In June 1990, Sigmund Sobolewski returned to Auschwitz, the infamous Nazi death camp where he’d 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 concentration camp where millions — mainly Jews — had been murdered.
Former Prisoner ‘Number 88’ — a Catholic — was joined by an Edmonton Rabbi … and an Edmonton businessman who had 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 after the war by German students. The students had been so ashamed of the atrocities that they built a place where visitors could stay and see for themselves what had gone on there.
Filing news reports to Canada was a challenge and a half. 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 is now much improved. In any case, news stories today are filed with computers over the Internet.
OUR TIME AT AUSCHWITZ
For several days, Sigmund and I “hung out” at Auschwitz. He was my guide.
Because ‘88’ was given keys to the camp, we had complete access to areas that were out of bounds to the public. Leaning on a cane for support, Sigmund unlocked gates and we went wherever we pleased: to gas chambers, the platform where victims disembarked — and to a part of the concentration camp, off-limits to the public, an area simply known as “the killing fields.”
We walked down the same roads and paths and through parts of the camp where Sigmund worked when he was a teen.
The old fellow answered all my questions. His responses were frank and complete, though sometimes he went on, which didn’t really bother me because he 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. Just when Sigmund talked about something incredible, we’d walk a ways and he’d reveal something more riveting. At the end of a long day, I was left thinking, this can’t be true. But it was.
‘88’ recalled one fateful day when he worked at 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 searched Sigmund’s pockets and discovered the “contraband.”
Sigmund was now in serious trouble. He was marched to the attic of infamous Block #3 where prisoners were routinely tortured.
The teen 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 never stole again.
Half a century later, we walked into the same room at Block #3. Wincing, Number 88 used his cane to point to the hook in the ceiling.
For decades, Sigmund has suffered from a sore back; he figures from sleeping on wooden slats at the camp. [When he was first put in the camp he and the other prisoners slept on a concrete floor].
Sigmund’s underwear was changed — not every day — but 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 other [slave labour] prisoners were housed. Because of the open slats, when a prisoner on the top bunk pissed themselves or had diarrhea, those sleeping below were affected as well.
AUSCHWITZ FIRE BRIGADE
In his third year of captivity, ‘88’ became a member of the Auschwitz Prisoners Fire Brigade. They had three fire trucks.
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 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 bombers 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 plants that produced rubber and aviation fuel.
Sigmund was able to move from one sector to another without a lot of trouble. For identification, he flashed his left forearm and 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 loot from the prisoners was stored. Swatting flies and walking through the tall grass, we walked in the direction of where a collection of large warehouses had been during the war. All that remained was broken concrete with grass and weeds growing 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. 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 set on fire — 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 news you’re being “relocated.” You have anywhere from an hour to 90 minutes to pack a suitcase.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 in agriculture. That only made them even more suspicious as the Nazis were shipping children and people who were so old they could barely stand. Something didn’t add up.
THE 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. 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 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 grass. 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 was were piles of empty shell casings and bodies.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. We 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,” someone 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 a feeble attempt to explain the vandalism and 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 were 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, the interview began.
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 murdered Russian soldiers …”
Then he began to cry. 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. 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 expect to receive 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 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 Sigmund Sobolewski 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 DIDN’T DIE
In spite of the on-going mass murder 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 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.
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.
A PRIEST, A CAPO AND THE 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? The goon 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 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 had disguised himself as a gardener, using the name of Franz Lang. After the soldiers beat him with axe handles, Höss told him who he was.
Höss also opened up about his reign as camp commander at Auschwitz.
“Technically [it] wasn’t so hard,” he said, “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 Victoria where, if I’m not mistaken, he was a math professor at the University of Melbourne.
Ginzburg, his wife and I chatted for an hour or so at their small kitchen table.
Ginzburg 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 had nightmares all the time about his ordeal at Auschwitz. That didn’t surprise me.
The last word on this post goes to Ramona, Sigmund’s Cuban-born wife. In 1990, she talked about her husband’s obsession with Auschwitz. “He has papers everywhere,” she said, “on his chair, on the couch, on the floor …” “Ramona,” I pointed out, “Sigmund was freed from Auschwitz, but he will die a prisoner of the camp.” 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 him 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. God bless 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 is 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.
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.
Where is prisoner 88? On 28 January 2015, I called the Heritage Motel in Fort McLeod, Alberta, the motel Sigmund ran. 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 were living Bayamo, a community of about 220,000 in southern Cuba — about three hours’ drive northwest of the coastal city of Santiago de Cuba.Sigmund Sobolewski suffers from Alzheimers. His dementia is at a stage where he sometimes thinks he’s a teenager … and a prisoner at Auschwitz.
On the afternoon of 17 April 2015, I picked up the phone and called Sigmund in Cuba. For about 10 minutes I spoke with both him and Ramona. They were excited I’d 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 that their house has 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 — where he worked as a welder.
Sigmund was proud to tell me they have a mango tree in their 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, 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.
Sure enough. A call to the hospital confirmed that 88 was in room 36.
That same day, I spoke briefly with Sigmund by phone. He said he’d checked into the hospital a few days earlier … and that he was being treated for the flu.
Sigmund was quick to remind me he’s 93 [turning 94 in May] … and that it’s hard for him to get around now.
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.Claresholm is about an hour’s drive south of Calgary.
The following day I spoke with Sigmund’s son, 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 his son Vladimir boarded a plane for Havana, Cuba.