Escape from Sobibor
By Richard Rashke
Delphinium Books, Inc. Copyright © 1995 Richard Rashke
All rights reserved.
Stretching to look taller than he was, the boy stood next to the men in the open field surrounded by a barbed-wire fence, seven feet high. It was a sunny May afternoon, and after the ride in a boxcar smelling from urine and death, the air was a perfume of spring and pine. Painted over the gate in foot-high black letters was SS SONDERKOMMANDO, and the sign perched on white stilts in front of the railway shack across the tracks said SOBIBOR. The boy had never heard of Sobibor, nor had he any idea of what kind of special SS camp it was. He looked around.
Carved out of the thick pine forest along the main railway line, Sobibor looked peaceful and quiet. Although the German and Ukrainian guards were carrying leather whips, pistols, and rifles, the boy tried to convince himself that Sobibor was just another work camp for Jews. In the middle of the camp, a foresters' watchtower rose a hundred feet into the clear spring sky, and across the tracks, behind the wooden station, sat a half-dozen woodcutters' cottages.
The boy was only fifteen years old, barely five feet tall, thin as an alley cat, and just as wary. Afraid to turn his head, he looked as far to the left as he could and saw the women and children scramble into a column, four abreast, and march through a huge gate, braided with pine branches so that no one could see in or out. The sign next to the gate read SHOWERS. He tried to catch a glimpse of his mother and older sister, but they were lost among the shuffling thousands. The gate swung closed, and the Nazis turned to the men and the boys who tried to pass as men. "Line up," shouted a tall SS officer with lanky arms that hung almost to his knees. "Four across."
The boy gave a last furtive look around for his father, from whom he had been separated after the Ukrainians drove them out of the boxcar with whips, but he couldn't see him as the men pushed and shoved into the semblance of a formation. He grabbed the hands of his brother, nephew, and cousin, lest he lose them, too, and have to face alone the thatched gate and whatever was behind it. Hand in hand, the boy and his family formed a row in the long column.
"Stay together, no matter what," he whispered to them. "Promise." They nodded in fright.
The tall Nazi walked down the line, peering at faces as if he were searching for someone he knew. To the boy, he looked like a black giant, dressed as he was in a black uniform perfectly pressed, a black cap with a silver skull — the Death's Head, the SS called it — shiny, knee-high black leather boots, and a black whip curled in his hand like a snake.
"Tailors, shoemakers, painters," the tall Nazi called. "Forward."
The boy began to panic. What should he do? Who would get better treatment? Those who stepped forward or those who stayed in line? What would happen if he lied and said he was a tailor? As the Nazi approached him, the boy fought his fear, as he had done so often during the past three years, and heeded the feeling churning inside him, making him say and do things for reasons he didn't understand.
"I'm a goldsmith," he shouted above the other voices. "Do you need a goldsmith?"
Before the SS officer could say a word, the boy reached into the knapsack at his feet, and whipped out a wallet with a monogram of gold on it. "See?"
He offered the Nazi the wallet. "I made this."
The boy's initials gleamed in the late afternoon sun, finely crafted and smooth as ice on the lake.
"Yes," the boy snapped back, afraid to allow a second to slip between the question and his answer. "These are my tools." He dipped back into his sack and fished out a kerosene burner, charcoal, pliers, and chisels.
"Out, then," the Nazi said. "Over there. We'll see."
"I have three brothers who are goldsmiths, too," the boy lied. He was surprised at his own boldness, for his brother, cousin, and nephew hardly knew the difference between gold and brass. The Nazi quickly looked over the three youngsters and nodded to them to join the boy.
"My father," the boy asked. "What about my father?"
"Don't worry." There was a note of kindness in the Nazi's voice. "Tomorrow ... Sit. I'll be back."
The boy hugged his tools. They had saved his life before, and if he had made the right decision today, they would help him again. He had learned to spot the glimmer of greed in a Nazi's eye; the tall SS man had that glint.
The huge gate swung open, and the column of men and boys marched through, as the women and children had done. Then it slammed closed. A Ukrainian in a drab gray-green uniform and black soldier's cap stood guard, rifle pinned across his chest. The boy wasn't sure whether the "Blackie," as the Jews called every Ukrainian auxiliary, was there to keep people in or out.
While the "goldsmiths" waited for the tall Nazi, another lad sat down beside them, and the boy became nervous. It was important to obey the Nazis exactly, or they could turn on you like German shepherds.
"Beat it," he told the newcomer. "We were told to sit here. Alone!"
"No," the newcomer said. "I paint signs, and the big Nazi told me to sit here, too."
The boy accepted the sign painter reluctantly; he would be just one more risk, one more person to say a wrong word, to do something to anger the tall SS man. But the boy had no choice, so he sat as straight as he could and waited. Within an hour, some Ukrainian guards came back to the field and marched a group of shoemakers and tailors to another part of the camp, but the tall Nazi did not return. The boy waited, his fear pushing his imagination to see behind that huge gate. Finally, as darkness began to paint the forest black, the big gate swung open and the tall Nazi walked through. He was alone. Before he closed the gate, the boy caught a glimpse of a long corridor that seemed to go nowhere, a tube lined with barbed-wire fences thatched with pine branches.
"Come," the tall SS man said. He led them to a pine barracks with a tarpaper roof, slanted slightly for the heavy winter snow, and pushed the door open with his boot. "Inside. Stay! No one else in." He slammed the wooden door behind him and left.
Except for a patch of dusk streaming through the narrow, high window, it was as dark as a tunnel. A shadow moved in the corner of the long building.
"Who is it?" The boy tried to scream, but only a hoarse whisper came from deep inside his dry throat. "Who's there?"
The shadow moved again. "I'm a Jew, too," said a timid voice that quivered like tin. "I'm a sign painter. Who are you?"
They sat in the dark on the bare wooden floor — the two young sign painters, the boy, and his brother, cousin, and nephew. They were tired, thirsty, and hungry, but their tension and fear drove away the fatigue, hunger, and thirst. They told one another where they had come from, what had happened to them on the way to Sobibor, how they had been chosen from the long line of men. But no matter where they began their whisperings, huddled in the corner as far from the door as they could crawl, they always came back to the gate with the sign SHOWERS and the corridor behind it leading nowhere.
The sign painter with the timid voice said he had been sitting in the barracks for a whole day. He described how a crew of Jews had come back through that gate with brooms, rakes, and carts, and how they had cleaned from the field the toys, caps, and scraps of paper that littered it, even raking up the footprints in the sandy soil. It must be some kind of trick, he said. The Nazis must want each trainload to think it is the first. But why? The question hung over them, and they dared not speak an answer.
The tall Nazi with long arms kicked open the door. "Goldsmith," he ordered. "Take a bucket. Follow me."
The boy crossed the yard with the Nazi, half-running like a child at its father's heels to keep up with his huge strides. They entered a storeroom piled almost to the ceiling with cheeses, salamis, canned sardines, and tins of milk.
"Whatever you want," the Nazi said.
The boy had never seen so much food before in all of his fifteen years. The musty smell of cheddar and garlic was enough to drive him mad, but he fought the urge to dive into the pile and tear at a piece of soft cheese. He suspected that the Nazi, who barked out words, rather than sentences, with a thick Austrian accent, was trying to trick him.
"No, thank you," the boy said. "I'm not hungry."
"Better eat." The Nazi laughed. "A lot of work tomorrow."
Sensing a veiled threat in the Nazi's voice that tomorrow he would be on trial and that he had better be a good goldsmith, the boy picked the longest salami he could see. The Nazi took him into the kitchen next to the storeroom, where a cook filled his bucket with coffee and gave him a loaf of fresh bread.
As best they could in the dark, the boy and his friends divided the bread and salami. If they had had a scale, they would have weighed the portions to make sure each got equal shares. The bread, they devoured; the salami, they chewed very slowly, as if they were eating a bony fish. But no one could drink the coffee. Someone had used the bucket to clean paintbrushes, and the coffee tasted of turpentine.
They talked late into the night, and when the others finally had drifted into a restless sleep filled with dreams of boxcars, train rides, and tall Nazis, the boy lay on the wooden floor and stared into the patch of moonlit darkness framed by the window. Next to him the second sign painter, who had arrived the day before, lay shaking.
Questions rolled in the boy's mind like marbles, and the faces of his mother, sister, and father flashed before his eyes.
What was behind that gate?
What did "showers" mean?
Where were they — his family?
Would the tall Nazi march him through the gate in the morning? When dawn filtered through the window, the boy had no answers.
The barracks was seventy feet long and forty feet wide, with beams running along the ceiling like the ribs of a wooden whale. It was empty. The boy, Shlomo Szmajzner, crept to the door and looked through the cracks, then cautiously peeked out the window. The soft spring morning was fenced in by barbed wire and ringed with watchtowers — tiny pine huts on stilts twenty feet from the ground, with Ukrainian guards inside holding Mausers. With their ladders gently sloping to the yard below and their slanted tarpapered roofs, the watchtowers looked like clubhouses where little boys puffed cigarettes and talked about little girls. The fence, guarded by Ukrainians, was seven feet high, and its pine posts were so perfectly spaced, they looked as if an architect had placed them.
Two hundred yards straight ahead from the barracks where Shlomo watched, the railway tracks cut a ribbon through the pine forest. A switching track broke from the main line, and from the switching track a spur, long enough to hold ten boxcars, jutted into the camp. Inside Sobibor, next to the spur and the main gate, stood a pretty two-story woodcutter's cottage, surrounded by May flowers and neatly trimmed shrubs. Shlomo could see some Germans with Finnish submachine guns entering and leaving the house.
Standing alone in what looked like the center of the camp were several sheds, a camouflaged fence, and the gate through which his mother, sister, and father had walked. The boy strained, half-expecting to hear his mother's call, "Shlomo, Shlomo," or his sister's laugh drift across the yard on the thin spring air. But there wasn't a sound, and if the yard had not been covered with litter, no one would ever know that two thousand Jews had passed through the gate just the day before. How could so many Jews be so quiet, Shlomo wondered.
Three pine-boarded barracks identical with his stood close by, like new barns waiting for the cows. Other than Ukrainians tramping across the yards and an occasional German with a guard dog, the camp seemed empty and still.
The reality of Sobibor grabbed Shlomo with pincers of steel. He had ridden into a barbed-wire trap, and with the fences, the Mausers, the dogs, and submachine guns, there was no way out for a fifteen-year-old goldsmith with a kerosene lamp and charcoal, pliers and chisels. Despair glued him to the windows.
As he watched, without a whistle or a warning the huge camouflaged gate creaked open, and fifty to sixty men and boys shuffled out and began to clean the yard. Shlomo's heart pounded when he recognized a tall, thin boy. Shlomo stared at his friend, Avi, hoping his intensity would draw the boy's eyes up to the window. Avi bent over his rake like a robot, but when his Ukrainian guard wasn't looking, he stole a glance at the barracks as if he knew Shlomo would be there. Avi nodded almost imperceptibly, then went back to raking litter. When the yard was clean and the footprints smoothed away with brooms of pine branches, Avi disappeared into the tube leading nowhere.
Taking turns spying through the window, the boys waited for the tall Nazi. The sight of the Jews cleaning the yard had given them a sense of hope, because if there were fifty or sixty, there must be more. But where were they all working? Why was it so quiet? Why didn't more Jews cross the yard?
At noon, the Nazi with the long arms kicked open the door of the hut. The boys leaped to their feet like German soldiers.
"What do you need to work?" the Nazi asked the goldsmith.
"Just tables and chairs," Shlomo said. The painters nodded, too frightened to open their mouths. The six boys followed the Nazi into one of the sheds packed with tables and chairs, clothes, linens, and blankets tossed into careless piles. Shlomo struggled to make one decision at a time, to focus all his energy on this one situation, for he hadn't yet figured out how he would hide from the SS the fact that his brother, Moses, his nephew, Jankus, and his cousin, Nojeth, were not goldsmiths. He selected a table and chair for himself and one for each of them.
"Our clothes are filthy," Shlomo told the SS man. "And we don't have beds."
"All the blankets and clothes you need," the Nazi said. "No beds. Not even for us."
They carried their loot back to the barracks. "Stay inside," the tall Nazi warned them. "If a Ukrainian calls, don't go. Understand? Stay away from the fences. Understand?" He left them without an explanation.
In the clean pants and shirts and new high leather boots, the boys felt better than they had for a long time. Perhaps the Sobibor Nazis were different. Maybe they weren't so bad after all.
Within an hour, the Nazi returned with another German in a white jacket. "The Kommandant," the tall Nazi said. He eased the door closed behind him.
His name was Captain Franz Stangl, he said. He pulled up a chair and ordered Shlomo to sit across the table from him.
Captain Stangl was impeccably dressed. His white coat was buttoned from top to bottom, his gray slacks pressed and creased, and above a film of yard dust, the top of his boots gleamed. He was thirty years old, thin and wiry. From under the silver skull on his SS cap, light brown hair brushed the tops of his ears and there was the hint of a dimple under his lower lip. In his right hand, he carried a pair of cloud-white gloves. He spoke in soft, passionless tones and smiled easily. To Shlomo, he had the polished elegance of a university professor torn from his classroom by the war and planted in the sandy soil of eastern Poland.
Captain Stangl explained that, as Kommandant, he had unquestioned authority and that in his hand he held the power of life and death. He asked the boy how he could possibly make jewelry without a workshop, and how someone so young could already be an artisan. His questions were friendly, even courteous, and Shlomo forgot for a moment that Captain Stangl was a Nazi.
Shlomo spread his tools on the table. To melt the gold, he explained, he used a small kerosene burner and a piece of charcoal. The burner looked like Aladdin's lamp, with a wick poking out its long nose. Holding the kerosene lamp in one hand, the charcoal in the other, and a glass tube in his mouth, he blew the top of the charcoal into a glowing ember. Then, Shlomo explained, he put the gold in a hole in the center of the charcoal. When it melted, he poured it into the mold he had made. Sometimes, he said, if he was not in a hurry and he had some lime, he would cover his hand with it so that he could work more comfortably. But it wasn't necessary, since his hand was used to the heat of the charcoal and molten gold. (Continues...)
Excerpted from Escape from Sobibor by Richard Rashke. Copyright © 1995 Richard Rashke. Excerpted by permission of Delphinium Books, Inc..
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