On the morning of Friday, 14 June 1940, more than 700 civilian prisoners of the Third Reich boarded a passenger train in southern Poland for a half-day journey to Oswiecim, a town near the German border.
Destination: an old army base.
In one of the coaches sat a nervous 17-year-old Roman Catholic, Sigmund [Zygmunt] Ludwig Sobolewski.
The train ride gave the youngster time to think. He had already discovered it didn’t take much to get on the wrong side of the Nazis. Sigmund had two strikes against him: He was a Polish Navy Cadet and his father a captain in the Polish Army.
Once the steam train reached Oswiecim, it hissed and jerked to a stop outside a three-story building. The former government building would be home for the prisoners until renovations at the old army base were finished.
No one had a bed; everyone slept on the floor.
The camp wasn’t all that bad, or so it seemed. Sure, there were armed guards and a handful of hard-core convicts from Germany … but the place had some advantages over where Sigmund had just been for a month — a crowded, damp dungeon in the Polish industrial city of Tarnow. At least at the detention center in Oswiecim they could be outdoors. Fresh air, sunshine … and soccer games.
But things there weren’t good. Guards bullied prisoners, forcing them to exercise eight hours a day. Prisoners faced discrimination. For some reason, the 30 or so Jewish men were singled out and treated far more harshly than the others.
Life in Oswiecim soon became a hellish nightmare. Young Sigmund got a preview of where things were headed the day he saw two men arguing alongside a train. One was a capo, a top prisoner who terrorized and subordinated other inmates. The argument turned violent. The capo seized his adversary in a ‘Nelson’ headlock and began bashing his head against a large, circular iron ‘connecting plate’ protruding from the end of the carriage. He kept ramming his victim’s head into the metal plate even after the skull broke open, splattering the plate with blood, hair and brain tissue.
Sigmund couldn’t believe it. With his mouth wide open, he thought to himself, “this is not a good place …”
The youngster was in a hellhole that would gain infamy by its German name: Auschwitz.
Sigmund Sobolewski would spend four and a half years at the mother of all extermination camps, witnessing one war crime after another. What he saw would scare him for days, weeks and months … and scar him for life.
WARNING: The contents of this post are disturbing. It is largely one man’s recollections of one of the worst cases of genocide the world has known.
The following is my account of the time I spent with Sigmund Sobolewski from the late 1980s to now. It includes time spent with him in Alberta, Canada and in Poland. I’ve also talked with him on the phone in Cuba.
THE KILLING FACTORY
Before Russian troops liberated Auschwitz in January 1945, more than one million people — mainly Jews — were murdered there. There’s no consensus on just how many perished. Some researchers say 1.3 million. According to Wikipedia, the number of people who died at Auschwitz is 1.1 million.
At one point, the Russians claimed that four million were murdered at Auschwitz.
During the World War II war-crime trials in Nuremberg, Germany, the former Auschwitz camp commandant testified that three million died under his watch.There will always be controversy surrounding the figures — in addition to a never-ending debate the figures were deliberately exaggerated — but there’s little argument that the number of people murdered at Auschwitz was insanely high. Consider this: accepting even the lower estimates, an average of 800 to 900 people were killed at Auschwitz every day.
Not long after Sigmund Sobolewski arrived at the camp, he was processed and his photo taken. Sigmund was later given a number — tattooed on his left forearm — and because he was the 88th prisoner through the gates, his number was 88.
The double-digit also became Sigmund’s new identity. The teen who had dreams of joining the Polish Navy simply became known as ‘88.’ Guards would bellow, “88, come here” … “88, do this …”Camp administrators later decided to use a form of visible identification after some prisoners were shot and killed trying to escape. Peering over the bodies, guards wondered, who were these guys? And so, somebody came up with the idea of tattooing numbers on their left forearms.
There were a number of concentration camps spread throughout Germany and elsewhere, but only at Auschwitz were prisoners tattooed.
For young Sigmund Sobolewski, things only got worse. As the number of murders at Auschwitz skyrocketed, he seriously wondered if he’d make it out alive.
With the addition of new and larger gas chambers and crematoriums, Auschwitz-Birkenau became a well-organized killing factory. [The name changed when the camp expanded to a wooded area called Birkenau, about three kilometers from the main camp.]
A TEEN CONDITIONED TO MURDER
Sigmund’s final memory of his father — home in Nisko dying of stomach cancer — was him screaming in pain as German soldiers dragged him from his house.
Nisko, a town in southern Poland, gained Holocaust infamy when it became the first destination in Europe where Jewish families were taken before being shipped to a death camp.
Sigmund had become somewhat conditioned to the mass murders at Auschwitz, best illustrated when a man from his hometown showed up at the camp one day and broke the news to Sigmund that his father had died. The man was only 47. The teen’s response: “Really? … hmmm …”
Death had become part of Sigmund’s life. It was as common to him as receiving emails is to us.
One word describes Sigmund Sobolewski: Survivor. He managed to survive four and a half years — the bulk of World War II — at the world’s biggest and baddest extermination camp.
LIFE AFTER AUSCHWITZ
When the war ended Sigmund emigrated to Canada, settling in Ontario. He later moved to Cuba where he met Ramona, who would become his wife. Within three years the couple [with a child in tow] returned to Ontario. The family eventually moved west and settled in Alberta. They had three boys.
Sigmund had left Europe with only a handful of possessions, but a lot of baggage. How the former prisoner dealt with his experiences at Auschwitz would not only influence his life, his family — but define him as a man.
The 1,000-days-plus Sigmund spent at the worst of all death camps simply became his identity. People don’t look at Sigmund and say he was a welder or that he managed hotels, they say he survived Auschwitz.
FIRST MEETINGS WITH SIGMUND SOBOLEWSKI
It was a Sunday evening — 10 November 1989 to be exact — when Sigmund and I spoke for the first time. I was working the late shift in the newsroom at CBC Radio in Edmonton and on the prowl for a Remembrance Day story, one with a different angle. I found it when I reached Sigmund by phone at his home in Fort Assiniboine, a small town about two hours’ drive northwest of Edmonton.
I asked Sigmund if Fort Assiniboine had a cenotaph, a monument to honour soldiers killed in wars. “A small one,” he said. “Do you turn out and watch the soldiers march by …?” “No,” he responded, “I put on a striped pajamas uniform, march behind the soldiers … and I carry a wreath for my friends who died at Auschwitz. “Holy shit,” I said to myself, “that’s a hell of a story …”
Broadcast on CBC Radio the next day was a man’s unique contribution to Remembrance Day ceremonies.
A few months later, I got to meet Sigmund in person, quite by accident. On a cold winter day, Sigmund rolled his car after hitting a patch of “black ice” on a highway southeast of Edmonton. He was injured and taken by ambulance to a hospital.
From the time I spent with Sigmund at the Wetaskiwin Hospital and Care Centre I could see he was all fired up about his time at Auschwitz; perhaps ‘obsessed’ is a better word. Lying in his hospital bed, Sigmund spoke freely about his experiences at the death camp — and not just with me. Several patients made a point of thanking him for his stories about Auschwitz. “That sure was interesting,” one woman said. I could see that Sigmund Sobolewski had become a one-man ‘Information Center’ on the infamous camp.
Sigmund then shared some interesting news: he’d gotten an invitation from the Auschwitz State Museum to attend the 50th anniversary of the opening of the camp. Ceremonies were to take place on 14 June 1990.
On my drive back to Edmonton, the wheels in my head were turning as fast as the wheels on my Oldsmobile. I soon submitted a cost-sharing proposal to as many CBC departments I could think of. I was later called into a meeting and told that the proposal to report on Sigmund Sobolewski’s return visit to Auschwitz had been given the green light. I was off to Poland.
1990 REPORTING ASSIGNMENT
In June 1990 — on the 50th anniversary of the opening of Auschwitz — I travelled to Auschwitz, now a state museum and a historical site designed by UNESCO. By telephone from Oswiecim and Warsaw, I filed reports for CBC Radio in Alberta, CBC National News in Toronto … and for the shortwave service of the CBC in Montreal, Quebec, for broadcast to Eastern Europe.
For about a decade, Sigmund Sobolewski lived with his family in the southern Alberta town of Fort MacLeod. On 22 October 2012, I called Sigmund to renew acquaintances. It became a trip down memory lane for both of us.
Allow me to share my memories of the 1990 reporting assignment, one that left me with nightmares of my own. I’ve also included some photos I took back then.
The next time Sigmund and I met was at a restaurant in downtown Warsaw. It was early June 1990 and we were joined by a three-man film crew from Canada. There as well were two Edmonton men, Rabbi Shmuel Mann and a businessman, Issy Burstyn.
Burstyn, a Jew, had survived the Holocaust in Poland as a boy by hiding out in haystacks and barns and scrounging for food, later to be rescued — at risk — by people who weren’t Jewish. His story of survival was different than Sigmund’s, but just as remarkable.
TRAIN RIDE TO THE DEATH CAMP
The seven of us were soon riding a passenger train destined for Auschwitz, 350 kilometers distant.
For the journey, Sigmund donned a replica uniform from Auschwitz and before you knew it, he was being interviewed by local reporters along the way. The ‘scrums’, as we know them in the biz, took place on platforms alongside our coach.
At one point in the train ride, the sound technician for the film crew came running to my booth with some disturbing news. Sigmund was “losing it.” I made my way down the swaying coach to see Sigmund in a booth, sobbing, his face stained with tears.
What he was going on about didn’t make sense. He claimed he could hear people crying on the train. I said, “Sigmund, no one but you is crying.” That only irritated him more. “Can’t you hear them!!?,” he pleaded, “… don’t you know they’re going to die?”
The man was now a prisoner of a time warp. He said it was sad to see the same fields and pass through the same towns that the Holocaust victims would have seen while traveling to their deaths.
We were on the same steel rails that hundreds of thousands of Auschwitz victims had ridden half a century before — though they sure didn’t do it in comfort. They were crammed in cattle cars without food, water, proper ventilation or toilets. Some died on the way.
With Sigmund, I did the only thing I could: Be a sympathetic ear. The man eventually calmed down.
For the final hour of the trip, Sigmund and I shared a seating area with two Polish women about his age . The former Auschwitz prisoner became my translator as I interviewed one of them [the other refused to take part]. She revealed that in the early 1940s she too was a teen, and that she’d worked in one of the many factories in the area.
“Did you know about the killings at Auschwitz?” I asked. “Of course — everyone knew.” “How did you know?” “The trains arrived full,” she explained, “… but left empty. And when the bodies were burned, sometimes the smoke hung low over the town. The stench of burning human flesh was awful.”
I asked if she’d spoken out against the mass killings. Her response did not surprise me. “No.” But her explanation did: “Because I didn’t want to lose my job …”
Job loss or not, locals were very much afraid to talk about Auschwitz or even come close to the camp to see what was going on. Warning signs proclaimed that anyone caught near the camp would be shot without warning.
ARRIVAL AT AUSCHWITZ
Auschwitz is now a museum. By the time we arrived, in the evening, it was closed. All the tourists had gone. Standing at the double main gates which connected tall, barbed-wire fences, we could see rows of two-story brick houses, gray concrete fence posts, German signs — and the infamous camp logo that crowns the entrance, Arbeit Macht Frei [‘Work Makes You Free’]
Museum Director Kasimir Wrobleski, a distinguished-looking gentleman and himself a former prisoner of Auschwitz, unlocked the main gate and swung it open. He shook our hands as we entered.
At quick glance, not a lot seemed to have changed since the 1940s … except of course the prisoners were long gone and no electric current ran through the fences. It was also eerily quiet, especially for Sigmund who had been used to the constant hum of 18,000 human voices in that part of the camp.
GAS CHAMBER AND CREMATORIUM #1
While Sigmund and the others met with the Museum Director, I wandered off on my own, opened a door and flicked on some lights. And there it was … a large empty room with gray concrete walls. I was alone and standing in Gas Chamber and Crematorium #1.
I glanced up and noticed some small openings in the ceiling [now closed with wooded blocks]. That’s where poison had been dropped on victims below, who’d been assured they were about to have a shower.
On one occasion, a group of Jewish families was told they’d soon be enjoying a hot coffee. Lying was a huge part of how things worked at Auschwitz. Most people seemed to have bought into the lie they would be sipping hot coffee after they were cleaned up. Some even saluted the German soldiers as they marched in.
High on the walls of Gas Chamber #1 was a small strip of metal with tiny holes in it. At a quick glance, I guess it could pass as some sort of shower device.
The concrete walls in the gas chamber were all scratched. I ran my fingers over the abrasions, closed my eyes and tried to imagine what it was like to have been in there when the air suddenly filled with deadly fumes. Unable to breathe and desperate to survive, people clawed at the concrete walls with their bare hands. What went through the minds of these men and women? There would have been panic, shock, anger, people shouting [“gas! gas! gas!”], pounding their fists on the door and pleading “open up!!” Finally, last breaths … and twitching. Lots of twitching. Not everyone died at the same time.
In the beginning, children were not gassed at Auschwitz. They were killed after a needle full of poison was injected into their heart muscles.
I placed my 35mm Canon camera on the floor, activated the timer and snapped a photo of myself with my back to the wall.Walking to a far corner of the room, on the left, I yanked opened a heavy metal door; the hinges squeaking as only metal hinges can. Inside, two small trollies on rails led to a pair of ovens a short distance in. These were the two crematorium ovens. I thought about the workers who had to drag the corpses to the ovens [after removing rings and yanking out gold teeth], knowing full well they too would suffer the same fate. Their ‘bonus’ was double food rations, superior sleeping accommodations, better clothing … and a shower once a week. They were also told they’d be freed, another lie. They would die too.
After 15 minutes or so I’d seen enough. I suddenly had this urge to get the hell out of there.It was now dusk. WhenI got outside I met up with one of the TV guys who asked, “Where were you? …” Pointing behind me, I told him that I’d been in the gas chamber. “Alone?” he asked.
I had trouble getting my head around what I’d just seen and felt. My ‘job’ was to check out the gas chamber, take note of things: the height of the walls, where the poison was dropped, the scratches etched in the concrete walls, the heavy door on the ovens, all that. Collecting facts was one thing, but dealing with my emotions was another. It was as though my mind could process the information — but that my soul couldn’t. Does that make sense?
Years later, as I work on this story, I wonder if it was all a dream … but the photos I snapped tell me it wasn’t.
Standing alone in that gas chamber and crematorium was more than “interesting,” and it was more than creepy.
Auschwitz is more than a museum. It is a sad testament to man’s inhumanity to man.
HEAR SIGMUND SOBOLEWSKI SPEAK
Here’s a portion of the phone interview with Sigmund Sobolewski recorded on 10 October 2012. The clip runs just under 6 minutes.
For Prisoner 88 [Part 2], click on: https://byronchristopher.org/2012/11/06/prisoner-88-part-two/
Note: Roy Tanenbaum has written the definitive story of Sigmund Sobolewski, a 350-page book called Prisoner 88 … The Man In Stripes.
It is published by University of Calgary Press; ISBN 1-895176-74-3. The book is available at Amazon.com.