The “Road to Heaven” at Sobibor

This post is dedicated to Jan Roeland van Wisse de Wind, my Dutch Uncle who spent the last few years of his life researching and documenting the de Wind genealogy.

I don’t claim to be Jewish, although most of my paternal ancestors were Jewish.

As a matter of fact, the earliest de Wind documented in my family tree is not even a de Wind, but rather a Levy—my great-great-grandfather, Alexander Levy, who was born around 1765 in The Hague (then, ’s-Gravenhage) and assumed the name de Wind in 1811.

What makes the Jewish ancestry in my family more poignant to me is that, among the more than 100,000 Dutch Jews who were murdered by the Nazis during the war in Europe, there were 124 de Winds. This may not seem like a large number, until one realizes that the name de Wind is quite an uncommon family name in the Netherlands; that virtually all the de Winds in the Netherlands have common roots; and that the number 124 represents a significant proportion of an entire de Wind generation.

The names of these 124 de Winds can be found at the unique and powerful “Digital Monument to the Jewish Community in the Netherlands,” a virtual monument dedicated to preserving the memory of all the men, women and children who were persecuted as Jews during the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands and did not survive the Holocaust, the Shoah.

In the “de Wind list” at the Monument, one can find the birth places and the ages of most of the victims—some as old as 92 and some as young as 14. My uncle’s family tree documents several other very young de Wind victims of the Holocaust—one as young as five!

Also, grouped together, entire families accompanied by the notation “place of death unknown.” In other words, no record exists of where those families were shipped to, where or when they were murdered, or how many family members were in each one of those families. Thus the grim count could be higher.

Why am I telling you all this?

I don’t know. Perhaps it is a form of personal catharsis, atonement if you will, for never having taken the time or made the effort to learn more about Jewish history and culture, about the Jewish religion, and about the Jewish suffering.

Nevertheless, there must have always been something in me that periodically reminded me of my Jewish background, of my admiration for the Jewish people, of my empathy for their suffering.

That “something” clearly tore at my heart when I visited the Auschwitz concentration camp in Poland many years ago. I will never forget the mountain of shoes in one room, the mountain of eye glasses in another, the mountain of prostheses, the crumbling chimneys of the crematorium, the now-rusting, yet still sinister railroad tracks…

It infuriated me to no end when I visited the Holocaust museum in Washington, D.C. and I was shaken to the core by the repugnant photographs and film clips depicting some of the Nazi atrocities.

It saddened me deeply when I first accessed the “Digital Museum” and realized that every tiny dot on a screen filled with a dizzying pattern of what appear to be a million colored dots, stands for a human being murdered by the Nazis. The colors indicate “whether the person was a man (blue) or woman (red), a boy or girl between 6 and 21 years of age (green and yellow, respectively) or a child under 6 years of age (light blue or pink).” The abundance of light blue or pink dots is incomprehensible and almost unbearable.

Finally, that “something” still makes me cringe when I read or hear those infamous, almost obscene names: Auschwitz-Birkenau, Bergen-Belsen, Dachau, Buchenwald, Treblinka, and Belzec.

And I cringed when I recently came across an article in the Dutch newspaper NRC Handelsblad titled “Telling the story of the ‘Dutch Auschwitz’”

But something softened the impact of seeing that heinous name again—albeit it only lasted for a very fleeting moment.

Perhaps it was the accompanying photograph of a blissful, peaceful, country path bordered on both sides by tall pine trees.

The path is described in the article as a “reflection lane,” a path that roughly coincides with a path previously known as the “Himmelfahrtstrasse,” or road to heaven.

Even the destination of the path sounds benign enough. It leads to Stara Kolonia Sobibór, “a typical Polish hamlet, where clean washing flutters in the wind, farmers on old tractors rumble by and lumbermen lug tree trunks.”

To be frank, I don’t remember having heard of a place called Sobibor, located deep in the forests in the Lublin district of South-Eastern Poland.

But, had I paid more attention to my Jewish heritage, I would have known that, in 1942 and 1943, this idyllic looking “road to heaven” led to the five gas chambers of the Nazi death camp, Sobibor.

Gas chambers where about 250,000 Jewish men, women and children were systematically exterminated—more than 34,000 of them Dutch.

Had I been more attentive, I would have noticed at the Digital Monument a dozen or so de Winds whose lives ended tragically at Sobibor.

Had I been more interested, I would have watched a 1987 made-for-television movie, “Escape from Sobibor.” A movie that depicts the well-planned revolt of about 300 Jewish prisoners against the SS and Ukrainian guards at Sobibor, and the eventual escape of an unknown number of prisoners—some sources say several hundred managed to escape. Many died during the attempt.

According to some reports, all those who didn’t manage to escape were shot the following day. Only about 50 prisoners survived their imprisonment at Sobibor and the war.

The Sobibor death camp was one of the Nazis’ best kept secrets. Even in the Netherlands, the existence and the history of Sobibor are not widely known.

Today, only a few austere monuments and plaques memorialize what happened at Sobibor.

Perhaps the most emotive is the “hill of ashes” at the place where the bodies from the gas chambers were burnt on grates in the open air.

A visitor to Sobibor writes:

It is a mound of human ashes. Pain, shock, horror, and disbelief all hit me as soon as I saw the mound. Tears ran down the sides of my face. The mound was huge! The realization that these were the ashes and bone shards of people, hit me very hard.

But things are about to change.

During a recent visit to the camp, Dutch Secretary of State, Jet Bussemaker, pointing to the hill of ashes where she had just laid a wreath said: “This really shouldn’t be. Somewhere here are all those ashes and we are just merrily treading on it.” And, “We must do right by the victims of Sobibor.”

According to the Handelsblad, “The Netherlands, Poland, Slovakia and Israel recently agreed on a major ‘renovation’ aimed at opening up the former camp to the outside world and pulling it out of the shadow of the well-known Auschwitz-Birkenau camp in southern Poland.” As it should be.

It is difficult to tell exactly what percentage of the de Winds living in the Netherlands during World War II were murdered by the Nazis—I mentioned “a significant proportion.”

However, there is not much uncertainty when it comes to the overall Dutch Jewish population: Out of 140,000 Jews living in the Netherlands at the outbreak of the war, some 107,000 Jews were deported to death camps, and between 102,000 and 104,000 were murdered, or approximately 74 percent—the highest percentage among Western European countries.

What an unspeakable human tragedy for one of Europe’s smallest nations!

Never Again?

Perhaps that is also why I am telling you “all this.”

References:

1. Alonson, Stéphane “Telling the story of the ‘Dutch Auschwitz’” NRC Handelsblad 30 April 2009

2. “Digital Monument to the Jewish Community in the Netherlands

3. “Sobibor: An Overview

4. “Wartime and Postwar Dutch Attitudes Toward the Jews: Myths and Truth

5. “The Camps

Photo, “Road to Heaven,” Courtesy: The Holocaust—A Tragic Legacy

Author: DORIAN DE WIND, Military Affairs Columnist

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9 Comments

  1. thank you for posting this. I had never heard about this story from WWII; the links were very interesting, though tragic. My grandparents were close friends with a Dutch couple who immigrated to the US when they were young adults (before WWII I believe) and returned in the 1980's. The parents were like another set of grandparents to me.

  2. Thank you for your comments, Denisedh.

    Yes, it is a tragic story, as I am sure there are thousands more.

    Dorian de Wind

  3. Beautifully written, Dorian.

    My father was Dutch, as I mentioned to you a while back (before I became a co-blogger here). His mother died in Sobibor, and most of his extended Dutch family was wiped out. Many of them died in Auschwitz, some in Bergen-Belsen or Dachau.

  4. Hi Kathy:

    I do remember your Dutch “connection,” but I didn't know the rest of your story.

    I am very sorry.

    Dorian

  5. I read the book, Escape from Sobibor, it was incredible. I highly recommend it. Haven't seen the movie yet, but I plan to.

    What these people faced was inhuman, to say the least. That they even had the courage to try to escape after such relentless degrading treatment says so much about their resilience and ability to retain a sense of self.

  6. Thanks for the book tip, OtterQueen…and your comments

    Dorian

  7. Thanks for telling us this. Numbers are chilling but these links with relatives show something about the humans involved. That you felt the need to comment about how relatively uncommon the name is, to put 124 in perspective, already tells us something about the scale of the Holocaust. In most other situations if that many perished, from one family, in a single event it would require no further comment. As you wrote, 124 only seems small.

    Perhaps interesting to note that Yad Vashem, USHMM and USC Shoah Foundation Institute all have YouTube channels with Testimony clips.
    These include interviews with Sobibor survivors such as Thomas Toivi Blatt, Chaim Engel, Sophie Engelsman (Huisman), Esther Raab, Kurth Thomas, Regina Zielinski. Some of whom have also written about their experiences.

    Of the 18 (!) survivors of the Westerbork deportations from the Netherlands to Sobibor, Jules Schelvis is perhaps the best known. He wrote several -scholarly- works, founded the Stichting Sobibor (foundation), lectures on the history and was involved as witness and “nebenklager” with the trial in Hagen. He was also involved with the collection of evidence in preparation for the Demjanjuk* trial. He has done extensive work to research the names/lists of those who were deported.
    If you're looking for something to read with a lot of background, I highly recommend the English translation of his book titled “Sobibor: A History of a Nazi Death Camp” (Originally published in Dutch, also translated into German)

    * For an other “Dutch” angle on the evidence for that trial it may also be interesting to look into the articles and work of Johannes Houwink ten Cate. I think “'The Activities of Wachmann Iwan Demjanjuk (1940-1952 )” is a good start because it traces Iwan's steps in some detail and links to other sources.

  8. bluespaceoddity:

    Thank you so much for your sincere and valuable comments on my post on Sobibor, and my apologies for being so late in acknowledging them–but I just happened to return to the site three weeks later and saw your comments (Tha's one of the drawbacks with this “system”, unless you check your articles almost every day, you don't know if someone has added a new comment).

    I will certainly look up your references, and may “report” on my findings in the future.

    Thank you again,

    Dorian de Wind

  9. Good, very good.
    two small points, 1. 167,000 were killed at Sobibor, not 250,000.
    2. There was only one Dutch Sobibor survivor, Selma Engel-Wijnberg

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