To commemorate Holocaust Memorial day which is on January 27th I wanted to do a short post .
I was horrified to see a photo showing cyclists who had to be asked to dismount because they were cycling through the Sobibor death camps “Himmelstrausse” or “Road to Heaven ” the path along which those who arrived at the camp were herded naked on their way to the gas chambers .
Himmelstrauss was the name given to the route at the death camps which marked the final journey of those arriving and along which they were often forced naked before being forced into the gas chambers ,after which their bodies were removed and destroyed .
Sobibor was one of several “death camps” or extermination camps created as part of Operation Reinhard.
,unlike Auschwitz ,or Belsen or Dachau ,there was no almost chance of survival ,Jews were murdered here on arrival ,the very few to survive were pulled from the crowds to act as work details to clear the bodies from the gas chambers and burn them or sort clothing and possessions of the dead.These workers were “culled” and replaced at regular intervals so selection didnt guarantee survival just bought an extra few days or weeks of life.The only survivors of Sobibor were those who escaped during the uprising of 1943. A star of David was discovered near the camps outer perimeter,I like to think that perhaps dropped during this uprising and its owner survived .Thought its much more likely its owner perished as though a few hundred escaped only 60 of those survived.
I thought it would be fitting to trace the life and journey of some of those whose last minutes were spent at Sobibor and the journey of child whose last steps were taken walking along this path to the gas chambers of Sobibor.Due to recent archeaoligal excavations at the site of Sobibor more has been confirmed about the camps layout and fragments of the lives of those murdered here has emerged ,coins ,a ring inscribed in Hebrew with the Jewish wedding vow,,behold you are consecrated to me .
Found nr the gas chamber its owner would certainly have been murdered shortly after removing it or perhaps t it fell from her in death,though its unlikey the guards would have missed such an exquisite item of jewellery,, did she hide it to keep it safely away from the thieving guards while she went for her “shower “and expected to retrieve it ?or what is much more likely is that she realised her fate as often the women and children were forced to wait outside the chambers and hear the cries of the dying men before the chambers were emptied and they were forced into them ,perhaps it was a last act of defiance ,refusing to allow the murders to have something so personal and precious or symbolically buried as the woman hearing the mens cries realised her husband was now dead and she was a widow .It is of course impossible to know ,but it survives as a poignant symbol of a destroyed life that was once filled with love and beauty ,a person loved and treasured who within a few short hours would not only be dead but may well have ceased to exist utterly ,their body burned in the fire pits that lay just out of sight.
I will trace the road to Sobibor for those Jews who arrived from one destination ,the Netherlands ,the Netherlands have lasting and detailed record of events that lead to the holocaust during WW2 ,we have the invaluable Diary of Anne Frank describing a life in hiding ,we also have the accounts of Corrie Ten Boom ,who was one of those who hid Jews and was active in helping many escape.We also have the surviving father on Anne Frank who eventually survived Auschwitz .
But the child whose journey I choose is not Anne Frank who died at Belsen but Lea Judith La Penha who like the older Anne Frank came from Amsterdam.
The account below describes excavations at Sobibor that unearthed the identity tag belonging to six year old Lea.She was born on 14 of May 1937 and died on July 9th 1943 with her parents and over 2400 others.
“By August 2012, the team of workers had recovered numerous artefacts interpreted to be the last possessions of some prisoners. In addition to evidence of structures and other features on the camp area landscape, artefacts included teeth, bone shards, jewellery, keys and coins that gave clues to identifying the victims. “The most important of these was an aluminium identification tag belonging to a six-year old girl, Lea Judith De La Penha of Amsterdam,” writes Haimi in a recent preliminary report, “who arrived from the Westerbork Camp in Holland together with her parents, on a transport that left on July 6, 1943 and arrived to Sobibór on July 9, 1943. The child’s mother was Judith de Abraham Rodrigues Parreira, b. 1903 and her father was David de Hartog Juda De La Penha, b. 1909. The De La Penha family belonged to a community of ‘Portuguese Jews’ who arrived from Spain and Portugal to Holland approximately one hundred years after the Spanish Inquisition in 1492……Following the German invasion, the situation for Dutch Jews became critical and in July 1942, the first transports of Jews to Poland began.”
Lea was traced and family photos show a happy family,shes shown having a dolls tea party
Or being held .
We have family photos of her and her parents celebrating Christmas ,showing they had not been a strict and harshly observant Jewish family but enjoyed traditionally gentile celebrations
The La Penha family lived in Amsterdam ,he father was a decorator and lithographer ,her mother a seamstress,they had married in 1934 and had their first child in 1936 the child died either at birth or shortly after ,their next child was Lea was born the following year and she must have been doubly precious to parents who would have lost their first born.They lived in good areas of Amsterdam ,though were not wealthy.From their home they were arrested and had just a few days to live
An account of the last weeks of the La Penha family can be found here and I include a paragraph
“the father, mother and Lea were arrested in 1943 and went on July 6 from Westerbork to Sobibor with the 68th transport. In this transport were 2417 people.
Upon arriving on July 9, 1943 the people of this transport were killed almost instantly, with David, Judith and Lea killed on July 9th, 1943.
Shortly after the deportation from the Count Floris Street was the home pulsed. That means that the furniture was taken away from moving pulse and transferred to Argentina warehouse.The furniture was meticulously recorded.
An account of their belongings can be found here in the original dutch
From their arrest they would have been taken to Amsterdam railway station and loaded onto overcrowded trains to Westerbrork transit camp.
On arrival after a fairly short journey they were processed but the process was nowhere near as disturbing and brutal as that of other camps.
while effectively prisoners camp life was not as unpleasant as in the final destination work and death camps,Prisoners could practice their faith and had other facilities
The barracks while crowded and basic were not in any way comparable to Auschwitz
A full account of camp life can be found here and I include extracts
Westerbork took on many of the characteristics of a small town. There was a hospital headed by Dr F M Spanier, with 1,800 beds, a maternity ward, laboratories, pharmacies, 120 doctors and a further 1,000 employees. Other facilities included an old people’s home, a huge modern kitchen, a school for children aged 6-14, an orphanage and religious services. Workshops existed for stocking repair, tailoring, furniture manufacturing, and bookbinding. There were divisions for locksmiths, decorators, bricklayers, carpenters, veterinarians, opticians and gardeners.
The camp included an electro-technical division, a garage and boiler room, a sewage works, and a telephone exchange. In 1943, when the “permanent” population was at its peak, 6,035 people were employed at the camp, not all of whom were Jewish.
Although men and women were segregated at night, there was no restriction on their movements during the day. Services within the camp included dental clinics, hairdressers, photographers and a postal system. Various sporting activities were available, including boxing, tug-of-war and gymnastics. Gemmeker encouraged entertainment activities – there was a cabaret, a choir and a ballet troupe. Toiletries, toys and plants could be purchased from the camp warehouse. There were no shortages in the camp, since it was regularly supplied by the Dutch administration and Gemmeker had a fund at his disposal appropriated from the Jewish property that had been confiscated. As with some other transit camps, Westerbork had its own currency.
In case it should be thought that this was an idyllic existence, it should be born in mind that every inmate had the spectre of imminent death hanging over them. The railway line into the camp had been completed in November 1942 and allowed trains into the centre of the compound. 101,525 of the 107,000 Dutch Jews deported to the east were interned at Westerbork – 41,156 men, 45,867 women and 14,502 children. More than 95% of those deported from the camp perished.
Fear of transport to the unknown east dominated Westerbork and defined the behaviour of many of its inmates. Although no detailed knowledge about the destination of the transports was known, the prisoners were only too aware that the Germans were not planning anything that would prove beneficial to the deportees. In order to keep their names off the transport lists, people would do anything – “sacrifice their last hoarded halfpenny, their jewels, their clothes, their food, or in the case of young girls, their bodies.”
The regime at Westerbrork must have instilled a false sense of security on those transient prisoners who only saw the strict but not horrific camp and were told they were going East to be resettled or to work .Those sent from Amsterdam to Sobibor seem to have occasionaly been sent in overcrowded trains rather than the cattle carriages used for other transports .There is an account of a camp survivors that talks of unsuspecting dutch jews arriving in pulman carriages ,adding to their false sense of security perhaps Lea was lucky enough to be in one of these transports.
rather than the much more brutal journey by cattle carriage
So horrific was the journey in these that some died and all were glad to finally see their destination
Sadly on arrival at Sobibor was no improvement.An account of Sobibor can be found in full here but I include the relevant part which gives an account of the peoples arrival and will no doubt be the same process that accounts for the final hour of little Leas life.
photo below show arrivals at the similar extremination camp of Treblinka
. On arrival the Jews were taken directly to the reception area. They were informed that they had reached a transit camp en route to a labour camp. Many of them were forced to write letters to their relatives, to let them know that they had arrived safely at a labour camp. They were then told that they would continue on their journey the next day, but must take a shower and have their clothes disinfected before moving on.
The men and women were separated, the children being taken with their mothers. The Nazis ordered the victims to remove their clothing and hand over their valuables. The Jews were then marched to the gas chambers. They were treated brutally, chased and screamed at by the Ukrainian guards, who fired warning shots at them. About 450 to 550 Jews were forced into the gas chambers at a time.
The whole process, from arrival to burial, took just two or three hours. Prisoners were then ordered to clean out the railway wagons before the trains left and another train of about 20 wagons containing a thousand more Jews entered the camp.
A survivor sketched the proccess
Some tried to escape but were shot by hidden troops with machine guns
while blurred survivor photos from other camps show the confusion and terror of the final walk to the Gas chambers.
Afterwards the murdered victims were taken and their bodies hidden from new arrivals ,originally they were buried then when the system had been “perfected ” burned in open pits or in later camps such as Auschwitz in crematoriums
Carbon monoxide generated by a diesel engine mounted outside was piped into the gas chambers. The corpses were removed from a second door and buried in huge, specially excavated pits. Carts, and later trolleys on a small rail track, were used to carry deportees who were too infirm to walk to the burial pits where they were shot so as not to delay the killing process.
In April 1942, Franz Stangl, an SS officer with a background in Operation T4, arrived to take command. Stangl commanded a mere 20-30 SS men, mainly from the T4 program. There was also a guard company of Ukrainians. About 200 to 300 Jews worked in teams at the gas chambers and burial pits. They cleaned out the killing rooms, removed gold teeth from the corpses and pushed trolleys heaped with bodies towards the pits. About 1,000 Jews worked at the platform cleaning up the rail trucks and removing debris, and in teams at the shaving hut, the undressing barracks and in the sorting sheds.
Within a few days Lea went from a child surrounded my a loving family to death at Sobibor
perhaps like the girl in the red coat in Schindlers list She now stands out from the crowd of lost lives
her journey chronicled
but her the fate the same
She has no grave ,the Nazis destoyed all trace of her within hours ,she lies intermingled with thosands of others among the huge mound of ashes that form the burial memorial at Sobibor,only her name tag survived the process of destruction and preserves her memory
In an effort to hide the camps and murder committed in them the camps of operation Reinhard were destroyed after they had fulfilled their function ,incriminating paperwork destroyed where unneeded ,the bodies burned and ashes crushed ,the camp buildings were raised to the ground ,rubble removed and then the ground backfilled ,inTreblinka a false farm was created with farmhouse and trees ,Sobibor disapeared until with the help of survivors the site was rediscovered .Archaeologists here and at Treblinka have helped to uncover the camps layout and remnants of lost people who perished .