Witness to Evil
In May 2010 I visited
Majdanek Concentration Camp, just outside Lublin, Poland. It was the
first time I had been to a concentration camp. Majdanek was a
smaller version of Auschwitz. It was opened as a concentration camp
to which ovens were added, which transformed it into an extermination
camp. At least 80,000 people died there, including Polish soldiers
and patriots, Soviet POWs, and 50,000 Jews.
I went to Lublin to research
my family's roots. My paternal grandparents had left the city in 1904
to emigrate to Philadelphia. I wanted to see where they had come
from. I had begun a genealogy chart and wanted to fill in the missing
relatives. I had no idea who they were or what they did.
Majdanek is now a Polish
State Museum and there was a small selection of books (mostly in
Polish) held by a wire mesh against the Museum's admission desk. I
was attracted to a book called BELZEC. As I was looking at it, my
young Polish guide told me that Belzec was the extermination camp
where the Jews of Lublin had been transported and killed. Probably my
grandfather's sister, nieces, nephews and cousins, the ones who had
not been lucky enough to leave Poland, had been murdered there.
I took the book back to my
hotel and read it that night. I had never heard of Belzec, although I
was aware of its sister death camps of Treblinka and Sobibor.
Belzec remains the unknown
death camp, mainly because it had so few survivors. No records were
kept and its entire existence was a secret, since all orders setting
it up were given verbally with nothing committed to writing. The
Nazis understood they were perpetrating a profound crime- the
industrial murder of innocent men, women and children- and they did
everything to keep this crime hidden. Camps like Belzec were placed
deep in the countryside with few neighbours to see what was
The book told me the bleak,
bare facts about Belzec but it also had a detailed witness statement
made in 1946 by the only post-war survivor of the Camp. Rudolf
Reder, a Jew from Lvov, was transported by freight train to Belzec in
August 1942. Almost everyone who was brought to Belzec was killed
within two hours of arrival, but Reder's engineering skills enabled
him to survive for four months. Somehow he managed to inform the
Nazis that he could be useful – and he became indispensable.
The tank engine which
produced the carbon monoxide gas that killed the victims needed to be
maintained and repaired. The Nazis and their Ukrainian helpers who
ran the camp seem to have been unable to fix anything so Reder became
a really useful Jew.
Reder's job gave him access
to all parts of the camp so that he was witness to the incredible and
barely believable horrors that the Nazis perpetrated on their
enemies. He saw things that were so horrible and inhumane that they
etched themselves into his memory.
After four months working
there, he was sent to Lvov to collect some steel plates for the camp.
After loading the truck, three of his Nazi guards went off for a
drink, leaving one behind to guard him. After an hour, Reder heard
snoring, and realised his guard was deep in sleep. Slowly exiting the
truck, he walked behind it looking as if he was checking the
tarpaulin, and then made a quick escape into the dark streets of his
former home town.
his escape, he managed to hide for 18 months until the war ended,
when he could emerge into the light of day. Reder eventually
emigrated to Canada and died there in 1970. He lost most of his
family in the camps. Only his daughter Zofia survived, and I
eventually tracked her existence to a house in Wembley in the 1960s.
However the trail then went cold and I have not been able to trace
any other relatives.
In 1946, a Jewish Historical
Commission in Cracow started to gather evidence for Nazi war crimes,
and Reder dictated his story to this commission.
When I read his account I was shattered. The living hell that the Jews were subjected to was unbearable and unspeakable, and the fact that my relatives might have been the people he was describing, made it all very personal. I decided to do everything possible to make sure that this story should never be forgotten.