Living through the Holocaust

By Andrew Tomilson

There are pieces of history that leave an enduring footprint on those who survive.

On Fri., Oct. 26, Auschwitz survivor Sigmund Sobolewski came to the University of Calgary to deliver a lecture titled "Implications of the Holocaust."

Clad in an Auschwitz-style prisoner’s uniform, Sobolewski explained how he survived for several years as a political prisoner in the infamous concentration camp. Sobolewski was 17 years old when he became the 88th prisoner to enter Auschwitz on June 14th, 1940. Sobolewski’s father, the mayor of a small Polish town, was arrested when the Nazis were preparing to invade Belgium and Holland. Many prominent individuals in occupied Poland were incarcerated and detained in anticipation of a rebellion on the Nazis’ Eastern front.

Sobolewski is fluent in German, and was employed by Schutzstaffel officers as a translator. He communicated to the other prisoners for the SS and was rewarded with a little extra food.

"I survived also because I was young," said Sobolewski. "I didn’t realize the seriousness of what was going on. Most of the people who survived were simple people; workers, peasants from Polish villages who couldn’t read and write, but who were used to the hard work. Lawyers, doctors, technicians, university graduates: many of them after three or four weeks in Auschwitz had committed suicide because they realized their chances of surviving were very, very slim."

Sobolewski explained that on a compound roughly the size of Red Deer, up to 7,000 people died every day in 1944. Auschwitz was renowned for its gas chambers, which could kill up to 2,000 people at a time.

Sobolewski took advantage of the occasion to emphasize to the predominantly student audience that university degrees do not make anyone immune to the effects of an indoctrination campaign.

"Those were educated peoples, completely brainwashed," he pointed out. "And when they looked at a Jew, they didn’t see a human being, they saw a cockroach. The propaganda, in 12 years, could convert these intelligent people. How could they allow themselves to be brainwashed to that degree?"

Sobolewski also spent a moment to speak out against those who deny the Holocaust. "To these people who deny that Auschwitz existed, there are thousands of documents, thousands of testimonies," he said. "All from the Germans who were there as officers and the camp commander, Rudolph Hesse."

Sobolewski is a resident of Calgary who has travelled internationally to give lectures on Auschwitz in Slovakia, Cuba, Germany, and the Dominican Republic. His presentation, his fourth at U of C, was sponsored by the Department of Germanic, Slavic and East Asian Studies.

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