Witness Accounts By Former Sobibor Prisoners, Part 1

Published: 2008-02-22

In contrast to Treblinka and Belzec, there (allegedly) exists no surviving witnesses from the "death camp proper" of Sobibor, usually designated Lager III. However, from among the fifty or sixty survivors of the October 1943 prisoner revolt, we have a number of accounts in which the witness claims to have had access to privileged sources (mostly letters supposedly written by workers in Lager III) confirming the existence of homicidal gas chambers in the camp and even providing details concerning those contraptions of death – details often wildly divergent from what orthodox historians wants us to believe about the alleged extermination of Jews at Sobibor. One can also find many contradictions between the witnesses concerning phenomena which they (according to the official narrative) would have been able to observe with their own senses, such as flames and smoke columns arising from outdoor incinerations and certain stationary features of the camp relating to the alleged extermination process.

In a series of articles, I will subject the accounts of about a dozen Jewish Sobibor eyewitnesses to critical scrutiny, comparing their specifics to those of other testimonies, to the established orthodox historiography on the camp, as well as to known and documented historical facts relevant to the narrative. In the first of the articles, I will treat the testimony of the unique Sobibor gas chamber witness Jacob Biskubicz; Moshe Bahir, another witness at the Eichmann Trial with some strange tales to tell; and Hershel Zukerman, the camp cook who might very well be the originator, or at least a co-originator, of the Sobibor gas chamber claims. A general summary and analysis will appear further on in a concluding article.

Jacob Biskubicz

According to Miriam Novitch, the witness Jacob Biskubicz (alternate spelling Biskowitz) was born in the Polish town of Hrubieszow on March 17, 1926. He is unique in as so far that he is the only Jewish Sobibor witness who explicitly claims to have seen with his own eyes the alleged gas chambers in the camp, despite not being a worker in Lager III, where they were supposedly located. How this feat was managed is revealed in the protocols of the 1960 Jerusalem Eichmann Trial:[1]

Presiding Judge: You described the inside of the gas chamber. For example, you told us how the floor opened up and the bodies fell below into the railway waggons.

Witness Biskowitz: Into the hollow below.

Q. Did you see this with your own eyes, or are you talking of things that you heard from others?

A. I will describe a shocking scene here.

Q. But first of all – did you, in general, have an opportunity of seeing these things from the inside?

A. Not everybody had the opportunity, but I, by chance, did. By chance I was taken to bring a cart with a barrel of chloride. When I was passing by the two larger stores in Camp 2, I detached the cart and pushed it towards Camp 3. I was supposed to leave it near the gate, but I could not hold the vehicle back. The gate opened and it pushed me inside.

Since I knew I would not get out alive from there, I began to run back at top speed and managed to reach my place of work without anyone noticing. I kept this a secret – I am stressing this – even from the inmates of the camp who worked with me. From a distance, I saw the pit and the hollow and the small train that carried the dead bodies. I did not see the gas chamber from the inside; I only saw, from the outside, that there was a very prominent roof, and that the floor opened and the bodies fell below.

Q. You came to this conclusion from the nature of the structure?

A. Not from the nature of the structure – I saw it from afar even while I was running away quickly, although I cannot describe it exactly, after nineteen years.

Q. Please understand me. You are somewhat familiar with these matters. Did you see the floor when it had opened up?

A. I did not see that – I merely saw that underneath the gas chamber, there was a hollow which already contained bodies.

At this exact point, the presiding judge hurriedly declaimed that Biskubicz had concluded his testimony, enigmatically adding:

I know you have not told us everything. But there was no alternative.

Small wonder the judge wanted Biskubicz to step down from the witness stand – his gas chamber building with collapsible floor is completely anathema to the death chamber dogma which was in place already by the time Biskubicz took the oath in Jerusalem.

It cannot be succesfully argued that Biskubicz did not see the inside of the building, or that he did not actually see a collapsible floor. Let us recapitulate what Biskubicz tells us of his observation per se (emphases mine):

I saw the pit and the hollow and the small train that carried the dead bodies ... I saw it from afar even while I was running away quickly... I only saw, from the outside, that there was a very prominent roof, and that the floor opened and the bodies fell below... I merely saw that underneath the gas chamber, there was a hollow which already contained bodies.

It is evident from this that Biskubicz maintained that he had seen corpses lying beneath a collapsible gas chamber floor – a sight irreconcilable with what the official narrative has to tell us of the alleged gas chambers at that camp and their construction.[2]

In the short undated account published by Miriam Novitch, Biskubicz’ visit to Lager III has been reduced to almost nil, and in effect rendered incomprehensible to the reader without knowledge of the Eichmann Trial testimony. We read:

I couldn't believe in the reality of camp No. 3. One day, I was pushing a wheelbarrow loaded with chlorine and, eager to know what was happening in the camp, I went beyond the limit. I was nearly killed.[3]

And that is all!

Biskubicz devotes a somewhat larger space to the monstrous villainy of certain named SS men:

There was a young mother, running hysterically, looking for her child. Frenzel found him and murdered him by crushing his head against a rail. Wagner used to kill children by kicking them with his boots; he also executed the sick and the babies as soon as they arrived.[4]

When writer Richard Rashke did research for his book Escape from Sobibor (later made into a TV movie starring Rutger Hauer) he travelled to Israel in order to meet and interview a number of Sobibor survivors. One of them was Jacob Biskubicz. Rashke’s description of the interview, during which he was accompanied by Miriam Novitch, throws some light over the character of this witness:

Jacob spoke like a man still in a dream. Once he started his story, there was no way to stop him, even for a question. He almost shouted into my mike, and Miriam [Novitch] had a difficult time translating between his gulps for air.[5]

It is as good as certain that Novitch, if not Rashke, was familiar with Biskubicz’ testimony from the Eichmann Trial. How come then that they did not ask Biskubicz further questions about his unique gas chamber sighting? Anyway, for some curious reason they did not bring up the issue, and the whole thing goes conveniently unmentioned, down the memory hole.

Moshe Bahir

The witness Moshe Bahir was reportedly deported from Komarov to Sobibor on April 16, 1942, and arrived to the camp on April 20.[6] In the longer account published by Miriam Novitch, Bahir describes his impression at arrival thus:

Behind the fence were huge piles of bundles and various personal belongings, flames of fire and pillars of smoke which arose from within the camp and, with their flickering light, tried to brighten the evening twilight, and, above all, the smell of charred flesh which filled the air. It seemed that in those moments everyone sensed that this would be his last stop on earth.[7]

Yet orthodox historiography has it that the outdoor cremations at Sobibor were begun much later that year, at earliest during the last half of summer. Yithzak Arad for example has it commencing in October 1942. The reason for the start of cremations is alleged to have been that the summer heat had caused the corpses in the mass graves to swell up and break though the surface, spreading stenches and pestilence.[8] Thus Bahir witnessing "flames of fire and pillars of smoke" and smelling burnt flesh on April 20, 1942, makes no sense within the established narrative. In fact even the date of arrival is spurious: according to Arad Sobibor opened "toward the end of April 1942" and a transport from Komarow to Sobibor did not take place until May 5 the same year.[9] And it does not become clearer in Bahir’s testimony from the 1960 Eichmann Trial, where he stated that the had arrived at Sobibor "on 20 March 1942, in the afternoon."[10]

Could it perhaps be that the witness was mistaken about the year (and not only in this text, but also in his testimony at the Eichmann trial!) and that he in fact had arrived – from Komarow or elsewhere – in April 1943? Apparently not, since Bahir later writes:

When I came to the camp the commander was Sturmbannführer Wirth; after him came Hauptsturmführer Franz Reichleitner, and the last of them was Untersturmführer Niemann, who was killed on the day of the revolt.[11]

It should be noted that Bahir’s list of Sobibor commandants is incorrect. Reichleitner was preceded by Franz Stangl, whom Bahir does not mention. Stangl was the first real commandant of Sobibor, not Wirth, who was only the inspector of the Reinhardt camps after serving as commandant at Belzec.[12] Reichleitner became commandant at the end of August 1942, when Stangl was transferred to Treblinka.[13] What more confims an April 20 (or rather May 5) arrival is the fact that Bahir gives an account of Himmler’s visit to Sobibor in "the end of July" 1942 (actually August 15), as well as an alleged second visit by the Reichsführer SS in February 1943.[14]

In his description of the fate meeting the old and sick on the train he arrived on, Bahir again contradicts the orthodox Sobibor narrative:

The old and weak were ordered to march over to the trains and to get inside of them. The feeble ones and, with them, the bodies of those who had been unable to withstand the hardships of the road and had lost their lives – these were dragged to the freight cars and thrown inside. It was said that they were bringing these piles of the living and the dead to the "Lazaret" – that is, the hospital – in order to receive proper care. The cars left on their short journey. This Lazaret was located about 200 meters from the place where we stood. It was a wretched little shack – and behind it was a giant pit in a young forest. When the line of cars reached the edge of the pit their cargo was unloaded by the "bandagers" – armed Ukrainians thirsty for blood. At the command of Oberscharführer Bredov, the cargo was dumped into the pit amidst a shower of bullets fired towards the fallen by the "bandagers," who had been ordered to make sure that no one survived.

But if we are to believe Yitzhak Arad:

A narrow railway with a trolley led from the railway station up to the burial pits, bypassing the gas chambers. People who had died in the trains or those who were unable to walk from the platform to the gas chambers were taken by the trolley.[15]

This was supposedly the solution practiced during the second phase of the camp's existence, from autumn 1942 onwards. Arad tells us that before the "narrow railway trolley that ran from the disembarking platform to the burial pits in Camp III" (not to the "Lazarett") was built, "the dead, the sick, and those unable to walk" were taken to the pits on "carts pushed by prisoners" and "horse-drawn carts".[16] Thus Bahir should not have been able to observe any such narrow gauge railway at the time of his arrival.

Interestingly, Bahir is not the only witness who describes the narrow gauge railway as leading to the "Lazarett" and not Lager III. Jacob Biskubicz testified to the following during the Eichmann Trial:

This is the Lazarette where they killed elderly people, sick people, and those who were brought directly from the transports and who were unable to walk, who were conveyed in these little vans of a small train which was used for carrying coal. People who arrived on the transports and who could not run fast were thrown into these little vans, together with little children, and brought to the "Lazarette," which was in a small wood.[17]

Bahir continues his account with a description of the different parts of the camp, thereamong Lager III, the death camp proper allegedly containing the homicidal gas chambers and burial pits.

Lager 3 was closed on all sides to the prisoners of Sobibor. It was impossible for us to see what was going on in that Lager because of the grove of pine trees which surrounded it. We saw only the roof of the "bathhouse" which protruded through the trees. Thus we saw the murderous face of Oberscharführer Bauer, who used to stand on the roof of that building and peep through the little window, into the death-chambers.[18]

So the only thing Bahir and his companions could oberve going on in Lager III was supposedly a man standing on a roof top peeping through some kind of observation window. What happened to the flames of fire and pillars of smoke mentioned by the witness at the beginning of his account. But let us continue reading:

We all knew what was done inside the building. We knew that Bauer looked through the window in order to regulate the amount of death-gas which streamed through the ducts, which were in the form of an ordinary shower. He was the one who saw the victims suffocating from the gas that was showered upon them and he was the one who ordered that the flow of gas be increased or stopped. And he was the one who used to see the victims in their final agony and in their death. At his order the machinery which opened the floor of the "bathhouse" was activated, and the corpses fell into small carts which took them at first to mass graves and, later when time was short, to cremation ovens instead.[19]

Now, how came that everybody knew not only about the existence of the gas chamber, but also how they functioned? How is it that this knowledge contradicts the official claims in such a stark way? And why is the gas chamber described by Bahir identical to that allegedly seen by Jacob Biskubicz? A likely answer will suggest itself below:

In spite of the strict supervision, from time to time we managed to make contacts with the Jews in camp 3. Sometimes we would find notes stuck to the sides of the empty buckets that were brought back from the gate. In these notes the men who worked at burning the bodies described what went on at Lager No. 3. One note told of a bloodstain which could not, by any means, be cleaned or scraped from the floor of the gas chamber. Finally, experts came and determined that the stain had been absorbed into the chamber's floorboards after a group of pregnant women had been poisoned and one of them had given birth while the gas was streaming into the chamber. The poison gas had mingled with the mother's blood and had created the indelible stain. Another note said that, one day, the workers were ordered to replace a few floorboards because several fragments of ears, cheeks and hands had become embedded in them.[20]

How curious that the painstakingly smuggled out notes, the sole glimpse into the "truth" of the hidden charnelhouse, should recount what can only be described as demented nonsense! One is given the impression by Bahir’s account that more or less all inmates "knew" about the gas chamber building with the collapsible floor based on revelations contained in the mysterious food bucket correspondence.

Either the alleged letter writers in Lager III were schliemels or fabulists, doing their best to disinform and deceive their brothers in misery on the outside, or the wild yarns were made up by the addressees (or rather "addressees") – perhaps the witness himself, perhaps Hershel Zukerman, whose telling testimony will be discussed below. Which seems more likely I leave for the reader to decide.

As a bonus to his excentric gas chamber epistles, Bahir provides his hopefully pious readers with a few vignettes of gratuitous SS camp cruelty, wrought in the vein of de Rais and de Sade. To little surprise, Oberscharführer Gustav Wagner makes an ultraviolent appearance:

His unfettered cruelty knew no bounds, and the horror-dramas that he enacted give me nightmares to this day. He would snatch babies from their mothers' arms and tear them to pieces in his hands. I saw him beat two men to death with his rifle butt because they did not understand his directions properly, and this because they did not understand German.[21]

Getting warmed up, Bahir tells us some first class greuel tales concerning another SS man stationed at Sobibor, Paul Groth:

In most cases, these men would place buckets on the heads of the victims, after they made them get into the pit, and would practice shooting, along with Grot, who was, of course, always the most outstanding shot. […] Sometimes Grot would have himself a joke; he would seize a Jew, give him a bottle of wine and a sausage weighing at least a kilo and order him to devour it in a few minutes. When the "lucky" man succeeded in carrying out this order and staggered from drunkenness, Grot would order him to open his mouth wide and would urinate into his mouth.[22]

One may believe the above recounted stories, or else disbelieve them (at least they make slightly more sense than the magical blood stains and ears embedded in floors). Yitzhak Arad clearly believes them (sincerely or not) since he references the second Paul Groth anecdote.[23] He also fully quotes Bahir on the Wagner baby-ripping issue.[24]

The composition date of the Bahir text which appear in Novitch’s anthology is unclear. In a note on the text we are told that it was "written in about 1950" and then published by "The Museum of Fighters and Partisans" in Tel Aviv in 1970.[25] Yet on one page Bahir, "the writer of these lines", mentions that he testified in the 1965 Hagen Sobibor Trial, and on the following page is mentioned that former SS Hubert Gomerski was released from prison because of poor health in 1972 but once again incarcerated "for fifteen more years, starting in 1974."[26] Novitch’s note on the writing and publication can therefore not be correct. Possibly Novitch had Bahir expand and update his account prior to the publication of her book. Arad quotes the same account in his book, giving the source as Museum of the Combatants. Pirsumei Muzeon Halochamim u-Partizanim ("Publication of the Museum of the Combatants and Partisans"), Tel Aviv, April 1973.[27] Yet given the presence of the 1974 date in the Novitch text, this cannot be the identical version of the account.

Hershel Zukerman

Hershel Zukerman (alternate spelling: Cukierman)[28] is an obscure yet highly interesting witness. He and his son Joseph, who likewise survived and later, we are informed, died in the United States, were deported to Sobibor during the first month of the camp’s operation (April-May 1942) and came to work as camp chefs in Lager I, cooking the food of the prisoner workers in all four subcamps, including Lager III. Curious (we are told) about what transpired inside the latter subcamp, Zukerman came up with a cunning plan:

The gas chambers were so well camouflaged that for ten weeks I believed that my fellow prisoners who came with me were in a labor camp. In our kitchen we cooked the soup for camp No. 3 and Ukrainian guards used to fetch the vessels. Once I put a note in Yiddish into a dumpling, "Brother, let me know what you are doing." The answer arrived, stuck to the bottom of the pot, "You shouldn't have asked. People are being gassed, and we must bury them." I informed my two friends, Leon Feldhendler and Shlomo Goldstein. However, we decided to keep quiet, as we didn't want the others to know.[29]

The above quote is from Miriam Novitch’s anthology of Sobibor eyewitness accounts. Yitzhak Arad quotes another account by Zukerman in which the same episode is recounted thus:

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.[30]

Thanks to this letter, Arad implies, "(t)he truth of what was going on in Camp III became known to the Jewish prisoners in Sobibor at the beginning of June 1942." If the mass gassings allegation was indeed true, one might expect the inmates to have deduced the situation much earlier. For example, wouldn’t they have been able, in some way or other, of finding out whether any Jews ever left Camp III or not? And wouldn’t they have noticed the smell of corpses rotting under the spring sun, covered by only a thick layer sand or soil?

The word "substance" in the text quoted by Arad should be noted. Apparently, Zukerman never showed Feldhendler and Goldstein the actual letter, but merely informed them of its alleged contents! It should be noted that Leon Feldhendler was the leader of the underground resistance among the inmates.

Even without access to the Yiddish or Hebrew originals, it is obvious even to the gastronomic layman that a dumpling (kreplach?) hardly can be mistaken for a thick crumb pie. Their only similarity to each other is that each contain a filling. Zukerman the cook is rehashing the same yarn with a slight change in ingredients, adding a whiff of the melodramatic and theatrical. The wording of the letter according to the Arad text for sure gives the impression of a forgery made up for the purpose of propaganda (directed at other inmates) rather than an authentic letter smuggled out by slave workers locked up in a death factory. The wording found in the Novitch text gives a more authentic appearance, but this might simply be due to the extreme brevity of the account (the entire text is merely four pages long). The sentence "You shouldn't have asked" also seems rather contrived. It may be further noted that the wording of the Novitch has references to both gas chambers and mass graves, while the wording of the Arad text has neither.

Regarding the delivieries of food to Lager III, Moshe Bahir writes:

The meager food portions to the workers of Lager 3 were supplied by our kitchen in Lager 1. Ten men from our work group used to bring the pails of watery soup to the gate of Lager No. 3, leave them there and take the empty pails back to Lager 1. All of this was done twice a day at a hasty run, accompanied by lashes from the guards.[31]

Thus according to Bahir hundreds of workers in the death camp proper were fed only meager portions of watery soup, carried to the gate by Jewish inmates – while on the other hand the cook himself has it that he could cook the death camp workers whatever he liked, including pies and dumplings, and that the pails with food were delivered by Ukrainian guards. But this is just icing on the cake, so to say.


Notes

[1]
The Trial Against Adolf Eichmann, Session 65.
[2]
Cf. Arad, p. 31, 123.
[3]
Miriam Novitch, p. 121.
[4]
Ibid, p. 120.
[5]
Richard Rashke, Escape from Sobibor, University of Illinois Press 1992, p. 329.
[6]
Novitch, p. 142-143.
[7]
Ibid, p. 143.
[8]
Yitzhak Arad, Belzec, Sobibor, Treblinka: The Operation Reinhard Death Camps, Indiana University Press, Bloomington 1987, p. 177.
[9]
Ibid, p. 36, 390.
[10]
The Trial against Adolf Eichmann, Session 65.
[11]
Novitch, p. 153.
[12]
Arad, p. 33.
[13]
Ibid, p. 92.
[14]
Novitch, p. 154-155.
[15]
Arad, p. 33.
[16]
Ibid, p. 123-124.
[17]
The Trial against Adolf Eichmann, Session 65.
[18]
Novitch, p. 147.
[19]
Ibid, p. 147.
[20]
Ibid, p. 148.
[21]
Ibid, p. 149.
[22]
Ibid, pp. 150-151.
[23]
Arad, p. 195, 416.
[24]
Ibid, p. 191.
[25]
Novitch, p. 163.
[26]
Ibid, p. 152-153
[27]
Arad, p. 191, 404, 416.
[28]
Yitzhak Arad manages to index both spellings separately, referring to separate passages several chapters apart, and without any cross-indexing, so that the reader may be mislead to believe that he is dealing with two separate persons: Zukerman the camp cook and Cukierman, member of the camp resistance. But surely this is merely a simple and innocent mistake on Arad’s part.
[29]
Novitch, p. 107.
[30]
Arad, p. 79; quote of testimony by Zukerman archived at Yad Vashem, YVA 016/1187.
[31]
Novitch, p. 147.

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Author(s) Thomas Kues
Title Witness Accounts By Former Sobibor Prisoners, Part 1
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Dates published: 2008-02-22, first posted on CODOH: Feb. 20, 2008, 6 p.m., last revision: n/a
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