REVIEW: Tadeusz Sobolewicz’s BUT I SURVIVED—and How to Take the Longer View on Horrors of War, Terror and Torture
By Kevin Stoda, Germany
In 1985, the Polish actor and lifelong volunteer teacher in Polish schools (and in other youth programs), Tadeusz Sobolewicz published his WWII memoir, BUT I SURVIVED. For this well-written tale, Sobolewicz won first prize for the Polish Auschwitz Recollections Collection. However, the book encompasses much more than just giving a witness’s description of the horrors of death camps during one of the darkest periods and places in world history.
The non-fiction work also tells both of luck, fate, and selflessness and/or revenge of the survivors. Moreover, the book, BUT I SURVIVED, discusses how one begins to move on from such a past or experience of living as part of a hideous inhumane world order (under some of the worst war criminals one could ever imagine). We need to look into this topic as our world is awash with terror, torture, and wars of occupation. From all these perspectives, I feel the book from Tadeusz Sobolewicz ought to become the cannon of high school and young college history curricula—not just in Germany, but worldwide.
Despite its content, it inspires as much as it depresses while giving the reader a fairly authentic narration—perhaps more so than the biography of Anne Frank has ever done. The difference is that this narrator, Sobolewicz , was just old enough to experience the full moving into adulthood at the time world war broke out.
Tadeusz Sobolewicz was only 17 when the story begins. This means that he went from being a naïve boy scout to becoming an active and on-the-run in a double occupation of his homeland by the Soviet Union and Germany starting in 1939 till 1941. Thereafter, he became a death camp prisoner who survived.
This is because, by 1941, a Polish girl had turned him in, and he was sent off to Auschwitz following months of beatings in a local Polish prison, ran by SS agents. Over the next four years, Sobolewicz lived through hell in 6 death- and work camps in Poland and Germany: These were Auschwitz, Buchenwald, Leipzig, Muelsen, Flossenbuerg, and Regensburg. Meanwhile, his father would die in Auschwitz—almost before the young Sobolewicz’s eyes. (His grandfather had been shot to death for helping Jews.) His mother was taken off to Ravensbrueck for the duration of the war. Another cousin had been killed in the infamous Katyn massacre.
In the beginning of his narration, Tadeusz Sobolewicz emphasizes that perhaps “luck and coincidence” is all that had kept him alive throughout his travails. However, this is in a way only partially true as his very narration is full of surprisingly hopeful events and peoples who risk their own security and survival to help others—as he does. In Sobolewicz’s narration, often these personages or events pop up just as young Sobolewicz is at his wit’s end–and is almost begging to be taken form his misery by the Hand of Death.
Just as in Guenther Grass’s novelette, CATS AND MOUSE, set in Gdansk in 1939, Sobolewicz describes a pre-German Occupation world in Poland that was filled with the excitement of a youth growing up. Just months before the September invasion of the Germans, Sobolewicz was training as a boy scout in the same fields where so many Polish soldiers would soon die.
As the German military pushed from the west, millions of Polish mothers and their children hit the road to drive, ride, or march east. Sobolewicz then became the man of the house as the father was off fighting with the Polish military. He and his mother headed to what soon became the Soviet Zone, i.e. in the wake of the Hitler-Stalin Pact. On their way in search of safety from the Germans, the Sobolewicz family witnessed again-and-again Guernica-type horror scenes with horses and farm animals running here and there—and with trucks and railroad yards being bombed along the way before their eye. The family also watched as unprotected cities were attacked again and again by the German blitzkrieg.
In the eastern part of Soviet occupied Poland, Mrs. Sobolewicz had relatives, but after a few months of staying with them and with others from whom she rented property, the Sobolewicz family received word from Tadeusz’ father to return to the German occupied zone to the west. After making the dangerous crossing, they rejoined the father, who had become a regional leader in the resistance movement for Poland. Soon young Tadeusz was following his father’s footsteps.
However, shortly thereafter, the SS and German occupiers are quickly after Tadeusz and his dad. In order to get the two to turn themselves in, the mother is arrested and sent to a prison in Germany named Camp Ravensbrueck for women. She stays there for the duration of the war. One year later both Tadeusz and his dad find themselves being tortured in SS-run prisons and finally sent at different times to become political prisoners in one of the Auschwitz camps prior to Christmas of 1941.
Although there were many traitors in Poland aiding (or forced to aid) the occupying forces, even during his days in SS prison and while he had been on the run from the Gestapo as a freedom fighter, Tadeusz always found one or more role models who gave him help or served to tell him how to live and survive. (Tadeusz was always particularly trusting of those who had served in or had led boy scout troops. Even during his years in death- and internment camps, he would seek out fellow former scouts and scout leaders to gain assistance.)
Tadeusz received the number 23053 in Auschwitz. He had heard rumors of the camp and rumors about what awaited him there, but the beatings in prison had been so bad that he had actually looked hopefully to the transport to Auschwitz, where he could at least see the sun. (He had been in a dungeon or cellar of the jail for many months—without ever seeing daylight.)
On his first day in the Auschwitz camp, he saw a Polish criminal, who had been give charge of his bunkhouse. This man who was given so much power over his fellow prisoners soon beat a prisoner to death for having diarrhea–and stinking up the room. When Tadeusz asked why this occurred, the reply from the long term residents was, “Here they don’t need a reason to beat you at all, don’t you understand that?”
Within weeks Tadeusz physical frame was worked almost to death by the heavy outdoor work that winter. In the meantime, he observed several suicides by those who had given up all hope. These prisoners would simply either walk up to a wire and touch it or start walking away from their workplace at a slow pace, only to be mowed down in rifle, pistol, or machine gun fire. Another time, he observed capos and bunk leaders killing prisoners simply to hide their bodies under the bunkhouse for a few days. (During this time, these criminal types could take the food rations of these other dead prisoners unnoticed by the German higher-ups for a week at a time.) Likewise, German soldiers were given holidays for every prisoner they shot escaping—a lot of prisoners who weren’t escaping just so the soldier could “earn” a holiday.
Just as Tadeusz was giving up all hope, he fell ill with tuberculosis. This is when he came across several miracle workers in the camp. First, Tadeusz was taken to the camp medical hospital and put in isolation—instead of sent straight to the gas chamber. In his interim of delirium at the so-called camp hospital, Tadeusz was taken care of by prison clinic assistants and a few Polish doctors who actually did their best (with next-to-know medicine) to take care of the few prisoners they could. When Tadeusz had recovered a bit, some of his former cellmates then smuggled bread and food into the clinic for him to help in his recovery. Likewise, amongst the prison clinic and the camp kitchen Tadeusz observed, there were teams of volunteers who smuggled food regularly to assist the sickest prisoners among them in the camp—excepting, of course, those who had not been shot, killed, or beaten to death.
It was in this context, Tadeusz was even able to receive a visit from his own father. Soon Tadeusz was well enough to volunteer to help out in the clinic. Tadeusz helped other victims of illnesses, particularly those with tuberculosis which was sweeping the camp. Even after he was well, the doctors and helpers in the hospital clinic kept Tadeusz there longer than normally permitted as an all-around clinic assistant—i.e. cleaning beds, changing sheets, etc. These same prisoners and doctors in the clinic had also protected Tadeusz from various SS “selections”, whereby sick prisoners were marked to be shot, sent to gas chambers or to experiment centers.
Finally, Tadeusz was forced to rejoin the world of work- and death camps. Suddenly, he had one of the most dreaded jobs of all. This occurred because it became clear that he could speak and read German. Therefore, Tadeusz was assigned as a translator and transcriber for the Auschwitz “train welcoming committee”. This meant he daily faced scenes like one witnesses in the film, SOPHIE’S CHOICE, whereby loved ones were, separated, parted and selected from one-another. Some were sent to various parts of the camp to work–or to their immediate deaths.
It was during this short period of great shame as translator, that another major miracle or stroke of luck occurred to Tadeusz. An elderly Jew who recognized that they were originally from the same township in Poland gave Tadeusz an expensive watch because, as the old man said, “I can’t use it wear I am going and you can.” Tadeusz looked around and pocketed the watch quickly.
Within a few hours, Tadeusz was out looking across the camp for a benefactor who could use the watch and get him out of the horrible job as translator and statistician for new arrivals. Tadeusz came across the right man—a national champion boxer of Poland who had connections all over Auschwitz. His benefactor-to-be admired the watch.
Tadeusz asked if the Polish boxing champ had been a Boy Scout—and the man nodded that he had. Tadeusz then handed him the watch and asked the boxer to help get him transferred to a better job in the camp. The man promised to do so, and a week later, Tadeusz found himself working in the camp kitchen—where for the first time ever in the camp he began to actually build himself up physically, i.e. as he received regular nourishment for the first time in a year.
The story of his time in the kitchen is an important one because one perceives a sort of Stalag-17-functioning resistance working out of the kitchen in Auschwitz led mostly by Polish political prisoners. Tadeusz was able to help out a lot.
Alas, by the end of 1942, the SS had gotten wise to the personal suasion and connections fostered over years by these older camp prisoners, and, therefore, began to put spies and peoples of other nationalities, such as Ukranians in their midst. In one of these catches against the camp cooking staff, Tadeusz was caught up (and like many of the older Polish political prisoners that same winter), so he was sent off to another work camp: Buchenwald.
1943-1945: Five more Camps in Two Years
Before WWII was over, Tadeusz had gotten a working tour of various famous extermination and industrial work camps. His first stop was in Buchenwald, where he and other newly transported prisoners had to start over in a new pecking order. This meant that even the senior political prisoners had no connections or support network at these other prison camps. This shifting from camp to camp would happen several times over Tadeusz’ next two years in confinement.
For Tadeusz, probably the worst place he could have ended up was where he got caught in a life-or-death fire in the cellar of a V1Rocket factory. (There was no way prisoners could have thought of escaping it would seem, i.e. so far under the earth.) This fire took place because some Russian prisoners had successfully sabotaged some weaponry at the site. The SS soldiers response was ruthless and all prisoners in Tadeusz’ block were told that none of the Russian prisoners would not be allowed to eat until someone turned someone in. Tadeusz and his fellow prisoners could not look each other in the eye as the Russians received no substance day after day.
After several days of this, the Russians flipped out. Some Russian set the underground area on fire in hopes of some of them escaping into the night.
Tadeusz was caught in this fire and was burnt badly. Hundreds of other prisoners either died in the flames, or from smoke or were shot fleeing through the few doors and window. Luckily for Tadeusz, that particular underground camp, Muelsen, belonged to a much larger work camp 5 hours to the west. Therefore any surviving wounded prisoners or guards were sent to that camp’s medical facilities. This camp was in Bavaria and was known as Flossenburg.
Again, a particular miracle worker stepped in at this camp and saved Tadeusz’ life. It seems that this medical professional, too, was Polish and like Tadeusz, was a survivor of Auschwitz. This particular Pole worked overtime for months cleaning Tadeusz’ wounds of scraps of earth and stones embedded in the wounds. The polish medical profession also oversaw and treated him for all related infections. Later, when Tadeusz, was sent out to work in the camp, this same new savior of Takeusz helped him again and again—even keeping Tadeusz from the hands of a maniacal German camp doctor, who liked to do horrible experiments and related dangerous surgeries on patients.
1945: Death March
As the war neared its end, some Gestapo (and soldiers) became more & more vicious while some became less of the monsters they had once been. This is what Tadeusz and his fellow prisoners began to witness from the time of the June 1944 Allied Invasion of Normandy till the end of the war. For example, one former officer from Auschwitz who never would have thought a second about shooting Tadeusz in Auschwitz, decided to simply have Tadeusz whipped for smuggling bread to other prisoners when he was serving again as cook in Regensburg.
Due to this increasingly unclear constellation of actions by both German soldiers and SS helpers, the remaining prisoners began considering more escapes. Such uncertainty and the growing need to take one’s life into one’s own hands, led Tadeusz and several companions escape during a death march to Austria in late April. By May 2, 1945 his life was in Allied Forces hands—but only because several Bavarian villagers had, in the meantime, helped him and his peers to hide inside their little town on several occasions, i.e. at risk to their own lives.
TWO RESPONSES TO SAME HORROR & TORTURE
Near the end of his narration in BUT I SURVIVED, Tadeusz Sobolewicz tells of two scenes that affect his recalling of those days of horror and the hope he has for himself and his fellow man to grow past the hate and senseless killings and retributions of war and occupation.
The first occurs when a Gestapo motorcycle with its too passengers are found pinned to the ground after an accident. Sobolewicz’s fellow ex-prisoner friend, walks up and shoots them both. Then the friend goes up to each German soldier, and he kicks and stomps on them up until the life goes out of each of them. All the time, this man is shouting out loud about all his family members who have died under German occupation back in Poland. At this moment, Tadeusz Sobolewicz feels full empathy with his fellow prisoner. The rage of his friend is cathartic and he considers his possible opportunity of revenge some day.
However, later in this same chapter—after Tadeusz Sobolewicz and his friend have had some food to eat and have gotten used to the fact that Allied victors are swamping in to the regions in large numbers–, the two go motorbiking towards a U.S. military. On the way, they see many tanks and get food from U.S. soldiers to take with them on their journey. In short, there is a sense of ecstasy in the two men’s hearts, i.e. that a new chapter in history has begun for them and their world.
Suddenly, the two ex-prisoners come upon a handful of other ex-prisoners, whom they had been in both Regensburg and on their supposed Death March towards Austria.
These men had tied up a German officer and were torturing him. He was hanging from a tree and “there wasn’t a piece of skin left on his body”—noted Tadeusz. Showing his sense of humanity, Sobolewicz’s Polish friend this time took his pistol out of his own pocket and sought to put the German soldier out of his tortured misery. The other ex-death camp prisoners, however, jumped on Sobolewicz friend and stopped him—all the time wining and crying that this very German had never shown pity to any of those whom he had killed or torture.
These ex-victims of German extermination camps were vehement about it, so Sobolewicz and his friend just drove on to the American camp as they intended to do in the first place. By this time, however, the young Sobolewicz said to himself, “We can’t allow ourselves through our will to revenge to become like those who mistreated and tortured us or killed our family members.” There will be time and courts enough for that he said.
AMERICA IN THE WAKE OF 9-11
I wish that in the aftermath of the 9-11 attack in New York City and Washington D.C. that Americans and other governments and nations will learn that revenge is not enough of a reason to torture—neither is prevention. Neither is prevention nor revenge a good reason for war. This is a key reason American and German youth ought to discuss the content of this book. Perhaps it is time to get out of the war on terror. Let justice reign.
Sobolewicz, Tadeusz, AUS DEM JENSEITS ZURUECK, Poland: Museum Publication Auschwitz, 1993.
Sobolewicz, Tadeusz, BUT I SURVIVED Poland: Museum Publication Auschwitz, 1992.
Sobolewicz, Tadeusz , http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tadeusz_Sobolewicz