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Sobibor Interviews

Judith Eliazar and Bertha Ensel

"sometimes we worked until midnight"
On 10 March 1943, 28-year-old hairdresser Judith Eliazar from Rotterdam, and Bertha Ensel from Amsterdam, 18 years old and a needlewoman by profession, were put on a transport from transit camp Westerbork to Sobibor in East Poland. They were there for only a brief period. ‘We were selected; 30 girls and 44 men were removed from the transport,’ both women stated in 1946. They did see how the disabled and elderly in their transport were hauled on to tippers and driven into the camp on a narrow-gauge railway. The camp SS said that these people were taken to the so-called Lazarett to be nursed and cared for. In reality the tippers drove to a section of the camp called Lager III. This was where the gas chambers were, but there was also a huge pit. The prisoners were told to line up along its edge, and then the camp SS would order the firing squad consisting of Ukrainian guards to shoot them.

Together with the other selected women Judith and Bertha were taken to Lublin-Majdanek. After the war they had this to say about their work and conditions in this concentration camp: ‘We worked there, we built barracks, mended roads, etc. The men and women worked separately and the barracks were also separate, but every night the women were allowed to go the men’s section from about 8 to 9 p.m. Sometimes we worked until midnight. The SS would be standing behind us with their whips. Occasionally our guards were White Russians from Ukraine. These could be even worse than the Huns. There was a lot of whipping in this camp.’ Majdanek was not only a slave labour camp; since November 1942 gas chambers had been installed where the victims were killed with Zyklon-B.

"we had to burn dead bodies"
After more than six months Judith, Bertha and other women were taken to Milejow to work in the marmalade factory. ‘We weren’t treated badly there,’ both women recounted. But that would not last. Only a few weeks later they were sent on to camp Trawniki, where all the Jews had been shot not long before. And not only there. On 3 November Himmler had proclaimed Aktion Erntefest and had determined that all Jews in the camps Trawniki, Lublin-Majdanek and several smaller camps had to be killed. A total of approximately 42,000 Jews were murdered. In all likelihood the SS leader had decided on the murder operation for fear of more disturbances in the camps, following the uprising and escape in heavily guarded Sobibor. In early August prisoners in extermination camp Treblinka had also revolted.

Not only women were taken to Milejow from Trawniki, men were also brought there. In the camp ‘we also had to burn dead bodies,’ according to both women. In the summer of 1944 they went back to Lublin, where they worked for about six weeks. Then they and many others were forced to walk to Auschwitz. ‘It took us about 5 days and 4 nights.’ This was the time of the so-called death marches. In addition to the Russian front closing in, the Western allies were also advancing. The commanders of the concentration camps were told that on no account were the prisoners to fall into the hands of the allied forces. Many prisoners were loaded on to trains or forced to march in the direction of Germany. During the evacuations many exhausted prisoners were shot and killed. During their march Judith and Bertha saw how one Dutch girl and several Polish girls were shot.

In Auschwitz the women worked for several months before they were sent further west to Bergen-Belsen in Germany. Here their paths parted after they had been together the entire time they were in Poland. Bertha was taken to Buchenwald and she eventually returned to the Netherlands by way of Lippstadt, where she had to work in the ammunition factory. Judith was brought home by the allies via the Salzwedel labour camp.

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