Survivor: Sol Liber


As soon as the train leaving the Warsaw Ghetto made its first stop, the 100 Jews packed into the cattle car with 19-year-old Sol Liber knew they were headed east to the Treblinka death camp. “Half the train was getting crazy,” said Sol, who recalls standing back from the tiny window in his car to let more air reach his older sisters, Tishel and Shayva, who were fainting. 

Hours later, the train pulled into the Treblinka station. “Raus, raus” (“Out, out”) the SS shouted, as dazed passengers exited the cars, lining up outside. “Give up your valuables,” other men ordered, holding an open blanket for the deposits. Amid what seemed to Sol utter chaos, the SS herded about 3,100 Jews toward the gas chambers. 

An SS tapped Sol on the shoulder, motioning for him to sit, cross-legged, with a group of men on nearby cement. From there, Sol watched his sisters walk with their arms around one another, unable to keep a straight line, until they disappeared behind a shrubbery-covered chain-link fence. “Ausziehen, ausziehen” (“Undress, undress”), he heard SS shouting from behind the fence. 

Sol and the remaining 500 men continued to wait while the cattle cars were cleaned. After two hours, Sol noticed everything was quiet. “Nothing. You could only hear the birds in the trees,” he said. It was late April 1943. 

Sol Liber was born on Dec. 3, 1923, in Grójec, Poland, to Sana and Shayndel Liber. He was the fifth of six children, and Sol’s father leased out orchards and sold the fruit in Warsaw. Their observant Orthodox family was poor; they lived in an apartment with just two small bedrooms and a kitchen. 

Sol fondly remembers Shabbat, and his mother lighting candles on Friday night and serving chicken soup and challah. The rest of the week, he said, “people were concentrating on putting food on the table.”

Sol attended a public school strictly for Jewish children, and also went to Hebrew school. At 13, he was apprenticed to a tailor, and he also attended night school for basic military training.

In early September 1939, Sol was standing in the family’s backyard when the Germans bombed the town’s flourmill. He escaped with his family to an orchard.

The next day, Nazi Einsatzgruppe soldiers picked up men ages 15 to 50, including Sol and his father. (Sol’s brothers had already been drafted into the Polish army.) They marched the 200 Jews and Poles from city to city, with little food and under harsh conditions. Finally, after Warsaw capitulated to the Germans, the prisoners were freed. Sol and his father returned home around Sukkot.

In Grójec, Sol was selected for forced labor, including spreading manure and clearing snow off the roads, both with his bare hands. By July 1940, the Germans had established a ghetto, where Sol lived in one room with his family. The was nothing to do, Sol said, except “just go to work and starve to death.” In February 1941 they were all transported in open trucks to the Warsaw ghetto. 

Sol was unable to find work. In the summer he escaped over an 8-foot fence — “[It] was a miracle,” Sol said — and walked to Bialobrzegi, another ghetto.

To survive, Sol sneaked out of the ghetto and begged food from farmers. One day he saw his father, who had also escaped from the Warsaw ghetto with Sol’s mother and younger sister Esther. They were renting a shack from a local Pole. 

In early 1942, Sol found a farmer who let him work in exchange for food. After three months, however, afraid of the consequences of harboring a Jew, the farmer released Sol, but gave him some money and food. 

Sol joined his brother Rafael, who was working on the railroad, but Rafael contracted typhoid fever and died two weeks later. Sol also came down with the disease, but he recovered and went to work in a nearby labor camp that served as an SS farm. Sol’s job was scrubbing four horses, which the Germans inspected with white gloves twice daily. They invariably found dust and beat him, he said, “more than once.”

One morning, when the stable head hit Sol with a rope for half-dozing, Sol grabbed his pitchfork and thrust it in the man’s stomach, killing him. 

Sol ran, and made his way to a farm in Praga, outside Warsaw, where his sisters worked. Then, in the summer of 1942, they were all transferred to the Warsaw Ghetto.

Sol and his sisters stayed together, living on Szczesliwa Street and working in a factory. Sol repaired gunshot holes in soldiers’ uniforms.

Sol soon learned about a resistance organization within the ghetto and was blindfolded and taken to see Mordechai Anielewicz, then second in command of the ZOB or Jewish Combat Organization. He was given a gun and taught to make Molotov cocktails. 

Early on April 19, 1943, the night of first seder, SS entered the ghetto, intending to liquidate it in three days. Instead, the Jews resisted. Sol tossed Molotov cocktails at the soldiers in his area. A few fell, and the rest retreated. Sol escaped to a bunker on his street.

The next day, German tanks entered the ghetto. From a rooftop, Sol hit one with a Molotov cocktail. That night, Sol was ordered to blow up an airplane parts factory on Niska Street. He and four others left the bunker, and to avoid making noise on pavement littered with broken glass, they walked in their stocking feet to the factory, where they broke four windows and threw in cocktails. “The factory went up in flames,” Sol said. 

A few nights later, Sol and a few others took a small group of teenagers to a sewer entrance, to allow the young people to escape. But when they approached the manhole, they smelled gas. Someone had ratted on them, and the Germans opened fire. Sol hit the ground, but a bullet penetrated his shoulder. 

The group made it to the Szczesliwa Street bunker, where about 80 people were hiding. But the SS later opened the trap door and threatened to blow them up. Everyone exited with his hands up. “I thought it was over,” Sol recalled. But the SS instead shot the 13-year-old Jewish boy who had squealed.

The group was marched to the Umschlagplatz, the main train depot, and the next day transported to Treblinka. Sol also knew that his parents and sister Esther had earlier been taken from Bialobrzegi to Treblinka. 

In Treblinka, Sol and the other men had been selected to clean up the Warsaw Ghetto. But when the Germans learned that 500 Greek Jews had already been dispatched, they sent Sol’s group to Majdanek. 

There, in the mornings, Sol moved stones from one side of a field to the other. In the afternoons, he took the stones back. “Majdanek was a torture camp, not a work camp,” he said.

Fearing a particular kapo was going to kill him, Sol traded his bread for another prisoner’s job of “breaking boots” for German soldiers. He walked all day in new boots with no socks as his feet bled.

A friend then found him a job in the horse barracks, putting away prisoners’ straw sleeping sacks.

One Sunday, a drunk SS entered the barracks to break in a new whip — wire covered with leather. Sol was selected and received 25 lashes. He couldn’t sit down for weeks. 

A couple months later, in fall 1943, Sol volunteered to go to an ammunition factory in Skarzysko-Kamienna. There he worked hardening steel for machinery, one of the better jobs.

In August 1944, with the Russian front approaching, the prisoners were ordered to pack the machinery on flat cars and depart. 

They came to the Hasag forced labor camp in Czestochowa. There Sol loaded items for the Russian front. Then, in mid-January 1945, as the Russians again advanced — Sol could hear “the terrible whistling noise of the Katyusha rockets” — the SS evacuated the camp, packing the prisoners onto cattle cars.

Sol reached Buchenwald on Jan. 20, 1945. The camp was overcrowded and bitter cold. “People were dying like flies,” Sol said. 

About seven weeks later, Sol, along with 125 or so prisoners, was transported to a labor camp near the Czechoslovakian border. “It was like Siberia,” Sol recalled. “Snow and barracks.” His job was to haul machinery down a small elevator into empty salt mine shafts, a difficult task. 

In mid-May 1945 the prisoners were evacuated and forced to march from sunrise to sunset, sleeping in fields. Sol walked in shoes with no socks and was also forced to carry a rucksack and an unloaded rifle for an SS. After three weeks, on June 6, 1945, they were liberated by the Russians in Annaberg, Germany. Sol was 21.

He eventually joined his brother Yitzhak at the Eggenfelden displaced persons camp in Germany, staying for three years. In June 1949, he sailed to Canada, settling in Montreal, where he met Bella Bezonsky. They married on June 14, 1953. Their son Sheldon was born in 1956, daughter Susan in 1957 and son Rodney in 1963.

Sol and his family moved to California on Dec. 25, 1957. Sol worked as a tailor and then bought his own factory, S&D Fashions in downtown Los Angeles. In 1980, he sold the factory and semi-retired. 

Sol, who turns 90 on Dec. 3, enjoys walking and spending time with his children and eight grandchildren. He considers himself a “Holocaust walking encyclopedia,” but still doesn’t know if any of the 500 men who survived Treblinka with him are still alive.

“The will to live. You’ll try everything,” he said.

A unique resource, German Holocaust archive reaches out


George Jaunzemis was three and a half years old when, in the chaotic weeks at the end of World War Two, he was separated from his mother as she fled with him from Germany to Belgium.

He grew up in New Zealand with no memory of his early years, unaware the Latvian woman who had emigrated with him was not his real mother.

Then in 2010, a letter from the International Tracing Service (ITS) in Bad Arolsen changed his life. He discovered his real name was Peter Thomas and that he had a nephew and cousins in Germany.

“I was astonished, thrilled. After all this time, I was an uncle,” Jaunzemis, 71, told Reuters. “You don't know what it's like to have no family or childhood knowledge. Suddenly all the pieces fitted, now I can find my peace as a person.”

Yet it took Jaunzemis over three decades of tenacious searching to find the vast archive in this remote corner of Germany where his past was buried.

Bad Arolsen contains 30 million documents on survivors of Nazi camps, Gestapo prisons, forced labourers and displaced persons. It rivals Israel's Yad Vashem Holocaust centre and the Washington Holocaust Memorial Museum in historical value.

However, many people are not even aware it exists. It was only opened to researchers in 2007 after criticism that it was being too protective of its material. Despite sitting on a mountain of original evidence, it is still struggling to get the attention academics say it deserves.

Last year just 2,097 people visited Bad Arolsen compared with the 900,000 who went to Yad Vashem.

Rebecca Boehling, a 57-year old historian who arrived from the United States in January, wants to change that.

“We have a new agenda,” said Boehling, who came from the Dresher Center for the Humanities at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.

“We're sitting on a treasure trove of documents. We want people to know what we have. Our material can change our perspective on big topics related to the war and the Holocaust.”

Boehling is the first archive director who is not affiliated with the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), which had managed Bad Arolsen since 1955 with a narrow remit to trace people.

The ICRC handed over the reins to an international commission of 11 countries in January, a step that could help unleash the full potential of the archive for academic study.

Boehling plans to hold international conferences, get foreign students to use the ITS, publish more research and host national teachers' workshops, although she doubts the 14 million euro budget from the German government will stretch that far.

Personal stories about victims, which the ITS can provide in abundance, are a powerful tool in educating young generations, she said. Currently, events hosted by the archive are attended only by townspeople and groups of pupils from nearby.

SCHINDLER'S LIST

Located next to a site where Hitler's SS officers once had barracks, Bad Arolsen was chosen for the archive after the war because of its central location between Germany's four occupation zones.

But now its location is a disadvantage. There are no big cities nearby and connections to Berlin and Frankfurt are slow. The town itself, on the northern edge of the state of Hesse, has a population of just 16,000.

The archive is housed in an inconspicuous white building containing clues to the fates of 17.5 million people.

The 25 kilometres of yellowing papers include typed lists of Jews, homosexuals and other persecuted groups, files on children born in the Nazi Lebensborn programme to breed a master race, and registers of arrivals and departures from concentration camps.

It even has a carbon copy of Schindler's List, the 1,000 Jewish workers saved by German industrialist Oskar Schindler.

The Nazis' meticulous record-keeping stopped only when Jews and other victims were herded into gas chambers.

“At death camps like Sobibor or Auschwitz, only natural causes of death are recorded – heart failure or pneumonia,” said spokeswoman, Kathrin Flor. “There's no mention of gassing. The last evidence of many lives is the transport to the camp.”

The ITS, which employs 295 people, still receives 12,000 enquiries a month and reunites up to 50 families a year, even though the number of Holocaust survivors is dwindling. This tracing work will continue.

Most enquiries come from Russia and Eastern Europe and Boehling welcomes the new phenomenon of grandchildren and great grandchildren, who have more emotional distance from the war, wanting to find out the fates of their relatives.

One major ongoing task is the digitalisation of records which will make it easier for outsiders to carry out keyword searches which had previously been impossible as everything was done in-house with a filing system based on name cards.

Despite its remote location Boehling says the archive won't be moved. It has become a something of a memorial for Holocaust survivors, like former Auschwitz inmate Thomas Buergenthal who visited the centre in 2012 after getting new information on where his father had perished.

Buergenthal, who escaped Nazi shooting squads, Auschwitz gas chambers and a death march before he was 12, was found by his mother in a Polish orphanage in 1947 through the Red Cross.

“This is my hallowed ground,” Buergenthal, 78, told Reuters from his U.S. home, referring to the archive.

“My mother died without knowing my father died at Buchenwald. I'm mad about that. It is extremely important to me,” said Buergenthal, who became an expert in human rights law and a judge at the International Court of Justice in The Hague.

“These documents are more important for the future than for the past. They will be the common heritage of mankind of what really happened during that period. (They are) what we need to prevent it happening elsewhere in the world.”

Reporting by Madeline Chambers; Editing by Noah Barkin and Peter Graff

Descendants of Nazi SS to take part in March of Life


Fifty descendants of officers of the Nazi SS, Wehrmacht and World War II-era German police officers will be among the participants in the March of Life, which will start on Sunday at Auschwitz.

Several hundred people from Poland, Israel and Germany will take part in the program, which will commemorate the victims of the Holocaust and oppose anti-Semitism.

The participants will visit Auschwitz, Treblinka, Belzec, Majdanek, Chelmno, Sobibor, Warsaw and Kielce.

Among them will be 50 people from Germany who are descendants of the officers of the Nazi SS, the Wehrmacht and the World War II-era German police. At the sites of the former death camps there will be ceremonies during which both the descendants of the victims and perpetrators will speak.

The main ceremony will be on August 23 in Warsaw. Special guest of the March will be Lia Shemtov, a deputy speaker of Israel’s Knesset and a member of the Yisrael Beitenu party.

March of the Living is an initiative of Jobst and Charlotte Bittner, and TOS Ministries of Germany, a non-denominational church founded by the couple.

The program was prepared in cooperation with many organizations in Poland, Israel and Germany. Similar marches have taken place in more than 80 cities in 12 countries.