By Gabriele Quinn
The next time you feel life is treating you unfairly, count your blessings. Last night, you probably opened the refrigerator to reach for a bedtime snack – even though you really didn’t need it.
Then you woke this morning in a warm, clean, bed to the aroma of fresh brewed coffee. Doubtless, you spoke freely with friends and co-workers without so much as a second thought. What about your family? Are they safe? Such a silly question; of course they are.
The great majority of us have much to learn. And if we could find ourselves fortunate enough to speak with Sigmund Sobolewski, 86, we just might get that chance. Sobolewski, an associate with Realty Executives Devonshire Realty in Lethbridge, Alta. is thankful to be alive. Sobolewski is an Auschwitz survivor.
The mere mention of Auschwitz to those familiar with the Holocaust evokes surreal images of endless cold barracks, heavily shrouded in human smoke, stretching as far as the eye can see. Despite its humble beginnings, Auschwitz-Birkenau grew to approximately 40 square km. It was the largest of all German concentration/extermination camps with about 155,000 inmates. It was here that lives of tormented souls hung by a thin, fragile thread. Among them were Poles, Russian POWs, Gypsies, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Freemasons, visible minorities and the disabled. Even German citizens found themselves guests at this nightmarish hotel. But, as many know, the vast majority was Jews. Notoriously, Auschwitz became an assembly line for mass murder.
On May 28, 1940, 17-year-old Sigmund Sobolewski, a Polish Catholic, was arrested at his home in the small southern town of Nisko, Poland. At 2 am, two German soldiers pounded on the door, shouting for someone to open up. “They were asking for my father, because my father was a captain in the Polish Army, but he was also the Mayor of Nisko. They could not get him so they arrested me and my mother,” Sigmund says.
Within days, Sobolewski found himself and 31 other Intelligentsia, or people with a higher education, on one of the first transports to Auschwitz. Of this group, only Sobolewski survived. He easily remembers the date of arrival, June 14, 1940. It was the day he was branded Prisoner 88.
“At that time, Auschwitz did not yet exist. When we arrived, there was no camp. There was nothing. We were kept in a big warehouse of a Polish tobacco company. And then gradually, the prisoners formed up the barbed wire around the building.” Sobolewski says. “Then we were working to convert the brick barracks of the Polish Artillery Regiment close to Auschwitz into the main camp.” At this point, Auschwitz became the first Nazi concentration camp on Polish soil. It began as a labour camp, but soon it grew into something far more sinister. Those chosen for work received a forearm identification. All others went directly to the gas chambers.
A camp of this size was run like a city with prisoners performing most of the work. Officially, the daily ration of food was 780 calories, but most prisoners were lucky to get this much. “Tea was supposed to be made from menthol leaves. But later on, they just made the tea with grass or anything; some warm water with something green floating in it. That was breakfast,” Sobolewski says. “For supper, we received one litre of watery soup.”
Fortunately, when the opportunity arose, Sobolewski found himself in one of the most desirable positions in the camp – the Fire Brigade. “My number, 88, attracted a lot of attention, because the numbers by this point were numbering in the hundreds of thousands. They treated me different. Because of the very fact that I had survived this long, it opened a lot of doors for me,” he says. “What do firemen do between fires? They don’t do anything. They waited for a fire.”
This meant energy was not expended like most prisoners who worked at hard labour with a pick and axe. If less fortunate prisoners were unable to supplement their rations, they died with three months.
Over 4 1/2 years, Sigmund bore witness to many horrors. Each day’s 6 am awakening brought renewed fears of beatings, hunger, sickness and death for those the Nazis considered not worthy of life. Hard labour and lack of food ensured the swift deterioration of the body; selections, or the act of choosing weakened persons to fill vacant gas chambers capable of killing 2,000 people at one time, awaited those whose bones protruded the most. Horrific human medical testing took place without the humane use of anesthetics. Those who succumbed to this torture then made their way to the ovens, which operated for 24 hours a day and spewed more human ash into the air. These are but a few examples of the awfulness of Auschwitz. When all was said and done, approximately 1.3 million lives ended here. Ninety per cent were Jews.
Asked if he has forgiven his Nazi tormentors who murdered so many, Sobolewski says, “I really have no hate against German people, because I know how Germans suffered” during the relentless round-the-clock Allied bombing of German centres. “There must have been thousands and thousands of civilians killed – for nothing.”
Many years later, and despite his age, Sobolewski is still going strong. Today, he is not only a Realtor, but he and Ramona, his wife of 47 years, run The Heritage Inn, a small motel, in Ft. Macleod, Alta. He has also found his calling as teacher. Clad in a reproduction of his Auschwitz garb, he has traveled worldwide and spoken before large crowds to tell his story of Auschwitz survival and lessons of tolerance. Sobolewski has been back to Auschwitz many times to speak out against Nazism, racism, and Holocaust denial. Incredibly, this emboldened man has confronted Neo-Nazis and anti-Semites alike. Does this make him a hero?
Sobolewski says, “No, I’m not a hero. I’m just a lucky guy, who by the grace of God, and by some unusual circumstances, I survived the camp. I was just lucky.”
Gabriele Quinn lives with her husband Mike Quinn, manager of the Lethbridge, Alta. office of Realty Executives Devonshire Realty. As well as a stint as Realtor, she has also been employed in the home building industry in Ontario and is currently employed with Greer Home Builders in Lethbridge. She has written and soon plans to publish her mother’s Second World War memoir. This is her first attempt at writing a journalistic piece.