15. Oppression and Revolt


One of the many tragic aspects of this history is that so many Jews lost their lives even though they lived in countries that had, by now, decided they wanted to exit the war. But there was no easy way out of this conflict, and Hitler’s vengeance on those of his Axis partners who sought to break with him could be devastating.

The Italians, for instance, certainly recognized by the summer of 1943 how disastrous it had been to link themselves with Nazi Germany. On 10 July 1943 the Allies landed in Sicily and on 19 July Rome was bombed. ‘Everybody understood that the war was lost,’ says Mario Mondello, an Italian diplomat and member of the Fascist Party. ‘And, of course, everybody was thinking that Italy had to get out [of the war] and not to stay with Mussolini … We’re more realistic sometimes than the Germans are. Of course being more realistic we are not faithful to the present chief, and so on. I don’t say it is a noble thing, but it is our character.’1

On 24 July 1943, at a meeting of the Fascist Grand Council, Mussolini was criticized by his colleagues and his policies attacked. The next day, at an audience with the King, the Duce was told his services were no longer required as Prime Minister. He was arrested as he left the room.

Marshal Badoglio replaced Mussolini as Prime Minister and tried to negotiate a way out of the war. On 3 September 1943, the same day the first Allied troops crossed from Sicily to the Italian mainland, the new Italian government agreed an armistice, and on 8 September General Eisenhower, broadcast the news that the Italians had surrendered unconditionally.

The exit of Italy from the Axis alliance proved calamitous for the Jews living in the country. The time lag between Mussolini’s removal and the final surrender of the Italians allowed the Germans to prepare their response, and as soon as the Italians quit the war German forces seized Italian bases and installations. By 10 September the Germans were in control of Rome and most Italian troops had been disarmed. The same day the Germans occupied the Italian capital, Hitler recorded a speech, broadcast that evening. In it he denounced the duplicity of the new Italian government and said that Germany would never surrender in such a way. ‘We all know’, he said, ‘that in this merciless struggle the loser will be annihilated, in accordance with the wishes of our enemies, while only the victor will retain the means for living.’2

It would not have gone unnoticed – especially to Germany’s other allies – that one way of interpreting events was that the Italians had managed to avoid fighting to the end because they were not party to the crime of mass extermination. Even though Mussolini’s regime had persecuted the Jews inside Italy, they had not sent Jews en masse to be murdered in the Nazi death camps. Not just that, but up until the moment of their surrender, the Italians had been protecting Jews from deportation on territory outside Italy. In spring 1943, for instance, at the same time as the Bulgarians were deporting Jews from Thrace and Macedonia, the Italian consul in German-occupied Salonica organized the transfer of a number of Greek Jews to relative safety in Athens, then in the Italian zone of Greece.3 There were even cases of Italian soldiers visiting the camps in which the Germans held Jews in Salonica and claiming that selected women were their ‘wives’ and so could not be deported.4

The surrender of the Italians meant that this protection was removed in an instant. The lives of Jews both in the former occupied zones and within Italy itself changed suddenly for the worse. For example, as soon as the Germans entered Nice in the south of France – a city that had been under Italian control – they began searching for Jews in an action that became infamous for its brutality. Thousands of Jews had taken refuge in Nice, protected for the last ten months since the fall of Vichy by the Italians. But now the Germans took their revenge. On entering Italian territory itself, the Germans were similarly heartless. Around Lake Maggiore in the north of Italy the SS began searching for Jews, and at Meina at the southern end of the lake they came across a number of Jews in a hotel. They murdered sixteen of them, and threw their bodies into the lake.5

Less than a month later, on 16 October 1943, German forces moved against the Jews of Rome. This, one might think, ought to have been a risky operation for them, since they were snatching Jews close to the Vatican. For while it was true that Pope Pius XII had not yet publicly condemned the extermination of the Jews, surely he would not ignore this outrage? Ernst von Weizsäcker, German ambassador to the Holy See, certainly thought he wouldn’t. He believed that deporting the Jews of Rome would result in such censure from the Pope that it would damage Germany.6 But Weizsäcker was wrong. Not only did the Pope not threaten to condemn any attempt to deport the Jews from Rome, he never even spoke out against the action after it had happened.

Early in the morning of 16 October, Settimia Spizzichino, a twenty-two-year-old Roman Jew, suspected that something was wrong: ‘That night was a slightly different night from the others. One could feel that there was something in the air. A kind of cottonwool silence. I can’t describe it. And towards four in the morning we started hearing footsteps, heavy footsteps. Soldiers’ footsteps, marching. So we went to the windows to see what was going on and we saw the Germans breaking into the houses and taking the Jews. We took fright because we saw them coming into our building.’7 Settimia was taken with her family to a prison close to the Vatican, where she describes conditions as ‘horrendous’, and from there to Auschwitz. She was one of 1,800 Jews deported from Rome during the German occupation. ‘I came back from Auschwitz on my own [at the end of the war],’ she says. ‘I lost my family there. My mother. Two sisters, my little niece and then one brother. Had the Pope spoken out a number of Jews would have fled. They would have reacted. Instead he kept quiet. He played into the Germans’ hands. The Pope was very near. We were right under his nose. But he didn’t lift a finger. He was an anti-Semitic Pope. He didn’t take a single risk.’

While it is understandable, given what happened to her, that Settimia Spizzichino believes that the Pope was anti-Semitic, the charge is hard to sustain. Not least because the Pope certainly did not prevent priests and nuns from hiding Jews in Italy. ‘The Pope issued the order that the convents could open up,’ says Sister Luisa Girelli of the Sisters of Sion. ‘It lifted the rule of enclosure – opening the door to any escapee.’8 Enrichetta Di Veroli was just one of the Jews hidden by the Sisters of Sion, and will never forget how they saved her life. ‘We were accepted here with no problems,’ she says, ‘the nuns were very nice. These nice nuns represented nine months of my life. They were important. I feel much more than gratitude.’9 Over 4,000 Jews were protected by the Catholic Church and hidden in convents, monasteries and other church buildings. Several hundred even found refuge inside the Vatican.10

But what the Pope would not do, even having been told that the Nazis were almost certainly exterminating the Jews, was to speak out about the crime. Most likely, he was frightened for a number of reasons. He feared, first of all – as we have noted before – the victory of the Godless ‘Bolsheviks’ and the subsequent threat to the Catholic Church. Second, he worried that if he condemned the Nazis’ attack on the Jews, the Germans might enter church property and in doing so capture the Jews who were hidden there. Finally, he was anxious lest the Germans bomb the Vatican itself.11 So he kept his mouth shut. By this course of action he undoubtedly also served, as he saw it, the interests of the Catholic Church as an institution. But, as we have already seen in the case of the Dutch Jews, we can’t know for sure what would have happened if he had taken a stronger line. Maybe the Germans would have moved against the church, or maybe – given the reluctance Hitler had already shown to attack the church in Germany – they would have done nothing. What we do know is that if the Pope had spoken out he would have offered moral guidance to the world.

It was not just the Germans who conducted the Jewish deportations in Italy. Italians were also involved, in particular members of Fascist groups like the Brigate Nere (the Black Brigades) and other military units attached to the so-called Italian Social Republic – the area of northern Italy still ruled by Benito Mussolini, who had been rescued from imprisonment by German paratroopers.

Altogether around 7,000 Jews were deported from Italy and murdered.12 More than 80 per cent of Jews in Italy thus survived the war – most by hiding or escaping across the border into neutral Switzerland. Initially, even after the Germans had occupied Italy, the Swiss maintained that Italian Jews had no right to asylum in Switzerland unless they ‘qualified’ in some way – for example, if they were children, pensioners or married to a Swiss citizen. These instructions were relaxed in December 1943, and replaced entirely by more liberal measures only in July 1944. Throughout the war, as far as Italian Jews seeking refuge in Switzerland were concerned, a great deal depended on the compassion – or lack of it – of individual Swiss border guards.13

The fact that just under 20 per cent of Jews in Italy were murdered remains a disturbing one, even given that in a country like the Netherlands 75 per cent of Jews died. That’s because, unlike in the Netherlands, the full-scale persecution of the Jews in Italy came relatively late in the war, and the threat was eliminated in large parts of the country by the Allied advance. Rome, for example, fell to the Allies less than nine months after the Italian surrender, on 4 June 1944. The opportunity for the Germans to identify, capture and deport the Jews was thus necessarily limited.

The history of the Holocaust in Italy is especially bleak when compared to events in another country occupied by the Germans, 700 miles to the north. Denmark was home to about 7,500 Jews, and the Nazis planned on moving against them for the first time in the autumn of 1943, around the same time as they were deporting Italian Jews. The relatively light-touch Nazi occupation of Denmark had come to an end during the summer in the wake of strikes and other protests. When the Danish government resigned in August, a state of emergency was imposed by the Germans and the Nazi plenipotentiary, Werner Best, pressed for action against the Jews. The idea was to detain the Danish Jews on the night of 1–2 October 1943, and then deport them. But just a few days before the planned action, Werner Best did something extraordinary. Through an intermediary, Georg Duckwitz, the German naval attaché, Best told the Danish Jews what was about to happen to them. Best briefed Duckwitz on the planned deportations, knowing that Duckwitz, a man sympathetic to the plight of the Danes, would pass the information on to members of the Danish elite, and that they in turn would warn the Jews.

‘We heard that [the news about the impending deportations] at the police station,’ says Knud Dyby, a Danish policeman. ‘Of course we heard it at the same time as the journalists and the politicians heard it. It was a great surprise to all of us. We never thought – after more than two years – that the Germans would arrest the Danish Jews.’14 Knud Dyby, who like his colleagues ‘did not believe in discrimination’, felt compelled to help the Jews, in part because he knew about the likely fate of the Jews from the ‘underground press’.

Up to the moment the Germans decided on the deportation, ‘The situation of the Jews in Denmark was quite a happy one,’ says Bent Melchior, who was fourteen years old in 1943. ‘We were not very many Jews at any point and we were well integrated into the Danish society. Over the centuries there has been a lot of intermarriage and people who were not Jews might have a Jewish great-grandfather or mother. So I would say there was a pro-Semitic atmosphere, and we were no threat – not to the church, not to the country. On the contrary, many Jews played a very important role in public life in Denmark, in the arts, in the science, even in politics.’15

Bent Melchior remembers that, if you felt in any danger, you could ‘ask any policeman in the street to help you, without fearing that this would have given anything away to the Germans’. The atmosphere in Denmark was very much one of the Danes – regardless of religion – together as one nation against the Germans.

After learning about the proposed German action, Jewish leaders gave warnings in synagogues and throughout the Jewish community. As a result, many of the Jews living in Copenhagen left the city to hide in houses in the countryside or moved in with their non-Jewish neighbours.

Non-Jewish Danes also made a major effort to warn the Jews. ‘I went from house to house in the streets of the neighborhood,’ said Robert Pedersen, then seventeen years old. ‘Whenever I saw a name plate that indicated a Jewish family, I rang the doorbell and asked to talk to them. Sometimes they did not believe me. But I succeeded in persuading them to pack and come with me to Bispebjerg Hospital which had been turned into a gathering place for Jewish refugees … After that the doctors and nurses took care of them. And then I went back to my neighborhood and collected more Jews.’16

The most common escape route was across the narrow channel to neutral Sweden. Volunteer guides, such as Knud Dyby, escorted small groups of Jews through the streets of Copenhagen to the fishing port. ‘It was always done at night,’ he says. ‘We preferred the worst weather because we didn’t want any light evenings where everybody could see us.’ Once at the harbour, ‘we would hide ourselves in the small sheds that the Germans normally used for nets and tools’ until called on to the boat by a fisherman. ‘I was scared all the time,’ he says. ‘I had to move many places to rest my aching body and I had no trouble finding Danes that would give me room and board, without payment at all, just to help me out as an underground person.’17

The church in Denmark also tried to protect the Jews. ‘Wherever Jews are persecuted for racial or religious reasons,’ said the Bishop of Copenhagen, in an unequivocal statement of support on 3 October, ‘it is the duty of the Christian Church to protest against such persecution … Irrespective of diverging religious opinions, we shall fight for the right of our Jewish brothers and sisters to keep the freedom that we ourselves value more highly than life.’18

As a result of this resistance, the German action on 1–2 October largely failed – most Jews were not at home when the Germans called. Out of the 7,500 or so Danish Jews, fewer than 500 were ever deported. Those that were captured by the Germans were sent not to the death camps of the east but to Theresienstadt concentration camp in Czech territory, and the majority survived the war.

The Danish experience of the Holocaust is singular. This was the only country under Nazi domination where large numbers of Jews – around 95 per cent – were saved by their fellow countrymen. There is no simple explanation for why this happened in Denmark and nowhere else – a combination of factors all came together at this moment. In the first place, there was a historical culture of Danes sticking together against their powerful neighbour, Germany. There was also a profound sense of the importance of individual human rights. ‘It is a question of what I call Danish fairness and justice,’ says Rudy Bier, a Jewish teenager who was saved by his fellow Danes in the autumn of 1943. ‘I think we want to protect each other and we do not easily give in or up on things.’19 The proximity of a neutral country also played a part. Sweden was near by and offered an immediate place of refuge – especially after the Swedes had broadcast on radio on 2 October 1943 that they would welcome any Danish Jews who could make the crossing.

Another factor – notwithstanding the fact that around a thousand of the Jews in Denmark at the time were foreign – was the perception, as Knud Dyby puts it, that the Jews were ‘all Danish’. The suspicion thus remains that the Danes were not so much rescuing Jews, as rescuing fellow Danes who happened to be Jewish. Had Denmark not placed such strong restrictions on foreign Jews entering the country in the 1930s, and instead allowed many more Jews to take refuge, the situation might possibly have been different in the autumn of 1943. We cannot, of course, know for sure.

Finally, there is the most crucial reason why so many Jews in Denmark were saved – the attitude of the Germans. The rescue was possible only because Werner Best, the leading German representative in the country, sent out a warning that he knew would reach the Jewish community. Furthermore, the German Navy made little effort to police the water between Denmark and Sweden, thus allowing the Jews to escape. ‘I always maintain’, says Rudy Bier, ‘that if the Germans had wanted to stop that operation, they could have done it extremely easily because the whole of the water between Denmark and Sweden is not that wide, nor that long, and with four or five motor torpedo boats the whole operation would have gone flat.’20 That is not to say that the Germans ignored the flight of the Jews entirely. On the Danish mainland some German security personnel did try to capture Jews – the amount of effort depending, it seems, on the enthusiasm of the individual German units.

However, at the top of the German hierarchy in Denmark, the position was clear. Werner Best wanted to allow the Jews to escape. Yet before this action, Best had previously been no friend of the Jews. He was a committed Nazi who had worked closely with Reinhard Heydrich, helping to devise and implement Nazi racial policy in France. There is no evidence that he had suddenly developed a sense of compassion for the plight of the Jews. He was acting out of self-interest, not humanity. A clue to his real thinking is contained in a document he wrote for the authorities in Berlin, dated 5 October 1943: ‘As the objective goal of the Judenaktion in Denmark was the de-judaization of the country, and not a successful headhunt, it must be concluded that the Judenaktion has reached its goal.’21 In essence, Best was arguing that since his job was to clear the Jews out of Denmark, he had succeeded. It was just that he had achieved success not by deporting the Jews to their deaths, but by letting them escape to Sweden. He could also have added that the political situation in Denmark had always been different from that in other Nazi-occupied countries. The Nazis had largely permitted the Danes to enforce their own occupation, in order to ensure that Danish food supplies kept arriving in the Reich, and the bad feeling caused by the forced deportation of the Jews would have been considerable. Much better, Best must have thought, to achieve the desired ‘goal’ by more subtle means than used elsewhere.

There was almost certainly another reason for Best’s actions – one that he would never have told his fellow Nazis. Best was a sophisticated man. A trained lawyer, he was appointed a judge when he was still in his twenties. So it is not unreasonable to suppose that by the autumn of 1943 he had worked out that the Nazis would lose, and that he needed to start improving his CV as far as the Allies were concerned. It was a strategy that worked, because despite his close association with Heydrich and his past record of crimes, he was only imprisoned briefly after the end of the war. He subsequently became an executive with a large German industrial conglomerate.

It is thus a mistake to believe that the Danish example shows that heroic resistance was the most significant factor in determining how many Jews survived in any particular country. Even more important was another element – how much in each instance the Nazis wanted to find and deport the Jews concerned. That conclusion is supported by studying the experience of the Greek Jews. In Greece, despite a number of instances of resistance, around 80 per cent of the 70,000 Jews in the country died during the war.22 In large part that was because, unlike in Denmark, the Germans were determined to expel the Jews of Greece.

The Germans moved into the Italian zone of Greece in September 1943 and at once started planning mass deportations. There were immediate protests from non-Jewish Greeks. Archbishop Damaskinos, the Greek Orthodox Bishop of Athens, not only made representations to the Germans, but also called on his fellow clergy to hide Jews. Academics at the University of Athens also protested. The Germans responded by closing the university and arresting hundreds of clergy.

Though anti-Semitism was not unknown in Greece and some Jewish communities had few non-Jewish friends to count on, the broad picture in Greece was one of sympathy and support for the Jews. As one scholar of the history of the Holocaust in Greece concludes, ‘the mass of Greeks offered hospitality to Jews who asked for assistance.’23

The most famous act of resistance was on the island of Zakynthos. When asked by the Germans to produce a list of every Jew on the island, the local mayor and bishop handed over a piece of paper that contained just two names – their own. Meanwhile the Jews were hidden in the houses of non-Jewish islanders. All 275 Jews survived. We don’t know exactly why the Germans chose not to pursue the Jews on Zakynthos. Most probably they simply decided there were too few Jews on the island to justify the resources needed to find them. But it was, once again, the decision of the Germans not to try and take the Jews that was crucial. The incident on Zakynthos is famous because the Jews survived. But there were many more cases in Greece where despite similar heroics the Jews were captured and deported.

Salonica, the area in Greece with the highest percentage of loss, had been under German control from spring 1941. About 95 per cent of the Jews of Salonica died in the war – up to 48,500 men, women and children. Both the fact that so many Jews were concentrated in this one place, and the fact that the Germans had been in control for two years before the deportations, help explain why such a high percentage of Greek Jews from this area died. In addition, unlike in many other parts of Greece, the Jews of Salonica were not largely assimilated into the local population. Before the war there had been a small but vociferous group criticizing the Jews – many of whom were economically successful – and the Germans were able to build on these tensions.24

Enormous numbers of Jews were sent from Greece to Auschwitz – altogether around 55,000. The majority of them were murdered immediately, and the survival rate of the rest within the camp was notoriously low. The Greek Jews found the harshness of the Polish climate hard to take and few of them spoke German, the language in which all commands in the camp were spoken.

What the history of the Greek and Danish Jews demonstrates once again is how the Germans could implement their Final Solution in radically different ways in different countries. And in deciding how much they wanted to find and deport Jews in each individual place – something that, as we have seen, was a crucial element in determining how many Jews subsequently died – the Germans would, of course, have been influenced by a whole range of other factors. Such as how easy it was to deport the Jews in practical terms, the political consequences of deporting them, how ‘racially’ dangerous they considered the particular Jews to be, whether the Jews lived near the front line or not, and so on.

Unlike the Jews of Greece, the Jews of Denmark survived in such large numbers in large part because the Germans chose – for a variety of reasons – not to pursue them all ruthlessly. None of that, it has to be said, takes anything away from the bravery of those who helped the Danish Jews. The heroism of the Danish resisters remains undimmed. But we should also remember the courage of the Greeks who helped the Jews in their country – notwithstanding the fact that so many Greek Jews were subsequently murdered by the Nazis.

Shortly before Danish Jews crossed the sea to safety in Sweden, Jews in the largest Reinhard death camp in Poland were planning their own escape. In the summer of 1943, at Treblinka, the SS were about to face armed resistance from the inmates for the first time. Superficially, in the months leading up to the attempted breakout, all seemed to be running smoothly for the SS. The chaotic rule of Irmfried Eberl had been replaced by a new regime of order and deception – all designed to calm the arriving Jews. ‘They turned the platform, where the people arrived, into a kind of village train station,’ says Kalman Taigman, a member of the Treblinka Sonderkommando. Signs were erected reading ‘first class, second class, third class’ and ‘waiting room’. There was a door with a sign over it saying ‘station manager’.25 Oskar Strawczynski, another Jewish prisoner at Treblinka, also witnessed the transformation of the camp. ‘In a prominent spot,’ he wrote, ‘a fake clock, with a 70-centimeter diameter, is hung. All this decoration understandably served to disorient the new arrivals, to give them the momentary impression that they have simply come to a transit station.’26Samuel Willenberg, also an inmate of the camp, was appalled at the trickery employed by the SS. As he saw it, the Jews now ‘alighted on to the platform in the usual manner, as if they had arrived in a health resort. And here, on this small plot of land, was taking place the greatest murder that ever took place in Europe, in the entire world.’27 In addition to the transformation of the arrival area, other facilities at the camp were expanded. ‘There were also workshops,’ says Kalman Taigman, ‘there were tailors who would sew new clothing for the SS. There was a metal works and a carpenter shop and an electricians’ shop.’28

But despite this air of seeming permanence, the Jews working inside the death camp knew that the intention of the Germans was – in the words of Oskar Strawczynski – that ‘we will never leave Treblinka alive.’29 Fearing for their future, a group of Sonderkommandos started to plot a way out of the camp. In this enterprise they were helped by the arrogance of the SS and the complacency of their Ukrainian helpers, who were used to seeing Jews terrified and cowed. Moreover, as we have seen, the SS had decided that it was impractical to kill all the Jewish workers in the camp at regular intervals and replace them – not least because training new workers and educating them about the mechanics of the camp was time consuming. Keeping the Sonderkommandos alive for a longer period made the lives of the SS easier, but the risk of an uprising was consequently greater – especially as over time the security tended to become more lax.

Notwithstanding the arrogance of their SS overseers, the difficulties faced by the conspirators within the Sonderkommandos were immense. If the SS had the slightest sense that any resistance was planned, they would torture those they suspected in order to find out the details of the plot. That was the reason that one of the organizers of the planned revolt, Dr Julian Chorążycki, took poison in April 1943 when he was discovered with a large amount of money with which he had hoped to bribe one of the guards. He chose to kill himself rather than risk betraying his comrades.

By the summer of 1943 the Sonderkommandos at Treblinka were becoming increasingly alarmed. They were concerned that soon the camp would be closed and, as part of that process, they would inevitably be killed. Finally, on 2 August, they decided to act. ‘We were sick of our miserable existence,’ wrote Yankel Wiernik, an inmate at Treblinka, ‘and all that mattered was to take revenge on our tormentors and to escape … The long processions, those ghastly caravans of death, were still before our eyes, crying out for vengeance. We knew what lay hidden beneath the surface of this soil. We were the only ones left alive to tell the story. Silently, we took our leave of the ashes of our fellow Jews and vowed that, out of their blood, an avenger would arise.’30

The conspirators managed to steal weapons from the armoury in the camp, and on the afternoon of 2 August they attacked the SS and the other guards. At the same time other prisoners doused wooden buildings with petrol and set them on fire. Several hundred prisoners now rushed for the barbed wire. ‘Some of us were mowed down by the machine guns,’ says Samuel Willenberg, who escaped from Treblinka that day. ‘And I ran over those corpses.’ The perimeter fence at Treblinka was not electrified, and using blankets to cover the wire, Samuel and the rest of the prisoners rushed towards the nearby forest, all the time under fire from the guards. Samuel remembers that as he ran he ‘screamed like a madman: “The hell has been burnt!” ’31

Around 300 prisoners managed to escape, but – as we shall see – getting past the wire fence was just the first of many dangerous challenges that prisoners who broke out from a death camp had to face.

Surprisingly, the SS did not learn lessons from the uprising at Treblinka, and a similar breakout occurred at Sobibór less than three months later. Just as at Treblinka, the Sonderkommandos at the death camp of Sobibór understood that once their usefulness to the Germans ceased, they would be killed. Their own existence depended on the murder factory continuing to function. This tragic dichotomy – their lives were prolonged by the deaths of others – was not lost on them. ‘For some time again there had been a lull in transports,’ wrote Toivi Blatt, a member of the Sobibór Sonderkommando. ‘Food was scarce, and we were hungry, because we previously supplemented our diet with the food we found in the luggage of new arrivals. Suddenly the Nazis ordered us to prepare for a transport that would arrive the next day. Somewhere on the distant rails of Poland, a doomed train was rolling toward Sobibor. Karolek [another Sonderkommando] turned toward me and said, “Tomorrow there will be plenty of food.” I thought: Are we still humans?’32

Between March and July 1943, the deportation of nearly 35,000 Dutch Jews to Sobibór brought considerable wealth to the camp. These Jews, direct from the Netherlands, carried food and jewels with them. It was unusual for large transports from western Europe to arrive at a Reinhard death camp. The decision to deport Dutch Jews to Sobibór was probably taken because thousands of Jews had just been sent to Auschwitz from Greece, and Sobibór had spare killing capacity. But whatever the precise motive for it, this decision was one of the reasons why the overall death toll of Jews from the Netherlands was so high. Unlike at Auschwitz, where a proportion of new arrivals were selected on the ramp to work as forced labour, at Sobibór more than 99 per cent of the people on each transport were dead within a few hours of arrival. Out of the 35,000 Dutch Jews who were sent to Sobibór, fewer than two dozen survived. So while it is understandable that historians focus on the domestic factors within the Netherlands that might have contributed to the large proportion of Dutch Jews who lost their lives in the Holocaust – such as the cooperative attitude of the Dutch civil service – it is important to remember that this German decision to send the Dutch Jews to Sobibór also had some, albeit limited, impact.33

When the Dutch Jews entered the camp, many believed the Nazi lie that they had arrived at a hygiene stop. ‘This trap was so perfect,’ says Toivi Blatt, one of the Sonderkommando who dealt with the Dutch transports, ‘that I’m sure that when they were in the gas chambers and gas came out instead of water, probably they were thinking that this was some kind of malfunction … When the job was finished, when they were already taken out of the gas chambers to be burnt, I remember thinking to myself that it was a beautiful night [with] the stars really quiet … Three thousand people died [in that one transport]. Nothing happened. The stars are in the same place.’34

At Sobibór, it took the arrival of a group of Soviet prisoners of war in September 1943 – all of them sent to the camp because they were also Jews – to act as the catalyst for a mass escape. About eighty of the POWs were selected to work as builders within the camp and they soon realized the special nature of Sobibór. As one of them, Arkadiy Vajspapir, says, ‘we knew that the Germans would not leave anyone alive, especially in that camp.’35 Under the leadership of a Red Army officer called Alexander Pechersky, they conceived a daring plan. The idea was to ask individual members of the SS to come to the cobblers’ workshop and the tailors’ shop in the camp for fittings. The prisoners believed – and it turned out they were correct – that the Germans, all asked to come at set intervals, would arrive exactly on time. Once they sat down, waiting for the fitting, they would be killed by a prisoner who had hidden in the back of the hut.

On 14 October 1943 they put their plan into action. At half past three in the afternoon, Arkadiy Vajspapir, together with a comrade called Yehuda Lerner, hid behind a curtain at the back of the cobblers’ hut. ‘The German came in for a shoe fitting,’ says Arkadiy. ‘He sat down just in front of me. So I stepped out and hit him. I didn’t know that you should do it with the flat side of the axe. I hit him with the blade. We took him away and put a cloth over him. And then another German came in. So he came up to the corpse and kicked him with his leg and said, “What is this? What does this disorder mean?” And then when he understood [what was happening] I also hit him with the axe. So then we took the pistols and ran away. Afterwards I was shivering. I couldn’t calm down for a long time. I was sick. I was splashed with blood.’36

While Arkadiy Vajspapir and Yehuda Lerner killed two Germans in the cobblers’ workshop, their colleagues attacked three more members of the SS in the tailors’ shop. By late afternoon the majority of the SS men in the camp had been killed, but the SS commander, Karl Frenzel, was still alive. ‘I found Sasha [Alexander Pechersky, the leader of the uprising] and told him we had killed two Germans,’ says Arkadiy. ‘And he said that we should kill Frenzel. We should go to his room … and I said that I couldn’t. My hands were shaking. I was shivering all over my body, I said I couldn’t do it … he understood, and he didn’t … push me. So I didn’t kill anyone else.’37

Just before six o’clock in the evening the prisoners moved towards the main gate. They now came under fire not just from the guard towers, but from Frenzel who turned a machine gun on them. Many of the prisoners ran straight for the wire, but when Toivi Blatt reached the fence it collapsed on him: ‘My first thought was, “This is the end!” People were stepping over me, and the barbed wire points went into my coat. But finally I had a stroke of genius. I left the leather coat in the barbed wire and just slid out. I started to run. I fell down about two or three times; each time I thought I was hit, but I got up, nothing happened to me, and finally [I reached] the forest.’38

Just as at Treblinka, the majority of prisoners who escaped from Sobibór did not survive the war. Out of the 300 who crossed the wire of the camp, perhaps sixty made it through to the end of the conflict. They had to survive less than two years in the country in which many of them had been born – they spoke the language, they knew the landscape. Yet so many perished. The reasons why this happened are complex, but the experience of Toivi Blatt encapsulated many of the difficulties the escapees faced. He was well aware, for instance, that he had not reached ‘safety’ when he got to the forest, for ‘it wasn’t safe at all.’39 Not only did he run the risk of the pursuing Germans catching up with him, and local farmers capturing him for a reward, but he was worried that he might encounter groups of armed ‘bandits’ – Poles who had sought refuge in the forest and now lived by robbing others.

Toivi desperately wanted to stay with Sasha, the Red Army officer who had led the revolt, as he felt much safer under his protection. But the day after the breakout Sasha announced that he and eight other members of his unit were going off on their own. ‘Sasha said, “Now we must find out where we are, so a group of us will go to check the area and maybe buy food,” ’ remembers Toivi, ‘and he ordered us to give him some money … he just promised that he will be back, and he left and he never came back.’40 Toivi was devastated. After the war he confronted Sasha about what had happened. Toivi told him that while he would always be a hero ‘not only in my eyes, but the eyes of other survivors’ he had ‘done something which I think you shouldn’t have’, because ‘you took nine people with nine guns and left us with practically nothing. So he told me – “Listen, I was a soldier, my first obligation was to go back to the army.” He explained this with some kind of a little bit of shame. But nevertheless he said, “I was a soldier and a soldier is supposed to go back.” ’

Sasha led his armed group east and they managed to make contact with Soviet partisans. ‘Only those who flocked together could survive,’ says Arkadiy Vajspapir, one of Sasha’s unit. ‘The only thing that helped us to survive – that we kept together all nine of us. We had many brave and courageous people, but they were not respected as much as Sasha.’41

But in saving his comrades Sasha had left the rest of this group of forty or so escapees in disarray. Small factions formed and argued with others. Without leadership some of the stronger wanted to discard the weaker. Eventually, Toivi and two others detached themselves from the main group and made for his hometown of Izbica. With winter approaching, they were desperate to find shelter. When they eventually reached Izbica, Toivi approached one villager, who he knew had venerated his father, and begged her to hide them. She refused, fearing German retribution. She said that her husband had been taken to Auschwitz and she wanted to save her son. ‘By the terror etched in her face,’ wrote Toivi, ‘I could clearly see we represented a deadly plague, the Black Death of the twentieth century.’42

They moved on and met a farmer who was prepared, in return for the gold and jewels the escapees had carried with them from the camp, to hide them in a pit at the back of his barn. But the farmer was interested only in what he could take from them, and after several months – once he had ‘borrowed’ many of their clothes – he attempted to kill them with the help of some friends. Toivi escaped only because after they had fired a shot that grazed his jaw he pretended he was dead. Having fled from the farm, Toivi hid in a ruined brickworks in Izbica and relied on acquaintances to bring him food. But he was almost as much at risk here as he had been in the hands of the murderous farmer. Armed groups from the forest sometimes came and searched the area – some of them were partisans and some were simply bandits. Toivi was afraid of both. Many of the partisans were anti-Semitic – one group, even though it included one of Toivi’s childhood acquaintances, refused to let him join simply because he was a Jew.

Starving, Toivi approached his former teacher and begged her for help. She replied that she was frightened, because the Germans had recently captured a Jew and then tortured him to make him reveal the names of the people who had assisted him. Toivi turned away, but the woman was overcome by pity and gave him a loaf of bread. Eventually, outside Izbica, Toivi met a farmer who had known him since childhood. The farmer agreed that Toivi could stay with him – as long as he pretended to be a non-Jewish Pole and looked after the cows.

Toivi was protected by the farmer until the Red Army liberated Poland. ‘I should have jumped for joy,’ wrote Toivi of his reaction to surviving the war. ‘So why did I feel such sadness, such tremendous sorrow, such emptiness in my soul? What my survival instincts had suppressed now hit me with full force. My loved ones were gone, my world was gone. I felt empty, sad and alone.’43

Looking back, Toivi believes that there are ‘three basic ingredients’ of anti-Semitism, and that they were all present in Poland during the war: ‘Religious prejudice which was very strong in Poland; economic and social difficulties – the country had some problems – and of course it was very easy to point at [that is, blame] the Jew. And the third one is simple jealousy, mostly Jews made a living for themselves.’44 But Toivi also accepts, despite the widespread anti-Semitism, that it was only because of the kindness of a number of Catholic Poles that he was able to survive at all.

Toivi Blatt’s story illustrates many of the difficulties that Polish Jews faced even if they managed to escape from German hands. The destruction of Jewish communities meant that they had no safe place to hide – no fellow Jews on whom they could rely. Moreover, a German decree of 15 October 1941 stated that not only would the Germans execute Jews who were found outside a camp or ghetto without permission, but that any Poles who had assisted them would also be killed. So giving a Jew a crust of bread meant death if you were caught. Jews were also at risk of blackmail from non-Jewish Poles, and Jews would often have to pay large amounts of money for a place of refuge. As a result, Jews without financial resources were intensely vulnerable. Female Jews who sought somewhere to hide were particularly at risk of sexual exploitation. There were also strong incentives for Poles to denounce Jews. In some areas of the General Government, for example, any Pole that betrayed a Jew could expect to receive as much as a third of that Jew’s property as a reward.45

Israel Cymlich escaped in April 1943 from a labour camp close to Treblinka and – just like Toivi Blatt – he found it hard to survive in Nazi-occupied Poland. He managed to reach Warsaw, but soon came to the conclusion that, even if Jews could make it beyond the wire of the ghetto, ‘In many cases, having failed to find a shelter, overcome by hunger, and realizing the hopelessness of his situation, such a person voluntarily surrendered to the police.’46

But this is only part of the history, for Israel Cymlich – just like Toivi Blatt – owed his life to the compassion of non-Jewish Poles. A Polish couple, Mr and Mrs Kobos, sheltered him in the attic of their house in Warsaw, letting him stay even after his money had run out. They risked their lives, motivated by a sense that they were doing what was right. Israel Cymlich wrote that he was ‘puzzled’ by ‘the fact that those people did so much for me and had been keeping me for so long. For people as poor as they were, this was a serious burden.’47

Large numbers of non-Jewish Poles helped the Jews, and the methods they used were often ingenious. Dr Eugene Lazowski, for instance, managed to convince the Germans that there was an outbreak of typhoid in the area around Rozwadów. He did this by injecting the population – including many Jews – with a safe substance that mimicked typhoid so that when the Germans conducted blood tests they believed the whole district was infected. As a result the Germans stayed well clear of the area and thousands of Jews and Poles were not deported.48

In Warsaw, around 28,000 Jews lived in defiance of German restrictions outside the ghetto. Most were hidden by non-Jewish Poles. Of these 28,000 Jews, about 11,500 survived the war. One credible estimate is that between 7 and 9 per cent of the non-Jewish population of Warsaw gave assistance to the Jews – that is 70,000–90,000 people.49 It is a statistic that gives the lie to the lazy stereotype that the Poles did little to help the Jews. In fact, as one scholar concludes, the survival rate of Jewish fugitives in Warsaw ‘was not much less than that observed in a Western European country such as the Netherlands’.50

A similar, nuanced judgement needs to be made about the actions of the resistance forces fighting within Poland, most notably the Polish Home Army. That’s because while there were undoubtedly many units in the Home Army that were anti-Semitic, there were also units that accepted Jews into their ranks. Samuel Willenberg, for instance, who had escaped from Treblinka, joined the Home Army and participated in the Warsaw uprising in the summer of 1944. He remembers that he took a risk in revealing to the non-Jewish Poles that he was a Jew, but he wanted to ‘die under my own name’. While, he says, ‘there were characters in the Home Army who gave me trouble,’ in the particular section he belonged to they were ‘nice people’ and even though they ‘knew I was a Jew’ it was not a problem.51

 The Home Army also occasionally helped Jewish resistance fighters. They provided some weapons to Jews for use during the Warsaw ghetto uprising, for instance, though some Jews felt they should have given much more assistance than they did. The truth, as one scholar says, is that ‘because the Home Army was an umbrella organization of disparate Polish organizations numbering more than 300,000, from all regions ranging from socialists to nationalists, its attitude and behavior towards the Jews varied widely.’52 The history – as Samuel Willenberg experienced personally – was thus a multifaceted one.

During 1943 the Nazi leadership watched as the morale of the German population fell still further. The fire bombing of Hamburg by the RAF in late July had a devastating effect; 40,000 Germans died – more than British losses in the whole of the Blitz. ‘The losses in Hamburg were great,’ said Albert Speer, Nazi Armaments Minister, after the war, ‘the greatest we had suffered in any raid, particularly from the burning houses. And the depression among the population was extraordinary.’53 In such circumstances, it was vital for Hitler that the Nazi leadership stand firm. As he said in his speech on 10 September, ‘the party must set an example in everything.’54 An obvious concern lay behind his words – some Nazis might try and follow the example of the Italians, and exit the war.

Himmler knew one way of countering such defeatism – broaden the knowledge of the extermination of the Jews. This crime, which up to now had been conducted in such secrecy, would now be talked about in meetings attended by more than a hundred Nazi leaders. It was a remarkable turnaround of policy, but the thinking behind it was clear. Once many more Nazis understood the extent of the atrocities that had been committed in their name, what choice would they have but to ‘burn their boats’ and never give up? The Italian elite – the King and senior Fascists – had been able to walk away from the war untainted by the crime of mass murder, but that was not going to be an option for the broader Nazi leadership.

In October 1943 Heinrich Himmler gave two speeches at Posen in Poland – one to around ninety senior SS leaders and another to senior party figures including Reichsleiters and Gauleiters. In these speeches Himmler was open about the extermination of the Jews and thus made everyone who listened into a co-conspirator. For example, he told the Reichsleiters and Gauleiters on 6 October, ‘I didn’t believe myself to be justified in eradicating the [Jewish] men – that is killing them or having them killed – and then letting their children grow up to take revenge on our sons and grandsons. The tough decision to make this people disappear from the face of the earth had to be taken. For the organization which had to carry out the task, it was the hardest we have ever had to undertake.’55 Himmler could scarcely have been more explicit.

In parallel with telling Nazi leaders the true extent of their collective guilt, Himmler wanted to wind up the extermination operation of the Reinhard camps. The revolts at Treblinka and Sobibór, together with the Jewish resistance in a number of ghettos – not only in Warsaw in April, but more recently in Białystok in August – had reinforced his desire to centralize much of the killing process on the more secure facility at Auschwitz.56 He was also influenced by bureaucratic considerations. He wanted to eliminate the possibility that the Jews in the area could be used as forced labour by any German agency other than the SS.57 As a result, in October 1943, he told Friedrich-Wilhelm Krüger, the SS and police chief in the General Government, to liquidate the large camps still operating in the Lublin district.58

Himmler’s order to murder the remaining Jews at Majdanek in the suburbs of Lublin was carried out in November 1943 in a series of massacres known as the Harvest Festival killings. Henryk Nieścior, a Polish political prisoner in Majdanek at the time, witnessed the preparations for the crime. ‘Near the crematorium in Field V [different areas within Majdanek were known as “fields”] in late October 1943 the Germans assigned Jews to dig ditches, which were dug in zigzag form.’59 He remembered that the Germans tried to reassure the Jews that the ditches were nothing sinister – merely defence works, necessary because the front line was getting ever closer. On 3 November, the Germans ordered all the Jews in the camp to ‘step forward’ and they were taken up towards the area where the ditches had been dug. Shortly afterwards the SS started shooting the Jews with machine guns while music played through loudspeakers.

Jews from surrounding camps were also murdered in Majdanek. They were ordered in small groups to lie down in ditches and then shot. Members of the next group to be killed were told to lie on top of the corpses of those who had just died and then the guns were turned on them. Not everyone died at once and it was to drown out their screams – and the screams of the Jews who were about to die – that two ‘radio cars’ blared out popular music.60 On 3 November around 18,000 people were killed at Majdanek – the largest number ever killed in a death camp on a single day. It is another reminder that gas chambers were not needed in order to murder en masse.

The overall Harvest Festival operation also included killings in two other nearby camps, Trawniki and Poniatowa. At Poniatowa a number of Jews resisted as the Germans attempted to kill them. They managed to snatch some weapons and opened fire on their captors, but the Germans set fire to the barracks in which they sought refuge and burnt them alive. Their brave resistance would only have confirmed to Himmler that his judgement that the Jews in these camps should be liquidated was correct. In total around 43,000 Jews died as a result of the Harvest Festival action.

Treblinka and Sobibór ceased to operate as death camps around the same time. Both were now dismantled and an attempt was made to eliminate all traces of the crime. These camps – along with Bełżec, the first Operation Reinhard fixed-killing installation – had always been seen by the Nazis as transitory places, and since by now there were hardly any Jews left alive in the General Government, and Auschwitz had more than adequate killing capacity for Jews from western Europe, there was no need for them to exist. Bełżec had ceased to kill people in large numbers by December 1942 and was fully dismantled by the summer of 1943. As for Treblinka, the last transport arrived in August 1943, two weeks after the revolt, and the camp was subsequently destroyed during the autumn. Sobibór was the final Reinhard death camp to be dismantled. And since the prisoners who had not managed to escape had been killed the day after the revolt, another Sonderkommando unit was sent to take the camp apart. After they had completed their task, they too were murdered.

By December 1943 all these camps had vanished. In their place were farms and fields. ‘For reasons of surveillance,’ wrote Globocnik to Himmler, ‘a small farm was created in each camp which is occupied by a guard. A pension must be paid regularly to him in order that he can maintain the farm.’61 But a problem remained for the Nazis: a large number of the local population knew what had been going on. Many of them believed that jewellery, gold and other valuables left by the murdered Jews lay concealed among the soil and the ashes of the site. So one function of the ‘farmer’ was to stop the locals scavenging for plunder.

Operation Reinhard was officially over. On 30 November 1943, Himmler wrote to Globocnik thanking him for the ‘great and unique services that you carried out for the German people by implementing Operation Reinhard’.62 In total, around 1.7 million people had been murdered in this action between March 1942 and November 1943. Most of them had died in one of three camps – Bełżec, Sobibór or Treblinka.

When images are used to symbolize the Holocaust, it is mostly Auschwitz that is featured. The centrality of Auschwitz in the memorialization of the crime is almost ubiquitous. In Britain, the very date of Holocaust Memorial Day is the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. Of course, Auschwitz did, as we shall see, go on to become the most murderous death camp of them all. But there is a danger that these three Reinhard camps – Bełżec, Sobibór and Treblinka – become, if not forgotten, then somehow overlooked. The Nazis would have approved of this. They wanted no one to remember these places. But in many respects it is these camps that symbolize the singularity of the crime. It needed only a handful of Germans to direct the murder of 1.7 million people. Every one of these individuals died not because of anything they had ever done, but simply because of who their grandparents had happened to be. Once their lives had been erased, the places in which they had been murdered were erased as well. One does not see images of Bełżec, Treblinka or Sobibór in Holocaust memorialization because there are no images of the camps to show. In a way, that, as much as anything else, demonstrates the bleakness of the crime. Those who were murdered were turned to nothing, and the places where they died were turned to nothing along with them.

As for the leading perpetrators, they swiftly left the scene of the crime. In September 1943, Globocnik departed for northern Italy, where he had been appointed Higher SS and Police Leader. He took many of his co-conspirators with him, including Christian Wirth and Franz Stangl. They soon found use for their particular talents in Trieste, in a region now annexed to the Reich. At Risiera di San Sabba, a factory in the south of the city, they helped to create one of the most notorious concentration camps and prisons in the Mediterranean. The majority of those killed here were not Jews, but partisans. At least 3,000 people were murdered at Risiera di San Sabba – most beaten to death or executed by firing squad in the courtyard of the building. Just as at Majdanek, music was played loudly in an attempt to drown out the noise of the killing. From April 1944, the bodies of those who had been murdered were burnt in a purpose-built crematorium on the site – created by Erwin Lambert, who had previously constructed gas chambers not just for the T4 programme but also at Sobibór and Treblinka. Once the bodies had been burnt, the ashes were thrown into the nearby harbour.63

Franz Stangl, former commandant of Treblinka, believed that he knew the reason why he and the other Operation Reinhard staff had been sent to this hazardous area – one designated a Bandenkampfgebiet, a ‘bandit-fighting district’. ‘I realized quite well’, he said after the war, ‘that we were an embarrassment to the brass: they wanted to find ways and means to “incinerate” us. So we were assigned the most dangerous jobs – anything to do with anti-partisan combat in that part of the world was very perilous.’64 But while it is true that Christian Wirth was killed in May 1944 by partisans, both Stangl and Globocnik survived the war – Globocnik only by a matter of days, since he committed suicide after the British captured him on 31 May 1945. As for Franz Stangl, he escaped to South America where he was eventually arrested in 1967. He was subsequently sentenced in West Germany to life in prison.

The era of the Reinhard camps was over. But the most infamous period in the life of Auschwitz – one that would make this place the site of the largest mass murder in history – was just about to begin.

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