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Sobibor Interviews

Sophia Huisman

"we never saw any of these people again"
On 26 February 1943 all patients and staff of the Jewish hospital in Rotterdam were rounded up in a raid by the Sicherheitsdienst and the Dutch WA and taken to Westerbork. Among them was 17-year-old trainee nurse Sophie Huisman. She was in the transit camp only briefly; on 10 March she and the majority of the patients from the hospital were put on a transport to Sobibor. Upon arrival some thirty young women and a similar number of men were selected for work elsewhere. ‘Camp Sobibor was an extermination camp,’ Sophie stated in 1945. ‘We all believed that the others in the transport of 1,200 were gassed. We never saw any of these people again.’ And indeed, all the prisoners who were not selected to work in a labour camp were killed almost immediately on arrival. The elderly and disabled were loaded on to tippers and driven to the screened-off Lager III where they were shot by Ukrainian guards. The rest were taken to the same section of the camp to be killed in gas chambers, after being told to leave their luggage and clothes behind.

"he was hanged right in front of us"
Sophie was put on a transport to Lublin together with some other Dutch women, including Cato Polak, the sisters Suze en Surry Polak, Bertha Ensel, Judith Eliazer and Jetje Veterman. Their arrival in the Lublin-Majdanek camp did not bode well. ‘Polish women in striped concentration camp clothes warned us right away that the camp was really bad and that we should hope to be leaving it soon,’ Sophie explained. Fortunately for her and the other women they were taken away soon after arriving to the nearby labour camp Lublin-Flugplatz. Here they were put to work immediately in the sorting barracks, where the girls had to sort the clothes of the murdered Jews. Later more Dutch nationals arrived in the camp, one of them being singer Jim Kleerekoper. He often sang for the SS and in return got some extra food. After he was suspected of trying to escape, ‘he was hanged right in front of all of us, after he had been forced to dig his own grave and erect his own gallows’. Sophie witnessed more acts of cruelty, mainly against the male prisoners, who were often beaten until they died of their injuries.

After some time Sophie and the other women took advantage of the opportunity of a transfer to Milejow, where they could work in a marmalade factory. ‘There were thirteen of us Dutch girls, the rest stayed in Lublin; the rest being only five girls. Of the missing girls six had been gassed because they had been judged too weak in a selection.’ And they were not the only ones who were killed. On 3 and 4 November 1943, shortly after the group of women arrived in Milejow, the SS had shot all Jews in Lublin and in other camps in the vicinity. Himmler had given the order for the so-called Aktion Erntefest for fear of irregularities in the camps after the prisoners in Treblinka revolted in August, and those in Sobibor in mid-October. Sophie was told about the massacre by non-Jewish Poles who had had a lucky escape.

"we would bake butter biscuits and drank advocaat"
In Milejow the girls slept in the stable. Although the sanitary conditions were far from adequate, they were not treated badly and they had enough food. But because they could not cook the food everything had to be eaten raw and ‘one after the other, we all fell dangerously ill’. After a while Sophie and the others were transported to Trawniki, one of the camps where the Jews had been massacred shortly before. Sophie: ‘The first days we had to sort clothes; inside those clothes we found a lot of money and diamonds; we were supposed to hand these over, but we didn’t give them everything.’ The men had to burn the bodies and ‘judging by the wounds this must have been done in a barbaric way. After eight days this work was completed and they themselves were shot and burned, all 45 of them.’ The women were told to clean up the barracks and they kept finding new bodies, from the big massacre. They traded the gold and diamonds they had found inside the clothing with the Ukrainian guards for extra food. The camp commander knew that the prisoners lived off contraband and so they did not receive any food. ‘The Poles,’ recounts Sophie, ‘sometimes had ten eggs a day and they ate chicken every day. We would often bake butter biscuits four or five times a week, and we made and drank advocaat.’

The Dutch women stayed in Trawniki until June 1944. They were taken back to Lublin-Majdanek because of the military situation. She thought the camp was neat, but the prisoners were treated cruelly. They were ‘frequently and badly beaten and thrashed,’ Sophie recounts. In the camp they were the only Jews, because the others had been killed in November during Aktion Erntefest. As the Red Army approached, the camp was evacuated and the prisoners were forced to walk to Auschwitz. Sophie estimates that the SS shot at least twenty of them along the way. The final part of the journey was made by train. In Auschwitz-Birkenau the girls were put to work in the Scheisskommando, the detail that had to empty the buckets of faeces on the dung heap outside the camp. After three months Sophie and a few others from her transport were taken via Celle to Raguhn, where they had to work in an ammunition factory. There was an outbreak of spotted fever here and it killed many. When the American troops closed in from the west, the prisoners were put on transport yet again. This time, however, they went southeast and they eventually arrived in Czechoslovakia. ‘The journey was awful, by train, half living people and half dead bodies’, Sophie remembers. The transport eventually arrived in Theresienstadt, where she was liberated.

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