On a cattle wagon to Sobibor
11th May 1942: As a new extermination centre opens more Jews are sent, in the most appalling conditions, from the ghettos across Poland
On the 10th May 1942 teenager Stanislaw Smajznerand his family were marched out of the Jewish ghetto of Opole Lubelskie. The major German action to clear out the Polish ghettos was now in full swing, what would become known as Action Reinhard would see over a million die by the end of the year.
The Smajzner family were on their way to Sobibor, a camp modelled on Belzec. The system was now well practiced and two further extermination ‘camps’ were built to cope with the hundreds of thousands being routinely murdered. Sobibor opened in May, Treblinka would open in July.
They spent all day being marched across country at an unrelenting pace. Those that could not keep up were shot. Then they spent the night in an open enclosure near the railway station at Naleczow. Those that had a few possessions bargained with the local Poles through the wire for a little water.
Then in the morning, still without food or water, the torment became even worse:
Before daybreak the guards entered the enclosure to put us in rows once more. When this was done, we were led to the station platform under strong escort. When we got there we saw a freight train waiting for us: all its wagons were totally closed and had very little airing. They had sliding doors which were locked from the outside.
Shouting and pushing, they threw us into the wagons until they were saturated with Jews. A minimum of one hundred people were put inside each one of them under conditions which would not be proper even if the cargo had been swine. When the whole bunch of people was crowded inside the cattle wagons we heard a shrill whistle, and then the train whistle which preceded departure.
‘Children were stifled to death, thrashing about frantically, trying to breathe some oxygen which would keep them alive.’
With the train at full speed the constant shaking of the wagons made the situation inside reach a state of unbelievable panic and despair. I have no words to exactly describe what happened in that hell. Children were stifled to death, thrashing about frantically, trying to breathe some oxygen which would keep them alive. Old people were trampled and pressed in all possible ways, women some of them pregnant were suspended in the air, without ever being able to set foot on the floor, as they were crushed by the heavy crowd which oscillated from one side to the other, like a pendulum, following the swing of the wagons which ran very fast.
The almost total lack of air made the heat become torrid and the thirst unbearable. There was no water or toilets and many relieved themselves right there. Dizziness and fainting came in quick succession and the turmoil got worse by the minute and no solution was found to all of that.
Once in a while the train would stop but we did not see or were told anything. In these short moments the only hope we had was that they would open the doors and let us breathe some air which we so badly needed. However, this did never happen.
Another whistle, another train whistle and the convoy would continue its ruthless course. Each minute the number of corpses grew at our feet, although some of the dead were held upright by the pressure of our bodies, so crowded were we. The smell of sweat, urine and feces mixed in a nauseating odour which actually transformed the wagon into a sewer.
The only ventilation we had come through a small window closed by iron bars intertwined with barbed wire, and the air was not enough for the needs of a hundred people. We could do nothing with pocket knives or nails ,the heat was increasingly more stifling and the air more difficult to breathe.
Only Stanislaw would survive out of the Smajzner family. As a strong young man he was selected to join the Jewish Sonderkommando - the work detachment that dealt with the bodies of the victims and with the processing of their possessions. In this role he survived until the Sobibor Uprising in October 1943, when he managed to escape.
Read the whole account - Stanislaw Smajzner: Extracts from the Tragedy of a Jewish Teenager - at the Holocaust Research Project.
Sobibor images are from the Sobibor Perpetrator Collection at USHMM.