(Thanks to Meaghan Good of the Charley Project for the guest post. -ed.)
On the night of January 17-18 in 1945, Szymon Srebrnik was shot in the head, along with 46 other Jewish prisoners, at the Chelmno Extermination Camp near the village of Chelmno in central Poland.
Szymon (whose name has also been spelled Simon, Shimon, Shi’mon, etc.), was fifteen short years of age … but he had sixty-one more years to live.
Relatively little is known about Chelmno, simply because there were so few survivors. At least 150,000 people, and possibly as many as 300,000, died there. The victims included Gypsies and probably Russian prisoners of war in addition to Jews, notably most of the inhabitants of the Lodz Ghetto.
There were three survivors. Count’em, three. Szymon was one of them. And there were one or two others who successfully escaped Chelmno but did not survive the war.
The operation went like this: the victims would be taken to the camp and told they were being sent to work camps where they would be treated well, but first they had to clean up. They undressed, and they were supposed to give their valuables to one of the Nazi officers for safekeeping.
To maintain the pretense, they were even given receipts or claim tickets. Once the naked Jews left the undressing room, however, all pretense was over. Kicked, shoved, whipped and beaten with rifles and clubs, they were forced down a ramp into a waiting van. After no more could get inside it (the capacity was about 60-80 people per van, with a few of the larger vehicles having space for 100), the van was sealed and driven away. The carbon dioxide emissions from the engine were pumped into the back of the van, and by the time the driver had reached the burial site in a nearby forest, all of the Jews would be dead. If any of them happened to still be alive, they were shot. The bodies were disposed of by either burial or burning.
Not everyone was killed at once, however.
A small number of strong, healthy men were kept alive for awhile in order to help dispose of the bodies and sort through all the belongings of the dead Jews. They were kept in iron shackles 24 hours a day to prevent escape. They slept in the granary.
These people were usually killed within days or weeks and replaced by others from new transports. Our Szymon, however, lasted for about ten months.
There were several reasons for this. The Nazis at Chelmno, for their own amusement, sometimes forced the prisoners to have athletic contests like racing and jumping, and Szymon was good at that and often won.
He also had a beautiful voice, and they enjoyed listening to him sing. The Hauskommando chief, who was in charge of the work site inside the camp itself, liked Szymon and helped keep him alive.
But all things must come to an end.
Szymon and his fellow sufferers were the last prisoner-workers left at Chelmno, and they were shot as part of a clean-up operation by the Nazis. The Russians would arrive within days; the camp itself had been destroyed, and they had to leave no witnesses behind.
Unexpectedly, the Jews put up a fight and actually killed two of the Nazis inside the granary, hanging one and shooting the other with his own gun. Mordechai Zurawski was able to fight his way free and escape. He was the second survivor (a third, Michal Podchelbnik, had escaped the camp in 1942) and testified about his war experiences alongside Szymon. The rest were all killed.
At his testimony in Lodz in June 1945, Szymon recalled:
When the Soviet Army was advancing quickly, one night we were ordered to leave the granary in groups of five … Lenz ordered us to lie down on the ground. He shot everybody in the back of the head. I lost consciousness and regained it when there was no one around. All the SS-men were shooting inside the granary. I crawled to the car lighting the spot and broke both headlights. Under the cover of darkness I managed to run away. The wound was not deadly. The bullet went through the neck and mouth and pierced my nose and then went out.
Szymon made his way to a Polish farm nearby, and the farmer agreed to hide him in his barn until the Russians came two days later. A Soviet Army doctor treated his wound, and he made a complete recovery.
In September 1945, Szymon went to Israel, one of the first Holocaust survivors to arrive there. He met his future wife en route.
Those events aside, Szymon lived a long and surprisingly normal life in Israel, marrying, having a couple of kids and living in relative obscurity. He died of cancer in 2006, at the age of 76.