Skip to main content

Prisoner’s photograph of Sigmund Sobolewski

Archive of the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum

He was deported to Auschwitz before the gas chambers were built, before inmates were tattooed, even before the barracks were ready. He was by himself, a teenager on the first mass transport of prisoners to the infamous Nazi camp.

Sigmund Sobolewski, a former Alberta man who has died at 94, was among the very first inmates sent to Auschwitz, as indicated by his very low prisoner's number: 88.

A family friend, former CBC reporter Byron Christopher, said he was informed by Mr. Sobolewski's widow, Ramona, that her husband had died early Monday morning after contracting pneumonia.

Story continues below advertisement

Mr. Sobolewski survived for more than four years at Auschwitz, witnessing the successive horrors that transformed the camp from a place of violent repression against the Polish elite to a gigantic genocidal complex, the most deadly location of the Third Reich.

Related: Documents reveal Canadian citizen Julius Kuhl as Holocaust hero

During that time, he endured hunger, despair and torture. He witnessed the end of one of the camp's most heroic episodes, the doomed uprising of the prisoners forced to operate the crematorium ovens.

After the war, he started a new life in Canada, but remained haunted by his camp memories.

He spent decades as an activist, attending anniversary events and demonstrations, wearing a replica of a striped camp uniform.

He picketed the Red Deer courthouse during Jim Keegstra's trial in 1985. He offered to fund a trip to Auschwitz for the Holocaust-denying teacher.

Mr. Sobolewski went to Provost, Alta., in 1990 to confront cross-burning white supremacists. Television cameras recorded a tense face-off between him, clad in his prisoner's garb, and Aryan Nations leader Carney Nerland, who wore a Nazi-style brown-shirt outfit.

Story continues below advertisement

"If we completely ignore them, then they might think they can get away with it," Mr. Sobolewski told the CBC afterward.

In his last four years, he lived in Bayamo, in his wife's native Cuba.

He was suffering from Alzheimer's disease and was still anguished by the past.

"Anyone who has been in Auschwitz remains in Auschwitz," he said in his 1998 biography, Prisoner 88, the Man in Stripes.

It was co-written with a rabbi, Roy Tanenbaum. Raised as a Catholic, Mr. Sobolewski reached out to the Jewish community because he felt Christians hadn't confronted their responsibility for what happened during the war.

The eldest of four children, he was born on May 11, 1923, in Torun, in northern Poland.

Story continues below advertisement

His family spoke both Polish and German, which would help him survive in Auschwitz, he recalled in video testimony for the University of Southern California's Shoah Foundation.

His father, who had the same given name, was a former army officer, while his mother, Anna, once worked for the post office.

When Germany invaded Poland in 1939, young Sigmund was enrolled in cadet school but he returned home and worked in a sawmill.

The following spring, the Germans rounded up thousands of Poles, in a move to wipe out the country's elite.

They came looking for his father, but the elder Mr. Sobolewski was bedridden with tuberculosis. They took away his eldest child instead.

On June 14, 1940, young Sigmund, who had just turned 17, was taken with more than 700 other Poles by train to the town of Oswiecim – in German, Auschwitz.

Story continues below advertisement

An SS officer, Karl Fritzsch, told them that they were now in a concentration camp and that the Jews among them would be dead within weeks and the Catholic priests within months.

They were assigned numbers from 31 to 758. (Numbers 1 to 30 had been given to 30 German convicts who would become kapos – privileged prisoners who acted as overseers for the SS.)

From that day, Mr. Sobolewski would be known only as No. 88.

The barracks weren't ready, so the prisoners were kept nearby in a building of the state tobacco monopoly. All day, they had to perform exhausting drills, jumping and squatting at the whims of the kapos, who kicked and beat those who couldn't keep up.

"It was very hot weather. It was very painful and unpleasant," another prisoner, Jozef Hulanicki, recalled in a video for Melbourne's Jewish Holocaust Centre.

After a few weeks, they moved to barracks that would become the main camp, Auschwitz I.

"Our entire worldly possessions became a thin striped shirt and pants often too small or too large, underwear changed once in several weeks, wooden sabots or shoes, a beaten tin spoon, bowl and cup," Mr. Sobolewski said in his book.

They were assigned to work units. Those with no manual skills got back-breaking jobs, such as unloading cement bags. With his sawmill experience, Mr. Sobolewski claimed he was a carpenter and was sent to the joiners' workshop.

That meant he got to work indoors, rather than outside in the harsh, humid weather. Furthermore, being fluent in German put him in the good graces of his kapo, who relied on him to translate orders.

He wasn't, however, spared from the hunger.

Once, after unloading food for the SS warehouses, he hid some peas in his shirt pocket. He was caught and sentenced to the Pfahlhangen, a form of torture where his hands were cuffed behind his back, then pulled up until he dangled in the air.

"When they finally took me down, my back was breaking and my arms were like rags. Couldn't wipe the dribble from my mouth, had no control of my bladder," he said in his book.

On another occasion, he was caught stealing a piece of bread. He was flogged and had to count as each of the lashes landed. "My bottom healed over time. The damage to my spirit never did," he said.

By 1941, thousands of Soviet prisoners of war were deported to Auschwitz, dying in such massive numbers that the SS started tattooing inmates to keep track of them.

The Soviet PoWs were so famished that Mr. Sobolewski saw them ignore the truncheon blows of the kapos and run to a pile of rotting beets to eat them.

He also witnessed kapos forcing naked Soviet prisoners outside in winter and hosing them with water. Years later, in Alberta, the sight of cows huddled against the wind reminded him of those men freezing to death. "They were making horrible, inhuman noises, like animals," he said.

After the arrival of the Soviet PoWs, the SS tested the use of the pesticide Zyklon B to kill inmates in a gas chamber.

Mr. Sobolewski said that he and other joiners were called four times to make repairs at the first operational gas chamber, in Auschwitz I. They had to readjust the wooden door, which was swollen from being hosed clean after each gassing.

By 1942, he got word that his father had died of tuberculosis.

"Was my being substituted for [Daddy] in Auschwitz all for nothing?" he despaired.

But later that year, he got a life-saving break when he heard of an opening in the camp's fire brigade, which was staffed by inmates.

He applied to Otto Kusel, a German kapo in the employment office. Unlike other kapos, Mr. Kusel liked the Poles. And prisoners such as Mr. Sobolewski, who was not Jewish and had a low number, enjoyed better treatment. He got the job.

It was one of the best assignments in Auschwitz. They were treated as privileged prisoners and since there were few blazes to fight, they spent their time performing fire drills and inspections, which took them to all corners of the camp complex, creating opportunities for black-market trafficking.

Hundreds of thousands of Jews and Roma were now deported to Auschwitz, to be exterminated. Those not immediately gassed became slave labourers, crowded in appalling conditions in satellite camps such as Birkenau.

"In summer time, Birkenau was very dusty. Thousands of flies. There was an open sewer going through the camp," Mr. Sobolewski recalled.

He also remembered ailing Jewish women packed in a squalid barrack, waiting to be sent to the gas chamber.

"In Auschwitz, if you tried to understand what was going on, you drove yourself insane," he said in his book. "You had to throw away all that old mentality and simply work on the process of survival."

He later caught a glimpse of one of the four gas-chamber and crematorium buildings that had operated in Birkenau since 1943.

The Sonderkommando, the prisoners forced to operate the ovens, staged an uprising on Oct. 7, 1944.

That morning, sirens rang out and the fire brigade was rushed to one of the crematoriums, which the mutineers had set on fire.

As they battled the flames, Mr. Sobolewski heard gunshots. Guards were dragging out Sonderkommandos and shooting them in the head.

The revolt was crushed but "to the rest of us in the camp, it was a tremendous uplift," Mr. Sobolewski said.

Three weeks later, the fire brigade was sent to the Sachsenhausen concentration camp, near Berlin.

Their transfer could have been part of the gradual evacuation of the camp as the Red Army approached. However, "one cannot rule out that the camp authorities did not wish to have in the camp any witnesses of how they had quashed the Sonderkommando," Auschwitz museum researcher Bohdan Pietka told The Globe and Mail.

In Sachsenhausen, the fire brigade was kept busy by the allied bombing raids over Berlin.

On April 21, 1945, the SS evacuated Sachsenhausen, ahead of approaching Allied troops. Amid the chaos, Mr. Sobolewski and the other firefighters escaped and reached the American lines.

Following the war, he became a merchant navy sailor, then settled in Canada, first in Toronto, then in various towns in Alberta. He worked as a welder, sold real estate and ran a motel.

In 1967, Mr. Sobolewski took part in a protest after an appearance on the CBC by a West German far-right leader. For the occasion, he had a tailor make him a replica camp uniform. He broke down in tears when he saw it. "I am back in the camp … shuddering at my own memories," he said in his book.

Thereafter, he always wore that outfit as he attended demonstrations or memorials.

He said his activism strained his relations with his wife and sons, but he couldn't shake off the ghosts of Auschwitz.

"They are certain their old man is a lingering tragedy, a victim of his own obsessions," he said in his book.

Mr. Sobolewski leaves his wife, Ramona, and three sons, Simon, Emilio and Vladimir.

His friend, Mr. Christopher of the CBC, described on his blog a conversation with Ms. Sobolewski about her husband's fixation with his past.

"He has papers everywhere, on his chair, on the couch, on the floor," she complained to Mr. Christopher.

"Ramona," Mr. Christopher replied, "Sigmund was freed from Auschwitz, but he will die a prisoner of the camp."

Mr. Christopher recalled that she teared up and said: "You know him."

Report an error Editorial code of conduct
Comments

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff.

We aim to create a safe and valuable space for discussion and debate. That means:

  • All comments will be reviewed by one or more moderators before being posted to the site. This should only take a few moments.
  • Treat others as you wish to be treated
  • Criticize ideas, not people
  • Stay on topic
  • Avoid the use of toxic and offensive language
  • Flag bad behaviour

Comments that violate our community guidelines will be removed. Commenters who repeatedly violate community guidelines may be suspended, causing them to temporarily lose their ability to engage with comments.

Read our community guidelines here

Discussion loading ...

Due to technical reasons, we have temporarily removed commenting from our articles. We hope to have this fixed soon. Thank you for your patience. If you are looking to give feedback on our new site, please send it along to feedback@globeandmail.com. If you want to write a letter to the editor, please forward to letters@globeandmail.com.
Cannabis pro newsletter