She is a friend of my grandmother’s, and her name is Adiya Fields. She is a survivor of the camps and has volunteered to speak to my Sunday religious-school class. This is forty-two years ago.
Standing barely five feet tall, Mrs. Fields stands at the front of the class, looking frail, hands trembling at her sides. Her gray mop of hair sits atop her head, and her skin hangs loose from her face. She speaks in a mild-mannered way about the day the soldiers came and took her and her parents and younger brother away. She pulls up the sleeve of her cardigan and shows us the faded numbers etched beneath the skin. You could hear a pin drop in that room, the way she talks about the death of her mother and father and brother, so matter-of-factly, as if the reality of it never existed.
How could God have allowed such atrocities? Mrs. Fields has no answers, but she remains faithful to Him just the same. I am not sure I could have been as loyal. “We must never forget,” she says. “It is your duty and responsibility to ensure that the next generation does not forget as well.”
Mrs. Fields is a woman who frequents our home. She is a woman whose husband has died of a stroke and finds herself alone again. She sips coffee and nibbles on cookies at our kitchen table, occasionally flashing half-smiles at the things my mother and grandmother say.
When you’re young, it is difficult to spot the pain and anguish of others. But it’s there, lurking behind each face. It’s always there, a quiet resiliency that resides within those that have experienced inexplicable things. I see it more that day in class than any other time, because today is the first time I’ve heard Mrs. Fields speak of such things. She’s like a stranger to me.
“Can you picture,” she says, “living in a country where they come for you and stuff you into boxcars and lead you away?” She scans each face, including mine. Each eye is riveted to her. “These words, I imagine, seem foreign to you.” They are foreign to me. I am not sure how it all began, how one man, with just his words, could stir such contention, such hate that it aroused so many to turn on their neighbors.
A hand goes up. It is Seth Koenig. “How did you survive?” he asks.
That half-smile again from Mrs. Fields. “That is a very good question,” she says. “How did I survive?”
Questions without answers. Maybe she is part of God’s cruel joke played upon humanity, the survivors themselves having become nothing more than the new Job, unwilling participants in this test of faith between good and evil.
The soldiers at the station all had guns. Mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, uncles, aunts, cousins were packed into boxcars like cattle. They clutched one another, the tears dripped from their faces in rivulets. The soldiers were shouting orders; the older citizens, who were a little slower getting across the platform, would likely be the ones to feel the wrath of these ruthless men.
And there it is. For reasons unknown, a young Adiya witnessed a soldier wrench an old man away from his wife and club him across the back of the knees. The man slowly crumpled to the ground. His wife pleaded with the soldier to please let him alone, but the words fell on deaf ears.
The man tried to stand, but his legs abandoned him, the pain much too great for his fragile bones. The soldier shouted at the old man to get up, but it was like talking to a wall. All the old man could do was howl in agony. His poor wife was at his side, begging him to rise up, just try to stand. “I’ll carry you,” she said, her eyes wet and frantic as she tries to lift him off the ground. But she couldn’t. Her arms weren’t strong enough.
Adiya glanced up at her father. His eyes were riveted to the scene that is unfolding. Another soldier kept the line moving, and Adiya and her parents and younger brother continued on their inevitable trek towards the train.
“What will happen to them?” Adiya asked once they had climbed into the boxcar, but she received no answer. It was crowded, and as more people were tossed inside, Adiya was forced against strangers, their elbows and shoulders pinning her against her parents.
She could no longer see the old man and his wife. A child was thrown into the boxcar and the little boy reached out for his momma, who had still not gotten onto the train, the soldiers holding her back as she desperately tried to dislodge from them. He cried out, but the doors were closing, and a woman with blond hair pulled his arms away before they could be caught in the door.
Pure darkness enveloped them as the train began to pull away from the station. People were sobbing, and the dank stench of fear rose into Adiya’s nostrils. She could feel her mother’s hands clutching her close. Adiya told herself not to be afraid, but her heart thumped against her chest and small beads of sweat slid down her ribs and back. A woman began to pray in Yiddish.
“Where are they taking us?” she so badly wanted to ask, but the words were frozen in her throat. The blond woman pressed the boy in front close to her and began to hum a lullaby. It worked.
This is a dream, Adiya thought to herself. You are in your bed, and soon mother will come to wake you so that you can eat.
The train ride lasted almost three hours.
Mrs. Fields sits down on a wooden folding chair. Our teacher, Mrs. Finkelstein, inquires whether she would like a glass of water, but Mrs. Fields declines.
“Did you know Anne Frank?” David Simcha asks.
Mrs. Fields shakes her head. “I’m afraid not.”
David looks somewhat disappointed.
“What happened when you got to where they were sending you?” Haley Eisenberg asks.
“What do you think happened?” David Simcha pipes in.
“Shhh,” Mrs. Finkelstein says. “Class, please show Mrs. Fields some respect.”
“Maybe I will take a little water,” Mrs. Fields says and Mrs. Finkelstein nods and leaves the room.
The camp was in Sobibór and was built with Jewish labor. The approximately eighty Sonderkammandos, who once resided in the surrounding ghettos, would now become prisoners of the camp. Upon completion of the project, each Jew who assisted in the construction was shot. One by one, they collapsed onto the hard, cold ground, their blood slowly being absorbed by the earth.
Erick Fuchs, a skilled motor mechanic and one of the men responsible for the method in which Jews there had perished, described how the gas chamber became the method of choice:
Sometime in the spring of 1942 I received instructions to…collect a gassing engine which I then took to Sobibór. Upon arriving in Sobibór, I discovered a piece of open ground close to the station on which there was a concrete building….We unloaded the motor. It was a heavy, Russian petrol engine (presumably a tank or tractor engine) of at least 200 HP (carburetor engine, eight-cylinder, water-cooled). We put the engine on a concrete plinth and attached a pipe to the exhaust outlet. Then we tried out the engine. At first it did not work. I repaired the ignition and the valve and suddenly the engine started. The chemist whom I already knew from Belzec went into the gas chamber with a measuring device in order to measure the gas concentration.
After this, a test gassing was carried out. I seem to remember that thirty to forty women were gassed in a gas chamber. The Jewesses had to undress in a clearing in the wood which had been roofed over, near the gas chamber. They were herded into the gas chamber by…SS members. When the women had been shut up in the gas chamber, I attended to the engine….The engine immediately started ticking over. I stood next to the engine and switched it up to “release exhaust to chamber” so that the gases were channeled into the chamber. On the instigation of the chemist, I revved up the engine, which meant that no extra gas had to be added later. After about ten minutes, the thirty to forty women were dead. The chemist and the SS gave the signal to turn off the engine.
I packed up my tools and saw the bodies being taken away. A small wagon on rails was used to take them away from near the gas chamber to a stretch of ground some distance away.
Mrs. Fields leans forward in her chair. “When we got to the camp, we were made to undress in front of everyone and distribute any valuables, but there were none to be had. The soldiers had taken everything.” She brings the glass of water to her lips and takes a slow sip. “Before we were ordered to remove our clothing, a man in a white lab coat came to talk to us,” she says, and her eyes look pale and distant. “He looked like a doctor to me.” She sets the glass down on the edge of Mrs. Finkelstein’s desk. “He announced that we would have to work and that we would be required to take baths, to disinfect us of any disease.”
Mrs. Fields remains silent. I can hear a siren and car horns in the distance.
“And then what happened?” Rebekkah Weinstein asks.
Mrs. Fields glances up at the sound of her voice. “My parents and younger brother were directed to go towards a structure they called ‘the tubes,’ and when the doors closed behind them, I never saw them again.” She snorts and reaches for the glass of water again, but before she drinks from it she says, “They were gassed. They were all gassed.”
A heavy silence passes between everyone. I wonder how much of this my grandmother knows. I wonder, when they are together at the table, does Mrs. Fields not mention these terrible things? Perhaps my grandmother simply directs the conversation elsewhere.
“I was led to the barracks, where the woman with the crying boy saw to me. The following morning, one of the SS men pointed to a large pile of naked corpses and told us that was where our family was. We were then responsible for burning them.”
I glance away, out the nearby window. I observe a sparrow take off from a tree and fly through the brilliant blue and cloudless sky. I see a young girl standing before a twisted mass of limbs, rummaging through all the lifelessness.
“The Road to Heaven,” Ana Kemper says. “It’s what my grandfather said they called the path that led to the gas chambers.”
Mrs. Fields eyes become like saucers. “Yes, that’s right.”
Rabbi Switak appears in the doorway.
“Hello, Rabbi,” Mrs. Finkelstein says.
“Hello,” Rabbi Switak says.
“Tell us how you got out,” Seth says.
“Oh yes,” Mrs. Fields says. “My story of survival.”
There were only two known successful attempts at uprisings by Jewish prisoners in the camps, and Sobibór is one of them. There were rumors floating about that the camp would be shut down. This began to stir agitation among the inmates, especially since the number of prisoner transports had descended dramatically in recent weeks. The few Sobibór transplants from the Belzec concentration camp were discovered with notes on their persons reflecting what it would mean to the Jews if, in fact, the camps did close. They were shot without question, most times right there on the train platform.
In fact, the rumors proved to be false. There were plans to expand the camp at Sobibór. This led the prisoners to organize a movement aimed at escaping from the camp. A transport of ex-military Soviet-Jewish prisoners was brought to the camp.
“Their military training would become of use to us,” Mrs. Fields says. “On a cold October day, we were successful in killing eleven SS officers.”
I watch what had been a small slit on the mouths of the students stretch to grins.
“The plan was to kill all of them and walk free out of the front gate.” Mrs. Fields lowers her eyes. “But this did not happen.”
As the grins fade, Mrs. Fields continues. “The deaths of the guards were discovered, and suddenly we found ourselves under fire. There were six hundred of us initially that tried to escape. There would have been more, but some of them were too afraid. All in all, about half of us made it out. We ran toward the forests.”
“That’s three hundred more than would have survived had they remained,” David Simcha says.
Mrs. Fields clears her throat. “What is your name?”
“Not all of them survived, David. There were land mines buried beneath the ground, and then winter descended upon us.”
Here is the universe again with its great big joke.
“Some of them were recaptured and put to death,” Mrs. Fields says. “We hid until we knew for sure that they had stopped looking.”
“Whatever happened to the little boy and to that woman?” Sara asks. “The one who took care of you in the camp.”
For the first time, a smile crosses Mrs. Fields face. “They both made it.”
There is a collective sigh of relief that sounds as though a valve has been turned.
“Shortly after our escape,” Mrs. Fields goes on to say, “the chief architect of the camps, a man named Himmler, closed Sobibór and ordered trees to be planted in its place to hide any trace of its existence.”
“What an idiot,” Seth says and draws a small giggle from the others.
“There is a small museum there now,” the Rabbi adds. “I saw it when I was there visiting not too long ago. If you go, and you should go one day, you will see a pyramid there on the grounds. It is made of the ashes and crushed bones collected from the cremation pits.”
My thoughts once again turn to Mrs. Fields’s parents and brother, their bones and ashes. We meet each other’s gaze and I can see the strength inside of her. I can see the faith and the love, but most of all, I can see the hope.