1945: Szymon Srebrnik survives execution at Chelmno

6 comments January 17th, 2011 Meaghan

(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.

Szymon went on to testify at Adolf Eichmann‘s trial in 1961, and in 1978, he went back to visit Chelmno for Claude Lanzmann’s film documentary Shoah.

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.

On this day..

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1942: Lodz ghetto “Children’s Action” begins

4 comments September 5th, 2010 Meaghan

(Thanks to Meaghan Good of the Charley Project for the guest post. -ed.)

Between September 5 and September 13 was the great deportation of vulnerable individuals from the Lodz Ghetto, one of the largest Nazi ghettos in Europe.

The 150,000-odd Jews within had starved, slaved and suffered for nearly two years, but what came next was almost too much to bear. The Nazis demanded that Mordechai Chaim Rumkowski,* the ghetto’s controversial chairman, turn over 20,000 non-working people for deportation, including the elderly and all children under the age of ten.

Those two groups constituted only 13,000 people altogether, so the gap had to be filled with the sick. The police and other Jewish authorities in the ghetto would have a chance to round up the deportees themselves. If they didn’t accomplish this, the Germans would do it themselves.

Rumkowski’s policy had always been one of accomodating to the Nazis’ demands and appeasing them with the goal of saving as many Jews as possible. He didn’t deviate from his plan even in this instance, and tried to explain himself to the ghetto population in an electrifying speech on September 4:

A grievous blow has struck the ghetto. They are asking us to give up the best we possess — the children and the elderly. I was unworthy of having a child of my own, so I gave the best years of my life to children. I’ve lived and breathed with children, I never imagined I would be forced to deliver this sacrifice to the altar with my own hands. In my old age, I must stretch out my hands and beg: Brothers and sisters! Hand them over to me! Fathers and mothers: Give me your children! […] I must perform this difficult and bloody operation — I must cut off limbs in order to save the body itself. I must take children because, if not, others may be taken as well — God forbid.

I have no thought of consoling you today. Nor do I wish to calm you. I must lay bare your full anguish and pain. I come to you like a bandit, to take from you what you treasure most in your hearts! I have tried, using every possible means, to get the order revoked. I tried — when that proved to be impossible — to soften the order. Just yesterday, I ordered a list of children aged 9 — I wanted at least to save this one aged-group: the nine to 10-year-olds. But I was not granted this concession. On only one point did I succeed: in saving the 10-year-olds and up. Let this be a consolation to our profound grief.

There are, in the ghetto, many patients who can expect to live only a few days more, maybe a few weeks. I don’t know if the idea is diabolical or not, but I must say it: “Give me the sick. In their place we can save the healthy.” I know how dear the sick are to any family, and particularly to Jews. However, when cruel demands are made, one has to weigh and measure: who shall, can and may be saved? And common sense dictates that the saved must be those who can be saved and those who have a chance of being rescued, not those who cannot be saved in any case. […]

Although it was never explicitly stated, the beaten-down, demoralized Lodz Jews harbored few illusions about the fate of deportees; most of them knew by now that deportation meant death.

Naturally there were cries of protest. People in the crowd suggested alternatives. They should all go together. Parents’ only children should not be taken; children should only be taken from families who had several. Rumkowski would have none if it:

These are empty phrases! I don’t have the strength to argue with you! If the authorities were to arrive, none of you would be shouting! I understand what it means to tear off a part of the body. Yesterday, I begged on my knees, but it did not work. From small villages with Jewish populations of 7000 to 8000, barely 1000 arrived here. So which is better? What do you want? That 80,000 to 90,000 Jews remain, or God forbid, that the whole population be annihilated? I have done and will continue doing everything possible to keep arms from appearing in the streets and blood from being shed. The order could not be undone; it could only be reduced.

One needs the heart of a bandit to ask from you what I am asking. But put yourself in my place, think logically, and you’ll reach the conclusion that I cannot proceed any other way. The part that can be saved is much larger than the part that must be given away!

In short, Rumkowski believed that only by cooperating with the German orders could he prevent even more lives from being lost.

He did have a point: The chairman of the Warsaw Ghetto, when faced with a similar deportation order, had committed suicide, and, as the Jewish authorities dragged their feet, the Nazis stepped in and, with much terror and bloodshed, forcibly deported close to 300,000 people over the course of six weeks. Resistance in Warsaw had made no appreciable difference in the death toll.

During the days that followed Rumkowski’s announcement, a general curfew was implemented and everyone was ordered to remain in their homes while the German SS and authorities, assisted by the Ghetto police and fire department (whose own families were exempted from the deportation) went from house to house to select their victims. The orphanages and old age homes were emptied, and Rumkowski himself supervised this to make sure no one was left behind.

People worked desperately to try to save themselves and the families. They knew the Germans would not be picky, would not be closely checking birth records or doctors’ certificates; it was enough for someone to simply look old or sick or very young.

Older men and women darkened their gray hair with coffee. Sick people dragged themselves out of bed and used makeup to brighten their faces. Children tried to hide, with their parents’ help, as Gordon J. Horwitz described in his book
Ghettostadt: Lodz and the Making of a Nazi City:

Some children hid in furniture and bedding, others in basement, in heaps of garbage and laundry, or in woodpiles. Parents did whatever they could, concealing children “in barrels in the attics, in ditches in the field, covered with leaves and branches.” One child sought refuge in a tree but was shot dead when discovered. Another, thanks to his father’s efforts to fashion an unusual hideout, rode out the danger concealed in a chimney on the roof. Though isolated and abandoned by the time they had been assembled in the collection area, child captives fought and scratched at the walls in a last-ditch effort to resist removal.

One teenage girl, after many attempts, managed to escape the assembly point and hid inside a mattress until it was safe to come out. Six-year-old Sylvia Perlmutter, whose experiences were fictionalized in her niece’s verse novel Yellow Star, hid in the cemetery.

Most of these efforts were in vain, however.

The search was thorough and the hunters ruthless. On September 13, the Nazis announced that the deportation was over. The survivors could resume their daily lives. It was not as bad as it could have been; 20,000 were not taken, after all. 15,859 people had been packed into trains, taken to the Chelmno Extermination Camp and killed. A further 600 had been shot within the ghetto itself.

For a long time after this, there were no more deportations. The ghetto inhabitants, although many of them continued to perish from starvation, overwork and disease, dared to hope that perhaps the Nazis would let them survive as long as they worked. But in the end, they didn’t escape: in August 1944, with the approaching Russian Army just 60 miles away, the entire ghetto population was deported to Chelmno and Auschwitz. An overwhelming number, including Chairman Rumkowski, perished.

* It was an open secret that Rumkowski was a pedophile who sexually abused the children in his charge both before and during the war. See Lucille Eichengreen’s Rumkowski and the Orphans of Lodz, and Edward Reichter’s Country of Ash.

On this day..

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