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Sobibor Interviews

Cato Polak

"we had absolutely no idea"
In the night of 26 February 1943 all patients and staff of the Jewish Hospital in Rotterdam were rounded up during a raid by the Dutch WA (Weerbaarheidsafdeling, similar to the Sturmabteilung of the NSDAP) and the Sicherheitsdienst and taken to Westerbork. Among them 22 year-old nurse Cato Polak from The Hague. Her father had been arrested earlier and put on a transport to the east by way of Amersfoort; her mother and brother had gone into hiding. Hiding was not for Cato and she had gotten a job at the hospital to obtain a Sperre, which meant that for the time being she was exempt from deportation. The short time she spent in Westerbork Cato worked as a nurse. On the baby ward at first, later she took care of the disabled. ‘We initially thought,’ Cato recounts in 1947, ‘that we would be allowed to stay in Westerbork a little longer because of the work we were doing. However, it did not help at all.’ On 10 March she, too, was put on a transport: to Sobibor in Eastern Poland, on one of the last transports in passenger trains. ‘We were given enough food for on the way. We even had a lot left over. We could take anything and in addition were given a package that contained all kinds of things: butter, bread, etc.’

After arriving in Sobibor the people who could walk were directed to an open barracks in the camp, while the elderly people who were not quick enough were thrown from the train. If you could not walk, you would be hauled onto tippers and driven into the camp on a narrow-gauge railway. Cato and a group of other unmarried girls were selected to work in another camp. Married women were told by the SS to stay with the children. As the selected girls got back onto the train, the Dutch Jews who stayed behind in the camp were killed in Lager III. In this separate section of the camp the elderly and disabled were thrown from the tippers and shot in front of a pit, while the others were killed in the gas chambers. At that time Cato and the other young women (including Suze and Surry Polak, Sophie Huisman, Bertha Ensel, Judith Eliazer, Mirjam Penha-Blits, Sientje and Jetje Veterman) did not know about this and they giggled on the train about the silliness of lugging suitcases about that eventually had to be left behind in the camp after all, ‘not realizing they wanted to kill us. We had absolutely no idea’, Cato stated two years after the liberation.

"we wore our own clothes"
The final destination of the transport was camp Lublin-Flugplatz, built on the site of the former airfield. Here the clothes of the murdered Jews from the extermination camps were cleaned, sorted and packed to be sent to Germany as part of the Winterhilfe, where they were distributed among families in need. Although Cato had volunteered as a nurse, she was put to work sorting clothes. ‘We had to throw the clothes that were there on different piles and make bundles. The work was not too bad,’ Cato remembered later. Conditions were tolerable. ‘They didn’t cut our hair, so we cut it ourselves to control the lice. Conditions were fairly sanitary in the camp. We bathed at least once a week. The washrooms were adequate. We wore our own clothes that were unmarked. Later we were given a number.’

After sorting clothes for several months, Cato was put to work in the construction of a new camp behind the existing one. ‘We shovelled sand, which was horrible. The Ukrainians were incredibly lazy. It was one field of blood. Many men were beaten to death there. Different things were built there: a laundry, latrines, etc. This was done by the men. When construction was all done the camp was inaugurated, for which a selection took place among the women. We didn’t know what it was. About 200 women were told to step forward. The Lagerälteste had to select us. He also looked at our eyes. The people with a staring expression, they were no good. If your number was written down, you were in trouble. But we didn’t know that then.’ Cato initially thought that the selected women were to be put to work somewhere else, but she later heard that ‘all the people who were selected from the group went to the gas chambers.’ Only later did it dawn on Cato why the Polish women had screamed. ‘Because we didn’t know anything we were very calm.’ And that was exactly what the camp SS intended to achieve with their policy of secrecy.

"we could sense tension in the air"
In November 1943 Cato applied for work in the marmalade factory in the neighbouring town of Milejow. ‘They asked for about 50 or 60 girls. We volunteered, because we could sense tension in the air.’ Without the girls in the barracks noticing anything, the prisoners had revolted in early August in Treblinka and in mid-October in Sobibor. To prevent further riots in the camps, Himmler had ordered all the Jews in and around Lublin to be killed. During the so-called Aktion Erntefest, which took place on 3 and 4 November, more than 42,000 people were killed. Those who worked in Milejow, however, were not harmed.

After a short while the girls were transported to Trawniki, where all Jews had also been shot during the Aktion. When the girls were ordered to clean up the barracks, they were told by Polish boys who were also working there what had happened in the previous days. ‘They had to clear the bodies and burn them. The people had been shot in trenches. They had also been ordered to undress those people. In the field were heaps of clothes that we had to check later on,’ reported Cato. Until March 1944 the girls stayed in the camp, permanently terrified. The Lagerführer took pleasure in announcing to the girls time and time again in a threatening tone of voice that is was time for the ‘final roll call!’ Cato managed to survive unhurt and was returned to Lublin in June.

"we worked day and night"
As the Russian front approached, the camp in Lublin was soon evacuated. Escorted by SS and Wehrmacht the hundreds of prisoners were forced to go west, on foot, in the direction of Auschwitz-Birkenau. ‘Everyone was carrying provisions, rolled up in blankets. We all had one tin of meat, 2 large loaves of bread. I threw it away immediately, because it was too heavy,’ Cato recounted later. The SS and the Wehrmacht did not agree on how to treat the prisoners during the journey. ‘The Wehrmacht treated us much better than the SS. The SS used dogs to hurry us along. The Wehrmacht would sometimes give us water and food.’ After a short stay in Birkenau Cato was taken to Bergen-Belsen where she arrived in November. She did very little in this camp, she just hung around. There was a severe shortage of food; some days there was no food at all. ‘We went hungry and cold a lot. It was horrible there.’ In February 1945 Cato was put on transport once again. This time the destination was Raguhn, where she worked in the factory for a short period of time. ‘We had to work hard and were given little to eat. We worked day and night.’ In April the air was rife with rumours about an impending liberation by the Americans. The prisoners were hastily put on transport and taken to Czechoslovakia, where they arrived after a gruelling journey of one week, almost without food, in Theresienstadt. Many prisoners died here of typhoid fever. In May 1945 Cato and the other survivors were liberated by the Red Army.

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