The last survivor
Shimon Srebnik, the last survivor of the Chelmno extermination camp, recalls his harrowing experiences.
"When we got to Chelmno the older people said, 'What a beautiful place,' 'We'll be happy here,' 'It's green, birds are singing,' 'A real health resort.'
I remained in the 'house kommando.' I was in a barrack with Waler Bonmeister. We sorted people's gold and possessions, things people left behind, suitcases. There was a big tent where Jews sorted things.
How did I know my mother arrived in Chelmno?
There were many handbags, a mountain of handbags. Once, I found a handbag with my mother's pictures and all her documents. I told Bonmeister: 'Look, this is my mother's.'
'Yes, she's in heaven,' he said.
'It's my mother's.' I was naive.
He said, 'Yes, but she's in heaven.'
I didn't know what he meant by 'heaven'."
- from the testimony of Shimon Srebnik in the Yad Vashem archives.
In a rural green forest area in central Poland, in the town of Chelmno, 47 miles west of Lodz, the Germans built their first extermination camp for mass murder by gas. Between December 1941 and January 1945, more than 300,000 Jews and 5,000 gypsies from Lodz and the vicinity were murdered in Chelmno. Only three people survived.
The last survivor of the Chelmno Extermination Camp, Shimon Srebnik, 76, of Ness Ziona, died last month at Tel Hashomer hospital after a long battle with cancer. Srebnik, who lost both his parents in the Holocaust, was a boy of 13 when he was deported to Chelmno from the nearby Lodz Ghetto, and was forced to bury the dead at the Nazi extermination camp.
Upon arrival in Chelmno, Srebnik was sent to join a small group of slave laborers at the rural extermination camp, whose pastoral settings deluded the people in the doomed transports into a false sense of hope, having come from the filth-ridden and disease-infested ghettos.
Like the rest of the prisoners, Srebnik had his legs immediately shackled - the length of the chain between them was about 40 centimeters - in order to prevent any possibility of escape from the secluded camp, which was manned by armed Germans.
The prisoners at the death camp were forced to wear their chains 24 hours a day. For the first two or three months, Srebnik put up tents and prepared the crematorium where his own mother would be gassed to death. Once the transports of Jews from Lodz began arriving regularly for extermination, Srebnik was assigned the job of extracting the gold from the teeth of the victims.
He was also involved in general sorting operations, before being assigned to bury the dead.
It was when he was sorting through the victims' personal possessions that he came across pictures belonging to his mother and realized that she too had been murdered in Chelmno.
WHEN THE victims arrived in Chelmno, they were gathered in the camp courtyard, and told they were being sent to a work camp and needed to wash up.
Groups of 50 were then escorted to the basement of the camp building, where they were told to remove their valuables and undress; men, women and children together.
During their walk to death, the victims were continuously reassured by signs reading "to the washroom" or "to the doctor" when in fact they were walking down a ramp into a parked gas van.
After the van was completely filled, the driver locked both the doors and turned on the motor. About 10 minutes later, the gas fumes had suffocated everybody inside.
In his vivid, bone-chilling testimony, Srebnik details how the prisoners were killed at the camp.
"There were three gas vans. The exhaust gas from the engine entered the van through a gridiron on the floor. Each van held 80 people. There was a bigger van that held 100 people. The distance from Chelmno to the forest was four kilometers. During the ride, gas entered the van.
When the doors opened, you could see that all the dead were injured.
Everyone wanted to survive, wanted to live, so they scratched each other. It was terrible. When the van reached the furnace, two people entered. The furnace was already lit.
What a fire! There was a railway gridiron in the furnace. They put a layer of wood on top of it and lit it and then a layer of people, and a layer of wood. This happened every two days. They pulled out gold teeth along with the flesh. I sat and removed the gold from the flesh.
It smelled awful. I collected the victim's teeth. It wasn't only my mother, I handled thousands of mothers. My heart ached for them and for my mother. But there were thousands like her...
Did I think about my mother? She was already in heaven. Nothing could be done."
As related on the Yad Vashem website, in January 1945, as the end of the war approached and the Soviet troops drew near, the Nazis began evacuating Chelmno, which they had begun to destroy four months earlier.
The Germans decided to liquidate the camp, and opened fire on the last 48 Jewish prisoners, shooting them in the back of the neck.
Srebnik was seriously wounded by Nazi gunfire during the liquidation, but, along with two others camp inmates, managed to escape during a last-minute fight that the dying and emaciated prisoners put up against their captors.
Srebnik was able to find refuge with a Polish farmer in the town who cut off his shackles and took care of the feverish boy. The following day, the Germans offered a large cash reward for turning Srebnik in.
But the Poles, who already feared the approaching Russians more than the Germans, did not betray him, and so he was able to reach the approaching Russian forces. After the war he immediately immigrated to Israel, meeting his future wife on a way station in Italy.
THREE AND a half decades later, in 1978, Srebnik received his shackles back from the Polish farmer who saved him when he went to the site of the extermination camp with Claude Lanzmann for the filming of the Holocaust documentary Shoah. After some hesitation, he would later donate the leg irons to Yad Vashem, where they are currently on display.
"It was not easy for him to part from the shackles," said Yehudit Inbar, director of the Museums Division at Yad Vashem who took down Srebnik's testimony several years ago.
Srebnik, who had earlier testified at the Eichmann trial, also assisted the Polish archeologist who excavated the Chelmno site over the last two decades.
Noting that the shackles are among the museum's most-visited exhibits, Inbar added: "He was a very special man, with a very special story."
Srebnik is survived by his wife, two daughters, five grand-children, and a great-grandchild.