outside the camp itself were minefields, so that if anyone, by some slim chance, made it past the guards, the barbed wire and the watchtowers, the mines would certainly kill them. There was the well know “reception area”, where trains carrying prisoners were unloaded, people sorted and then around a thousand or so Jewish slave laborers would descend upon the train cars and reception area. It was their job to clean up baggage left behind and clean out the cattle cars before they set out again to be filled with human beings.

The newly arrived would be forced into the first section of the camp. Here they would have found the Jewish prisoners that served the SS and the Ukrainian guards. As well as buildings that would house the belongings that they would unknowingly be leaving behind them. This would then lead them along the path to the second section of the camp.

Partial list of newly arrived victims. Photo- German archives wikimedia Commons

This section of the camp was heavily camouflaged by trees. Like leading cattle into slaughter, the Nazi’s did not want to newly arrived to know what lay ahead of them. The more they knew, the higher chance of a revolt. Through the pathway, the newly arrived were led to the gas chambers. Women and children however, would first be led to the shaving hut and have their heads shaved, their hair to be sent back to Germany to make rough work clothes and to line the boots of those serving on U boats. Along the path were also the storage buildings for the clothing and valuables of the victims. All staying hidden from view of those newly arrived.

After moving through section two, they would be led into section three, the most secluded and secret of the three sections as it contained the gas chambers. Section three held three thick brick buildings, each held a gas chamber. Each gas chamber measured 12 ft by 12 ft and could hold between 160 to 180 people in each one. Unlike most camps that used Zyklon B poison, Sobibor used a diesel engine that pumped carbon monoxide through tubes and into the gas chamber. If someone was too sick to make the walk to the gas chamber, they would be placed in a cart, wheeled to the pit behind the gas chambers and shot. This was death on a massive scale.

In the gas chambers worked 200-300 Jewish laborers. They worked in teams and had some of the most horrendous jobs in the camp, they cleaned out the gas chambers after each use. The dead were taken via cart outside, mouths examined for any gold teeth (which were promptly removed), cremated and then dumped into mass graves.

Franz Stangl was the first commandant of Sobibor. He was already familiar with the extermination that Hitler wished to carry out against the Jews and Roma population of Poland. Stangl was a veteran of Aktion T4 (see post of February 5, 2019 Aktion T4: Euthanasia, Killing of Innocents in my archives) in which the Nazis first started by killing anyone who had a mental or physical disability. When he arrived at the camp, Stangl brought with him 20-30 SS men who had worked in Aktion T4, along with a company of Ukrainian guards.

Each soldier and guard were made to sign a pact of secrecy, the Nazi’s did not want people to know what was going on here, thus the soldiers could not talk about it outside the camps. The Ukrainian guards were sent to special training camps in Trawinki, near to Lublin, to learn the process of killing that took place within the camp.

The construction and running of the camp were directly under Heinrich Himmler, who visited the camp often.

For just over a year, the camp operated, strictly as a killing center. Its one and only function was murder on a large scale. To understand the scale of the operation, we have to look at the numbers that came into the camp itself.

Twenty rail cars would arrive into the camp, within two to three hours, the entire population of those rail cars would be dead. From May 1942 until July 1942 over 100,000 Jews from Lublin, Czechoslovakia, Germany and Austria would be transported to Sobibor. They would come through ghettos through out Poland. The camp would close briefly from August to September of 1942 while repair work was done on the main railway line into Sobibor, however the killing would pick back up in October 1942 with the camp now under the command of Franz Reichsleiter. From October until Spring of 1943 over 300,000 people were murdered in Sobibor, primarily Jews and Roma peoples. Including the camps first transports of Jews from France and Holland.

If the SS saw an attractive, well dressed Jewish woman, she would be singled out and then used for sex amongst the guards. The guards referred to that woman as “the Merry Flea”.

When July 1943 rolled around, Himmler ordered that Sobibor become a concentration camp instead of a single purposed extermination camp.

 

The Revolt

In the Spring of 1943 prisoners from other camps began to arrive in Sobibor. Smaller camps were being torn down and their populations sent to the larger extermination camps. This would play a pivotal role for Sobibor.

The inmates began to notice that they are getting fewer and fewer transports come in, and rumors begin to fly that the camp is to be shut down. What they do not know is that there is talk higher up the chain of command to refit the camp to process captured ammunition, and salvage it for use within the German military. And that construction for that purpose had already begun with a partially underground barracks, and the first shipment of ammunition already inside the camp.

However, what the inmates did see were the bodies coming in from the men who dismantled Belzec. During the sorting of the former Belzec inmates clothing, notes are found describing what has happened to them, to serve as a warning to those in Sobibor. One note said: “We have worked in Belzec for a year and did not know where we were going to be sent. They told us that we would be going to Germany. That is why we were given enough bread, canned foods and vodka for three days. It was all lies. We are now in Sobibor and we know what will happen next. Understand that after us, death also awaits you! Avenge us!”

Now, with knowing what is to befall them, a small committee is formed to try and figure out how to escape from the camp. Some of the possible ideas are to poison the SS, burn the entire camp down or digging escape tunnels. The one main problem that they keep running into is “how to organize a mass escape?”

Leon Feldhendler is the first to emerge as a leader of the committee, however when a train arrives carrying Red Army POW’s they quickly enlist the help of Lt. Alexander “Sasha” Petsjerski. Within a very short time, Sasha has a plan of escape: 1. The Red Army soldiers kill a large number of SS and take their weapons, 2, Prisoners attend evening roll, just like normal, where the Red Army soldiers now dressed as the SS would kill the remaining guards, 3. Encourage prisoners to escape.

The revolt was planned for October 13, 1943 as three of the most feared SS would be on leave: Franz Reichlietner, Gustav Wagner and Hubert Gomerski. However, there is a kink. On the 13th the SS from nearby Osowa camp visited unexpectedly, so the revolt was put off until the next day.

October 14, 1943 the plan was put into action. In the early morning hours, a large number of SS men are lured into the tailoring hut under the guise of trying on new uniforms and checking that they meet the standards. The prisoners in that hut used axes to kill the SS men, the members of the Red Army then donned their new uniforms and took their weapons.

A Czech electrician cut communications outside the camp while money and valuables were divided up amongst the insurgents to use as payment outside the camp. They ran into another issue when SS Karl Frenzel did not show at the carpenters’ shop as he was scheduled to do. While an unexpected SS man showed up in the auto shop and was promptly stabbed to death.

With all the things going wrong, Sasha called roll call early. Many of the prisoners who did not know about the revolt began to panic. They didn’t see the “usual” SS men and they did not know about the revolt itself. They spread out all over the roll call area and a guard was killed in the midst of the crowd.

During the chaos SS Erich Bauer, the self-titled “gas master of Sobibor”, arrived back in the camp. Once he realized what was happening, he opened fire on the fleeing prisoners. This created a gun fight between the SS, Ukrainians and in the watchtowers and the insurgents. The missing Karl Frenzel appeared from nowhere and emptied his machine gun into the crowd.

Of the estimated 600 prisoners that tried to escape, only 47 actually made it and survived the war. Those who were not killed by gun fire, died trying to scale the barbed wire fences and were shot by men in the watchtowers, other tried to run across mine fields that had not yet been cleared by the insurgents. Twenty-nine SS men were killed, twelve by insurgents. One hundred and fifty prisoners remained in the camp and were executed by the SS and Ukrainian guard. After the revolt, Himmler ordered the camp razed to the ground. There was not be a trace left of it, it was now an embarrassment to the Nazi elite.

Photo- https://commons.m.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Extermination_Camp_of_Sobibor,_Poland_(181648130).jpg#mw-jump-to-license

However, there is always a trace to be found. In 2014 two archaeologists found what they believe to be the foundations of the gas chambers and the paths leading into them, as well as the path leading to the crematorium. They also found, just sitting in the top soil, human bone fragments scorched white from the crematoriums.

The names of the survivors:

Schlomo Alster                                    Moshe Bachir                                     Antonius Bardach

Fiszel Bialowitz                                    Symetta Bialowitz                             Jakob Biskubicz

Thomas (Tovi) Blatt                             Hershel Cuckierman                        Josef Cuckierman

Josef Duniec                                        Chaim Engel                                        Leon Feldhendler

Eda Fischer                                          Berek Freiberg                             Herman Gerstenberg

Musite Goldfarb                                   Josef Herszman                                Zyndel Honigman

Abram Kohn                                        Josef Kopp                                           Chaim Korenfeld

Chaim Leist                                          Samuel Lerner                                      Jehuda Lerner

Jitschak Lichtman                                 Yefim Litwinowski                      Abraham Margulies

Chaskiel Menche                                  Zelda Metz               Alexander Aronowitz Petsjerski

Schlomo Podlebnik                               Esther Raab                                     Semion Rosenfeld

Ajzik Rotenberg                                   Stanislaw Szmajzner                             Urusla Stern

Boris Taborinsky                                  Kurt Thomas                                        Chaim Trager

Aleksej Waizen                                    Arkady Wajsparir                                 Abraham Wang

Hella Weiss                                          Kalman Wewerik                                 Selma Wijnberg

Resina Zielinsky                                   Meier Ziss

 

 

Violence is not new to this world. Hatred even less so. The only way for us to keep from repeating these same mistakes over and over again, is to let love rule our hearts instead of fear. Fear is what keeps people in bondage and fear is what keeps people that spout hate in power. Hitler spread lies and fear about the Jewish people, and those who did not know better and even those who did, followed him. The more we let people like Hitler, preach hate and division, the more we will be divided. It doesn’t matter if you are black, white, brown, green or any color of the rainbow, inside we are all exactly the same and we all want the same things: to follow our dreams, to be free to love and get love in return, to build a home and a life. All very basic human ideals and the only way for us to achieve them is to work together against fear, hatred and bigotry.

I hope that you have found inspiration in this week’s blog.  If you did, please share it with family and friends on your social media and via email, even become a follower of the blog. Until the next time, live, laugh and love! See you in two weeks!

The Refused Refugees of 1939

Eighty years ago, this May-June, an ocean liner was refused docking in Cuba, the United States and Canada. And why? Because the passengers were mostly Jews fleeing Germany and Hitlers oppression and violence. We have seen the same thing, seventy years later. Syrians, Rohingyas and South Americans fleeing their war-torn countries and the president of the United Sates giving preference to those with “Christian” beliefs. I was born and raised in the protestant faith, and the one that I have tried to continually live by is LOVE.

A couple of years ago we were all shocked and sadden to see the body of the little Syrian boy washed upon the shores of Greece. A child. His life had not even started and yet he was dead, why? Fear. Fear of what people don’t understand, just like today and just like seventy years ago.

 

Boarding the St. Louis in Hamburg 1939. Photo- wikimedia Commons

The St. Louis

The St. Louis was a German ocean liner that departed Hamburg, on May 13, 1939 bound for Cuba. The passengers had spent huge sums of money to get on the ship and to get out of Germany. The ticket cost $150 per person (about $2,500 today), plus most had also paid the Cuban embassy between $200-$300 for their Cuban visa (about $3,000-$5,000). So, this was not a cheap journey.

Six months before the St. Louis set sail, Kristallnacht (the Night of Broken Glass) had swept through Germany. That night left 91 people dead, countless Jewish homes, businesses and synagogues destroyed. Gisela Feldman’s father was rounded up that night and sent to Poland. He begged her mother to wait for him before they left Germany, but her mother knew the most important thing was to get Gisela and her sister, Sonja, out of Germany. Gisela was 15 when she boarded the St. Louis. Her mother had been so very brave to take two teenage girls and leave their father behind in Poland, all to save the lives of the girls. They were waved off by dozens of relatives from the dock, most they would never see again.

When Gisela, Sonja and their mother fled Germany, they had Cuban visas. Their mother had 10 German marks in her purse and another 200 German marks sewn into her dress. This was all to flee the hatred permeating Germany and start a new life in Cuba.

Gerald Granston was six years old when he boarded the St. Louis with his parents. They had fled their small southern German town and young Gerald had no idea what was to come and where they were going, he didn’t know what or where Cuba was.

The St. Louis was captained by Gustav Schroder. Captain Schroeder had directed the wait staff and ships crew to be polite to the passengers, 937 people almost all Jews. They would get better treatment on the ship than they would at home from their neighbors and countrymen.

In a 2014 interview, Gisela reflected about how happy her time was on the St. Louis. The dances, cinema and walks along the deck with boys her age. It was a happy time for most on board, they were sailing to freedom.

 

Excited passengers of the St. Louis. Photo- wikimedia Commons

The Trouble Begins

On May 8, 1939 a huge demonstration took place in Havana with over 40,000 in attendance and thousands more listening to the radio broadcast by Primitivo Rodriguez urging Cubans to “fight the Jews until the last one is driven out”, this included the already 2,500 Jews admitted to Cuba.

The Nazi’s had agents on the ground in Cuba that worked with the right-wing groups to put out propaganda and hate speech against the Jews trying to flee Germany. Claiming that the Jews were communists.

When the St. Louis arrived on May 27, 1939 Cuban officials boarded the ship to go over passenger’s paperwork, when they boarded, they were smiling. When they left, they allowed only 28 to enter Cuba. Just a fraction of those who had paid large sums of money for their visas. For two weeks Captain Schroder tried to negotiate with the Cuban officials and was continually told “manana, manana” (tomorrow, tomorrow). But they were rejected, Cuba would take no more.

Captain Schroder sailed the ship close to Florida, so close that the passengers could make out the lights of Miami. Some of the passengers took it upon themselves to send direct telegrams to US President Franklin D. Roosevelt, which he did not answer. They were told by US Immigration that since the US had already taken in its quota of 27,370 German-Austrians that they would have to wait their turn through the asylum visa process, a wait list that took years and these people had only moments.

In fact, one passenger was in such despair about returning to Europe, he cut his wrists and then threw himself overboard into the open ocean.

The ship set sail back to Europe and docked in Belgium, where the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) had secured a $500,000 (around $8,000,000 today) to obtain visas to other countries for the refugees.

 

Captain Schroder discussing their return n Belgium. Photo- wikimedia Commons

Back in Europe

Back in Europe and with the help of the JDC, because most countries that took in the refugees wanted a cash guarantee that they would go back home after the war, several countries gave visas to many of the passengers.

Gisela, Sonja and their mother, who had Cuban visas but were denied entry to Cuba went to the UK, as well as Gerald Granston and his family. They would survive the war. In 2014 Gisela was 91 and Gerald was 81.

Sol Messinger, who was another six-year-old on board, went to France with his parents, where they then had to flee, again, after the Nazi invasion of that country.

The Netherlands, and Belgium took in even more. The ship that left with 937 passengers would have 278 survive the war. The rest would perish is camps and marches, including many children.

The St. Louis was not the only ship to be turned around in Cuba. There was also the French ship Flandre and the British ship Orduna, between the two they had 176 Jewish passengers. Flandre returned to France and the Orduna sailed along the South American coast trying to find countries to take the refugees. They finally had success when they disembarked many of the passenger in the American controlled portion of the Panama Canal. The US eventually allowed most to enter the country.

 

St. Louis docking in Cuba. Photo- wikimedia Commons

The Aftermath

Newspapers around the globe carried the stories of these banished ships and their passengers. And yet, it did not soften the hearts of the country’s leaders or citizens. Earlier in 1939 both the US House of Representative and Congress, allowed a bill to die in community that would have raised the limit of German-Austrian immigrants to take in 20,000 children.

This past May 21, 2019 the Twitter feed of @stl_manifest ran the names and pictures of some of the people who died because they were refused entry into US:

My name is Lutz Grunthal. The US turned me away at the border in 1939. I was murdered in Auschwitz. (child)

My name is Manfred Fink. The US turned me away at the border in 1939. I was murdered in Bergen-Belsen. (adult)

My name is Joachim Hirsch. The US turned me away at the border in 1939. I was murdered in Auschwitz. (child)

My name is Adolf Grunthal. The US turned me away at the border in 1939. I was murdered in Gulleschau. (adult)

My name is Arthur Weinstock. The US turned me away at the border in 1939. I was murdered in Sobibor.

My name is Charlotte Weinstock. The US turned me away at the border in 1939. I was murdered in Sobibor.

My name is Ernst Weinstock. The US turned me away at the border in 1939. I was murdered in Sobibor.

 

This is a list that could go on and on and on, ten million dead are so very many people. That is more than twice population of Los Angeles. And the saddest part is that many of them did not have to die, if people had looked at the human being and not just the religion or their own fears and phobias.

Fear is the cause of so much hate that goes on today. If we replaced fear with love, we would see so much more loveliness that exist in this world and we would be much quicker to offer a helping hand.

As an American I am ashamed at what has been allowed to happen in the past and even today. I would like to see what the critics would do when everything the know is stripped away from them, their homes are bombed, their family members murdered, all because they have a belief different from someone else’s. America is a country founded on basic human rights, pursuit of happiness, life and liberty. We are allowed to practice whatever religion we choose, a right in our Constitution.

If people actually stopped for a moment and looked around, did their own research instead of relying on someone else, then they would see that what they fear, is already here. And those who want to come here, want to make this place better. They want what we take for granted- life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

I implore you to look beyond your fears and find out what you have in common with someone different, see where you can connect instead of disconnect. It would make this world a much better place.

Thank you for taking the time to read this blog. I hope that you will become a follower/subscriber, share it with your social media and email friends. I will be back in two weeks with more. See you in two weeks!