Witness Accounts By Former Sobibor Prisoners, Part 2

Published: 2008-03-14

The second part of my article series on the witness accounts left by former Jewish prisoners of the alleged extermination camp Sobibor I will devote to a single eyewitness, namely Dov Freiberg (also known as Ber or Berale Freiberg). Freiberg was born in Warsaw in 1927. His family lived in the Warsaw Ghetto until January 1941, when they were relocated to the ghetto of Turbin near Lublin, where they remained until May, 1942, when they were taken to Zolkiewka and from there on to Sobibor via Krasnystaw. After the war, Freiberg emigrated to Palestine on the illegal vessel Exodus. He then went on to fight in the Israeli “War of Independence" of 1948 as well as in Six-Day War of 1967 and the 1973 Yom Kippur War.

In the following article, I will analyze various accounts left by Freiberg, in the internal chronological order of his memoirs. In my critique I will use four accounts by Freiberg:

  1. The official protocol of Freiberg’s testimony at the 1960 Jerusalem Eichmann Trial.[1]
  2. A brief written account published by Miriam Novitch in 1980; date of composition unknown, probably sometime in the 70’s.
  3. The autobiography To Survive Sobibor, originally published in Hebrew in 1988.
  4. An interview found in the Japanese book Yoru no Kioku (“Memories of the Night," 2005) by Aiko Sawada. This interview was conducted at Freiberg’s home in Ramle, Israel on August 16, 1999.

Deportation to Sobibor

In Text A as well as C Freiberg does not state the exact date of his deportation to Sobibor, we are only told that it took place in May, 1942. In Text B on the other hand the date is given as May 15, 1942.[2]

In Text C it is related how the other deportees in the cattle car felt great elation when they understood that they were not going to Lublin. Freiberg writes:

I had actually wanted to go to Lublin, as I still held hope that I might get from there to Warsaw, but now I understood why it was a good thing we weren’t going there: because in Lublin there was a concentration camp called Maidanek, and people had told tales of terrible things happening there.[3]

It seems strange here that the other Jewish deportees in mid-May 1942 would have head rumors of “terrible things" going on at Majdanek. Up till that date, the camp had only admitted approximately 18,000 prisoners, roughly half of them Jews. Those Jews were however mostly Slovak and Czech Jews sent on trains from Slovakia and the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia, not Polish Jews or foreign Jews housed in Polish ghettoes.[4] What’s more, the alleged homicidal gassings at Majdanek supposedly did not commence until at earliest on July 25, 1942. How could non-existing gas chambers at Majdanek have given rise to rumors among Polish Jews already in May? It is apparent that they could not, and if we read the 1960 testimony we find out that “terrible things" equaled hard labor and therewith connected misery:

Even when they were in the congested freight cars, the people were glad that they were not traveling in the direction of Lublin, the location of the Majdanek camp, which was regarded as a hard labour camp in those times […][5]

The first day in the camp

In his Eichmann Trial testimony Freiberg told the Jerusalem court that he and the other men in his transport had spent their entire first night in the camp (having arrived the previous evening) squatting down on the so-called undressing yard. According to Text B, Freiberg and the other man “spent the night sitting on the platform."[6] In C and D, the men are forced to sit on the ground “in a long, roofed barrack."[7]

In the morning, the male deportees are selected for work. The work commando Freiberg sings a Polish song and an SS man aggressively order them to keep singing. In Text B, Paul Groth is this SS man, while in Text C it is Karl Frenzel.[8]

When did Freiberg start to believe in the gas chambers?

When did it (presumably) dawn on the witness that the camp which he had arrived to was not a transit camp, as the sign at the camp entrance indicated, but a killing factory?[9] The accounts differ on this point. In Text A it is stated that:

[I]nside the camp, we were already a few hundred metres away from the gas chambers and, nevertheless, in the course of two weeks, or perhaps more, the Germans still managed to deceive even us.

In Text B nothing is said about the subject in question. In Text C we are told that three days after arriving to Sobibor, Freiberg heard screams from the other side of the forest diving Lager II and III, and that on this instant all “hopes that the people who had arrived with us and disappeared were still alive vaporized".[10] In Text D, Freiberg tells his Japanese interviewer that he worked for at least a week “close to the gas chamber without realizing anything." Then suddenly, for some not explicated reason, he realized what kind of camp he was in and said Kaddish for his family.

Gustaf Wagner’s curious list

In Text C Freiberg recalls an episode that may seem banal or inexplicable at first, but which may in fact be one of the most important parts of this account:

One Sunday afternoon, Wagner entered our barracks in a good mood, and patiently and magnanimously wrote down everyone’s details – name, age, place of birth – all the while making cracks like, “When where you born? Where were you born? Why were you born?" When I told him my name was Berale, he wouldn’t agree and tried to think of another name for m, finally saying, “I’ll write down ‘Boris,’ do you agree?" I agreed, of course.

When Wagner left, we gathered around and argued about why he had come and listed all of us in detail. There was a feeling that our being listed had granted us a special status, and some saw it as a sign that the extermination would stop. It was true that for two weeks no transports had arrived…and perhaps the Germans were going to send us to work in Germany?

It was a passing illusion. The opposite was true: the expansion activity in the camp attested to an extensive extermination plan, and there was no chance that the Germans would let us live. We knew that, aside from the SS. nobody who entered Sobibor got out alive.[11]

Why in fact would the SS at the camp bother with making such a list? The larger context may provide us with a hint. Freiberg writes in the same text that there had been “a respite from transports" at the time. According to the revisionist hypothesis as advanced by Graf and Mattogno, deportees who reached the Reinhardt camps where sorted into three groups: the bulk of the transports, deported to the occupied eastern territories; a smaller group being sent to labor camps in the General Gouvernment; and finally a tiny number of Jews selected for work in the camp itself. In such a context it seems likely that the Reinhardt camps regularly received “orders" on labor from smaller and larger camps located in their part of the General Government. During a draught of deportees, as in this case caused by the restructuring and expansion of the alleged killing facilities (which may in fact have been the construction work on new baths and delousing facilities), the SS in the camp perhaps felt pressure from outside to deliver workers, and in the end resorted to sending some of their own camp inmates. Wagner’s list might simply have been a preparation for such a transport, which was then for some reason called off.

It is interesting to note that Moshe Bahir writes the following on Gustav Wagner’s function at Sobibor:

His duties at camp were many and varied: counting the Jews who arrived in the transports, selecting those capable to work, concentrating the valuables of the arrivals. He was responsible for all of the administrative work in the camp and, in particular – sending the myriads to the gas chambers.[12]

Now according to the same source Wagner’s work did not only consist of counting their number, but also of actually registering the arrivals:

We were taken to Lager No. 1. Here was the supreme commander, Oberscharführer Gustav Wagner. Among his other duties was conducting the registry of victims and separating the men, who were placed in rows on the right side, from the women and children, who were sent to the left.[13]

Yet we are told by the orthodox historians that only a few skilled workers among the deportees were picked out after volunteering, and that no counting or registration was done of the victims at the “death camps."

The Sobibor witness Hershel Zukerman (cf. part 1 of this article series) wrote that

Every few minutes some SS men approached and inquired who among us was a shoemaker, tailor, etc. People believed it was worthwhile to appear as a skilled worker and therefore responded. Then they marched in groups consisting of 300-400 men who believed they were being sent to a labor camp. Actually the were taken directly to Camp III, to the gas chambers.[14]

If the SS, as is alleged, selected the needed new slave workers at the time of their arrival and sent the remaining deportees straight to the gas chambers, why would they then bother to select another batch of men, only to send them too to the gas chambers? Are we supposed to understand it as some kind of practical joke?

Yitzhak Arad comments on Zukerman’s testimony that “[f]rom some of the transports, however, young men and women were indeed selected and sent to labor camps in Ossowa, Sawin, and Krychow, which were not far from Sobibor." According to Arad those men and women numbered “a few hundred people" and where brought back several months later, yet no proof is offered for this other than eyewitness testimony.[15] Could it be that the men which Zukerman claims were brought to Lager III were in fact marched off to the camps mentioned by Arad, or to work installations even closer to Sobibor, such as those in Wlodawa?

We have some vague indications that possibly all or most deportees to the Reinhardt camps, at least of the male ones, were registered at arrival. In the report on Treblinka published by the Warsaw Ghetto resistance movement on November 15, 1942, we are told:

To make the Jews believe that actual classification according to trades would take place at the arrival-square in order to send occupational groups for labor, they placed small signs with the inscriptions: Tailors, Shoemakers, Carpenters, etc. It goes without saying that such segregation never took place.[16]

The Silberschein report on Treblinka, dating from 1944, has it that:

[…] in order to lull the belief in these promises into a feeling of security, the Germans had established an office at the train station, where each new arrival had to turn up and report his professional training. After fulfillment of these ‘statistics,’ the people were brought into the camp and at first only sent into the disinfection baths.[17]

To the above titillating traces of a buried history we can now add the statements of Dov Freiberg and Moshe Bahir.

An unusual pile of sand

Most revisionists are probably familiar with Kurt Gerstein’s shoe and clothing mountains, rising 30 or even 40 meters above ground. Dov Freiberg provides us with a similar oddity, somewhat smaller and less breathtakingly absurd, but nonetheless a whopper. The following observation allegedly took place while the witness worked in the Waldkommando (the forest workers):

[…] we continued marching through the forest. After about a hundred meters, we saw a barbed wire fence on the left and, behind it, a hill of white sand about twenty meters high. Hills of sand are unusual in a forest, and indeed the hill looked suspicious.[18]

Leaving out the question whether hills of sand are unusual in forests or not, we might point out that twenty meter high hills of sand – a pile as high as a seven story building – are unusual anywhere (and would take up a lot of ground besides). One may even wonder how come no-one had seen it before, since it would have been visible from both Lager II and I (we may recall that Bahir and other witnesses speak of the roof of the “gas chamber" building being visible above the trees, despite this being a one-storied building).

The alleged mass beheading in Lager III

It seems that when it comes to bizarre allegations and rumors, Freiberg always have one more up his sleeve. Thus it should surprise no-one when he claims that the SS punished prisoners in for an alleged plan to escape – by beheading them. In Text C we are told of how a Dutch Jew nicknamed Der Kapitan (“The Captain") made plans for an escape, and how he was found out and whipped. When he would not give the names of his accomplices to Wagner, the latter threatened to decapitate all prisoners in his block, with Der Kapitan last of them. Freiberg informs us that there lived “about seventy men", all Dutch Jews, in the block of Der Kapitan.[19] The tortured prisoner did not waiver, so Wagner ordered him and the Jews of his block marched off. Freiberg then tells us:

Afterward, we found out that Wagner had stood by his word: all of those men were beheaded in Lager 3.[20]

In Text C the considerate Freiberg spare his readers the grisly details of the rumor. We don’t find out what weapon was used for the execution – an axe for chopping wood? a Ukrainian saber? – or, for that matter, why the Germans would bother to carry out the killing of seventy people in this rather difficult and time consuming way. In Text B we are at least provided with a reason behind the rather medieval choice of murder method. The victims, we are told, were decapitated “in order to save bullets."[21]

But it gets more bizarre than this. Freiberg claims, presumably based on hearsay, that the execution was photographed by the SS, despite the allegation that SS men were strictly forbidden to take photos inside the Aktion Reinhardt camps.[22] In a note to the text Freiberg writes:

After the war, an SS man by the name of Novak was caught, and a search of his home revealed photographs of the beheadings in Lager 3.[23]

At the Eichmann Trial, the witness testified that

[…] after the War, there was evidence from a young man who is now overseas, that he caught the German who was responsible, Novak – he was in the Russian zone – they searched his home and found all kinds of photographs; amongst the photographs they found was a picture of the decapitation.

Curiously, the Jerusalem court did not attempt to gather more information from Freiberg regarding this remarkable find. And speaking of remarkable, SS-Scharführer Anton Novak was killed during the Sobibor prisoner uprising on October 14, 1943, which would make it rather difficult for anyone to arrest him after the war.

We can be almost certain that if a photo showing decapitations at Sobibor had been found in the home of Novak, or that of some other former Sobibor guard, it would have been known and widely available through various media. As no other photos of Sobibor’s Lager III are known to exist, such a finding of photographic evidence would have been a sensation noted by all scholars of the field. Since however no-one except for Freiberg seems to know anything about such a photo, we can safely assume that we are dealing with pure rumor – a rumor which Freiberg apparently did not bother to verify during the three decades that passed between the Eichmann Trial and the original publication in Hebrew of To Survive Sobibor.

Barry the demon dog

Among the miseries that reportedly plagued Sobibor inmates was the fangs of the demonic St Bernhard Barry (not to be confused with his younger sibling, Cujo). In Text A this abominable creature is described as follows:

The dog "Beri" I am talking about was the size of a large calf, and if he got hold of a man, that man was helpless. The dog would attack him, and he had to submit to it. There were latrines there. After work, people were afraid to sit there. The dog was very well trained; if he came to any place, he would finish off anyone who was there.

According to Freiberg’s testimony, Barry had originally belonged to an SS man in Lager III nicknamed “the bathhouse attendant" because of him supervising the (alleged) gas chambers. Freiberg does not give us a name in his testimony. In Novitch’ book, the nickname Bademeister is said to have been applied to a certain SS-Oberscharführer Erich Bauer.[24] In Text C on the other hand identifies him with another SS who is to have worked with the gas chambers, SS-Oberscharführer Kurt Bolender.[25] According to Freiberg, Barry was later given by “the bathhouse attendant" to SS-Unterscharführer Paul Groth, who had the dog attack inmates, telling it “Beri, my man, grab that dog – Beri, you are acting in my place." Freiberg further tells us:

Generally speaking, very few of the people who were mauled by the dog remained alive, since the Germans could not stand injured persons, sick persons. I was bitten twice by that dog – I still bear the marks on my body. By chance – and everything was a matter of chance – I remained alive.

As usual in Holocaust stories, the witness is something of a miracle magnet. In Text C we read that Barry bit Freiberg in his thigh: “his teeth sank into my thigh until I felt them hit bone."[26]

Even if Freiberg’s account may not entirely be (pardon the pun) a shaggy dog story, it has certainly been exaggerated. We know this because Barry was later brought to Treblinka, where Kurt Franz was his new master. Franz, who apparently liked animals, took several photos of Barry. One of them shows the dog in front of the porch of a barrack, enabling us to estimate his size.[27] The real Barry was a dog of perfectly ordinary size and did not even belong to the larger specimens of his race. He was thus hardly “the size of a large calf" as Freiberg had testified before the Jerusalem court.[28] This should give a hint of the witness’ relation to facts.

Contact with Lager III

In none of the texts Freiberg explicitly mention any letters smuggled out from Lager III. However, we read in Text A:

A. We knew that Himmler was about to come. The whole camp knew. The Germans also said so. It was well known. They went directly to Camp 3. This was at a time when there were no transports. It was after that that they made renovations and increased the capacity of the camp. They had brought several hundred women from the labour camp and had held them there for some days. As soon as the party arrived, they put the women into the gas chambers. Himmler, together with his entourage, went down there to see what it was like.

Q. But this you don't know, since you were not there.

A. We had contact with Camp 3. We received information about it.

Coupled with the witness accounts of Bahir and Cukierman, this would imply that letters were smuggled out of the “death camp" proper on more or less a routine basis – if the letters were actually written in Lager III, that is.

Assorted anecdotes and absurdities

Like so many other Holocaust survivors, Freiberg survived against miraculous odds. This becomes especially clear when he writes in Text C that “[h]undreds of other workers were killed daily during the months I spent in the camp and were replaced by others."[29] Since the prisoners workers in Lager I and II – the subcamps which Freiberg moved inside – numbered approximately 600, one might indeed say that the witness beat the odds of survival.[30]

The cruelty and sadistic inventiveness of the SS guards knew no bounds, according to Freiberg. Among other things, the Germans ordered prisoners to eat soap and perfumes[31]; ordered others to shave only the left side of their faces and heads[32]; had a prisoner in an absurd uniform, giving him the title “Governor General" and forcing other prisoners to salute him[33]; forced Jews to play parachutists with umbrellas from a six meters high roof[34]; had a prisoner run around on all four day in and day out while acting like a dog[35]; and organized mice hunts, with the caught rodents later stuffed inside the tied-up pants of five prisoners who had to remain still.[36]

Freiberg also writes of a German soldier who had been sent on a deportation train from Holland to Sobibor because he had been with his Jewish girlfriends family at the time the Jews were rounded up. When he showed his papers and demanded to speak with an officer, Wagner led him to the Lazarett and shot him – according Freiberg.[37]

Clean clothes for the gassed

The Japanese interview with Freiberg contains the following remarkable passage:

Then one day, I saw German soldiers sorting children's clothing. That time me and some others asked them: “What are you doing with the children's clothes?" to which they simply replied: “Don't worry."

Another time some people received new clothes and were sent to the shower room. “You will work for us in German factories, but first you are going to take a shower", the German soldiers told them. Up to then they had been strict, but now they suddenly became friendly as they handed them clothes and told them that they could use the showers. I thought it very suspicious.[38]

The part about German soldiers sorting children’s clothing is curious, because of the claim that all work with sorting the clothes of the victims was carried out by Jewish inmates. Why would the Germans themselves bother to do such work? This remains puzzling, but may have some relation to the part which follows.

In the Reinhardt eyewitness accounts, one sometimes read of victims being handed pieces of soap or even towels on their way to the alleged gas chambers. However, to the knowledge of this author, no other witness from Sobibor, or from any of the two other Reinhardt camps, has mentioned clothes being handed to victims as part of the alleged ruse (besides, the notion of German guards taking the bother to procure new clean clothes for the sake of a momentary deception strikes one as curious). This makes the anecdote stand out even more, and gives it the impression of being something like a “Freudian slipup."

In his 1960 testimony Freiberg stated:

They said that in two or three weeks' time we would be reunited with our families. But we saw their personal effects, the following morning we were working with them. They [the SS] maintained that they distributed other clothes, and that from Camp No. 3 trains were departing to the Ukraine.

At the time Freiberg apparently did not thought it worth the bother to mention before the Jerusalem court that he had himself seen the SS distribute new clothing to presumed gas chamber victims. He likewise did not bother to spend a single word retelling the incident in To Survive Sobibor, despite the 108 pages devoted in it to his stay in the camp. Could it be that Freiberg was less on his guard in 1999 when interviewed by a writer from a far off, non-western nation?


Notes

[1]
Available online starting at http://www.nizkor.org/hweb/people/e/eichmann-adolf/transcripts/Sessions/Session-064-04.html
[2]
Miriam Novitch, Sobibor. Martyrdom and Revolt, The Holocaust Library, New York 1980, p. 73.
[3]
Dov Freiberg, To Survive Sobibor, Gefen Books, Lynbrook (NY) 2007, p. 187.
[4]
Carlo Mattogno & Jürgen Graf, Concentration Camp Majdanek. A Historical and Technical Study, Theses & Dissertations Press, Chicago 2003. pp. 44-45.
[5]
The Trial of Adolf Eichmann, Volume III, Session 64.
[6]
Novitch, p. 73.
[7]
Freiberg, p. 190; Aiko Sawada, Yoru no Kioku – Nihonjin ga kiita Horokousuto seikansha no shougen, Sougensha, Osaka 2005, pp. 301-302. Translations by the author.
[8]
Novitch, p. 74; Freiberg p. 193.
[9]
Freiberg, p. 201. In his 1960 testimony, Freiberg stated that the word used on the sign, which he had seen while working outside the camp, was Umsiedlungslager (Resettlement Camp).
[10]
Freiberg, pp. 196.
[11]
Ibid, pp. 223-224.
[12]
Novitch, p. 149.
[13]
Ibid, p. 144.
[14]
Hershel Zukerman as quoted in Arad, p. 78.
[15]
Ibid, pp. 78-79.
[16]
Quoted in Carlo Mattogno & Jürgen Graf, Treblinka. Extermination Camp or Transit Camp?, Theses & Dissertations Press, Chicago 2003, pp. 55-56.
[17]
Quoted in ibid, p. 60.
[18]
Freiberg, pp. 219-220.
[19]
In Text A on the other hand they are said to have numbered eighty.
[20]
Freiberg, p. 276.
[21]
Novitch, p. 75.
[22]
Yitzhak Arad, Belzec, Sobibor, Treblinka. The Operation Reinhard Death Camps, Indiana University Press, Bloomington 1987, p. 18.
[23]
Freiberg, p. 276, note 1.
[24]
Novitch, p. 137. Bauer was arrested soon after the war and in 1950 sentenced to death for his presumed activities at Sobibor. When capital punishment was outlawed in West Germany his death sentence was commuted to life in prison. He died in a Berlin prison in 1980.
[25]
Freiberg, p. 196, 204. Bolender allegedly committed suicide in West German custody in 1966, shortly before his sentence was pronounced.
[26]
Freiberg, p. 204.
[27]
Online http://www.holocaustresearchproject.org/ar/treblinka/treblinkagallery/Barry%20the%20%20dog%20in%20Treblinka%20.html
[28]
In To Survive Sobibor the dog is likewise described as being “as big as a calf" (p. 189).
[29]
Freiberg, pp. 260-261.
[30]
Cf. Arad, p. 333.
[31]
Freiberg, p. 214.
[32]
Ibid, p. 215.
[33]
Ibid, p. 213.
[34]
Ibid, p. 227.
[35]
Ibid, p. 226.
[36]
Ibid, p. 227.
[37]
Ibid, p. 261
[38]
Sawada, p. 303.

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Author(s) Thomas Kues
Title Witness Accounts By Former Sobibor Prisoners, Part 2
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Dates published: 2008-03-14, first posted on CODOH: March 12, 2008, 7 p.m., last revision: n/a
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