Stanislaw Smajzner describes the journey to Sobibor (1942)

In 1942, Stanislaw Smajzner and his family were herded onto trains by the SS and shipped to the Sobibor death camp. Here, Smajzner describes the journey to Sobibor:

“We arrived at the station of Naleczow. They caged us inside a plot of land surrounded with barbed wire, as if we were animals, without water or food. Eating and drinking to their heart’s content, the German jackals delighted in sarcastically staring at us, while we sank in the pain and worry which the death of so many of ours had caused us. Only then could we check the tragic account of casualties, we gathered in small groups made up of several families that existed there with the aim of counting how many were no longer with us. Nearly all the families had been deprived of some loved ones who lay on the long road from Opole Lubelskie to Naleczow.

I saw many Poles come near the wire fence to sell bottles and pitchers of water. Taking advantage of our anxiety they were demanding and would only give us the water in exchange for a gold wedding ring, a watch or some other valuable thing. Many Jews had been able to keep, through all those long months, precious belongings hidden from the plundering Nazis. However, in a few minutes, they had to hand them all over to the voracious Poles for little more than a carafe of water which should never be denied, even to a dog.

I came then to understand that they had gotten used to making money out of the misfortune of others since the former groups had passed that way some time ago. They belonged to the same class of toadies who had taken delight in the unhappiness, which assailed us over the long walk to Naleczow. They tried to exchange water for gold, nuzzling in the murk of their own misery, instead of doing the same thing that their countrymen in the Polish Brigade had done only a little earlier in Torbruk, when they helped in the epic defence of that military stronghold in the African desert, against the long and unsuccessful first attack of Rommel’s troops.

It was May 11th 1942 and when night fell most of us were hungry and thirsty and the only thing we heard was the weeping of our women and children. Some chanted the Kaddish – the Jewish prayer for the dead – for those who were gone forever. And thus we spent the night, all of us lying on the ground in the open air and although we were absolutely worn-out with tiredness and suffering we could not sleep.

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 100 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. 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 faeces mixed in a nauseating odour which actually transformed the wagon into a sewer.

The day before we had travelled from Opole to Naleczow. We had been up the whole night, near the station. Now we faced unprecedented ordeals, unparalleled up to that moment. Thirst tormented us more than hunger, and a single drop of water would be more precious to us than a diamond of the same size. We were not able to even squat and whoever tried it was trampled. We had to stand and the sea of filth grew bigger at our feet, and we went on and on like this for the whole day, locked inside the wagons, as if we were real beasts, in a stifling nauseating place, filled with dead bodies and putrid air. To add the finishing touch to the gruesome picture once in a while we would hear shots fired by the German soldiers who were on the outside of the convoy. They did that to make our terror even worse.

Some of us tried to open the door with the help of knives and pocket knives but with no success, since the door was very strong, and was tightly closed. Many came to the point of using their own nails. In a desperate attempt to rip the boards off the side of the wagon, to get some air to breathe.

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. I do not believe that even the slaves dragged away from Africa by the slave traders ever suffered so much, with the only exception of the length of the trip. The human mind cannot accept that this could have ever been done, in the middle of the twentieth century, against rational beings, when these medieval methods had already been banned for a long time before the Nazis made them come to life again.

Our family gathered somewhere inside the wagon and all of us made superhuman efforts to stay upright. Some were young and were successful, but my father and especially my mother could only manage it at the cost of tremendous exertion. Many times only the pressure of the crowd did not let them fall. Uncontrollable revolt still fills me when I remember them and what they had to suffer due to the bestial inhuman Germans.”