Witness Accounts By Former Sobibor Prisoners, Part 3

Published: 2008-10-17

In this third part of my series of articles on the witness accounts left by former Jewish prisoners of the alleged “pure extermination camp" Sobibór, I will discuss statements made by four of the lesser known witnesses: Ada Licthman, her husband Itzhak Lichtman, Harold Werner, and Chaim Trager. In the fourth part of this series, I will analyze the various writings of the prominent witness Thomas “Toivi" Blatt. The fifth part will be devoted to the autobiography of former inmate Stanislaw Szmajzner.

Ada Lichtman

Ada (or Eda) Lichtman was called to testify at the Eichmann Trial. Before the court in Jerusalem, she recounted the events leading up to her deportation to Sobibór. At the end of the session, she was told that she would be called backed when the time came for the witnesses to the extermination camps to be heard. However, Lichtman was never summoned back to testify. She left a testimony at the Hagen Sobibór Trial which she later expanded on. This account has been made available online (henceforth referred to as the Nizkor text).[1] Another, somewhat shorter text, at times close enough to be judged a variant to the first, can be found in Miriam Novitch’s anthology of witness accounts by former Sobibór inmates.

Before being deported to Sobibór, Ada spent some months in the ghetto of Dubienka. If we are to believe what the witness tells us, the Wehrmacht soldiers posted in this town were at least as inventively sadistic towards the Jews as the SS in the “death camps":

We were not only massacred for pleasure. The propaganda machine of the Wehrmacht, wanting to film the destruction of a partisan camp, forced young Jews to play the parts of Resistance fighters. The camera took pictures of the valiant German army. However, the bullets were real…[2]

One would indeed like to know what happened to this film. Is it perhaps gathering dust somewhere together with the mythical photo of beheaded Jews in Sobibor’s Lager III mentioned by Dov Freiberg (Cf. part 2)?

After being transferred to the ghetto of Hrubieszow, Ada Lichtman was sent to Sobibór. The date is given in neither of the two texts. Yitzhak Arad lists three transports from Hrubieszów to Sobibór, the first consisting of 3,049 people on June 1, 1942; the second consisting of 500 people on June 7-9 the same year; and the third of 2000 people on October 28, 1942.[3] Since the second transport was most likely carried out with trucks, and since Ada describes being taken to the camp on a train, this date may be ruled out. In the Nizkor text the witness describes her transport as consisting of no less than 8,000 souls, whereof she and two other women were picked out for laundry work. Yitzhak Arad, who is quoting what appears to be the same version of Licthman’s testimony as the Nizkor text, identifies Lichtman’s date of arrival as June 2, 1942.[4]

The witness lavishly details the way each SS officer supposedly killed new arrivals to the camp. Among other things, we are told that Hubert Gomerski “enjoyed hitting the deportees with a board studded with nails" (!). It is also stated that Paul Groth on one occasion ordered inmates to carry him around on a chair while he dropped pieces of burning paper on their heads.[5] The Nizkor text describes a prisoner named Sztark being whipped to death by four SS-men for letting a goose die. Another typical episode reads:

I also remember two prisoners carrying a stretcher with a young woman in labor. After a few minutes, we heard the wailing of a new-born child. SS Wagner was present, and ordered the Ukrainian guard to throw the baby into the latrines. The mother was taken to camp No. 3. Some days later, the body of the newborn was floating in the ditch, amidst the excrement.[6]

We are also told that Erich Bauer “supervised the executions from a roof window of the gas chambers."[7] The idea that the SS man supervising the gassings had to climb onto the top of the building and watch the victims through an observation window set in the roof is found in several other witness accounts, such as that of Moshe Bahir (discussed in the first part of this series).

Several witnesses mention the improvised landing strip for a small airplane which was supposedly built for the (alleged) visit of Himmler to Sobibór during the winter of 1943, that is, in February or March of that year. Ada Lichtman however seems to be the only witness who has described the landing strip in detail. According to the Nizkor text, the strip was constructed by placing long planks on top of a strip of smoothened out sand which had been brought to the camp by trucks. Next, the witness describes the morbid demonstration gassing allegedly carried out for the Reichsführer:

The day before the visit, a group of young men and women was brought to the camp. They had been selected from one of the transports. The Germans locked everyone in the camp in the barracks under lock and key. The camp commandant and SS officers Johann Niemann, Gustav Franz Wagner and others welcomed the distinguished guest and his entourage and gave them a conducted tour of Lager I and Lager II. Then they went to Lager III. The young inmates were ordered to shave and then were taken to Lager III, to the gas chambers. Himmler and the members of his entourage followed closely the killing and the incineration to ashes of the bodies of those who had been killed. We learned about this from the Ukrainian guard unit.

If on the other hand we are to believe witnesses Dov Freiberg, Hershel Zukerman, and Moshe Bahir, the victims of this special gassing were all young women, and were not selected from any transport to the camp – according to Freiberg, they were especially brought in from the Trawniki Camp.[8]

Itzhak Lichtman

Itzhak Lichtman is the husband of Ada Lichtman, whom he met during his stay in Sobibór. Itzhak was deported to Sobibvr from Zolkiewka on May 22, 1942. Novitch provides us with a brief account by Itzhak, in which we read:

We conceived of a strange plan: Shaul Fleishhacker, I and some others wrote on scraps of paper: “This is a death camp; let us revolt." We conveyed the message to newly arrived prisoners from Germany. The reaction was not what we expected. Some read the note and put it in a pocket; others tore it up; an elderly man shouted that it was a provocation. We had to give up our project.[9]

Given that the outdoor cremations at Sobibór allegedly were commenced already by the summer 1942 (Cf. part 1), it seems odd indeed that no arrivals would heed the warnings with the smell of burning corpses in their nostrils, and that Lichtman and his companions would so easily abandon their project.

Itzhak of course has his very own tale of Nazi depravity to tell, with more than a hint of the “Divine Marquise":

In a Dutch convoy, the Nazis chose a hospital nurse, Mrs. Hejdi, together with her husband, her son and daughter, but they sent the husband and son to camp No. 3. The woman was sobbing. “Are you crying because your husband left you?" laughed the Nazis. They brought a Czechoslovakian middle-aged prisoner and told them, “You are husband and wife." Then they forced them to sleep together.[10]

Harold Werner (Herschel Zimmermann)

Polish Jew Harold Werner, born Herschel Zimmermann, was never imprisoned at Sobibór. His alleged experience of the camp consists of observing it from some distances as a member of a local partisan group, as well as speaking with survivors of the Sobibór prisoner uprising. Before having the chance to observe the camp for themselves, Werner and the other partisans were told about the “death camp" by local sympathizers of the Army Ludowa:

We were told that the camp was guarded by a combination of German SS men and Ukrainian and Latvian guards, totally at least three to four hundred soldiers. We were also told there were three lines of electrified wire fences around the camp, and three lines of mines outside the fences around the perimeter of the camp.[11]

After taking part of this information, Werner and some other partisans approached the camp after nightfall:

After dark, we got as close to the camp as we thought we could without being detected by camp guards. The camp was surrounded by a large forest, but powerful lights from the camp swept the edge of the woods. From a distance, we could see the fires belching from the tall smokestacks of the crematoriums. We saw that it was impossible for us to storm this camp.[12]

The “smokestacks" mentioned here are most interesting. In likeness with Bełżec and Treblinka, it is claimed that the victims at Sobibór were burnt in the open air on “grills", not in a crematorium building with smokestacks. It is known that two chimneys, being part of a kitchen, were located in the SS compound at the edge of the camp area, but a photo of the remaining compound, likely taken in 1944, shows them to be low and rather unnoticeable.[13] Judging by various descriptions and maps and drawn up by exterminationist historians, Sobibór had no other buildings with smokestacks attached to them.

In late 1943, Werner and his partisan group encountered some survivors of the prisoner revolt.

Several weeks later, we moved on to the nearby village of Wyryki. We found out from our contact there that the inmates of the Sobibor death camp had just revolted.[14]

The partisans and three survivors – a Belarusian Jew named Boris, Wladek from Warsaw and a man of uncertain origin named Leon with the nickname “Atleta"[15] – met in a farm house were the former prisoners were hiding. Werner and the others were now told of the horrors of the camp:

The platform brigade was forbidden to talk to the new arrivals, under threat of punishment by death from the SS. Nonetheless, some of them nodded their heads in the direction of the crematoriums, with their smokestacks constantly belching the blackened ashes of burned bodies, trying to show the new arrivals what was going on.[16]

Again those supposedly non-existent crematorium smokestacks! I will return to this issue when discussing another mystery witness, Chaim Trager (see the following section). The motif of guards or prisoners pointing or nodding in the direction of crematorium chimneys is often found in Auschwitz narratives. Werner’s recounting of the story he (supposedly) heard from the escapees continues:

In the waiting room, the new arrivals were told to get undressed, men separate from the women and children, and to put their clothes into packages. […] Afterward, the Jews were told to go into the shower rooms. They were told that when they came out they would get back their bundle of clothes.[17]

The author of this article has not been able to find the detail about packages for clothing in any other testimony. Next follows the description of a gassing:

Once inside the “Shower Rooms" the doors were closed and poison gas was dropped into the chambers. After several minutes of agony and screams the occupants were dead. Their bodies were then carted by camp inmates to the crematoriums to be burned in large ovens.[18]

The description of poison gas being “dropped" into the chambers seems to indicate that Zyklon B was used, a claim that appears in a written testimony by former Sobibór inmate Stanislaw Szmajzner but which is not sanctioned by any other witness or historian. Thus the possibility suggests itself that Werner – who wrote his account between 1980 and 1989 according to the foreword of British-Jewish historian Martin Gilbert – did not actually hear this description, but rather invented it with the alleged gassings at Auschwitz as model. Given the very scarce coverage given in newspapers and other media to the Reinhardt camps, it is fully possible that Werner believed those camps to have been simple carbon copies of the vastly more well-known “death camp" Auschwitz.

Chaim Trager

Dutch-Jewish Sobibór researcher Jules Schelvis has the following to say about a rather obscure former inmate named Chaim Trager:

He [Trager] claimed to have seen all the goings on in Lager 3 while building a chimney on a rooftop in that part of the camp.[19]

This is in fact a sensational statement, as will be demonstrated below. Schelvis, who otherwise is meticulous when it comes to annotation, fails to provide his readers with a reference for this statement.

It is stressed time and time again by various witnesses as well as the orthodox chroniclers of Sobibór history that the prisoners in Lager III (the “death camp" proper) were kept strictly isolated from the other inmates, that the inmates in the other parts of the camp were prevented from observing or taking contact with Lager III, that prisoners taken to work inside the “death camp proper" never returned from that part of the camp, and that no-one in Lager III survived the liquidation of the camp or escaped from it. This means that Trager’s safe return from Lager III would have caused a small sensation among the inmates of Lager I and II. It is also beyond certainty that he would have been asked by the camp underground to tell of his observations. This eyewitness account would then have spread among the not so numerous inmates, partly or wholly replacing previous rumors. If the orthodox historiography was indeed correct, Trager would have told them what the gas chamber building looked like from the outside, with the six exit doors and the wooden ramps outside them. He would have been able to describe the cremation facilities, as well as other structures in that part of the camp. Yet years after the war, most Jewish Sobibór witnesses describing what they had heard about the gas chambers (or, in the case of Biskubicz, what he claimed to have seen) still believed in the rumor according to which the victims after the gassing fell through collapsible floors and into carts waiting below. How is that? The following explanations spring to mind:

  1. Trager never visited Lager III and came up with the story after the war.
  2. Trager visited Lager III but at his return made up a story conforming to rumors previously spread in the camp
  3. Trager actually saw the gas chambers, grills etc. as alleged by the exterminationist historians, but at his return the other inmates either did not ask him about what he had seen or, when told, preferred to believe in what the rumors told of the gas chambers.
  4. Trager saw something that could not be reconciled with the gas chamber rumors – such as deportees leaving “gas chambers" alive and being led away to another train – and at his return was ignored or criticized by his fellow inmates. After the war, he wrote either (1) a false account conforming to orthodox historiography, or (2) a more or less true account, more or less incongruent with the official Sobibór narrative, which has then been deliberately ignored (or even hushed up) by the historians – which may be the reason why Schelvis avoids providing a reference.

Miriam Novitch spells the same witness’s name Haim Treger and reproduces a very brief testimony in which Trager’s time as a prisoner in the camp is described in merely seven lines:

Compared to Sobibor, our previous life in the ghetto was heaven. We had to build a bakery, as the SS wanted their bread made on the spot. My only hope was to take revenge one day.

The revolt saved more than our lives; it gave us self-confidence. We Jews, the most unhappy people in the world, had beheaded murderers of children. We had put bullets into the dirty skin of those sadists.[20]

Could it be that the chimney mentioned by Schelvis was in fact the chimney of the SS bakery? Any map of Sobibór will show that the SS compound with the kitchen and bakery was located in the southeastern corner of the camp area, while Lager III was in the northwestern corner, hidden behind larger wooded areas. The distance between the SS bakery and Lager III was at least 300 meters. It does not seem very likely that Trager would have been able to get a glimpse of the alleged killing area. It is possible that the inmate bakery also was equipped with a chimney, but this building was at least 250 meters distant from Lager 3, making a view into Lager III improbable from there as well.


Notes

[1]
http://www.zchor.org/testimonies/lichtman.htm
[2]
Novitch, p. 54.
[3]
Arad, p. 391.
[4]
Ibid, p. 114.
[5]
Novitch, p. 57.
[6]
Ibid, p. 55.
[7]
Ibid, p. 56.
[8]
Ibid, pp. 108, 154-155; Freiberg, To Survive Sobibor, Gefen Books, Lynbrook (NY) 2007, p. 270. Moshe Bahir, by the way, states that he two days after the visit overheard a conversation between SS Beckmann and Bredow during which one of them said that the Himmler visit “was designated to mark the completion of the first million Jews destroyed at Sobibor" (Cf. Novitch, p. 156). Since the so-called Höfle Telegram documents that merely 101,370 Jews had been deported to Sobibor up until the end of December 1942, it stands that 1 million Jews impossibly could have been killed by February or March the following year. The “overheard conversation" thus turn out to be another nail in the coffin of Bahir’s credibility.
[9]
Novitch, p. 84.
[10]
Ibid, p. 83-84.
[11]
Werner, p. 171.
[12]
Ibid, p. 171.
[13]
Photo from Michael Tregenza’s personal collection shown at http://www.deathcamps.org/sobibor/pic/p10.jpg
[14]
Werner, p. 172.
[15]
According to Werner, all of the three survived the war and later settled in Israel; Ibid p. 173.
[16]
Ibid, p. 174.
[17]
Ibid, p. 174.
[18]
Ibid, p. 174.
[19]
Jules Schelvis, Sobibor. A History of a Nazi Death Camp, Berg Publishers/United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, Oxford 2006, p. 238.
[20]
Novitch, p. 117.

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Author(s) Thomas Kues
Title Witness Accounts By Former Sobibor Prisoners, Part 3
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Dates published: 2008-10-17, first posted on CODOH: Oct. 15, 2008, 7 p.m., last revision: n/a
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