** UPDATE: SIGMUND SOBOLEWSKI DIED IN BAYAMO, CUBA ON 7 AUGUST 2017. He was 94. You’ll find details of his death at the end of this post.**
In June 1990, Sigmund Sobolewski returned to Auschwitz, the Nazi death camp where he spent nearly all of World War Two.
The Canadian citizen had accepted an invitation from the State Museum of Auschwitz to attend the 50th Anniversary of the opening of the former extermination camp where millions — mainly Jews — had been murdered.
Former Prisoner ‘Number 88’ — a Catholic — was joined by an Edmonton Rabbi and a prominent Edmonton businessman who survived the Holocaust as a child in Poland.
Tagging along were several members of the Canadian media, myself included.
We stayed at the camp in a clean, modern hostel built right after the war by German students. The students were so ashamed by the craziness, the evil of Auschwitz that they built a place where visitors could stay and see for themselves what had gone on at the camp.
Filing news reports to Canada was a challenge. Any minor adjustment in volume on my Sony 142 tape recorder caused the phone connection to fail.
I’m told that Poland’s phone system has been modernized. In any case, news stories are now filed over the Internet using computers.
OUR TIME AT THE CAMP
For several days, Sigmund and I ‘hung out’ at Auschwitz. He became my guide.
Because ‘88’ was given keys to the entire camp, we had complete access to areas normally out of bounds to the public. Leaning on a cane for support, Sigmund unlocked gates … and we wandered all over the place.
We were free to go wherever we pleased: to the gas chambers, to the platform where the doomed disembarked — and to a part of the sprawling complex known as ‘the killing fields.’
We walked down the same roads and paths and through parts of the camp where Sigmund had been as a teenager.
He answered all my questions. His responses were frank and complete, though at times he went on, which didn’t really bother me because the man had plenty to talk about. Put it this way, it was a good thing I had extra batteries and cassette tapes.
Every part of the extermination complex had its own horror stories, and there were a lot of them. Millions, when you come to think of it. Just when Sigmund spoke about something incredible, we’d walk a bit and he’d reveal something even more riveting. Crazy.
At the end of a long day, I was left thinking, this can’t be true. But it was.
‘88’ recalled the day he was working in the house of Camp Commandant Rudolf Höss when he snatched some food — a handful of peas from a sack that had fallen on the ground and broke open. A guard discovered the ‘contraband’ during a search of Sigmund’s pockets.
The youngster was now in serious trouble. He was promptly marched to the attic of infamous Block #3 where prisoners were routinely tortured.
Sigmund was stripped naked and his hands tied behind his back. He was then hoisted in the air by a rope attached to a hook in a wooden beam in the ceiling. Sigmund felt a snap, then excruciating pain. His shoulders had separated. As the youngster dangled in the air — his screams echoing throughout the building — his bowels opened and crap dripped down his legs.
Sigmund Sobolewski never stole again.
Half a century later, we walked into the same room at Block #3. Wincing, # 88 used his cane to point to the hook in the ceiling.
For decades, Sigmund has suffered from a sore back. He figures that came about from sleeping on wooden slats. [no mattress] Because of the open slats, when a prisoner on the top bunk pissed themselves or had diarrhea, those sleeping below were affected as well.
Sigmund’s underwear was changed — not every day — but every few months. Let that sink in … every few months.
Sleeping accommodation for prisoners at Auschwitz depended on the type of work they did. Those who worked in offices had superior living conditions to those who laboured with a pick and shovel.
During the war, ’88’ stayed in a part of the camp where accommodations were slightly better than the bunkhouses where the slave labour prisoners were housed.
AUSCHWITZ FIRE BRIGADE
In his third year of captivity, ‘88’ became a member of the Auschwitz Prisoners Fire Brigade. They had three fire trucks to work with.
Sigmund’s duties allowed him to see much of the sprawling complex; he traveled throughout the camp and the surrounding industrial area checking fire extinguishers and monitoring the water pressure in the fire hydrants.
Number 88 occasionally put out fires at one of the crematoriums where the chimney hadn’t been built properly.
Towards the end of the war, some of the fires at Auschwitz were started by Allied bombing raids. It wasn’t that the aircraft tried to knock out the gas chambers [at that point the Allies didn’t know much about them], they were targeting factories about 8 kilometers from the camp, especially factories that produced rubber and aviation fuel.
Sigmund was able to move from one sector to another without much trouble. For identification, he flashed his left forearm. At that point, a guard made note of his number.
Fire brigade workers wore a different uniform than the regular prisoners. Instead of a striped pajamas outfit, they donned one made of heavy, white linen.
A PART OF AUSCHWITZ CALLED CANADA
It struck me as beyond bizarre that my country would have a connection to Auschwitz.
‘Kanada’ [Canada] was the name for the warehouse area where stolen goods from the prisoners was stored. Swatting flies and walking through the tall grass, Sigmund and I walked in the direction of where some large warehouses had been during the war. All that remained of the structures was broken concrete. Grass and weeds poked up through the cracks.
We were in a part of the camp where loot was stored for shipment to Germany to help in the war effort. Valuables included jewelry, rings, foreign currency, perfumes, and cutlery.“Why Canada?” I asked. Sigmund explained the name stuck after a Polish journalist toured Canada in the mid-1930s and wrote a popular book about his trip overseas. He described Canada as an undeveloped paradise. The title of the book roughly translates into something like ‘Canada smelling of sweat and tree-sap.’ Try Googling that.
We stood on large concrete slabs covered with spoons, knives and forks, blackened and twisted from the heat after the warehouses were deliberately torched — just before the Russian troops came knocking.
I bent down and examined the cutlery; some pieces had fused together from the heat.Imagine being Jewish and living in a village in Hungary in 1944: An officer with the occupying German army knocks on your door with the shocking news you’re being “relocated.” You have anywhere from an hour to 90 minutes to pack a suitcase. You have no choice in the matter. You either pack your bags or get shot. Those are your choices. So you play the only card you really have: Grab your valuables and hope for the best. Some victims were told they were off to Ukraine to “work on the farms.” That only made them more suspicious as the Nazis were shipping children and people who were so old they could barely stand. Something didn’t add up.
They learned the truth in a room filled with gas and people screaming for their lives.
Sigmund Sobolewski spoke out against his own church — the Roman Catholic Church — for what he claimed was the Vatican’s complicity in Nazi atrocities. According to Sobolewski, the Roman Catholic Church went beyond ‘keeping its mouth shut’ about Nazi war crimes — especially the deportation of millions of innocent people to their deaths in Germany, Poland, and elsewhere — but actually had gone out of its way to help the Third Reich.
It’s worth noting that SS officers and other Auschwitz staff involved in the murder of so many people would turn out for Catholic mass on Sunday.
Sobolewski also pointed out the huge Auschwitz camp complex included many factories that were operated by slave labour. Some of these factories, he said, were owned by huge industrial conglomerates such as Krupp, Bayer, Ford Motor Company … and I.G. Farben, maker of pharmaceutical products and the Zyklon B gas that was so effective at the death camp.
According to German documents obtained by the Russians, about 400 companies profited from participating in what some have called the Holocaust bonanza.
UPRISING AT CREMATORIUM #4
Sigmund and I walked around the camp, past abandoned, dilapidated guard towers, with my guide leaning on his cane now and then to get his balance and collect his thoughts.
We stopped at what remained of Gas Chamber and Crematorium #4 where on Saturday, 7 October 1944, hundreds of Jewish prisoners from Hungary and Russia revolted, killing about a dozen SS guards and blowing up some key buildings. The prisoners were part of the so-called Sonderkommando [special command units] whose job it was to remove corpses, burn them and get rid of the ashes.
The Sonderkommando were ordered never to talk about their work and they were warned that if they did talk, they’d be tossed — alive — into an oven.
Also destroyed in the fires at the end of the war were 20-kilogram bales of human hair destined for two carpet factories and a clothing company in Germany. It’s reported that when Russian troops liberated Auschwitz, they discovered 7 tons of human hair.
The destruction of Gas Chamber and Crematorium #4 slowed down the killing machine, but the uprising — the only one at Auschwitz — came at a heavy price. Prisoners who had taken part were executed. They each took a single bullet in the back of the neck as they stood near a tree at the end of a clearing.
The tree still stands. Sigmund recalled that fall day in 1944 when he pulled up as a member of the fire brigade and began dragging hoses to put out the flames. He occasionally turned to his right, stealing glances, as SS officers ordered the prisoners to strip naked and stack their clothes on the ground. Of that day, Sigmund recalls, “We couldn’t stare for fear the officers would accuse us of being sympathetic.”
‘Bang’ went the officers’ pistols. The scene was repeated for the next hour or so until there were piles of bodies and empty shell casings.An SS officer climbed up on the human mound to fire extra bullets into those who were still twitching. When the shooting finally ended, the officer’s tall, black leather boots were smeared with blood.
One of the SS killers is identified in this audio clip with Sigmund [recorded by phone on 10 October 2012]. The clip runs about six and a half minutes.
HEAR SIGMUND SPEAK
“We were very anxious to roll up our hoses after we put out the fire, and get away from there … because we were unwilling witnesses to the executions,” he says. “We had become the ‘bearers of the secret.'”
“But the uprising was fantastic news,” Sigmund adds. “The Jewish prisoners lifted our spirits because they proved the SS was not invincible.”Rabbi Mann was with us when Sigmund talked about the massacre. Mann and I sat on a small row of old bricks, all that remains today of Gas Chamber and Crematorium #4. When we were done talking, I said, “Well, I’m going to grab myself a souvenir” and I began to scale a fence near one of the gates. I had my eye on a piece of protruding barbed wire at the very top of the fence. “That’s not permitted,” the rabbi offered. “Screw it,” I shot back and kept bending the wire back and forth until it snapped. “They’ll never miss this,” I said, in an attempt to explain the theft.
As we left the area, I glanced back to see Rabbi Mann scaling the same fence to get his own souvenir. Good for him.
Sigmund and I also stood where a large wooden train platform had been in the 1940s — the infamous ramp where more than a million prisoners disembarked from stifling journeys. This was the real gateway to Auschwitz.
Our next stop was what Prisoner 88 called the “killing fields” of Auschwitz, where several thousand Russian POWs had been executed.
There was a slight breeze as we made our way through a peaceful meadow surrounded by tall, billowing trees. We sat on the edge of a cavity big enough to swallow a small car. My tape recorder was running and as our legs dangled in the opening, I began the interview.
The dark soil was speckled with what appeared to be tiny, whitish ceramic pieces. “What’s with this place?” I asked. “Damn,” I said, “is that what I think it is …?” Sigmund poked at the soil with his cane and announced, “These are the bones of Russian soldiers …”
Then he began to cry. Just like that. Sigmund tried to talk, but couldn’t. He finally broke down and the tears flowed. “Turn off your machine,” he ordered, waving his hands. But I didn’t. His raw emotion was an important part of the story and I let the tape roll. Sigmund’s strained voice illustrated his anguish.
Through heavy sobs, Sigmund described how thousands of Russian soldiers were shot and killed in the meadow.What was going through the minds of the Russian prisoners of war when they arrived in Poland? Did they believe they’d be rescued … or held in a POW camp until the war ended? Did they think they would get packages or letters from home? Nothing like that happened. Just the crack of a rifle and game over. So much for the Geneva Convention on how prisoners of war should be treated.
So many bloated corpses lay buried in the soft soil that eventually some began to make their way up through the ground, like a scene in a Hollywood horror movie. At that point, prisoners were ordered to dig up the corpses and set them on fire.
The gripping segment with a distraught former prisoner of Auschwitz was broadcast on a national CBC Radio program, one that focused on spiritual issues. The show was out of Ottawa, Ontario.
EXPERIMENTAL GAS CHAMBER
We also spent time at what was known as the “white cottage,” or what was left of it. In pre-extermination days it had been a small farmhouse. The Nazis kicked out the owners, sealed the building and did experiments with gas, trying to determine how long it would take for people to die. They got it down to 15 minutes.Through all of my dealings with Sigmund Sobolewski, I addressed him as ‘Sigmund.’ But out in the killing fields, I once called ’88’ — just to see what his reaction would be. He turned and said, “Yes …?” Half a century later, the man still answered to his old prison number.
At one point in our tour, Sigmund burst out, “this is crude … but our camp was known as the ‘rectum of the world’.”
His civility, even at a time when his world had gone to hell, shows the man was from a different era. “You mean the asshole of the world,” I corrected him. “Yeah,” Sigmund said, tilting his head to one side, “if you want to put it that way …”
I also walked around Auschwitz on my own, one time ending up in one of the common barracks where slave labour prisoners survived — for a few weeks. A prime location in the barracks would have been near the wood-burning stove.
MESSAGES FROM THE DEAD
When Russian troops liberated Auschwitz, they dug around the crematoriums looking for evidence of murder, perhaps messages from prisoners scribbled on paper and hidden in the ground. They found some. In half a dozen glass jars the Russians discovered hand-written diaries from prisoners — now dead, of course. In Hebrew, the diaries detailed journeys to Auschwitz, duties at the camp [dirty secrets they weren’t supposed to reveal] and uncanny predictions of impending demise.
WHY SOBOLEWSKI WASN’T KILLED
In spite of the ongoing mass murders at Auschwitz, life at the camp had its positive moments, strange as that might seem. Sigmund’s boss at the fire brigade treated him well.
Georg Engelschall, an SS Sergeant, was a Catholic from Bavaria, Germany. He looked after members of the Auschwitz Fire Brigade, including Sigmund, saving their lives. In fact, Engelschall was proud of the training he had given his men. According to Sigmund, at no point did his boss abuse anyone.
When the war was over, Sigmund visited Engelschall in Germany. After the officer died, Sigmund got around to see his brother who now lived in Munich. He too had been an SS officer at a Nazi concentration camp.
It was odd hearing Sigmund say, in June 1990, that after he was done with the ceremonies at Auschwitz, he was heading off to Munich to spend time with a former SS officer.
The world is a crazy place.
A BROTHEL AT AUSCHWITZ??
Incredible as it may seem, Auschwitz had a bordello. The girls were promised freedom in six months, but that never happened.
One of Sigmund’s early loves worked at the brothel. Living at Auschwitz had few joys, but having sex was one.
FREEDOM AT LAST …
It was the Russian soldiers who liberated Auschwitz. It’s no wonder Sigmund named his third-born son Vladimir.
Right after the war, Sigmund Sobolewski went to England to join — not the British Navy — but the Polish Navy.
A PRIEST, A CAPO AND A CAMP COMMANDANT
Whatever happened to prisoner #89? Did Sigmund know him? Turns out, he did … “89,” he reveals, “was Father Stanslaw Wegrznowski, a Roman Catholic parish priest from Nisko [Poland].”
Because the priest was picked up giving mass, he arrived at Auschwitz wearing his full-length cassock, the only clothes he had. The SS guards made fun of him when he exercised wearing his long cassock.
Father Wegrznowski was transferred to a concentration camp at Dachau in southern Germany. He died within months, his emaciated corpse reduced to ashes and smoke rising from a chimney.Whatever happened to the sadistic Capo who killed a fellow prisoner by bashing his head against a train? He later found himself on a rail car on his way to Germany when somebody recognized him, remembered his cruelty and decided it was time for the Capo to check out. They grabbed him and held him down, with his head sticking out the large open, sliding door of the carriage. The heavy door was then slammed hard on his neck. His lifeless body was then tossed from the train.
Former Auschwitz camp commander Rudolph Höss was eventually caught by British forces in Germany in March 1946. He’d disguised himself as a gardener, using the name of Franz Lang. After the soldiers beat him with ax handles, Höss told them his real name.
Höss also opened up about his reign as camp commander at Auschwitz.
“Technically [it] wasn’t so hard,” Höss revealed, “it would not have been hard to exterminate even greater numbers. The killing itself took the least time. You could dispose of 2,000 [people] in half an hour, but it was the burning that took all the time.”
“The killing was easy. You didn’t even need guards to drive them into the chambers; they just went in expecting to take showers and, instead of water, we turned on poison gas. The whole thing went very quickly.”According to Wikipedia, Höss sent this message to the state prosecutor a few days before he was executed …
One of Sigmund’s close companions at Auschwitz was prisoner George Ginzburg [#64147], a Jew who survived the death camp and eventually settled in Australia. In September 1990 I caught up with Ginzburg in the State of Victoria where he was a professor at the University of Melbourne.
Ginzburg, his wife and I chatted for an hour or so at their small kitchen table.
The former prisoner claimed he hardly thought about Auschwitz anymore, unlike Sigmund. However, after the professor excused himself to use the washroom, his wife leaned forward and whispered that her husband often had nightmares about his time at Auschwitz. Can’t say I was surprised.
In 1990, Ramona, Sigmund’s Cuban-born wife, talked about her husband’s ‘obsession’ with Auschwitz. “He has papers everywhere,” she revealed, “on his chair, on the couch, on the floor …” “Ramona,” I said, “Sigmund was freed from Auschwitz, but he will die a prisoner of the camp.” At that point she teared up. “You know him …”
Good for Sigmund Sobolewski for surviving the worst the world threw at him — and for talking about it to as many people as he possibly could. Good for Sigmund for standing up to his own Roman Catholic church — including Pope Pius Xll who knew full well what was going on with the mass murder of so many people. The Roman Catholic Church was not part of the solution, but part of the problem. May God have mercy on them.
Sigmund stresses that living through Auschwitz didn’t make him a hero. “I was an ordinary man who was fantastically lucky,” he says, drawing my attention to the obvious … that he came close to getting killed dozens of times.
Sigmund’s survival and his outlook on life are an inspiration to us all.
Since his release from Auschwitz, every day has been a Remembrance Day of sorts for #88.Only when Sigmund Sobolewski dies will his nightmares end. Death will be his Final Solution too.
FROM PRISONER TO ACTIVIST
Auschwitz was liberated, but you could say that Sigmund Sobolewski never was. He remained a prisoner … the only thing different was that his Auschwitz prison uniform — a replica — was newer and a lot cleaner.
Sobolewski became an activist, pointing out the hypocrisy of the Catholic Church and the hatred of people who had it in for Jews.
He marched with a placard outside a courthouse in Red Deer, Alberta when school teacher Jim Keegstra was being tried after claiming that the number of Jewish deaths during WW2 was greatly exaggerated. He also confronted cross-burning Neo-Nazi groups in Alberta and spoke at schools and universities across the world about how bad Auschwitz was and that we should be more tolerant of each other.
The real estate agent got through to a lot of people. He became a teacher, probably one of the best on this planet.
Sobolewski set up the Auschwitz Awareness Society. Esther Gilbert, the widow of Sir Martin Gilbert [official historian for Winston Churchill], describes #88 as, “One man who no funds who was such a lesson for our times.”
“He used his pain,” Gilbert says, “to speak out against hate and injustice. He was one of my heroes. The world is a poorer place without him.”
Where was prisoner 88? On 28 January 2015, I called the Heritage Motel in Fort McLeod, Alberta, the motel Sigmund had been running. I asked a man at reception if he could put me through to Sigmund Sobolewski. His response was that he hadn’t seen him for a while. I then asked where I might be able to find him. “I have no clue, buddy.”
I also called the number listed for Sigmund Sobolewski on 15 Street in Fort McLeod, but no one picked up. I wasn’t able to leave a message.
My emails to #88 were “undeliverable” [click to enlarge to read them]. I had been getting the same ‘mailbox unavailable’ message for a couple of years.
I quietly wondered if Sigmund had passed away and that reporters hadn’t heard about it.
LIVING IN CUBA
In mid-April, 2015 I was able to leave a phone message … and a couple of days later, received a phone call from Sigmund’s son, Vladimir.
Vladimir revealed that his parents had moved to Bayamo, a community of 220,000 in southern Cuba — about three hours’ drive northwest of the coastal city of Santiago de Cuba.Sigmund Sobolewski suffered from Alzheimer’s. In 2015 his dementia was at a stage where he thought he was a teenager and a prisoner at Auschwitz.
On the afternoon of 17 April 2015, I called Sigmund in Cuba. For about 10 minutes I spoke with both him and his wife. They were excited I had tracked them down.
Ramona was quick to say they were living in the mountains on the edge of town … and that it was a warm day in Cuba [36 degrees]. She also pointed out their home had air conditioning.
When Sigmund got on the line, there was little sign of dementia … although he did reminisce about his time in Toronto, Ontario — many years ago — when he worked as a welder.
Sigmund was proud to announce they had a mango tree in his back yard. He seemed happy to be retired [finally].
It was good to hear #88’s voice again. Just listening to his accent brought back memories of the time we spent walking the fields at Auschwitz, more than a quarter of a century ago.
HOSPITALIZED IN ALBERTA
On Sunday, 14 February 2016 I received an email from reader Ed who advised that Sigmund Sobolewski was back in Alberta — and a patient at the Claresholm General Hospital. Claresholm is about an hour’s drive south of Calgary.
Sure enough. A call to the hospital confirmed #88 was in room #36.
That same day, I spoke briefly with Sigmund by phone. He said he was being treated for the flu and that he’d checked into the hospital a few days earlier.
Sigmund reminded me that he was 93 [turning 94 in May] … and that it was hard for him to get around.
I asked if he still had nightmares about Auschwitz. His response was that he’ll always have them because the camp was such a big part of his life.
The following day I spoke with one of Sigmund’s sons, Vladimir, who advised that his father had returned to Alberta in late January . He said he had come back to get a criminal record check — as requested by the Cuban authorities. But once his father returned, he said his mental health took a turn for the worse and he had to be hospitalized.
According to Vladimir, hospital staff had asked his Dad if he knew what year it was. He said it was 1955.
Vladimir said that while his father is confused, his drive to survive is so ingrained in him that “he might outlive them all.”
In the early hours of Monday, 22nd February 2016, Sigmund and Vladimir boarded a plane for Havana, Cuba.
THE DEATH OF #88
It was Vladimir Sobolewski, stranded at the airport in Toronto, who tipped me off about his father’s death. Word arrived on Monday, 7 August 2017. His father died around 1 AM Eastern Time that same day. [11 pm Sunday Mountain Time].
Sigmund was cremated the same day.
The communication was all done by Facebook Messenger. “I got some bad news from Cuba this morning,” he wrote. “My father passed away. He had an operation [at the hospital in Bayamo] for a blockage in his intestines and while recovering caught pneumonia and passed away.”
In a phone interview from Cuba on Monday, a tearful Ramona Sobolewski said she had lost a great husband and the world had lost a great man.
Sigmund had lived in a number of places — Poland, England, Ontario, Alberta, and Cuba — but Ramona said her husband wanted to die in Alberta.
Vladimir and his older brother, Emilio [who lives near Niagara Falls, Ontario] traveled to Cuba to be with their mother.
Sigmund’s ashes were interred in his wife’s family [Tamayo] mausoleum in Bayamo on 3rd September 2017.
FIRST NEWS ACCOUNT … TWITTER
Isn’t this ironic? Sigmund Sigmund died only days after Ernst Zundel passed away in his native Germany. The Holocaust ‘denier’ was 78.
Zundel, a publisher, had lived in Toronto. The man was eventually deported after a court found him guilty of spreading anti-Jewish propaganda.
GLOBE & MAIL ON DEATH OF #88
This is a good piece of journalism by Thanh Ha Tu of the Globe and Mail in Toronto …
CBC RADIO EDMONTON …
On August 10, 2017, CBC Radio’s Edmonton’s Edmonton AM broadcast an 8-minute feature on the death of Sigmund Sobolewski.
The opening voice is that of program co-host Mark Connolly. He is interviewing the Author.
GLOBAL TELEVISION …
A ‘THANK YOU DAD’ TATOO
Sigmund Sobolewski’s youngest son, Vladimir, had the number 88 tattooed on his forearm as a personal memento of his late father.