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Escape from Sobibor – Richard Rashke

July 18, 2015

EFS2As part of my Holocaust education programme for late Key Stage 3/Early Key Stage 4 RE, I had a scheme of work based on the key question: What experiences might make people give up, change or adopt religious belief? – Students will evaluate e.g. Shlomo Schmaltzer’s story of why he became an atheist after his escape from Sobibor.

The film ‘Escape from Sobibor’ was a brilliant resource and I’ve seen it so many times, over the years, that I know off off by heart.

This book tells the story of the revolt in the death camp and tells us what happened to the survivors afterwards.

Of particular interest to me was the young idealist, Stanisław [Shlomo] Schmaltzer (Polish spelling Szmajner). (1923-1989 – but he lived to see the vicious Commandant Wagner killed – probably he was the killer since he’d spent his life trying to track him down.) When I discovered that he had died, I wept as if he were an old friend. The film and the book are emotionally moving – and I believe education shouldn’t just appeal to reason but to spirituality.

SchlomoShlomo was born 50 miles west of Sobibor. He was bored with school and used to ‘bunk off’ to watch a goldsmith at work. That was his salvation because he made gold rings for the SS from the fillings extracted from the teeth of those who went to the gas chambers. He also got to know the habits and movements of the SS so well – the Germans love routine – that it was possible to kill them off one by one so as to facilitate the escape.

One of the most moving scenes occurs early on. It’s a sex scene – I believe that the inmates were so malnourished that they would have been incapable but these two were newly arrived: Shlomo wasn’t so bashful. He became infatuated with Bajle and was determined to have her. They became close friends, and he stopped frequently in the kitchen to chat and tease. He liked her gentleness and sensuousness. She enjoyed his attentions and admired his directness and camp savvy. She told him she had no illusions about the future, that she would die in Camp III like her husband and child, that she didn’t care anymore. There was no one and nothing left for her in life, she said. It was all meaningless.

Shlomo thought about Bajle constantly. He was too young for her, he told himself. Too inexperienced. How could he declare his love and ask her to become his lover? She was teetering on the brink of total apathy. Hadn’t she just lost a husband? Why should she accept him? Or maybe Shlomo the goldsmith was just what she needed to live again.

It wasn’t easy for Shlomo to grow into a man under the heel of the Nazis. Ghettos, hunger, terror, death, survival were all he had known since he was twelve. The drive to have a woman was part of that survival, for somehow the constant threat of death made sex all the more important for him.

Shlomo had lost his virginity on the potato farm outside Wolwonice. Zelde cooked for the work gang in the farmhouse kitchen next to the room where he made jewelry for the old German soldier. She was just sixteen, with blue eyes and long black hair. She used to sit close to him, chatting while he worked. At night, she snuggled next to him on the straw-covered floor above the kitchen, where she and twenty men slept. She would put her back to the wall, her breasts tightly against him, and cover both of them with a blanket she had begged from the old German. All night, they would lie like two spoons in a crowded drawer.

Shlomo could feel her softness, the warmth of her breath on his neck, and a strange stirring, but his inexperience and shyness wouldn’t let him explore. By the time he mustered the courage to do anything, she was fast asleep. On one of the last nights at the farm, Zelde and Shlomo whispered a little before they fell asleep. Zelde held him tightly.

“Did you ever have a girl?” she asked him finally.

“No,” he said.

“I want to be the first.”

She rolled Shlomo over to face her. He could feel her heart pounding against his chest, and for the first time in his unhappy life, he felt a surge of desire and emotion that began to pull him out of himself. Her nails dug into his back. The warmth of her breath and the heat of her body excited him beyond anything he had ever known.

They stopped whispering, and his body began to tingle as they made love in the hay. For a brief moment, Shlomo lost himself in her. There were no more Nazis, no more war. No hunger, no hatred, no death. Just him and her and their bodies as one.

When the final shiver of pleasure passed, reality hit him with a force he had never known before. He wanted to whisper to her, caress her in a thousand tender ways, let the torrent of his feelings wash over her in giant waves, but the sounds and smells of nineteen sleeping men, the crack of moonlight creeping through the window like a thief, the reality of tomorrow, killed everything. An irresistible tiredness swept over him, and he fell into a deep sleep. The memory of her last kiss on his cold lips warmed his dreams.

Shlomo wanted to capture those moments of abandon and forgetting again; to escape, if only for a few minutes, the fear and hatred that seemed to strangle every other emotion trying to be born. He had to escape from Sobibor or he would go mad.

One day, he found Bajle alone in the kitchen. “Where are the others?” he asked.

“Bathing,” she said.

He kissed her on the cheek and blurted out that he wanted her.

Bajle smiled in her sad, melancholy way. “You’re much too young. Why not ask one of the girls?”

Shlomo was flustered, but he recovered quickly. “I like you,” he said.

Bajle seemed flattered, and before she could object a second time, Shlomo said, “If I’d never eaten an apple before, I sure wouldn’t want to try a green one.”

Bajle blushed. “I’m married. You better stay away from me. They killed him — my husband.”

Shlomo felt her wavering. “They’ll kill us all before they’re finished.‑ he said.

They lay together in the corner of his shop on a bed of blankets. Over the winter months, they became lovers. He protected her. She washed his clothes and brought him food. And while the other women talked about families and husbands, and the men about escape and revenge, Bajle and Shlomo tried to forget.

Bajle and Shlomo escape together but she is short in the back. He runs back to help her but she dies in his arms and he realises, rapidly, that unlike Lot’s wife, he must run on and never look back.

I am also interested in Thomas “Toivi” Blatt, who is still alive today. Schlomo protected him and they escaped together. Having escaped, they hid in a barn –and the farmer tried to shoot them dead – because they were Jews.

ToiviHe gave evidence at the trial of John Demjanjuk who was charged with 27,900 counts of accessory to murder as a Ukrainian SS guard. Aged 82, Toivi was one of the last people alive to have survived Sobibor. He was born in Izbica, only 43 miles from Sobibor. He survived only because the SS had executed a number of so-called “work Jews” at Sobibor the day before he arrived. The camp commandant was looking for replacements and 15-year-old Thomas pushed himself forward, pleading “Take me, take me!”

His jobs included polishing SS men’s boots, sorting the clothes and shaving the hair off naked women prisoners before they were driven into gas chambers pumped full of exhaust fumes. It took up to 40 minutes for those inside to die. “We heard the whine of the generator that started the submarine engine which made the gas that killed them. I remember standing and listening to the muffled screams and knowing that men, women and children were dying in agony as I sorted their clothes. This is what I live with,” he said.

When Jewish prisoners scaled the perimeter fence under a hail of gunfire from the camp watchtowers, which were still manned, the ones who got over the fence were blown up by mines that surrounded the camp. Mr Blatt escaped this fate because his jacket caught on the fence. He eventually got through the minefield by jumping through the pits in the ground caused by the explosions.

EFSQuotations:

Stanislaw “Shlomo” Szmajzner: I will do anything for revenge, even if I have to die for it.
Leon Feldhendler: How old are you?
Stanislaw “Shlomo” Szmajzner: How old do you have to be?
Leon Feldhendler: You are old enough.

……….Late that night, while Moses, Jankus, and Nojeth kept a lookout at the window and door, Shlomo hunched over the kerosene lantern, trying to study the hastily written note. As hard as he tried to decipher the scribble he could make out only two phrases: “No one lives . . . say Kaddish.”

Shlomo was too stunned to cry. For whom should he say the prayer of mourning? For his mother? his father? Ryka? What about the rest of the Jews from Opole?

While Nojeth recited Kaddish, Shlomo repeated to himself, over an over, the first line: “Exalted and hallowed is the name of God. . .”Wrapped in the prayer shawl of despair, the two young men faced east‑toward the Holy City‑and intoned the ancient words, searching for meaning fighting to hang on to a shred of hope, pleading for understanding.

“We should think of God,” Nojeth said, “for everything He does is good, and we should never fight against Him.”

Shlomo was irritated that God would even enter the conversation, much less be part of plans for the future. “God? Where is your God who permits my parents to be killed?” he demanded. “How can He be so good and do nothing for the Jews, allow them to be butchered? Where is He that He doesn’t come to help them? Do you want me to pray to your God and thank Him for the way my mother and father were killed? No, Nojeth. Absolutely not! My only desire is to kill. To murder these criminals. Not to pray to your God, who collaborated with them.”

Shlomo himself was surprised at the anger in his words. He had never dared speak them before, but they tumbled from his lips with clarity, as if they had been written in his heart a long time ago and were waiting to be read.

……”I remember coming home, bruised, clothes tom, all because I defended your God, Nojeth . . . No, a thousand times no! If you Jews had been more radical, maybe all of this would not have happened. At least we would have resisted and killed. We would die, but we would kill.

“We were treated as cowards because Jews like you were comfortable on the benches of the synagogues. You forgot about the Maccabees, who were religious and still became legends of courage and bravery.

“Be certain of one thing, Nojeth. If any of us survives, he will tell the world about Sobibor. Then you will no longer see the humble lambs of today, but the many, many Maccabees of tomorrow.

“Think about what the Nazis are doing in the name of God. Remember what is inscribed on their belts ‑ ‘Gott mit uns.’ Answer me! Which God? The one who is on our side, or the one on theirs?”

Nojeth accepted the tirade calmly, without shock or anger. “We Jews are paying for our sins,” he said. “You are paying, too.”

“And the children? The ones the Nazis are murdering, have they sinned, too? Answer me!”

Nojeth finally broke the silence. “Pray, Shlomo, pray,” he said. “We must always pray.”

The goldsmith lost all control, pouring out an answer that made Moses cower in the corner. “Stop it!” he shouted at Nojeth. “Stop it! We must only think about what to do tomorrow. We should not waste our time calling on your God, who will do nothing to help us anyway.”

Since he had no plan, Shlomo wandered through the woods by night and slept by day, until he heard diesel motors. He told the others to lie low while he crept to the road. He saw trucks and soldiers. The Germans began shouting orders and shooting into the trees. Shlomo hurried back to the other Jews, and they buried themselves as deeply as they could under branches and leaves.

The Germans swept the forest, shooting on front of them as they walked in a straight line. Shlomo listened for cries of pain from the wounded. But since there were no noises other than Germans walking, shouting, and shooting, Shlomo concluded that the soldiers were blindly searching for Jews, hoping the gunshots would frighten some into running.

The Germans passed Shlomo a second time as they returned to the road. They were walking quickly now, talking among themselves and not paying attention to where they were stepping. Shlomo could hear them pile back into their trucks and move of to another part of the forest. He lay still until nightfall, when the forest was quiet. He knew that if he had not been so close to the road ‑the least likely spot for a runaway Jew to hide ‑ the Germans surely would have caught him.

Late that night, Shlomo found an isolated house at the edge of the forest. Determined not to be caught by surprise, he circled the house several times, rifle ready, flashlight shining in his hand. The two other Jews with him had their knives drawn. When the coast looked clear, Shlomo broke into the house and searched it room by room. The only person he found was a frightened old man. “Don’t shoot,” he cried when he saw the gun. “Don’t kill me.”

“We’re partisans,” Shlomo said. “All we want is food. We won’t hurt you.”

The old man quieted and gave Shlomo the stale bread he had begged that day. Shlomo and the others pounced on it. Other than leaves, it was the first food they had eaten in four days. Shlomo gave the old man a gold coin and left.

Later that night, the eighteen Jews bumped into a swamp so large they couldn’t find their way around it. It was drizzling, and there was no moon to silhouette the reeds and trees. All night they waded through mud and high grass, lost, thirsty, and almost crazed with hunger. By daybreak, they found a high, dry spot in the swamp, from which they could see a hill and trees straight-ahead. They knew they’d be out of the mud the next night, so they made beds of grass and slept peacefully. No one would ever think of looking for them on an island in a swamp.

The next night they trudged once again through the mud, stumbling on mounds and into sinkholes. Leon the blacksmith had an old bullet wound, and his leg was throbbing so badly that he could barely walk; Shlomo’s new boots had shrunk so much that he got blisters. He took them off and walked barefoot.

Before morning they broke out of the swamp, climbed the hill, and walked through a woods carpeted with pine needles and birch leaves. The more they walked, the thinner the woods became, until they could see light ahead of them through the birch branches. Shlomo crawled on his stomach and parted the leaves.

His heart sank. About three hundred yards in front of him stood the foresters’ tower, the main gate, and the south fence. He was back at Sobibor.

Five nights of running, of fear and, fatigue, of pain and hunger, and he was back, standing barefoot, at the edge of hell. Now what would he do?

Shlomo crept deeper into the woods; he couldn’t bear to face Sobibor. Just being close to the camp made his skin crawl in fear. But after his emotions settled enough to free his mind, he began to think through his latest problem. Maybe it was fortunate that he had run in a giant five-day circle. Where would the Nazis be least likely to look for him? Right across from the main gate, of course.

“Where are the millions of Jews?” Shlomo was shocked. He knew Jews were being killed at the other camps, but he had no idea of the extent of the slaughter.

“Most have been killed,” one of the sons‑in‑law said. “Some are still in work camps. A few are partisans. A very few, like yourselves, are hidden.”

The news hit the three Jews like a mudslide. They were discouraged, angry, and sad. They argued and debated, and with each argument they became more determined to fight back.

Schlomo2Before long, the desire to kill Nazis and the feeling of confinement got to Shlomo, too. He began talking about searching for partisans on his own; it was clear now that Josef and his sons‑in‑law would not help him find a group. He had a pistol, a little gold, good clothes, and perfect health. Besides, he was beginning to distrust one of Josef’s sons‑in‑law. It was just a feeling, an intuition. He sensed that the man hated Jews as much as the other members of the Home Army, but wouldn’t betray him out of respect for Josef. If the man could find a way to kill him without hurting Josef, Shlomo was sure he would.

Shlomo lived in the middle of Brazil.

I had read Shlomo’s book, Hell in Sobibor, which he’d published in Portuguese in 1968.

SHLOMO (STANISLAW) SZMAJZNER was grinning and waving through the glass in the Goiania terminal. He was almost bald, with a greying moustache and a tanned face. His shirt was unbuttoned down to his belt, and he was as trim as a man of twenty.

We drove to Shlomo’s six‑room apartment with a huge deck overlooking the young capital city of the State of Goias in Central Brazil. In 1947, Shlomo had planned to emigrate to Israel, as far away from Poland as he could get. First, he had visited relatives in Rio de Janeiro ‑ and stayed in Brazil for thirty‑four years.

Shlomo opened a jewellery store in Rio, and during the next ten years built it into a thriving business, married a Brazilian Jew, and began raising a family.

In 1958, Shlomo bought a jungle island between two rivers near the Amazon Basin, which he developed into a ranch with eighteen hundred head of cattle. He was the first white man most of the Indians there had ever seen.

When the government fell in 1967, Shlomo sold the ranch, fearing that he might lose it. He moved to Goiania, where he became executive director of Induprel, a paper‑recycling plant on the outskirts of town.

Shlomo had a cold supper waiting for us ‑ local cheeses, fresh rolls, smoked cured ham, salami, fruit, and sparkling water and beer.

“You’re in my home, now,” Shlomo told as. “You’re not to spend a penny while you’re here.”

Shlomo said he had never experienced prejudice in Brazil, and that the solution to anti‑Semitism was assimilation. “Let those who want to be Orthodox Jews go to Israel,” he said. “Let the others assimilate.”

I watched Shlomo carefully. Even here, Shlomo could not get away from the Jewish question. It crept into conversations; it was there by implication. I could feel Shlomo’s self‑consciousness, almost as if Sobibor had burned into his psyche with every lash of the whip: “You’re a Jew. You’re a Jew. Don’t you forget it. Don’t you forget it. We’ll get you. We’ll get you.”

“Why do you want to write this book?”

It was clear to me by this time that Shlomo was proud of his own book, the only full‑length story of Sobibor ever published. I sensed that he felt that if the English‑speaking world wanted a good book on Sobibor, it should translate his. I was on trial again.

The story of the uprising and escape from Sobibor is unique; it has never been told fully in English, I explained. It is a story of resistance, hope against all odds, a scream for human dignity, and revenge. Those aspects attract me, I said. Furthermore, I am concerned about the rise of anti-Semitism around the world, and would like to write a true, accurate, honest, and frank book about what anti‑Semitism leads to. I explained that I had read his book and found it excellent, but it was one man’s story, told from one vantagepoint.

He smiled. “I trust you, Hicard,” he said. “Hicard” was his Portuguese equivalent of Richard. “Ask,” Shlomo said. The ice was broken.

Shlomo laid a barstool on its side and sat on it. It was hot and humid. Both Shlomo and Tom had taken off their shirts, and it was obvious that Shlomo was proud of his physique. He looked at me and waited. There was a sadness in his smoky brown eyes that would never completely disappear, even when he was angry or laughed his hollow laugh.

“Hicard,” Shlomo said, “I am in Sobibor now.”

schlomo3Shlomo’s mind was sharp and precise. He clearly distinguished between facts, personal opinion, and hearsay. When he didn’t know something, he said so. When I told him things others had written about Sobibor, he would listen intently. “That’s true,” he would say simply. Or, “Not true.” His voice left no doubts ‑definitive, strong, and self‑assured.

I queried him about his book, asking for clarification, new information.

There was both tension and excitement in Shlomo’s den, surrounded by quadraphonic speakers, tuners, tape decks, and close to a thousand records and cassettes, neatly arranged in a case that covered one whole wall. Shlomo would jump up from his stool, pace the length of the room, always gesturing, usually angry, his voice at times rising to a shout, defiant, as if I were a Nazi. Several times, he stormed out of the room still talking and smoking, even though he had had a serious heart attack some time ago. Words tumbled out in an endless stream, and he would not give Tom time to translate into my tape recorder.

At a particularly angry point in the interview, about the role of the Poles in collaborating with the Nazis against the Jews (Shlomo considered them worse than the Germans), he stomped out of the room. I had covered less than 10 percent of the subject matter I wanted to probe, and I thought it was all over; that Shlomo couldn’t take any more.

A few minutes later, he returned with a photo album and flipped the pages to a picture of himself in his Russian partisan uniform, holding a carbine tightly across his chest. The photo had been taken just months after his escape from Sobibor. I had forgotten what a sixteen‑year‑old soldier looks like.

He flipped to another picture of him and Yehuda Lerner in partisan uniforms. “He killed Niemann,” Shlomo said with pride.

Shlomo wore a medal on his chest in the second picture.

“What’s that for?” I asked.

“Bravery,” he said.

“What did you do? I asked.

He avoided the question, as he always did when there was something he did not want to talk about. Instead, he fished out a photocopy of his Russian papers, identifying him as a partisan.

He dragged out a shoebox full of black and white snapshots of his jungle ranch. Most of the pictures were variations of the same theme ‑ Shlomo with a rifle or a fish or a deer, in his jeep, next to his jeep, with his son Norberto, cattle, a few Indians. His rifle seemed to be everywhere. After showing the pictures, Shlomo put on a primitive headdress he had got from his Indian friends, explaining with pride that the Indians rarely gave those away.

I excused myself and went to bed. I needed to conserve my energy so that I would be fresh the next day. My feelings that night were mixed. I was pleased that the interview was getting somewhere, that I had Shlomo’s co-operation, but I felt like an invader. I had dragged Shlomo back into his hell. I had him on the rack, stretching the old hatred and anger out of him.

….He was up again at six. When he returned for lunch, I sensed depression.

Part of it was the lack of sleep; part was Sobibor. I could feel Shlomo getting very belligerent, even hostile, when we touched on topics other than Sobibor.

We taped for an hour and a half. I decided to drop the heavy stuff and move on to easier topics. The talk was light, breezy, and relaxed as Shlomo told me about the uprising and escape. There was pride in his voice and eyes. His hatred for the Nazis and the Poles seethed under the surface like a sulphur spring that, from time to time, erupted in an angry burst. The fires of revenge had not abated after thirty‑seven years.

I took the opportunity to interview Tom, who understood that I needed to know much more about his experiences than he had told me in Santa Barbara.

“I was a very young boy when I came to Sobibor,” he said. “My conscience hadn’t been formed yet. I had a strong will to live. I never doubted I would survive. I was so convinced I would that on the day of the uprising I went to the little train. The cars were loaded with canned goods. I filled my pockets.”

Toivi2Tom was in a reflective mood, so I picked up on it. “Do you think you left Sobibor a better or a worse person for the experience?” I asked.

“I don’t know, Richard,” he said. “Seeing dead people didn’t matter to me anymore. Killing didn’t matter. Sobibor changed my outlook. I used to believe in God. In my little town, when I would return home and it was dark, I was afraid of demons. I’d run down the street with a prayer on my lips, because according to Jewish tradition, if you have God on your lips, devils can’t hurt you. I came from a religious home. This was my basic change. I no longer believe in God.”

….Shlomo was delighted with my questions about how Sobibor had affected him; it was as if he had been waiting for someone to ask them. His answers were organised and clear.

“There are four things needed for surviving,” he began. “Luck, guts, brains, and a strong will to live . . . I hated the world after Sobibor. All humanity without exception. I was against all men.” He was almost shouting at me from across the small room. His brown eyes were deeply angry. “I left Sobibor a worse man. I had little experience in life before I came. While I was there, I saw only the worst of life. That filled me with hate. Everything died in Sobibor.” Sadness forced the anger from his eyes. “Softness . . . tenderness . . . pity. Only hate. If I had been older? It might have been different. But Sobibor was my school.”

I asked Shlomo whether he had changed since the end of the war, more than thirty‑five years ago. I knew the anger, the cynicism, the hatred, the thirst for revenge were still there. He didn’t answer my question entirely or all at once.

“At first, I only wanted revenge,” he said. “I was fortunate. I had a chance to release my anger.”

Shlomo was referring to his year as a sixteen‑year‑old Russian partisan, a proud and satisfying year, when he tried to fight his way back to sanity. He didn’t really want to talk to me about what he had done to “release his anger” except to say that he had killed Germans. All he would do was smile that sad smile and say, “That’s another book, Hicard.”

When Shlomo and Tom reminisced about Poland after the Russian liberation in 1944, I got an insight into what Shlomo may have been like just after Sobibor. The two had met in Lublin and decided to visit Bojarski. Tom thought that the farmer might not have spent all the gold and diamonds that he, Wycen, and Kostman had given Bojarski. Tom and Shlomo wanted to get what was left of the money and then execute the farmer.

Shlomo, two Russians, and Tom knocked on Bojarski’s door. They were all dressed in Russian uniforms.

“Where’s Mr. Bojarski?’ Tom had asked.

“In town,” his wife said. Her daughter stood next to her. They were frightened, because they recognised Toivi.

“We’ll wait!”

Mrs. Bojarski nervously poured them vodka. Russians had a reputation for drinking every drop they could find, and if they couldn’t find any, they’d drink perfume.

Shlomo got impatient and took over.

“Where’d your husband hide the money?” he demanded.

“I don’t know,” Mrs. Bojarski said.

“If you don’t tell us, we’ll kill her,” Shlomo threatened, pointing to the daughter.

Tom became upset. He knew that Mrs. Bojarski had known and approved of Kostman’s murder. She had accepted the money with as much greed as her husband. But Tom couldn’t bring himself to shoot the girl. She was innocent.

Shlomo grabbed the girl. Mrs. Bojarski quickly told him where the money was buried. Shlomo and Tom dug it up. There were still thousands of dollars’ worth of gold and diamonds. They split the money, as agreed. Then Shlomo ordered the girl to follow him behind the barn, close to the spot where Toivi had been shot in the jaw. Shlomo cocked his rifle. The girl’s mother pleaded.

Tom could not go through with it. He begged Shlomo not to execute her, and, reluctantly, Shlomo lowered his gun.

“I would have done it,” Shlomo told me. “Just like that.”

Tom wasn’t sure why he couldn’t agree to killing the girl. Somehow, he said, he had felt she wasn’t really guilty of anything except being in Poland. Besides, Tom had felt a little embarrassed and shy in her presence. “Her father,” he admitted, “I would have shot without hesitating.”

“Who is guilty and who is innocent?” he asked me rhetorically. “My mother? My father? What did they do? Who is guilty, Richard?’

“God, maybe?”

“Yes, He is the guiltiest of them all.”

I wanted to get back to the question of whether Sobibor still dominated Shlomo’s life, and if so, how. Because it was a painful question, I skirted it. ‘Are you glad you wrote a book about your experiences?” I asked.

“My book was the best thing I did in my life.” Shlomo didn’t even pause for breath. “The best therapy. I promised myself to tell the truth, even if it hurt someone. Because of the book, the pressure was released with much of the pain.”

There were contradictions in Shlomo’s frank answer. He seemed to be saying that he had got rid of his pain and anger, yet I could see both in his eyes and hear them in his voice.

Shlomo noticed how he had been pacing, sitting, and jumping up. “You see how restless I am?” he said. ” We are all like that. Those of us still alive. If I’m going to live a few more years, I must forget about Sobibor. But I can’t. I must talk about it.”

Shlomo calmed down, sat, and puffed on his cigar. The den was strangely quiet except for the hum of the air conditioner. I self‑consciously scratched at my yellow legal pad, waiting for something to happen. Once again, I felt we had reached a crossroads. We were beyond Sobibor. We stood in the new Sobibor, the prison created by a prison, the new hell that in some ways was worse than the old, for there was no escape but death.

Shlomo suddenly jumped up, very excited, eyes burning like coals. In German, he shouted at me, “Hicard, what would you do if someone killed your mother, your father, sister, and brother? What, Hicard?’

The words were almost a plea.

“I don’t know,” I answered in German, then switched to English. “I think I’d go crazy with hate. I’d want revenge.”

“Thank you, Hicard! Thank you,” he said, as though I had forgiven him.

Then Shlomo asked the question I had been expecting all day. “Do you think I’m normal?”

“What’s normal?” I said. “I don’t accept that word. You’re special. You’ve suffered in a special way that the rest of us haven’t. You have special feelings.”

Shlomo nodded and smiled. He seemed pleased. I knew he wished he weren’t so special. I also knew I was violating his inner sanctum; I had entered a very private place, where I had no right to be.

The contrast struck me with full force. We sat under a cloud of self-doubt and pain and loss, surrounded by the music Shlomo loved so much. I sensed that Shlomo felt he didn’t have much to live for, that he was floating on the wave of life, carried forward, no longer fighting for control, retreating to the otherworldliness of love ballads and childhood memories, not certain when the wave would hit the shore or where, not caring what would happen when it did.

“Hicard, you have taken two years from my life,” Shlomo said finally. “Tomorrow we finish. That’s it!”

The next morning, I was in the den, poring over my notes, when Shlomo returned from the paper factory for lunch. It was eleven o’clock, and Shlomo was more tense than I had seen him. He had got up at six after less than two hours of sleep.

As we ate lunch, Shlomo suddenly relaxed, even though he was extremely tired. Maybe it was because we were going to the travel agent that afternoon to make reservations for Tom’s and my return flights. It was the first sure sign that the interview would soon be over.

We went to the den. Shlomo took of his shirt and stretched out on the floor. He answered my questions directly, didn’t digress, and didn’t volunteer one extra detail. I felt rushed and under pressure to finish, to get my ticket, to get out of his house, out of Goiania, out of Brazil. Shlomo was like a horse, hired for an hour. He sensed he was on the way back to the stable.

….Shlomo came back around nine. He turned of the sound on the TV, and we began to chat. Within fifteen minutes, we were back to Sobibor. It was as if the talk over the past five days had stirred memories and emotions into a whirlpool, and the waters of pain were still swirling.

“After Sobibor, I’ve never laughed,” Shlomo said out of the blue. He got up from the floor and walked over to me. I was sitting on the cabinet filled with drawers of cassettes. The wall above me was covered with records. He pointed to his bare, brown stomach. “I cannot laugh,” he repeated. “I cannot love. I have slept with women, but there was no love. A woman is an object.” He looked me straight in the eyes. “Is that normal? Is that normal?”

Shlomo didn’t wait for an answer. “Sometimes I wonder why I didn’t go crazy after Sobibor.” He paused and said softly, “I am still in Sobibor.”

Both Shlomo and Tom talked about the Poles, and they were very bitter. They didn’t consider themselves Poles. They were Jews ‑ different, separate, hated. They had both known some good, kind Poles, but not many.

Shlomo said, “The best time of my life was as a Russian partisan. The best time of my whole life.” He got up again, paced the room, clutching an imaginary carbine to his chest. “I was in control of my life. Not others. Me!”

Again Shlomo pulled out an observation buried deep in his memory. “I never saw anyone at Sobibor cry,” he said. Never Seventeen months. Never.”

During a lull in the conversation, I asked Shlomo about the capture and trial of Gustav Wagner; both Wagner and Kommandant Franz Stangl had been high on the list of Simon Wiesenthal, the Nazi‑hunter.

Shlomo was watching the evening news when he saw Wagner’s face on the screen. He might be going on trial for war crimes. He nearly went crazy with anger, realising that for almost thirty years he had been breathing the same air as Wagner. He jumped first plane for Sao Paulo, because if someone did not positively identify the Nazi as Sobibor’s Gustav Wagner, within a few days, the police would have to release him, and he could then run off to Paraguay or bury himself in some remote Brazilian village. Shlomo found Wagner in the hiding tank with several other prisoners. “Hello, Gustl,” he said, using Wagner’s more intimate name.

“Who’s that?

“It’s the little Jewish goldsmith from Sobibor.”

“Yes, yes, I know you. I saved you,” Wagner said. “You and your three little brothers.”

The police held Wagner, and Shlomo eventually testified at the extradition trial, where Wagner admitted that he was a Nazi and had served in Sobibor. “I know what happened there,” he told the court. “But I never went to see. I only obeyed orders.”

The Brazilian Supreme Court ruled that neither Poland nor Israel had jurisdiction over Wagner, and that Germany’s extradition documents were flawed.

Then, in October 1980, Wagner’s attorney announced that the Nazi had committed suicide on the farm in Atibaia where he worked as a farmhand. Shlomo hinted to me that Wagner’s death was no accident. Did the Israelis get him? Did Brazil’s Kameradenwerk, the Nazi underground, get him? Did the Jews get him? Shlomo declined to explain his cryptic remark.

Shlomo recalled how Tom had phoned him from California when he had learned that the Brazilian government would not extradite Wagner.

“Can I buy a gun in Brazil?” Tom had asked Shlomo.

“Don’t worry,” Shlomo had said. He didn’t want Tom rash. “Wagner’ll be taken care of.”

Tom told me later that he had thought many times about hunting down and killing the Sobibor Nazis. He said he didn’t know whether he would have actually done it, but he could have because to him it wouldn’t have been murder. But if he’d been caught, he said, that might have affected his family, especially his children. “We all dreamed that if we survived,” he once said, “we’d cut Wagner slowly to pieces and make him suffer a slow death. But if we did that today, we’d go down to his level.”

The next day, my last in Goiania, I finished interviewing Tom. His voice was emotionless and flat; his eyes showed nothing. He was reluctant to expand his answers, and when I touched on something especially painful, his voice became very soft.

One such painful memory was the death of his parents. It was the last subject of our interview. “There’s a mental block about them,” he told me. “There has to be. I had never allowed myself to think in the ghetto what a terrible loss it would be if one of my parents died. I just couldn’t imagine the pain. I couldn’t even think about it. Then, in a matter of minutes, my mother, my father, my brother died. And I didn’t even think one second about them. Nothing. It must be nature’s way. If I started to think, maybe I couldn’t begin to handle it.”

“Do you feel guilty about not having felt deep sorrow over the loss of your family’?’ I asked.

“I feel very guilty that when I said good‑by to my mother, the words I said were stupid.” His voice was soft and pained. This was the closest I had seen him come to tears. I expected them to flow, but it was as if his sockets were dry, and the pain and memories, no matter how hard they pushed, could not produce a single tear. I remembered what Shlomo had said the previous night: “I never saw anyone at Sobibor cry.”

“What were those last words?” I asked gently.

Tom paused for a long while, then said, “I hate to repeat them to you.”

I didn’t push anymore. I had found at least one of Tom’s Sobibors, the one he would never escape from. A son’s last words to his mother, the words she was to carry in her ears to the gas chambers, words that, once spoken, can never be recalled or changed, only replayed in one’s mind. There was nothing I could say or do. I turned off the tape recorder and tried to look busy.

Shlomo came home, and after lunch I told him I’d like to hear some music. I had been surrounded by records and speakers for days, but had never given Shlomo the chance to show off his equipment. He was delighted. After all, this was Goiania, not New York or Paris or Tel Aviv, and here he had the best records in every language.

Shlomo played Brazilian sambas and danced around the room with an imaginary beauty. He cut off the sambas before even one side had been played and switched to Brazilian folk songs. He hummed along. “I love music,” he said. Then he switched to a cassette of modern Hebrew music that his son had recorded in Israel. Shlomo seemed to lose himself in his music, leave Sobibor for a few brief hours, touch a different part of his soul, meet a part of himself he had never really known, the gentle side, the joyful, the playful.

Then Shlomo put on a cassette of Hebrew religious music. There was a mood in the den that I hadn’t felt before. Shlomo closed his eyes and, as if he were standing before the Wailing Wall in the Holy City, and forth to the plaintive cry of a people questioning their the reason for all the suffering, not understanding, yet never in Him.

Then Shlomo sat on the arm of the couch. Tom was stretched the other end, his feet propped on a stool. I was lying on the back, a huge pillow under my head. Except for the music, the empty and sad. I had never seen either Tom or Shlomo so still for so long.

I felt the loneliness and sadness. Once there had been warmth, a closeness, a peace, a continuity, a rootedness beneath the prayers and melodies and pleadings with God. They were gone now, no longer part of our lives. They had left a hole that could not be filled by our work or the comfort of our adult loves.

The cantor intoned, “Eli, Eli” in a rich tenor voice. Shlomo hummed along.

“My God, my God, why have You forsaken me?” the cantor were words of doubt and gentle reproach. Then he broke into the of faith, as his forefathers had done for centuries before him Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One.”

They sang that,” Shlomo said softly.

He didn’t have to tell me who “they” were. The long lines children, and men had never really left us.

Wiesenthal knew Wagner had been hiding in Brazil since 1950 because Stangl had so testified during his trial in Duesseldorf. Wiesenthal asked the police to find Wagner – he, too, was living under his own name – but the police said they couldn’t. Suspecting that Wagner was being protected, Wiesenthal decided to play a waiting game. If Wagner felt that no one was looking for him. maybe he would make a mistake. So over the next decade, the Nazi-hunter spoke constantly about Joseph Mengele, the infamous Auschwitz doctor, but never about Wagner.

The Germans in Brazil eliminated [really? see below] the dark man with the big ears. But Wagner, fearing that Israeli agents were after him, called the police and offered to surrender on a Sao Paolo street corner. Germany, Israel and Poland had each requested Wagner’s extradition.
Schlomo was watching the evening news when he saw Wagner’s face on the screen. He nearly went crazy with anger, realizing that for almost thirty years he had been breathing the same air as Wagner. He jumped on the first plane for Sao Paolo, because if someone did not positively identify the Nazi as Sobibor’s Gustav Wagner within a few days, the police would have to release him, and he could then run off to Paraguay or bury himself in some remote Brazilian village.
Schlomo found Wagner in the holding tank with several other prisoners.
“Hello, Gustl,” he said, using Wagner’s more intimate name.
“Who’s that? Who said that?” Wagner seemed confused.
“It’s the little Jewish goldsmith from Sobibor.”
“yes, yes, I know you. I saved you,” Wagner said. “You and your three little brothers.
The police held Wagner, and Schlomo eventually testified at the extradition trial, where Wagner admitted he was a Nazi and had served in Sobibor.
“I know what happened there,” he told the court. “But I never went to see. I only obeyed orders.”
The Brazilian Supreme Court ruled that neither Poland nor Israel had jurisdiction over Wagner, and that Germany’s extradition documents were flawed. Wagner was a free man once again.”

For a time, the acting commandant of Sobibor was Gustav Franz Wagner. Some years after the war, he was found living in Brazil and was put on trial there. Jewish witnesses testified in court that he was responsible for 150,000 deaths and took special delight in brutally killing women and children. Wagner, however, swore that Sobibor had been a “model” work camp, not an extermination center. The Brazilian court rejected the prosecution’s case and decided to neither convict nor extradite him. Wagner was released in 1979, but was found dead a short time later at his farm, knifed in the chest.

Then, in October 1980, Wagner’s attorney announced that the Nazi had committed suicide on the farm in Atibaia where he worked as a farmhand. Shlomo hinted to me that Wagner’s death was no accident. Did the Israelis get him? Did Brazil’s Kameradenwerk, the Nazi underground, get him? Did the Jews get him? Schlomo declined to explain his cryptic remark.
Schlomo recalled how Tom [Thomas Blatt] had phoned him from California when he had learned that the Brazilian government would not extradite Wagner.
“Can I buy a gun in Brazil?” Tom had asked Schlomo.
“Don’t worry”, Schlomo had said. He didn’t want Tom to do anything rash. “Wagner’ll be taken care of.”
Tom told me later that he had thought many times about hunting down and killing the Sobibor Nazis. He said he didn’t know whether he would have actually done it, but he could have because to him it wouldn’t have been murder.”

On July 24, 1978, at a news conference in Paris following the indictment in Cologne of Kurt Lischka, Serge Klarsfeld stated: “We are not seeking vengeance. If that were our aim, it would have been easy for us to kill all the Nazi criminals we have tracked down.” “And if the court in Cologne refuses to try Lischka?,” someone asked. Klarsfeld replied: “That in a way would be signing his death sentence” (Le Monde, July 26, 1978, p. 4). In 1982 the Klarsfelds engaged the services of a hired assassin, a Bolivian socialist of Indian origin named Juan Carlos, to assassinate Klaus Barbie (Life, Feb. 1985, p. 65), but the operation did not succeed.

During a 1986 interview with the Chicago Tribune (June 29, 1986), Beate Klarsfeld told “how she haunted at least three former Nazis until they committed suicide or died; how she organized attempts to kidnap others; how she used headline-making gimmicks to bring to trial or to ruin the careers of many who were convinced the world had forgotten them.” She related how she slapped the face of German Chancellor Kurt-Georg Kiesinger in public in 1968. “Once, she and several friends tried to kidnap Kurt Lischka” but the operation failed because the car they were using had only two doors. As for Ernst Ehlers, “harassed by Klarsfeld-organized demonstrations outside his home, he first resigned his position [as judge] and then committed suicide.”

After picking up the trail of Walter Rauff in Chile, the Klarsfelds organized demonstrations in front of his house and broke his windows. “He died a couple of months later,” Beate Klarsfeld told the American daily. “I was glad, because as long as these people are alive, they are an offense to their victims.” “My husband and I are not fanatics … Once my husband held a pistol to the temple of Rauff, just to show that we could kill him, but he didn’t pull the trigger.”

“What do you dream about”
“At least once a week,” [Blatt] said, almost relieved that someone was asking about his terror in the night. “The dream makes me feel as if I’m still in Sobibor. You see Richard, I am still a prisoner. I feel I would betray my parents, my brother, my friends, if I pretended that Sobibor never happened, as some survivors have. I feel it would be some kind of insult.””

When I called him on Monday to give my arrival time, he was edgy and nervous. “I’ve been going through hell ever since you called,” he said. “My stomach has been churning. I haven’t been able to sleep, thinking about the interview. I’m sorry, but I can’t go through with it.”

“Lateley, I’ve been having a variation of the dream. Wagner sends me out of the camp to get some photographic materials for him. It is the first time he’s sent me out. I could go free, but I come back.”

Sob memThe 200-300 Jewish prisoners who were kept in Camp III [the alleged “extermination area” of Sobibor], who removed the bodies from the gas chambers and buried them, had no contact with those in the other parts of the camp. The food for them was cooked in Camp I and taken by Jewish prisoners to the gate of Camp III. No physical contact was permitted between the Jewish prisoners from the different parts of the camp. But the Jewish prisoners in Camp I wanted desperately to find out what was going on in Camp III. Hershl Zukerman [a name that is spelled Herzl Cukierman elsewhere], who was a cook and prepared the food for prisoners in Camp III, testified:

I came up with an idea. Everyday, I used to send twenty or twenty-five buckets with food for the workers in Camp III. The Germans were not interested in what I cooked, so once I prepared a thick crumb pie and inside I put the following letter: “Friends, write what is going on in your camp.” When I received the bucket back, I found in one of them a piece of paper with the answer: Here the last human march takes place, from this place nobody returns. Here the people turn cold…” I informed some other people about the substance of this letter.(13)[Yad Vashem Archives 016/1187, the testimony of Hershl Zukerman p.7-8]

The truth of what was going on in Camp III became known to the Jewish prisoners in Sobibor at the beginning of June 1942.

eldhendler explained in detail how the system worked. “No one in the camp has ever seen the gas chambers,” he continued. “We know from notes written by those who worked there.
He went on to tell Pechersky what he had pieced together from notes and rumors. Not all of it was accurate: [we are then told the infamous black liquid and collapsible floor story]

I voiced my concern about the distorted “passive Jew” theory to a highly respected Holocaust historian whom I met at an international conference. Why, I asked, did he relegate the escape from Sobibor to a brief footnote in his thousand page book? Because, he said, the escape was an interesting aberration and a footnote was all it deserved. How could he be so certain that resistance was mere aberration, I asked? Because, he said, there are no documents. What about the survivors, I asked? They are too emotional, he said, and their memories are not to be trusted. Documents are frequently inaccurate I countered. They often distort. By way of example, I pointed out three factual errors in his footnote about Sobibor. The historian dismissed me like a student, and in subsequent reprints of his classic, repeated the same three errors in the same skimpy footnote.

Toivi: Were you aware of what happened in Sobibor?

Sasha: In the evening, the same day, I asked a another prisoner about the smog coming out from behind the fence in the opposite site of the camp. He looked at me and told me a matter of fact, the people you came with?, they are leaving Sobibor in the smoke. From him I learned the truth about the death factory, but working in the forest I was removed from direct witnessing of the murder, until… (and here his voice breaks down and tears rolled down his cheeks, the same thing happened a few years later when we meet in Moscow) working in the forest I heard amidst noises a laud cry of a child “Mama” coming from behind a hilltop. I realized that I was working near the gas chambers. I was thinking about my Elotchka, my daughter I left in a village in the Ukraine.

He had been working close to the gas chambers in the woods, he said. He couldn’t see Camp III because of all the pine trees, but he could hear screams, muffled like a chorus from far away. Then he heard a solo, clear and piercing: “Mama! Ma-”

Wagner used the miners’ train to cart ashes from the crematorium in Camp III to the garden. “For fertilizer,” he told Haim, who had to spread the ashes and bits of bone around the strawberries and vegetables. Wagner thought that using Jews to energize his food was funny. One day at roll call, he took a bite out of a large carrot. “There,” he told the prisoners. “I just ate twenty Jews.”

“He was the smartest Hitler could find. He even knew what you we’re thinking. Shrewd. That man was shrewd.”

He dragged out a shoebox full of black and white snapshots of his jungle ranch, seven hundred miles north of Goiania. Most of the pictures were variations of the same theme – Shlomo with a rifle or a fish or a deer, in his jeep, next to his jeep, with his son Norberto, cattle, a few Indians. His rifle seemed to be everywhere.

“Did you come out of Sobibor a better or a worse person?”
“I became a pessimist,” he said without hesitation. “Every nice feeling about people has disappeared. I’m worse. Being a pessimist isn’t so bad. It’s only an outlook. But – but killing someone is not a big deal anymore (…)”

“I was fortunate. I had a chance to release my anger.”
Shlomo was referring to his year as a sixteen year old Russian partisan, a proud and satisfying year, when he tried to fight his way back to sanity. He didn’t really want to talk to me about what he had done to “release his anger” except to say that he had killed Germans.

sob mem2The two [Blatt and Szmajzner] had met in Lublin and decided to visit Bojarski [the farmer who had hidden but later supposedly betrayed Blatt]. Tom thought that the farmer might not have spent all the gold and diamonds that he, Wycen and Kostman had given Bojarski. Tom and Shlomo wanted to get what was left and then execute the farmer.
Shlomo, two Russians, and Tom knocked on Bojarski’s door. They were all dressed in Russian uniforms.
“Where’s Mr Bojarski?” Tom had asked.
“In town,” his wife said. Her daughter stood next to her. They were frightened, because they recognized Toivi.
“We’ll wait!”
(…)
Shlomo got impatient and took over.
“Where did your husband hide the money?” he demanded.
“I don’t know,” Mrs. Bojarski said.
“If you don’t tell us, we’ll kill her,” Shlomo threatened, pointing to the daughter.
(…)
Shlomo grabbed the girl. Mrs. Bojarski quickly told him where the money was buried. Shlomo and Tom dug it up. There were still thousands of dollars worth of gold and diamonds. They split the money, as agreed. Then Shlomo ordered the girl to follow him behind the barn, close to the spot where Toivi had been shot in the jaw. Shlomo cocked his rifle. The girl’s mother pleaded.
Tom could not go through with it. He begged Shlomo not to execute her, and, reluctantly, Shlomo lowered his gun.
“I would have done it,” Shlomo told me. “Just like that.”
Tom wasn’t sure why he couldn’t agree to killing the girl.

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