** UPDATE: SIGMUND SOBOLEWSKI DIED IN BAYAMO, CUBA ON 7 AUGUST 2017. He was 94. **
On Friday morning, 14 June 1940, more than 700 civilian prisoners of the Third Reich boarded a passenger train in southern Poland for a journey to Oswiecim, a town near the German border. Destination: a former army base.
For most, it would be their final train ride.
In one of the coaches sat a nervous 17-year-old Roman Catholic, Sigmund [Zygmunt] Ludwig Sobolewski. The half-day journey gave the kid time to think.
Sigmund discovered that it didn’t take much to get on the wrong side of the Nazis. He was enrolled in ‘Polish Cadet School #2,’ training to become an officer. Strike one. His father was a veteran officer of the Polish Army, in charge of an anti-aircraft battery. Strike two.
[According to family members, Sigmund’s father — who was also named Sigmund — was ill and couldn’t board the train so Sigmund Junior took his place.]
One didn’t need three strikes to get on the wrong side of the Third Reich. One was plenty.
The steam train pulled into Oswiecim, hissing and jerking to a stop outside a three-story former government building. It would be home for the prisoners until renovations to the old army base were finished.
No one had a bed, nor a mattress. Everyone slept on the floor.
In the beginning, the camp didn’t seem all that bad. Sure, there were armed guards and a handful of hard-core cons 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 the detention center, at least they could get outside. Fresh air, sunshine — and soccer games.
But things weren’t good there. In fact, they were terrible. The guards bullied prisoners, forcing them to exercise up to eight hours a day. They also discriminated. For some reason, the 30 Jewish men were singled out and treated far more harshly than others.
Life in Oswiecim soon became a nightmare. Young Sigmund got a preview of where things were headed when he spotted two prisoners arguing alongside a train. One was a ‘capo,’ a privileged prisoner who terrorized other inmates and reported directly to the S.S. The other was an elderly Jewish man.
Suddenly, the argument turned violent. Mr. 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 the victim’s head — even after his skull had split open — splattering the plate with blood, hair and brain tissue.
Sigmund couldn’t believe it. With his mouth wide open, the kid thought to himself, “this is not a good place …” It sure as hell wasn’t.
He 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 years and scar him for life.
WARNING: The contents of this post are disturbing. This is a story involving one of the worst cases of genocide the world has ever known.
The following is my account of the time I spent with Sigmund Sobolewski from the late 1980s up until 2017, the year he died. It includes our time together in Alberta and Poland. I also spoke to Sigmund on the phone when he lived in Cuba.
THE KILLING FACTORY
Before Russian troops liberated Auschwitz in January 1945, more than one million people — mainly Jews — were murdered at the camp. No one seems to know exactly how many people died there. Some say it’s 1.3 million. According to Wikipedia, the figure is 1.1 million. At one point, the Russians claimed that four million were murdered at the camp.
During the WW 2 war-crime trials in Nuremberg, the Auschwitz camp commandant testified that 3 million had perished under his watch.There will always be controversy surrounding the final tally — in addition to a never-ending debate that the figures may have been deliberately exaggerated — but there’s little argument the number of people murdered at Auschwitz was insanely high. Consider this: accepting even the lower estimates, an average of 800-900 people were killed there every day.
Not long after Sigmund Sobolewski arrived at the camp, he was processed and his photograph taken. The teen was later given a number, which was tattooed on his left forearm. Because he was the 88th prisoner through the gates, his number became 88.
Eighty-eight also became Sigmund’s new identity. The teen who had dreams of becoming an officer with the Polish Army simply became known as ‘88.’ Guards would bellow, “88, come here” … “88, do this …”
Young Sigmund was no longer a person but a number.Auschwitz didn’t always use numbers to ID its prisoners. Camp administrators 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 they? And so, a bureaucrat came up with the idea of tattooing numbers on the left forearms of prisoners.
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 the camp skyrocketed, he seriously wondered if he’d ever make it out alive.
With the addition of new and larger gas chambers and crematoriums, Auschwitz-Birkenau became a very well-organized killing factory. The name became hyphenated when Auschwitz expanded to a wooded area called Birkenau, about three kilometers from the main camp.
CONDITIONED TO MURDER
Sigmund’s final memory of his father — at his home in Nisko, in southern Poland, was him suffering from tuberculosis, spitting up blood and screaming in pain as German soldiers dragged him from his house.
Nisko 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 conditioned to the mass murders at Auschwitz, best illustrated when a man from his hometown showed up one day and broke the news that his father had died. His dad was 47. Sigmund’s response: “Really? … hmmm …”
Death had become part of Sigmund’s life. The news of his father’s passing was as nonchalant to him as getting emails would be to you and me.
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 worst extermination camp.
LIFE AFTER AUSCHWITZ
After the war ended, Sigmund emigrated to Canada, settling first in Ontario. He later moved to Cuba where he met Ramona, who became his wife. Within three years the couple [with a toddler in tow] returned to Ontario. The family eventually moved west and settled in Alberta.
The couple had three boys.
Sigmund had left Europe with only a handful of possessions, but a ton 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 person.
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.
MY FIRST MEETINGS WITH SOBOLEWSKI
It was a Sunday evening — 10 November 1989 to be exact — when Sigmund Sobolewski 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, about two hours’ drive northwest of Edmonton.
I asked Sigmund if the Town of Fort Assiniboine had a cenotaph, a monument to honour soldiers killed during wars. “A small one,” he replied. I then asked, “Do you turn out and watch the soldiers march by …?” “No,” he said, “I put on my ‘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. It was quite by accident. On a cold winter day, Sigmund had rolled his car after hitting a patch of black ice on a highway southeast of Edmonton. He was hurt and rushed by ambulance to a hospital in Wetaskiwin.
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 a better word is ‘obsessed.’ Lying in his hospital bed, Sigmund spoke freely about his experiences at the death camp — and not just with me. Several patients stopped by his room to thank him for his stories about Auschwitz. “That sure was interesting,” one woman remarked.
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 received 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 traveled 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 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 snapped 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, Isadore ‘Issy’ Burstyn.
Burstyn, a Jew, managed to survive 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 to me. He claimed he could hear people crying on the train. I responded, “Sigmund, no one but you is crying.” That only irritated him more. “Can’t you hear them!!?,” he pleaded, “… don’t they know they’re going to die?”
#88 was now a prisoner of a time warp.
Sigmund remarked it was sad to see the same fields and pass through the towns that the Holocaust victims would have seen while traveling to Auschwitz.We were on the same steel rails that hundreds of thousands of Auschwitz victims had ridden half a century before — although they sure didn’t do it in comfort. They were crammed into cattle cars without food, water, proper ventilation or toilets. Some died on the way.
With Sigmund, I did the only thing I could do: Be a sympathetic ear. He eventually calmed down and stopped crying.
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 the women [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,” came the response, complete with a pause, “but left empty.”
“And when the bodies were burned, the smoke hung low over the town,” she added, “the stench of burning flesh was awful.”
I also asked if she had spoken out against the mass killings. Her response didn’t surprise me. “No.” But her explanation did. “Because I didn’t want to lose my job …”
Loss of employment or not, the locals were afraid to talk about Auschwitz … even afraid to venture close to the prison to see what was going on. And for good reason. Warning signs proclaimed that anyone caught near the camp would be shot without warning.
ARRIVAL AT AUSCHWITZ
Auschwitz is now a state museum. By the time we arrived, in the evening, everything had been shut down. 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 — himself a former prisoner of Auschwitz — unlocked the main gate and swung it wide open. He shook our hands as we entered, lugging our gear.
At a quick glance, not a lot appeared to have changed since the 1940s … except, of course, the prisoners were long gone and electric current no longer 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 [closed with blocks of wood]. That’s where poison had been dropped on the victims below, who’d been assured they were about to have a much-needed shower.
One group of Jewish families was told they’d soon be enjoying hot coffee. Lying was a huge part of how things worked at Auschwitz. Most people seemed to buy into the BS as they shuffled into the gas chambers. It was such a good con that some prisoners, marching to their deaths, saluted the German soldiers.
High on the walls of Gas Chamber #1 was a small strip of metal with tiny holes in it. It was to fool the victims into thinking they would be having a much-needed shower.
The concrete walls in the gas chamber were all scratched. I closed my eyes and ran my fingers over the abrasions, trying to imagine what it would have been like to be there when the air suddenly filled with deadly gas. And there was nowhere to run.
Unable to breathe and desperate to survive, people clawed at the concrete walls with their bare hands.
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 weren’t gassed. They died after a needle 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 open 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 Auschwitz’s first crematorium ovens. They not properly constructed and were so overused that the chimneys became clogged.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. More bullshit. They were murdered 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. When I got outside, I met up with one of the TV guys who asked, “Where were you? …” They’d wondered where I’d gone. Pointing behind, I told him I’d been in the gas chamber. “Alone?” he asked.
I had trouble getting my head around what I’d just seen. My ‘job’ was to check out the gas chamber, take note of important things: the height of the walls, where the poison was dropped, the scratches etched on 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 brain could process the information — but my soul couldn’t handle it.
Years later, as I work on this story, I wonder if it was all a bad dream … but the photos tell me it was real.
Standing alone in that gas chamber 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.
SOBOLEWSKI DIES – 6 August 2017
For details on the death of Sigmund Sobolewski, go to Prisoner 88 [Part 2]: 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.