Walking with his father on the streets of the Łódź Ghetto in Poland during the summer of 1943, thirteen-year-old Shimon Srebrnik suddenly heard gun shots ring out.
“Papa, please … talk to me. Are you hurt?” Shimon shouted, but to no avail. His father’s lifeless body slumped to the ground, murdered by Nazi soldiers.
Months later, after the incomprehensible shooting of his father — for no reason other than he was Jewish — Shimon was deported to the Chełmno death camp. He was not even allowed to notify his mother of his fate.
In a rural forested area of central Poland near the town of Chełmno (Kulmhof in German), 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 Roma-Sinti from Łódź and the vicinity were murdered in Chełmno.
Upon arrival, Shimon was sent to join a small group of slave laborers. The pastoral setting of the Chełmno camp deluded the people in the doomed transports into a false sense of hope, as they had come from disease-infested ghettos.
When we got to Chełmno, the older people said, ‘What a beautiful place! We will be happy here! It’s green, birds are singing. A real health resort.’
The Nazi guards shackled Shimon’s ankles, something they repeated with every prisoner. The restraints made an escape into the dense woods virtually impossible. To Shimon, the shackles — connected by a short length of heavy chain — served as a constant reminder of the hopelessness of his situation.
The Chełmno prisoners were forced to wear their chains twenty-four hours a day. They slept in the camp granary on a bare cement floor.
For the first two or three months, Shimon put up tents and prepared the crematorium where his own mother’s body would be reduced to ashes. Once the transports of Jews from the Łódź Ghetto began arriving regularly, Shimon was assigned the task of extracting gold from the teeth of the victims who had been exterminated in the gas vans. He was also involved in general sorting operations, before being assigned to bury the dead.
I remained in the house ‘Kommando.’ I was in a barrack with Walter Bonmeister. We sorted people’s gold and possessions, things people left behind, suitcases. There was a big tent where Jews sorted things.
One day as Shimon sorted through victims’ personal possessions, he found some pictures belonging to his mother. Only then did he realize that she too had been murdered at Chełmno.
How did I know my mother arrived in Chełmno?
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 naïve.
He said, ‘Yes, but she’s in heaven.’
I didn’t know what he meant by ‘heaven.’
When the victims arrived in Chełmno, they were gathered in the camp courtyard and told they were being sent to a work camp. They needed to wash up.
Guards then escorted groups of fifty 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 constantly reassured by signs reading To the bath house, or To the doctor. In fact, they were walking down a long ramp into a parked gas van.
After the van was completely filled, the driver locked the doors and turned on the motor. About ten minutes later, the gas fumes had suffocated everyone inside.
In his vivid testimony, Shimon 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 eighty people. There was a bigger van that held one hundred people. The distance from Chełmno 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 victims’ 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.
In January 1945, as the end of the war approached and the Soviet troops drew near, the Nazis began evacuating Chełmno, which they had begun to destroy four months earlier. The Germans decided to execute the forty-eight remaining prisoners as their last act before abandoning the camp. Although the prisoners were weak and emaciated from years of abuse, they fought back. But they were no match for the heavily armed guards.
As each of the prisoners was shot in the back of the neck, Shimon was seriously wounded. However, during the confusion he managed to escape along with two other inmates.
Shimon made his way through the forest toward the town, where a Polish farmer offered him refuge and kept him safe. It was this Polish farmer who cut off the shackles and helped Shimon heal his wounds.
Despite an intense search and a large cash reward offered by the Nazis in exchange for Shimon’s return, the farmer did not go back on his word. In 1978, that man returned the shackles to Shimon, who donated them to Yad Vashem, where they are on display.
“It was not easy for him to part with the shackles,” said Yehudit Inbar, director of the Museums Division at Yad Vashem. Inbar had transcribed Shimon’s testimony years earlier and knew his story well.
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.”
On June 29, 1945 — about six weeks after the end of war in Europe — Shimon Srebrnik gave testimony before the Examining Judge of the District Court in Łódź. Only fifteen years old, he described the horrors he had witnessed, the inhumanity that had imprisoned him for over a year.
He spoke of Schneider, a sentry who delighted in abusing prisoners; of a guard who sadistically killed many Jewish prisoners with his own hands; and of yet another sentry named Hutner who secretly gave bread to the prisoners and protected them as best he could.
Shimon likewise remembered his fellow prisoners, those who had died while trying to escape, those who gave him comfort, those who did unthinkable things in a vain attempt to save their own lives.
Shimon Srebrnik (also known as Szymon Srebrnik) died on September 18, 2006. But his memory and his tale of survival live on.
To learn more about Shimon Srebrnik (Szymon Srebrnik), we recommend the following:
- The Claude Lanzmann Shoah documentary, which featured Shimon’s life story;
- The June 29, 1945 testimony before the court in Łódź, available online at http://www.HolocaustResearchProject.org/survivor; and,
- Yad Vashem’s Web site (www.yadvashem.org), with search for +Chełmno +survivor.
© 2010, Rita Whitman Steingold. First World Rights held by Exclamation! Publishers. Photograph of Łódź Ghetto prisoners is public domain. Photograph of Chełmo Gas Van is public domain.