Translated from the Polish manuscript by Dalia Tesler, edited by Yecheskel Raban
Published by "Beit Lochamei Hagetaot" The Ghetto Fighters' House Holocaust and Jewish Resistance Heritage Museum, Israel and Hakibbutz Hameuchad Publishing House with the assistance of the Hayim and Feigel Frenkel Memorial Fund, Australia ©
Dedicated to the Sobibor’s revolt organizers;
to the many who initiated it and participated;
and in memory of the hundreds of thousands of its victims.
From Holland to Sobibor
Testimony of Ilana Safran – (Orsula Stern-Buchheim)
Translated from Hebrew by Ester Blumwald and edited by Ada Holtzman
Ilana Safran – (Orsula Stern-Buchheim)
I was born in Essen, Germany in 1926. When the Nazis came to power, my parents shut down their lingerie store and escaped to Holland.
When Holland was taken over by Germany we were at Epe. My father, Albert Stern, joined the resistance. My father and the architect Donklar and Peters (Stevans, who was murdered by the Nazis later) were part of a group of 20 people, that belonged to the “Oranje Vrijbuiters” movement. My father was skilled in the use of firearms and was the group instructor in that field. His group broke into the city hall in Apeldoorn, and confiscated many food coupons and important documents.
One of its assignments was to find a safe hiding place for the persecuted persons by the Nazis and British air-force pilots. The “Oranje Vrijbuiters” stayed in contact with the resistance movement in Utrecht, Hilversum and Rotterdam. Many Jews, who had forged I.Ds, found a shelter at Dutch patriots homes.
But, my parents’ shelter was discovered. They were deported East, and there they were murdered, probably in Auschwitz.
We were hiding at the Pompe family’s home. We were 15 people, and it was hardly possible for our hosts to provide for us. Our hiding place was discovered, and the lady of the house, Mrs. Pompe was deported to the concentration camp Ravensbrük. Three of us – Heinz Neuman, Rudi Cohen and Luky Danielson – managed to escape at the last moment. Myself, Danielson’s parents and sister as well as Mr. Lever and his son were transported to Utrecht prison, and than to Amstelveen and finally to Vught concentration camp.
In Vught many Jewish families with their many children were randomly imprisoned. I was 16, and along with me, a few other girls were imprisoned: Claria de Hartog, Nani and Cathy Hooks from Haag, Betje van Kreveld, Betje Heimans, Salma Weinberg from Zwolle and Mimi Katz from Harlem. We were all pleased that we had the opportunity to ease a bit the suffering of the children who were imprisoned in Vught. The food we received was very bad, but sufficient. The Germans were harassing us with endless roll-calls.
In Westerbork, in Holland, was the concentration camp for Dutch Jews. We stayed there also, for a week, and then, in April of 1943 we were deported to the East - to Poland.
The journey through the breadth of Poland was a nightmare. Those exiled from the West believed, in all honesty, that they were taken to labour camps. In 1943 the Polish Jews knew already that Sobibor is a death camp, and refused to get off the trains when arrived there. The S.S forced them off with whips and lashes and shootings randomly. And then, they started with the “Selection”. All the girls and young women were separated from the others. Most people in this transport, mainly the many children in it, were sent to the gas chambers.
We, the young women, were instructed to write to our families on postcards which they provided us with, that “we arrived safely”. I wrote to my friend in Holland and they actually received it. After the war I went back there and found it at my friend.
The transports from Westerbork arrived at Sobibor every Tuesday and Friday, and it continues until June 1943. Day and night we were contemplated only about one thing: to escape this hell on earth. But, how do you do this? An escape seems to the Dutch as mission impossible, because they did not speak Polish or Ukraine. In spite of this, a group of Dutch from the camp tried to escape, but was caught and everyone were shot to death.
In September 1943, a transport from Soviet Russia arrived in Sobibor. The “Russians” tried to make connections with the Ukrainian garrison, whose men became more “flexible”and easy to associate with after the victory of the Germans became uncertain. The Ukrainians were allowed to get in and out of the camp as they wished, and were often visiting the village Sobibor. They promised the “Russians” to connect them with the Partisans. At the date agreed upon, the Partisans were supposed to attack the camp from outside, but the plan failed. Even though, Some of the Ukrainians took the opportunity and fled the camp.
October 14: I felt as if something is about to happen.. Suddenly I heard voices: “Run away! Escape! “
I saw groups of people rushing towards the wire fence, so I ran with them. Cathy Hooks was running beside me. We managed, by a miracle, to get to the forest, and that because those in front of us broke through the wire fence and “cleared ” the ground from mines which were buried in it... In the forest we met Ada Lichtman, and the three of us, frozen to death and hungry, wandered around for a long time. A youngster showed us the way to the Partisans’ camp.
To our dismay, we realized that in this Partisan camp there were Polish and Ukrainian squadrons, who fought one against the other to the extent of injuries and killings. Their people murdered the Jews who escaped and ran into them. One day, while wandering around the forest, we heard Yiddish speaking voices. Through them we arrived at the Partisan griup “Michal”, where the people who escaped from Sobibor found refuge. The Partisans exhausted us. We had to walk, with no rest, 50 – 60 kilometres a day, but we were free!
One day we were attacked by company of Polish Partisans. They disarmed us with the excuse that we stole their equipment and armaments which the allies parachuted specially for them.
“Michal’s” main Partisan activity was sabotaging the railways. In the forest we took care of group of families where women and children could find refuge.
Finally, we met up with the Russian Partisans. This was a real army – about 2000 men, but they refused to accept all of our group. Only the young men were accepted to their ranks, and they promised to send the women and girls to the hinterland for teaching and training. But, we all wanted to remain together. It took us a great effort, and sometimes it cost us real fights, to manage to stay together. In one of these fights, a short time before our liberation, Cathy Hooks was killed.
Eventually, the long awaited day – liberation day – arrived. We went to Wlodawa, the city near Sobibor, and there I found Selma Weinberg and her fiancé Chaim Engel, who, during the Sobibor uprising, killed the S.S man Backman. Together we went to see the place of hell where we were tortured, but nothing was left of the camp. After the uprising the whole camp was destroyed by the Germans.
Than we travelled to Lublin, Chernivtsi (Czernowitz), Odessa and from there to Holland. But I had one strong wish in my heart: to escape Europe altogether, to be as far as possible from Sobibor.
Testimony was given in the Hagen trial in German 1964.
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"I would like to hope, that these tragic testimonies will continue to serve as manifesto, which says, that the day will come when all discriminations will stop in this world, the hatred, the mass murders and the wars, and peace – the dream of our prophets, will dwell safely upon this earth."
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Last Updated November 1st, 2004